“Keep refusing the truth,” offers the scary seance lady to the streetwise cop. “At this very precise moment in some other distant town horrendously awful things are happening. Things that would shatter your imagination.”
Cut to an uncomfortably close close up of a suitably unhinged individual who wanders into an abandoned house picks up a blow up doll which immediately self inflates. Just as they’re about to embrace he turns and notices a rotting corpse with worms and termites eating at it. He begins to scream hysterically.
These two scenes are pretty much City Of The Living Dead in a nutshell, ham fisted dubbed dialogue mixed with illogical gore. It’s nothing short of chaotic genius, a film that gleefully moves beyond narrative and into an hypnotic nightmarish frenzy of disturbingly bad taste.
Made in 1980 by Italian “Godfather of Gore,’ Lucio Fulci (Manhattan Baby/ Zombi 2), City of the Living Dead is ostensibly about the dead coming back to life after a priest hangs himself and opens the gates of hell. There’s something to do with witches and a small town built on the remnants of Salem, but ultimately it’s all really unclear. Fulci has never really bothered to connect the dots and like many of his films, the strange nonsensical, somewhat elusive developments only increase the joy. There’s a real Giallo feel to the this film, with a reporter rescuing a psychic from a coffin and a therapist and his patient joining forces to stop some kind of unspeakable supernatural horror.
At every opportunity gore happens, with blood tears, skulls repeatedly being pulled off to reveal gushing brains and of course the infamous drill through the head scene. There’s blood and worms and intestines and brains and blood everywhere. It builds into what can really only be described as an hysterical gore frenzy.
The music is from frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi (Zombi 2) and it’s a typically over the top quasi-baroque score, with a repeated and quite menacing guitar based motif. Later Frizzi uses a spooky highly resonant piano and staccato electro bass and synth. There are some great pieces, in particular one midway with a great kick sound and menacing droning male chorals. This music is loud in the mix, in that typically overwhelming over the top hysterical bombastic Italian slasher way. It’s mood via sledgehammer, there’s no subtlety here. Nor should there be.
Fulci uses hyper close ups as if he’ Sergio Leone and approaches it all with an earnestness that defies the sheer lunacy of the script.
“What’s the matter? Never seen a body unearthed before?” Snarls the gravedigger to the reporter.
Yet there’s also a real unsettling feeling about this film, with the sound design periodically shrieking from out of the blue, with strange animalistic hooting and odd rustling that seems to have no onscreen relationship.
City of the Living Dead is the first in Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, which is not really a trilogy at all in the official sense, rather a group of similarly themed films he made over a three year period after the success of Zombi 2, the unofficial sequel to Romero’s Day of the Dead. In the copious extra features the writer says that Zombi 2 earned over fifty million dollars worldwide and Fulci was convinced that the phone would ring for more zombie goodness. It didn’t, so he started reading HP Lovecraft. City of the Living Dead bears the fruit of this interest, religious fear, nightmares in a small village, and of course more zombies. There’s a very special kind of madness at play here that is much deeper than your standard slasher films inventive murder scenes. Perhaps his writer Dardano Sacchetti says it best, “Lucio was great not because the killings were worse than anyone elses, but because he was more dark.” Though to be fair it’s his mixture of darkness, narrative looseness and general gory surrealism that sets him apart and makes his films something special.