At the beginning of home video’s rise in popularity, there were several notorious titles, movies that only your most foolhardy horror film addict would endeavor to seek out and experience. Their names were notorious – Blood Feast, Nekromantik, I Spit on Your Grave, The Evil Dead – and their reputations rife with claims of splatter excess and nihilistic artistic merit. Of course, for anyone under the age of 25, this made them must-see experiments in a dateless Saturday night’s double-dare viewing. Perhaps none were as infamous as Lucio Fulci’s The Gates of Hell. Hot on the heels of his horrific living dead gross-out Zombi, and filled with the kind of foul gut wrenching imagery he was known for, it was an instant cult classic. Now, some three decades later, the Blu-ray release from Blue Underground argues for Fulci’s finesse as a director. Sadly, the then novel gore-spattered visuals are no longer quite so impressive.
When a priest hangs himself in the little New England town of Dunwich, he opens up one of the portals of Hell. This allows demons and the undead to walk the village, randomly murdering innocents and causing all manner of horrific havoc. A young psychic named Mary Woodhouse foresees these events and dies during a séance. When reporter Peter Bell goes to her funeral to investigate, it turns out she has been buried alive. He rescues her and agrees to take her to Dunwich to try and close the gates before All Saints Day. If they don’t, evil will overtake the Earth. With the help of a therapist named Gerry and a high strung artist named Sandra, they try to locate the priest’s grave before it’s too late. In the meantime, the citizenry continues to be victimized by the walking corpses.
As a link between the nauseating Zombi and the drop dead brilliant metaphysical supernatural surrealism of The Beyond, The City of the Living Dead (Gates of Hell‘s original name) finds Fulci attempting to expand his purulent cinematic geek show. Sure, most viewers only remember the gag-induced delights of the shock set-pieces: the young woman who literally vomits up her guts; the face melting foulness another gal experiences when she gets a mouth full of putrescence; the various examples of brain plucking and squeezing; and of course, most famously, a father’s shocking power drill revenge on a sexual predator. Each one of these sequences is squirm inducing in their amoral autopsy level of repugnance. Like Zombi‘s wood shard to the eyeball or the last act corpse cavalcade in The Beyond, Fulci feels right at home violating the audience’s preconceived notions of normalcy. He purposefully takes things too far in order to instill a sense of unending dread into the viewer.
Even more so, Fulci finds a kind of symbolic straightforwardness in putting his characters in repugnant peril. Sure, we don’t know much about the girl who ends up spewing her entire digestive track, but the impact warns us against what might happen against those we do identify with. More so, the filmmaker recognizes that his basic tales of good vs. evil, God against Satan would stand up to a post-modern mindset’s scrutiny. In many ways, the gore moments in The City of the Living Dead are like guitar solos in a rock song – the crowd expects them, the material often needs them, and a great artist like Fulci can create the kind that stick with you long after the concert is done and over.
It’s actually too bad then that The City of the Living Dead is not a better movie. Its storyline is almost too innocuous, Fulci throwing something called The Book of Enoch at us and then giving up on any more mythology or folklore. We never learn why the priest’s death opens the gate, nor do we truly have the significance of Dunwich explained. There is a moment when one of the ancillary citizens mentions that the town was the scene for some of the famous witch trails of the 17th Century, but beyond that, the appearance of evil is random, just a means of getting on with the ample arterial spray. Even the psychic start up and premature funeral are false alarms, a way of getting exposition onto the record so that Fulci can then follow-up with some more sluice.
By the finale, when All Saints Day is upon us and the zombie horde is supposed to arrive, The City of the Living Dead can barely muster a half dozen or so of the deceased. Unlike the remarkable closing shot of Zombi, which sees the Brooklyn Bridge covered in reanimated corpses (or an early sequence in the movie where the medical center is attacked by rioting fiends), Fulci suddenly shifts over into slasher film mode, offering his pizza dough minions in minor, slice and dice moments of death. Even underground, where Peter and Mary find the atmospheric remains of many of Dunwich’s damned, the accomplished mood can’t take up for the lack of action. Instead, we keep waiting for some serious abominations to occur. They never really arrive.
Still, by putting some of the most noxious scenes of human desecration ever onscreen, Fulci carves out a unique niche for The City of the Living Dead. It may not be his best film, but it’s definitely one of his most memorable. Luckily, Blue Underground has managed to get its hands on an unrated, fully restored copy of the film and the image is absolutely amazing. This is the best this movie has ever looked. One images the original release print didn’t come across as good as the 1.85:1, 1080p presentation. Sure, Fulci’s love of fog and wind do cause some visual concern (especially the former which gives the images an unnecessary level of softness). Still, the amount of detail is disturbing and Fulci’s affection for grainy night scenes is intact. As for extras, there’s a nice collection of interviews with cast and crew, a discussion of the director himself, and some various studio advertising material (trailers, poster art, etc.).
With a premise that promises more than the movie can ever deliver, The City of the Living Dead might be a disappointment to those hoping for an all out zombie holocaust. Instead, it’s really nothing more than a cinematic stepping stone in Lucio Fulci’s growth as the Godfather of Gore. Truthfully, this is one of those notorious “video nasties” that pales in comparison to recent examples of the sickening subgenre like the French films Inside or Martyrs. Still, for anyone who remembers those mischievous trips to the local Mom and Pop video store, hoping that the latest experiment in fright night offensiveness was waiting for your $2.50 rental fee, The City of the Living Dead will be a stomach turning treat. Those looking for true terror, however, may want to move “beyond” this particular Fulci film.