A Lucio Fulci movie is something I enjoy watching quite a bit. Understanding, not so much. This marks my fifth viewing of City of the Living Dead, and it still makes no sense whatsoever. I can’t explain why most things in the movie happen, only that they do, and look really cool as they occur.
The basic plot is that a priest kills himself, opening a gate to hell, and it has to be closed before All Saints’ Day or the dead will never rest peacefully again. Everything that happens around that is due to the open gate, and you just have to accept it.
Characters aren’t so much introduced as given lines and propelled into action with one another. The popular Fulci plot trope of the strong-willed man with the woman trying to find answers makes its debut here (you can see its American equivalent in Halloween III), and works about as effectively as it does in romantic comedies.
Elements of Lovecraft (setting the film in Dunwich), witchcraft and Salem, and other such creepiness are thrown into a blender, making this not quite a zombie film, nor really anything other than “Italian horror,” which seems to be a sufficient descriptor for any movie with a melange of influences topped with copious helpings of gore.
The setpieces are absolutely fantastic: a woman buried alive after she dies “out of sheer fright” (I told you it didn’t make any fucking sense, didn’t I?), a kid gets his head ran through with a gigantic drill, a woman vomits up her own intestines, and corpses rise from the dead and burst into flame.
Is it good? Not particularly — the plot’s a bear to follow, and the dubbing is pretty wooden. The visuals and Fabio Frizzi score are the real appeal. You see intense and astonishing things on screen while Mellotron flourishes punctuate everything.
Much like all of Fulci’s movies, City of the Living Dead is essentially a 70 minute buildup to the finale, which is absolutely insane, in both senses of the word, in that you can’t believe what’s going on, nor make any sense of what it is. “Teleporting corpses in an underground tomb” should sell you on watching this in and of itself.
Honestly, though, City of the Living Dead is a prime example of what I love about Fulci: it’s a tight hour and a half film, but the director still lets the film breathe, letting tension build. His lack of reliance on cheap jump scares — opting instead for a legit blood and guts payoff — gives the viewer a reason for that feeling of dread, because they know something awful’s on its way after the walk through an empty room.
That Fabio Frizzi score is, as one would expect, excellent and creepy. Death Waltz Recording Co. re-released it earlier this year, and I highly suggest getting it. It’s available in the United States from Light in the Attic or direct from Death Waltz.