Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Film Review: CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980, Lucio Fulci)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Tag-line: "From the bowels of the earth they came to collect the living..."  From the bowels of somewhere, anyway.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Written by Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti (DEMONS, THE BEYOND, 1990: BRONX WARRIORS) and inspired by the writing of H.P. Lovecraft (!).  Starring Christopher George (ENTER THE NINJA, PIECES), Catriona MacColl (THE BEYOND, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY), Carlo De Mejo (TEORAMA, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY), Giovanni Lombardo Radice (THE OMEN, CANNIBAL FEROX), Michele Soavi (director of STAGEFRIGHT and CEMETERY MAN).  Music by Fabio Frizzi (ZOMBI, THE BEYOND).  Cinematography by Sergio Salvati (ZOMBI, 1990: BRONX WARRIORS).  
Best One-liner:  "It contains man's first recorded description of his... his boundless mortal fear in the face of malice itself."

In a familiar, darkened alleyway:

"Okay, what now?"
–"Mamma mia!  It'sa time'a for a little Fulci!"
"Halloween is over."
–"It ain't over till I say it's over.  It ain't over till Thanksgiving."
"That's a bold claim.  So what the hell is this thing?  Zombies take over New York City or something?"
–"Not really.  Though that's sort of the ending to Fulci's ZOMBI.  But even then they just cross a bridge and infiltrate a radio station."
"So what city do they take over?"
–"It's more of a town, really.  'Dunwich.'"
"Like from 'The Dunwich Horror?'"

–"Yeah, I guess Fulci thinks this movie has something to do with Lovecraft.  But maybe it shoulda been called TOWN OF THE LIVING DEAD."
–"Something like that.  So we kick things off with some rockin' Italo-electronica grooves (courtesy of Fabio Frizzi) that directly rip off Goblin's DAWN OF THE DEAD soundtrack.  They didn't even try to hide it.  I like that."
–"So then a priest is wandering an empty cemetery in Dunwich and decides to hang himself.

When the rope of the noose swings over the tree branch, it cracks like an explosive bullwhip."
"Gotta love Italian dubbing."
–"We then cut to New York City where a medium is apparently frightened to death because the priest hanged himself three states away.  I think.  Then the cops show up and they're screaming things like "WHERE'S THE STASH, IN THE TOILET?" and there's a rug fire and an M. Emmet Walsh lookalike.

M. Emmet Walsh lookalike on the left.

And then we have the incomparable Christopher George as a bizarre, wisecracking journalist (and soon to become romantic lead), interested in the unexplained death and the rug fire and all that jazz.

Sometimes a mere screengrab can show the entire scope of a man's acting talent.

And then a cat shows up, and I said aloud, 'I betcha that cat's about to be thrown,' because it's an Italian horror movie, and within ten seconds of my utterance, the cat was thrown.

It's dark, but you can still the tossing of its furry body.  See also:  Dario Argento's INFERNO.

And there's a near-eye trauma psych-out–

(don't worry, this is a Fulci movie, there will be eye trauma later) 

and then we're back to Dunwich where all sorts of weird stuff is happening, like when the gates of hell split a wall wide open right next to two signs for "Early Times" bourbon,

a bourbon so cheap and evil-tasting that it caters to the sort of people who would probably say something like "it's never too early for early times" and so it's a perfect kind of tableau for a rift in the space-hell-time continuum or whatever's supposed to be happening here.  I hope none of that makes too much sense to you, because next up is a self-inflating blow-up doll and a creepy guy with lascivious intentions

and they have kind of an Italo-stare-off, and  I bet you thought this was supposed to be a zombie movie, didn't you?"
"Whoa-ho-ho-ho!  You need to slow down. What are you talking about?  You're talking gibberish."
–"Have you never seen a Fulci film?"
"I've seen plenty o' Fulci."
–"Then you know it's going to be full of amazingly stilted storytelling, as if the editors and dubbers decided in post-production to project whatever plot they fancied onto the footage of somebody else's fever-dream.  Don't believe me?  Then explain to me why there are random monkey noises throughout.  I'm not even joking."
"I got nothin'."
–"I mean, for those with an interest in stilted storytelling, look no further than this scene:
"There's a lollipop in the glovebox?'  And why does he pronounce 'galloping cadavers' that way?  Er, wait– why does he say 'galloping cadavers' in the first place?"
–"There's another terrific scene where a man sees the ambulatory undead for the first time and reacts with this wondrous, low-key response."

"Did he just say 'I don't believe in the Twilight Zone, so I guess I'll call the sheriff on this matter?'"
–"Yup.  There is no logic in a Fulci film.  Not even dream-logic.  And that's sorta the draw for me.  And I love when he sets a movie in America.  The man was obsessed with New York City– he uses it, at least in part, in MANHATTAN BABY, ZOMBI, NEW YORK RIPPER, MURDER ROCK, and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD.  It's where he learned all the authentic American patois.  Like when a hardboiled cop sees a pile of earthworms and says, 'WHAT THE DICKENS IS THIS?'  It's very true to life."


"Well, that's kind of a good point.  Why, indeed, is there a pile of earthworms?"
–"If you have a question about CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, the answer is always 'earthworms.'  The zombies are always smackin' you in the face with big wet wads of 'em.  Cause they like it."


"Don't be so hard on the man.  I like Fulci zombies.  They're more visceral than the Romero ones.  They're so goopy and maggoty."

–"Did you just ask about maggots?  Cause we got 'em.  Hoo boy, we got 'em.  Lemme qualify my earlier statement:  'If you have a question about CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, the answer is either 'earthworms' or 'maggots.'  You want maggots in the face? 

Maggots on the phone?

Maggots in yer hair?  On yer cheeks?

Maggots all over your whole damn living room?

It's a practical effect.  And that practical effect is a truckload of actual maggots.  So many maggots.  So many.  Maggots."
–"Knock, knock."
"I get it."
–"No, just do it– knock, knock."
"Who's there?"
"Maggots, who?"
–"An entire truckload of maggots."
"Okay.  So what else happens in this movie?"
–"Um, let's see.  A woman cries tears of blood.

It's a stirring visual, but, if I know my Fulci, it probably involved exposing the actors to toxic chemicals.  Afterward, she vomits up her own intestine, but– pro tip– it's only sheep intestines.  And I guarantee you she wasn't even making SAG minimum."

"Some actors are just in it for the love of the art, I suppose."
–"Also, for the gorehounds, there's a scene where a sweaty dad impales the head of blow-up-doll-guy on a table-mounted drill while his girlfriend watches."

"Gruesome.  By, 'the girlfriend,' do you mean the blow-up doll?"
–"No, he's got a real girlfriend, too.  Don't ask me.  Kind of a 'Dad, stop murdering my boyfriends' moment."
"Is he a zombie at the time?  I thought this was a zombie movie."
–"No.  It's unrelated to the zombie activity.  Maybe the idea is that the evil from the gates of hell or whatever is pervading everybody in town, but that point is never elucidated in the least.  Probably Fulci just wanted to do a 'drill through the head' scene and didn't want to wait for a more appropriate context."
"Anything else of note?"
–"Did I mention that the zombies' preferred mode of killing is to rip out a handful of your brains from behind while you stand still?"

"That seems pretty specific."
–"Yeah.  I also love this screengrab, which depicts zombies and 'Schlitz on tap' in the same ghoulish tableau."

"Pretty nice.  I'd hang out there at that bar.  A bar where everybody knows Fulci's name."
–"Yep.  So we build to a finale where our heroes must face off against the undead priest and his bevy of zombie-maggot-ghouls.  Our hero grabs a giant wooden crucifix to do battle.  He has to stake him like a vampire, I guess.

Then– I swear– he stakes the priest in the nuts.  Right in the nuts.

It's very clear.  That ain't the heart.  You can't deny that the priest is being staked in his undead nuts.  But why?"
"Maybe the man just likes a good low blow."
–"Maybe.  And then the coda is even more confusing."
"Go on..."
–"So there was this kid who was basically unimportant to the movie till now.  Our heroes emerge from the crypt, and the kid runs toward them.  We have no reason to suspect the kid is evil, or a zombie, and he's not even acting nefariously.  He just wants a hug.  But then there's an ominous wind and they begin to look horrified and scream and then the screen spiderwebs, via cel animation, into a dark void.  Then the credits roll.
Even by Fulci standards, this makes no sense.  Now, I heard a rumor that coffee was spilled on the actual ending and they had to improvise this one in the edit room.  Okay.  Sure.  But I'm going to modify that rumor for when you spread it along:  I'm going to say that they spilled maggots on it.  Makes sense."
"Would you stop with the maggots?"
–"Fulci wouldn't.  Why should I?  Three and a half stars."

–Sean Gill



Mike B. said...

Oh yeah! I think you're really hitting the nail on the head about Fulci here (or perhaps I should say nail through the eye, hey-o!). His whole thing is kind of undefinable, yet completely unique and instantly recognizable. His best movies, like this, Zombi, The Beyond, and oh-hell-yes Conquest, always exist somewhere between kinda good and kinda bad, occasionally unwatchable, yet you don't stop watching them. It's like reading a book by an author that you're certain that you like, but you keep having to go back and reread things because you realize you just went through several pages and yet you can't recall any of what you just read. And I love how he can have special effects, in the same movie, that can range from really cheap looking, to terrifyingly gross, to legitimately impressive surrealism. I always sing Fulci's praises, but I think it might just be that I'm simply glad that his movies exist. Here's to an extended Halloween, and to Fulci, for keepin' it weird!

Sean Gill said...


Glad you enjoyed! We seem to be in agreement on good ole Lucio, whose nuttiness almost makes Argento and Bava seem sane. And to your book comparison ("you keep having to go back and reread things because you realize you just went through several pages and yet you can't recall any of what you just read") I would add that, even upon re-reading, it STILL doesn't make a lick of sense. It almost defies reason. If there's matter and antimatter, perhaps there are logic and anti-logic; and the films of Lucio Fulci must have been made in a dimension where anti-logic reigns supreme. I love it.

Mike B. said...

Yes! It totally DOES defy reason! For instance, I swear I watched Zombi a good six times before I figured out that the doctor on the island wasn't the main gal's father. Somehow I always missed the part where the doctor plainly explains about the gal's father's death. Truly uncanny. There was an old George Carlin joke: "Did you ever look at your watch, and you look away... and you don't know what time it is? So you look again...and you still don't know the time! So you look a third time, and the guy next to you asks, 'what time is it?' And you say "I don't know!!" I don't know how he does it, but sometimes, Lucio Fulci can make David Lynch look like Ken Burns.