Friday, 28 May 2010

City of the Living Dead (1980)

Country: ITALY

Paura nella citta die morti viventi
The Gates of Hell

This intellectually challenged bloodbath has been given a new lease of life in 2010 thanks to the sterling efforts of British distributor Arrow Video. The treatment it has received from this company (including a blu ray presentation, and a 2 disc special edition) is far in excess of what the film deserves. This is the weakest link of Lucio Fulci’s loose ‘living dead’ trilogy; it lacks the saturated gothic surrealism of The Beyond (1981) and the claustrophobic eeriness of House by the Cemetary (1981), and only rivals those two films in its tasteless scenes of (mostly arbitrary) gore. This is a film that invents pointless subplots expressly for the purpose of an ultra-violent denoument - the drill in the head death of Giovanni Radice has to be one of the stupidest sequences in modern horror history. It gives the gore hounds something to jerk off too, but it is so peripheral to the story that it feels like its been edited in from another film. Fulci often gets a lot of stick for the nonsensical dumbness of his films, but surely much of the blame lies with the stilted and juvenile writing of Dardano Sachetti. Sachetti was the ‘brain’ behind many of the less sophisticated Italian horror films of the 70‘s and 80‘s. Although Fulci co-wrote this garbage, the film only comes to life when it functions in purely visual terms, and for that we must credit Fulci and his DOP Sergio Salvati.

The film does at least open impressively with an atmospheric mist filled graveyard in the small town of Dunwich (a reference to H. P. Lovecraft’s short story The Dunwich Horror). Into this eerie space arrives a white faced and hollow eyed priest, who promptly hangs himself from the nearest tree. The film goes downhill from there. This suicide opens the gates of hell!?, something which a bunch of psychic’s in downtown New York have witnessed during a ridiculous séance. This psychic premonition leads to the death of Mary Woodhouse (another dreary performance from Catriona MacColl) and a lot of ponderous and daft dialogue about mythical texts and the apocalypse. The premature burial sequence that follows is impressively staged and one of the stronger moments in the film (it almost goes without saying that it makes no sense whatsoever). Cynical journalist Peter Bell (an embarrassed looking Christopher George) behaves incredibly recklessly by driving a pick axe into Mary’s coffin when he hears her screaming within. The film cuts between New York and Dunwich extensively in the first half and it becomes increasingly apparent that all of the New York scenes are pointless. All it adds to the film is padding (the interminable car journey for example in which nothing happens to further the story - Mary is so concerned about the dead walking the earth she wants to hunt for restaurants!).

The scenes in Dunwich are far more successful - they are lit moodily, and the fog machines work on overdrive to give the streets the glow of the supernatural. Daytime scenes are marked by swirling storms of dust suggesting the elements are in league with the buried remains of the witches who founded the town. But these are incidental concerns to what is the real grist of the film. Such things as a girl literally puking her guts up, the aforementioned head drilling, and a plague of maggots (this scene happens, ends, and is not even remarked upon by a single character). Into the mix is thrown some rather nifty zombies who seem to have the power to teleport themselves around the town. The character of Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) tags along with Mary and Peter (who gets the back of his head ripped off) and it wouldn’t be a Fulci film without a creepy and annoying kid - in this case John John!? (Luca Venantini).

The film ends beneath the earth as Mary (who has somehow concluded all the nasty stuff will end if the dead priest is killed again) succeeds in averting the disaster by impaling Father Thomas with a large wooden crucifix. That should be it, but then we get one of the silliest endings of any horror film. Believe it or not this ending has actually been seriously debated by fans! Even the Fabio Frizzi score seems tired. The main theme is really good - but is seriously overplayed. And the secondary theme is far too similar to the title sequence of Zombi 2 (1979). The only two things of note that emerge from this film are the wildly exaggerated gore effects of Gino De Rossi and Franco Rufini and the occasional atmospherically shot sequence from Sergio Salvati. And if I see anymore close ups of eyes I think I’ll puke my entire guts up!

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Best review of the film I've read - far outdoing my own, well played sir!

    You've quite succinctly summed up my gripes with the incohesive story and disappointing effort from Fulci.

  2. Thanks for the endorsement Liam! - much appreciated.

  3. I rented this movie once, back in the early days of video rentals. I distinctly remember the girl puking out her guts (how can one forget that?), but little else.

  4. I love me some Christopher George...but I couldn't even make it through this one. Fulci is hit & miss for me, and this one just put me to sleep. Thankfully, I didn't feel alone since (as you pointed out), the actors appear to be napping as well.

  5. The actors are less animated than the cadavers that have risen from the ground Billy. What is most perplexing though is that this juvenilia is considered a 'classic' horror film in some circles!

  6. I remember that we had a low rent multiplex in town called the Eastowne 5 and it showed anything it could get its hands on. I saw Hell Of The Living Dead there. A double feature of Squirm and Tentacles and, yes, Gates Of Hell. I will always have a fond spot for this movie, less for what it is and more of the time that I saw it. I think that nostalgia has more to do with film memories than anything that actually makes it on the screen.

  7. I have to disagree here, I find HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY to be a complete bore, though the story is certainly more coherent. The impossibly twisted plotting that most people hate about CITY OF THE DEAD is what makes it so captivating to me, its just such a weird film but indisputably the most graphic. THE BEYOND is easily my fav though, yay nightmarish surrealism!!


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