Thursday, December 5, 2013

City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980)

While most people seem obsessed with the scene where Michele Soavi's wide-eyed girlfriend literally pukes her own guts as a direct result of staring at a demonic priest for far too long, I'd like to focus on eyebrows, or, more specifically, on how they're filmed throughout City of the Living Dead (a.k.a. The Gates of Hell), the Italian zombie film about some weird shit that goes down in a town called Dunwich. However, before I continue down this hair raising path, let me check outside to make sure the apocalypse isn't taking place. It seems no less hellish than usual. Oh, what's that, why did I just look outside to make sure the my bird bath wasn't filled to the brim with blood and acidic pus wasn't oozing from the trees? It's simple, really. I didn't want to be writing about eyebrows as the world ended. But now that I know everything is fine, I can continue in a calm and rational manner. (You think everything is fine?!?) Okay, maybe it's not fine. Let's just say it's on the cusp of being fine and move on. Now, where was I? (Eyebrows!) Ah, yes. Do the actors who appear in Lucio Fulci films, especially the one's made during this period, ever feel self-conscious about their eyebrows after they watch the way the camera gets all up in their brow-zone over the course of these films? Of course, the lovely Catriona MacColl isn't going to feel self-conscious, as her eyebrows are so immaculately groomed, you could eat off them. (Eww, why would anyone in their right mind want to consume food that's been served on Catriona MacColl's eyebrows?) First of all, I said you "could" eat off them. And secondly, I was speaking metaphorically.

It would seem that I lost my train of thought again. Could you help a brother out? (Eyebrows!) Ah, yes. The men in this film, on the other hand, would probably think long and hard about buying a pair of tweezers after they saw the unruly nature of their eyebrows in this film. Quick question: Can you purchase tweezers individually, or do you need to get them with a bunch of other items, like a manicure set? I've always wondered about that. If you think I'm crazy to spend so much time yacking about eyebrows, then I'm afraid you haven't experienced this film with the full force of your eyeballs. (Huh?) What I mean is, if you haven't seen this film, you won't know what I'm talking about. However, if you have seen this film, and you happen to think my eyebrow fixation makes me crazy, you clearly didn't watch the same movie I did.

My obsessive interest may lay squarely at the bushy, rarely trimmed feet of eyebrows, but Lucio Fulci's primarily interested in what lies just beneath them. (He's interested in nostrils?) No, silly, he's interested in the eyes of his characters. Though, imagine if he was obsessed with nostrils, how weird would that be? (Yeah, you would be going on about how you could eat a whole catered lunch off Catriona MacColl's nostrils and how the guys in this film should start thinking about investing in a nose hair trimmer.) I know for a fact, by the way, that you can buy nose hair trimmers individually, as I've seen them listed in old-timey catalogues. For my money, you're better off going with an all-purpose hair trimmer, as you get more value for your buck.

The eyes are the window to the soul, or so they say. When Lucio Fulci zooms in close to the eyes of his characters, he's not trying give us any insight as to what they're thinking, he wants us to fear what could happen to them if they were prodded with a sharp object. While no eyeballs are perforated in the classic sense in this film, many an eyeball does ooze blood. (Bleeding eyes? Awesome.)

(Wait a minute, how do you make an eyeballs bleed if you don't prod them something?) Prepare to have your mind blown, you make eyeballs bleed by staring into the eyes of the living dead. If I'm going eat anything off Catriona MacColl, it's going to be... (Oh-oh, here we go.) Why do you always think I'm going to say, "vagina"? Sure, I wouldn't mind eating some chicken fricassee off her spacious pussy area, but I was actually thinking about eating something off another part of her body all-together.

Do you see that giant swath of pale skin located above her eyebrows. (You mean her forehead?) Yeah, her forehead (you should be a doctor). Well, I want to eat a regular-size bowl of ice cream and use her massive forehead as a makeshift lucite table. (Interesting. Why ice cream, though?) Don't you get it? Her eyes in this movie drip strawberry sauce. (On your marks, get set, yum!) Um, I hate to break it to you, but that ain't strawberry sauce, it's blood. Now that I've established that Catriona MacColl has a big forehead and that I'm certifiably insane, I can safely move on to less idiotic ground.

A seance is taking place in New York City and a priest hangs himself in a cemetery in a town called Dunwich (Yeah-ea-eah!). No, this is not the set up to some lame joke, it's serious business. The spiritual well-being of the planet is jeopardy, and the only person with the power to make things right has just died. Yeah, you heard right, Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) is dead. Seeing a priest hang himself in a vision was too much for her and she died. The end. Oh, and according to Theresa (Adelaide Aste), one of Mary's psychic friends and a big fan of The Book of Enoch, something "horrendously awful" is about to occur. (You mean the actor who plays the detective who interviews those who were present when Mary died is about to start acting?) While he could be described as "horrendously awful," I was actually referring to the army of zombies that are currently amassing in a town called Dunwich.

I don't know 'bout you, but this film could really use some Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Ferox) right about now. And wouldn't you know it, there he is, in all his awesome glory. I won't mince words, I love this guy, as he makes everything better. Anyway, don't ask me what his deal is in this movie, 'cause I have no idea. Playing Bob, Giovanni, when he's not playing with blow up dolls, can be usually seen wandering around the wind swept streets of Dunwich in a daze.

Since the film needs more than dead psychics and blonde buffoons to move its story along, we're introduced to a New York reporter named Peter Bell (Christopher George, Pieces), Sandra (Janet Agren, Eaten Alive!), a Dunwich artist with sharp cheekbones, and Gerry (Carlo De Mejo, The Other Hell), a bearded shrink. In fact, these three, along with Mary, do the majority of the film's heavy lifting when it comes to advancing the plot. (Wait, what do you mean, "along with Mary"? She's dead.)

It will take a lot more than being declared clinically dead to keep Mary down. In the film's first great scene, Peter Bell frees Mary, who was sort of buried in her coffin (one of the gravediggers, by the way, is played by Michael Gaunt, A Women's Torment), by using a pick-axe. Thinking that he hears screams coming from Mary's partially buried coffin, Peter debates with himself whether or not to investigate. The way Peter's indecisiveness combined with Mary's panicked screams was pretty intense (even more so if you have a fear of enclosed spaces).

(Why did they bury Mary if she wasn't dead?) It doesn't matter. What does matter is, she's well-rested and she's ready to close the gates of hell. She better hurry, though, All Saints Day is fast approaching, and, according to The Book of Enoch, if the gates aren't closed come midnight, the dead will rise from their graves and take over the world.

Bumming a ride with Peter Bell, Mary heads down to Dunwich to stop all this from happening. Meanwhile, one of the citizens of Dunwich is about to experience the worst case of irritable bowel syndrome ever. Earlier I called the actress who vomits up her guts as "Michele Soavi's wide-eyed girlfriend." This was an error on my part, as Daniela Doria deserves to be lavished with copious amounts of praise for the ordeal she is put through in this movie. As the larger organs start to spill forth from her mouth, it's obvious they're using a dummy mouth. However, in the early going, when the intestines begin to spew, it's clear that Daniela Doria has a mouth full of real entrails.

If you're starting to envy Michele Soavi's character (who is sitting next to Daniela Doria as she pukes her guts out), don't. He suffers the first of the film's many brain grabbings. And believe me, it's as nasty as it sounds. Though, it's not as nasty as the face drilling scene. Now, I won't say which character suffers this unpleasant fate, but let's just say it wasn't a bit player. And that what makes City of the Living Dead such a harrowing ordeal, anyone can be killed (i.e. have their brain grabbed) at any given moment.

Maggot storms, gut puking, face drilling, brain grabbing, and bleeding eyes might grab get all the headlines, but the film, thanks in part to the excellent score by Fabio Frizzi, is actually quite atmospheric in places. I'm not comfortable declaring this to be my favourite Lucio Fulci film (it is severely lacking in the perversion department and fashion-wise the film is a bust), but it's definitely in the top three.


  1. This thing is just weird. Just weird. People like to rip on Fulci's plots in his supernatural films and get all snarky. But that is a lot like complaining about lack of narrative structure and character development in a Jess Franco film. The mouth of Hell is open and the dead are rising from their graves. Shit is not going to make sense. Just go with it.

    Have you watched "The Beyond" yet? I think that is many steps above this. Hellish nightmare as a film. I should watch it again soon. I don't mind the whole leaky basement in New Orleans mistake. Its an Italian film, after all.

    I always smile when I think of this movie and "House By the Cemetery." Mostly because they are supposedly set in the area of the States around where I grew up. "House" is deeply, deeply disturbing. Not so much because of the gore. Again, the uncut version actual includes juicy little tidbits that flesh (ha!) out the proceedings. Or I'm just reading way to much into an icky little movie that creeped me the hell out when I first watched it.

    1. I saw The Beyond on the big screen back in '06. There was a review of it on here, but I must have a deleted it.

    2. I definitely missed that. Any chance of a revisit sometime soon? I enjoy your take on these films a lot.

    3. Seeing that in the theatre must have been an experience. I definitely missed your review. Any chance for a revisit? I enjoy your take on Fulci.

    4. It was so long ago that maybe a revisit is a good idea. I mean, it's pretty hard to concentrate with over a hundred gorehounds hooting and hollering every five seconds.

      I still have my "The Beyond Barf Bag" (they were handed out before the screening). :D

  2. Oh, and I've read that the actress in the famous "gut vomit" scene held real sheep innards in her mouth and then spit them out on cue. That is serious professionalism and dedication.

    1. There's an informative featurette on the Blue Underground DVD that goes into much detail on how the gore effects were created for this movie.

  3. You have no idea how murky the vhs version of this was, I could never get through it. I love the blue tint everything has and love The Beyond and this one equally.

    1. The print of The Beyond I saw on the big screen was pretty rough-looking.