City of the Living Dead (1980)

If you ever meet me in person, there’s a 90% chance I’ll be wearing a t-shirt of this movie. Therefore, I find it near impossible to be objective about this film. I love it too much. I can only share my adoration with you, dear reader.

Alternatively known as Paura Nella Città dei Morti Viventi (Fear in the City of the Walking Dead), Twilight of the DeadThe Gates of Hell and Ein Zombie hing am Glockenseil (A Zombie Hung on the Bell Rope), this is the first unofficial chapter in what has become known as Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, along with The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery.

It all begins with a seance in the apartment of a medium, where Mary Woodhouse (Fulci heroine supreme Catriona MacColl, who appears in all three of the Gates of Hell movies) has a vision of Father Thomas as he commits suicide and opens the gates to the City of the Living Dead. That priest must be destroyed by All Saints Day or the dead will walk the Earth.

The images that she sees send her into a coma, which everyone else believes is her death. She’s buried as the police and journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George, Pieces) investigate her murder. As Peter visits her grave the next day, he hears her screams as the gravediggers discuss porn where a guy has sex so much that he dies (one of those guys is pornstar Michael Gaunt, who was in Barbara Broadcast and the other is an uncredited Perry Pirkanen from Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox).

Peter uses a pickaxe (!) to smash his way into the grave, nearly killing her as he saves her life. This scene has been ripped off twice that I know of, once informing the scenes of the Bride in the coffin in Tarantino’s Kill Bill (also look for a scene that takes Rose’s tears of blood later in that movie) and in this year’s abysmal The Nun. Neither of these have the frightening power that Fulci pulls of in this scene or the painful closure at the end, where Mary screams and pants in the open air, her eyes filled with pure terror.

Once Mary recovers, she and Peter visit the medium who reveals the answers behind her visions. As that’s all going on, a weirdo kid named Bob (Anyone named Bob is a Fulci movie is one to be feared) find a sex doll that somehow inflates itself before being scared off by a rotting fetus. And at Junie’s Lounge, a discussion of how weird Bob is leads to the mirror behind the bar shattering. As they say, strange things are afoot and this is just the start of Fulci’s descent into surrealism.

While all this is going on, psychologist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo, Manhattan Baby) is consulting Sandra (Janet Agren, Night of the SharksHands of Steel) about life and how she used to want to marry her father before he ran out on her family. Just then, his girlfriend Emily arrives and tells him that she’s on the way to try to help Bob. When she finds him, he’s crying on the floor and shoves her away, just as Father Thomas appears and smothers her to death with a hand full of maggots.

Obviously, if you think anything is goign to make sense in this movie from here on out, you aren’t ready for this era Fulci. There are no filters left, just a demented Italian madman let loose in America with tons of fake blood, guts and film to burn.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Rose and Tommy (a young Michele Soavi ) are making out in his car and she thinks she hears a noise. It’s a total slasher moment that any other director would handle in a rote way. Instead, Fulci has the couple turn on the headlights and there is no joke or defusion of the tension. Instead, we see the priest hanging by the neck in front of them as Rose’s eyeballs bleed and she throws up her intestines (Daniela Doria is pretty much decimated by Fulci in every movie she did for him, including being knifed through the back of the head in the opening of The House by the Cemetery, has her chest and face sliced up brutally in The New York Ripper and asphyxiated in The Black Cat. I have no idea what he ever did to her, but you can read a great interview with her here. And yes, she did this scene by throwing up tripe and fake blood.). Then, Tommy’s head is ripped open.

Everyone suspects that Bob is behind the many disappearances in Dunwich, which totally isn’t going to keep Peter and Mary from heading there.

We’ve fully descended into Fulci world at this point. Bob is seeing visions of Father Thomas, a mortician gets bitten by a corpse when he tries to steal her jewelry, Emily’s zombie visits her little brother John-John, the same corpse that bit the mortician shows up in Sandra’s kitchen and broken glasses fly all over her house, spraying the room with blood. Meanwhile, Bob’s just trying to hide out and smoke a joint with Mr. Ross’s teenage daughter when the man comes in, nearly insane, and kills him with a drill press.

Yep. In any other movie, they’d tease death by drill or show you the moment before impact. Fulci revels in this scene and makes it last. Yes, that drill is going inside Bob’s head. And it’s coming out the other side, too.

Peter and Mary make their way to Dunwich, where they meet up with Gerry and Sandra. While they’re talking, a storm of maggots — oh that Fulci! — rains down on them. To top it of, Gerry gets a call that his dead girlfriend has risen from the grave and killed John-John’s parents. Sandra offers to take the kid to her apartment, but Emily is there and rips her scalp off before they save the boy just in time for a state of emergency to be declared.

Remember that bar at the beginning? Zombies invade it and kill everyone just as All Saints Day begins. Peter, Gerry and Mary (not Peter, Paul and Mary) go into the family tomb of Father Thomas, filled with skeletons, cobwebs and fog. Just to prove that this is 100% a Lucio Fulci film, Peter, who we’ve been led to believe is the main male hero, is killed when a zombie rips his brains out. Mary and Gerry battle Sandra and an army of zombies until they encounter the sinister priest, who makes Mary’s eyes bleed.

Before she can throw up her innards, Gerry stabs him with a cross and his guts fall out as he and the rest of the zombies go up in flames and become dust, with the Gates of Hell closed.

Mary and Gerry exit from the tomb to discover John-John and the police, but she soon screams as he comes near her and the film shatters to blackness. Wait — what just happened?

There are a ton of stories about the true ending of this movie. Some say John-John was supposed to be a zombie and the negative of the original recording was destroyed by a lab. I’ve also heard that the editor spilled coffee on the footage, forcing Fulci to improvise. And then some stories claim Fulci changed his mind about the end after the shooting was complete and just went with this. Interestingly, the Danish version of the film ends with a dark move across the graveyard and this text: “The soul that pines for eternity shall outspan death, you dweller of the twilight void come Dunwich.”

Trivia note: The movie Uncle Sam ends exactly the same way with the only exception being a title card that says, “For Lucio.”

Who knows how it ends! Who knows what the hell is going on for long stretches of this movie! It doesn’t matter! as Fulci would say, this is an absolute movie of images, a triumph of style (and gore) over substance.

The first time I saw this film was a third generation — or worse — dub on Hart Fischer’s American Horrors ROKU channel. As much as I love having 4K versions of things on blu ray, this is just about a movie made for the fuzzy quality of an old VHS tape.

Obviously, this was written by Dardano Sacchetti, who was behind so many of Fulci’s scripts, like ZombiManhattan Baby and Conquest, as well as so many other awesome movies like Thunder and Demons.

Eibon Press has put out two issues of a comic book adaption of the film that you should check out. I’m interested to see if issue #3 will feature the real ending of the story (or if there even is one)! You can also grab the new Arrow Video reissue of this movie at Diabolik DVD.

Don’t feel like leaving the house? You can watch this for free on Vudu or Amazon Prime. It’s also on Shudder and their version looks great.

24 thoughts on “City of the Living Dead (1980)”

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