City of the Living Dead
Somewhere along the line we lost sight of the supernatural zombie. In the last decade and a half, the vast majority of zombies have had more realistic origins, in so far as you can apply realism to anything with human corpses shambling around. This more rote approach to the undead places emphasis on the human characters, but it also creates predictability. A chosen film’s zombies might be faster or smarter than expected but they still operate within expected parameters. The irrational and dreamlike nature of many of the Italian genre films of the 70’s and 80’s lends itself to something much more bizarre and unpredictable.
A priest (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself in a cemetery in a town called Dunwich. This opens a door to hell and slowly strange undead things begin seeping out into our world. A psychic (Catriona MacColl) is rescued from a possibly premature death in a coffin by a reporter (Christopher George). They both head to Dunwich and uncover a prophecy in the Book of Enoch that states the gate to Hell must be closed before All Saints Day, or the dead will overwhelm the Earth.
Straight away City of the Living Dead establishes an air of surreal horror with the unexplained suicide of a priest and shots of a foggy graveyard backed by a synth score. The film then launches into a series of unconnected yet sinister scenes that slowly begin to coalesce into the relatively simple plot. If you’re looking for a solid story, you’re not going to find it here. Although, I feel that this is a secret strength as it feels like the slippery logic of a nightmare is in play throughout the film.
This being a Fulchi film, there is a considerable amount of gore. There are some true displays of bravdo, bleeding eyes, people vomiting entrails, and a magnificent drill press through a head moment that I still find is a pretty astounding moment in pre-digital special effects. There’s a storm of maggots, featuring real actors getting showered with real maggots. This all strikes a visceral counterpoint to the ethereal tone of the rest of the movie.
There are if course a few missteps, none of the acting is particularly noteworthy, although dubbed performances can make it difficult to know where the blame lies. I‘m also not entirely sure what Fulchi was thinking with a scene like the one featuring an aggressive inflatable sex doll, but this a film that exists in a world of foreboding and dread and I suppose not every moment is going to connect with every viewer. There has been much criticism of the end of the film, but I think to end in a way that provided any sort of concrete narrative closure would have robbed the film of much of its memorability.
Although it is not loved nearly as much as Zombi (1979), or The Beyond (1981), I think City of the Living Dead is a gruesome, enjoyable, and unpredictable nightmare by a director at the top of his form.