City Of The Living Dead Review
Film review by Matt Shingleton
I remember when 28 Days Later came out and Internet geeks the world over were making a fuss about the concept of running zombies and how the rage infected creatures in said film couldn’t be zombies because of their agility. All I’ve got to say to that is: Running Zombies? Pah! Teleporting zombies is where the true terror lies, and Italian maestro Lucio Fulci had cottoned on to this way back in 1980 when he was looking to follow up the international success of Zombi 2 (AKA: Zombie Flesh Eaters) with his next tainted zombie opus: City of the Living Dead.
The City in question is Dunwich, but the story starts in New York during a séance held by followers of the Book of Enoch where one member Mary Woodhouse has a vision so powerful the shock literally kills her dead! Well... For two days at least, after which she wakes up in a half-buried coffin at the local cemetery ready to be coincidentally rescued by Peter Bell, a journalist investigating her death. She tells Peter her vision was of Father William Thomas hanging himself in a cemetery which a tombstone states is in Dunwich, and it’s an act so sacrilegious that it opens the gates of hell under the ground where his body hanged. If those gates are not closed by the advent of All Saint’s Day on Monday, then on that day the dead will rise up from their graves and devour the Earth.
Meanwhile at Dunwich in the aftermath of Father William’s suicide, ominous occurrences are afoot and local psychiatrist Gerry is dragged into his own personal hell when murdered bodies start turning up all over town - starting with his lover Emily. His investigation leads him to believe the perpetrators of these crimes may not be ordinary livings souls, a feeling shared by his patient Sandra: an artist whose subconscious dread has become so palpable that she’s started to paint Rhinoceroses! (On a canvas obviously, she’s not sneaking into the Rhino pen at her local zoo and going to town with a can of emulsion as that’s probably a quicker way to get yourself killed than fighting a horde of zombies!)
The fate of mankind rests in the hands of these two couples, who will meet IN THE CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD!! MUWAHAHAHAHA........... HA!
City of the Living Dead is generally considered to be the weakest of Fulci’s Zombie themed classics from the three year period between 1979 – 1982 in which he produced his most Internationally successful films:- namely Zombi 2, The Beyond, and House By the Cemetery. It’s not hard to see why, it isn’t very well written and the budget and ergo: scale is very modest even for a cheap Italian production from the early 80s, plus in many ways the story feels like a dry rehearsal for the themes and stylistic touches Fucli would expand more memorably upon in The Beyond a year later. However, to me City of the Living Dead is more than just the sum of its modest parts, for it retains a cheese factor so strong it gives the film a certain charm that isn’t quite so endearing in other Fulci works.
The characteristics that made Fulci’s films so memorable are all in this film, only some are distinctly more subdued here while others are more tangible – not least of which is the dreamlike feel brought on by a complete lack of narrative and character cohesion. The Beyond for instance has a half decent narrative with a strong backstory, but it flits in and out of logic at will. One example is a scene where a plumber arrives to assess would-be hotelier Liza’s flooded basement and she introduces him to her housekeeper Emily, who for no apparent reason always has a anxious sweaty facade. Anyway, they stare at each other like they’re complicit in something that will prove significant to the plot, but this is something that never actually materialises so you’re left wondering just what the hell that scene was supposed to have meant. In The Beyond that “WTF” feeling is generally fleeting, but City of the Living Dead’s narrative and characterisation are both so slight and irrational that you pretty much have this trippy, logically stupefied feeling from almost beginning to end.
When that end does come you almost feel the need to psychoanalyse parts of the film to try and make sense of them, much like you would a waking dream; but ultimately this feeling is overshadowed by the distinct impression that Fulci and fellow scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti just didn’t think things through at all. This hazy nonsensicality can be incredibly fun or annoyingly vague depending on your inclination as a viewer. My inclination is apparently towards the former as I found myself laughing out loud at intentionally serious moments far more in this film than any of Fulci’s other classics. Unintentional humour aside, City of the Living Dead’s narrative is bland and workmanlike, but it does at least plod along at a solid and continuous pace like the beating drum in Fabio Frizzi’s effective, minimalistic score. That score and every other aspect of the film really come into their own in the big finale; when the location of the portal into hell is discovered and Fulci’s direction is at its most stylish and lively, building up into a final shot that is perplexingly ambiguous. Massimo Antonello Geleng also deserves a lot of credit for some sterling set design.
Another major element of Fulci’s work – in fact THE major element – is his brutal and graphic depiction of violence and gore, which he achieves with achingly prolonged takes that keep the camera transfixed on the whole bloody matter at hand - his very own Ludovico technique if you will. Fans of these films will tell you that the splatter “money shots” are where most of the fun of these films lie, so one of the reasons City of the Living Dead hasn’t been remembered as well as the likes of House By the Cemetery is that it’s actually relatively low on those kind of shots by Fulci’s usual standards.
It has its moments though - chief among them being a sequence where a woman is mesmerised into spewing up her entrails and another where a man’s face is graphically shown being shoved into the business end of a large power drill - but really there’s very little in here to grant the film it’s 18 certificate, let alone justify it taking 21 years to finally find a release uncut by the BBFC! Most of the nastiness is for gross-out purposes and are unintentionally comical; you have one girl being killed early on when a zombie smothers a mixture of what can only be described as blackcurrant jam and earthworms into her face. Obviously she’s never seen an episode of Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival or else she’d know that’s an excellent source of protein in a deliciously fruity base! The rest of the zombies in the film are happy to take people out with a manoeuvre I call the Zombie Claw: a grip so powerful it would make a Vulcan weep!
It’s comic book nonsense, which is why at the very least you can say City of the Living Dead has got a strong enough mixture of cheese and grand guignol to make it an enjoyable enough beer and pizza film. If you phone your friends and tell them to pop round ready to poke fun at what they’re going to watch, it will not disappoint. Watch it on your own in the middle of the night however, and its shortcomings will no doubt be felt more acutely.
There's very little I can add to Matt's review of Arrow's special edition Blu-Ray which can be found here. The special features are duplicated on the DVD and for my money, the best is the extended fifty minute interview with Giovanni Lombardo Radici during which he analyses his various genre demises. Viewing this made me wonder when Arrow will give the special treatment to Soavi's Stagefright.
Those viewers with BD capabilities will obviously choose the Blu-Ray edition which appears to offer considerably better visual quality and a wider range of audio options, including the original mono track. However, the DVD picture quality is pretty good considering the quality of the 16MM source material. There's an awful lot of grain which becomes particularly problematic in the darker interior scenes towards the end. However, compared to the murky experience offered by the old VIPCO disc, this is a vast improvement and on the whole, I haven't seen the film look as good as this.