Reviewing Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell Trilogy, Part 1: ‘City of the Living Dead’ (1980)

“The city of the dead. The living dead. A cursed city where the gates of hell have been opened.”

As I may have mentioned a time or two, I have a soft spot for Italian horror movies. From Bava to Soavi, from Blood and Black Lace to Opera, there’s just something about them that means I can always find something to enjoy. Even the truly awful ones (I’m looking at you, Zombie Apocalypse) manage to throw me a well shot scene, an interesting gore effect or some crazy, over-the-top-bad dubbing. The best of them combine stylish camerawork, tight editing, and shocks galore. I think Argento is the king of the Italian horror film – but Fulci is the king of the Italian zombie film.

I came to Lucio Fulci’s films late in my horror viewing, stumbling across a copy of Zombie in a local outlet of a retail store that doesn’t exist anymore. It was that cover with the zombie and its eye full of worms (and that fantastic tag line of “we’re going to EAT you!”) that snagged me, and then the film itself – a lurid combination of extreme violence and occasional poetic beauty – won me over completely. I started looking for Fulci films in the same way that I looked for Argento flicks.

Fulci never quite got the same critical acceptance that Dario Argento did, and I think there are various reasons for that. Fulci seems to be a frustrated artist, a workman looking for a spark of genius who came to his calling late. He made a ton of films before finally moving into giallo with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin in 1971. He made crime capers, musicals, family films and a fair amount of comedies. One of his most financially successful releases was an adaptation of White Fang in 1973! I think it was actually 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling that really began to showcase what Fulci was capable of, mixing political and religious commentary with graphic violence and those moments of grace amongst the gore, like roses in a dungheap.

Fulci’s life had a series of tragedies, including the death of his wife by suicide in 1969 and a purported death of a child in a car accident. His later years were marked by complications from diabetes and liver disease, and this plus what seems to have been chronic depression led to a decline in both his output and the quality of the same. I don’t know what it is, but Fulci himself has always engendered a bit of sympathy in me. Though he seems to have often been dictatorial and difficult with actors and actresses, he could also be warm and giving to the same. He strikes me as an idealist whose experience of the world was a constant disappointment. A lifelong Catholic, he struggled with his faith (as evidenced in a few of his films, including that aforementioned Don’t Torture a Duckling). I always think of a quote from an interview talking about his faith, “I have realized that God is a God of suffering. I envy atheists; they don’t have all these difficulties.”

In that same interview, he talks about how it’s easy to envision Hell, because suffering is internal. We each carry our own Hell with us. It’s Paradise that’s impossible to imagine, because none of us are happy, or content. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think (as a person with a Catholic upbringing myself) that the conflict between being able to perceive damnation in the world around us – to imagine quite clearly a Hell that is a reflection of internal and external pressures, while being unable to imagine a promised afterlife of happiness and bliss – can wear away at you. Fulci’s work sometimes expresses a rage that directs itself in ways that are misogynistic and violent and degrading, and I wonder if they’re a way of trying to exorcise that hell within.

Or maybe I’m spending too much time trying to analyze a man nicknamed “the Godfather of Italian Gore.”

Which is as good a point as any to note that we’ll be taking a trip down:

(This means gory descriptions and images below.)

I guess I’m trying to explain a little – to myself as much as you – why the man’s work continues to fascinate me. His films are ones in which the most horrific things occur to people – eyes are punctured, nipples cut off, intestines disgorged – and yet they also contain moments of odd beauty and, especially in the films I’ll be looking at over the next few weeks, a dreamlike (or nightmarish) rhythm that replaces traditional narrative. I think if he’d been more consistent, more willing to dedicate himself to even the smallest elements of his films instead of letting “good enough” fill in for those spots he didn’t really care about, then he’d be much more revered. In some ways I see parallels between his films and those of Larry Cohen, another interesting and visionary director who would often let a crap shot or sequence end up in the final cut, preferring to get the film finished over getting it perfect.

My favorite Fulci films were all released in a flurry between 1979 and 1981. These seem to be the films most associated with the director at the height of his abilities and all reflect a certain nightmarish sensibility that he never quite recaptured and was only hinted at in earlier work. How much of that is due to his collaborators is a matter of argument, but these are Fulci’s films in the end. For the next few weeks we’ll be taking a look at three of them in particular – his so-called “Gates of Hell” trilogy: City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery. There’s no real narrative thread (fitting) between them and the films only connected thematically – like John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy.” I like to think of them as existing in the same universe, though. A dark universe. One in which Hell is as much external as internal.

Allow me to be Virgil to your Dante, as we take the tour.

The Medium
I have the 2010 Blue Underground Blu-ray release of City of the Living Dead. It’s a decent release, but I keep expecting an upgrade (like they did with both Zombie and The House by the Cemetery). Scorpion Releasing DID have a restored release in 2020 (as The Gates of Hell), and I’m seriously considering picking that up at some point.

For streaming options, City of the Living Dead is available for subs on Shudder and Night Flight, and for free (with ads) on Tubi and Vudu, as well as without ads on Kanopy. It can also be rented or purchased from a number of online vendors.

The Movie
City of the Living Dead starts off with a Catholic priest (Fabrizio Jovine) committing suicide in a cemetery. This is already a fraught event, especially given the fact that Catholics place special emphasis on taking one’s life. It’s essentially your ticket to eternal damnation, and having a priest do it somehow makes it worse – it’s a total rejection of God and his works. The film will eventually position this event as a sort of antithesis of Christ’s crucifixion and the idea that his sacrifice opened the gates of Heaven to mankind. Here, the priest (Father Thomas) is instead opening the gates of Hell and allowing the souls of the dead to make their way back.

And in case there isn’t enough symbolism and mood attached to this event, the cemetery is in a town called Dunwich, a reference to the H. P. Lovecraft novella “The Dunwich Horror,” in which a horrific presence causes terrifying events in a small Massachusetts village. Other than being a small town that doesn’t appear on the maps there’s no real connection to that story – it’s just window dressing. Another flavor in the stew of madness that Fulci is concocting.

Despite assertions by some reviewers, there IS a plot in City of the Living Dead, it’s just of tangential importance. The gates of hell are opened by the priest’s sacrifice, a reporter and a psychic go on a mission to find and put a stop to the priest before All Saint’s Day (when the gates will stay open, allowing the living dead to walk the earth), and residents of Dunwich struggle against increasingly bizarre and violent events leading up to the deadline.

Mostly, though, the film is about moody shots of fog filled streets and cemeteries and close-ups of horrible, gory things. That ‘squeeze the back of the head so hard you cause the brain to squish out’ effect must have been a favorite of Fulci’s, because we’re treated to it no less than three times. There’s also a sequence with a drill where I found myself thinking “geeze, that drill is awfully close to that actor’s face – they must need to cut away soo…. Oh DEAR GOD! How the hell did they do that?” In general, the gore effects are top-notch and still very effective. Needless to say, these are all practical effects – no CGI in 1980. One poor actress actually had to vomit up sheep intestines for one scene. That’s dedication to your craft, I guess.

There are a number of disparate threads to follow, including that psychic, Mary (Catriona MacColl) and the reporter, Peter (Christopher George). Theirs is probably the most straightforward element – though I note it includes a séance and a premature burial where Peter nearly kills Mary as he excavates her from her coffin. I didn’t pay attention to how long Mary was ‘dead,’ but given how many Christian echoes there already are in City I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be three days. They nominally set the tempo, as their search for Dunwich and priest (as revealed in Mary’s visions) is basically a countdown to Armageddon. They don’t really seem that concerned, though – Mary even insists they stop for lunch and forget about zombies for a while!

Paired with the intermittent (and lackadaisical) search by our main protagonists are people in Dunwich who must contend with an increasingly bizarre and violent series of supernatural events. There’s a psychiatrist, Gerry (Carlo de Mejo) who is point of contact for a number of affected characters – including a patient, Sandra (Janet Agren), his girlfriend Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) and her much younger brother John-John (Luca Venantini). There’s a bartender and his regulars. There’s an unfortunate trysting couple (including a young Michael Soavi). And there’s Bob – a hapless vagrant who stumbles from horror to horror, tormented by zombies, rotting corpses and a vision of the dead priest, only to fall afoul of a girl’s vengeful father. (What is it with Fulci and characters named Bob? I mean, there’s only two, but they stick out to me…)

Most of these folks are really only there to have weird things happen to them. Emily meets Bob, only to be abandoned when the evil priest arrives to shove worms and dirt in her mouth (this apparently turns her into a zombie, and she returns to haunt her elderly parents and John-John). The couple sees a vision of the priest who basically stares the girl into bleeding from the eyes and vomiting up her internal organs, before she squeezes her boyfriends brains out of his skull. A recently deceased elderly lady shows up in Sandra’s kitchen – only to disappear. When Mary and Peter finally arrive they’re assaulted by a storm of maggots in Gerry’s living room. There are cracks in the walls, bleeding glass and a low-key zombie attack on the bar.

None of this makes sense narratively. That old lady, for instance – what’s the point of having her corpse there? And then her feet showing behind furniture? There is no point, or rather it’s the random and increasing nature of the oddness that’s the point. Fulci eschews the big set pieces for an increasing number of unsettling and awful moments. There’s no buildup to a larger event, it’s just more and more gore and strangeness. The idea that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Just when you think you’ve got the rules of this apocalypse nailed down zombie Emily is teleporting behind someone to (once again) squeeze their brains out.

Eventually Mary, Peter and Gerry team up to descend into a maze below the graveyard, looking to confront the priest. Peter is killed (hey, there’s that brain squeezing again) before Mary and Gerry are cornered by the priest and his army of the undead. Gerry manages to tear down a wooden cross and uses it to disembowel/castrate the priest, who goes up in flames as do his minions.

The ending is rather famously enigmatic (yes – even more so than the general plot). Mary and Gerry escape the tombs beneath the cemetery. John-John,whom they rescued earlier, runs towards them and everyone’s all happy. But then Mary and Gerry begin to scream (it’s actually a nice bookend to the movie’s opening which starts with Mary screaming) and the kid starts to run in slow motion. Suddenly the screen appears to crack and the web of cracks overwhelms the screen in darkness.

So… WTF? Fulci and screenwriter Dardano Sarchetti (who co-pens all of the Gates of Hell films) don’t really seem to have a reason for the ending, but for me it all goes back to a moment in the tombs when Mary says “Guess what? It’s All Saints Day.” And then it’s another 10 minutes or so before they confront the priest. That was the deadline, and it passed – our heroes have failed. I’m not sure if that was intended, or just a result of a rushed production, but I like it. It goes well with the oddness of the rest of the film and the sense of a world unravelling into an apocalypse, rather than one going out with a bang.

Or maybe they just hate kids.

Technically City is pretty well done. The cinematography is moody and consistently good (with far fewer sub-par images than in Zombie) and Fulci makes good use of the exteriors (shot in Savannah, Georgia) that he has. The dubbing was actually pretty good – better than I initially expected (the film was shot with the actors speaking English and then redubbed with most of the main actors doing themselves). There are a LOT of closeups of people’s eyes – you could probably get fairly drunk with a game that required a drink every time you saw one. The soundtrack by Italian film stalwart Fabio Fabrizzi is alternately bombastic and atmospheric – though occasionally reminiscent of his soundtrack to Zombie, which he had done the previous year.

The Bottom Line
I think City of the Living Dead works quite well as the lead-in to this trilogy because to me it’s the story of an end of the world un-averted, one that actually happens. It’s a quiet sort of apocalypse – the zombies aren’t roaming the streets in mobs or climbing walls in frenzied groups – bit it IS an apocalypse. The gates of hell are open, and the world is now one in which nightmares are real and horror is waiting just behind you.

Probably hoping to squeeze your brains out.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.