Dir. Lucio Fulci
Italian genre films, especially the horror genre, have always had a streak of the nonsensical to them. There is one thing that must be drilled into any of my viewer's head, not intentionally making a pun about a gruesome incident that takes place in this film, if they do not know it, and that it is not necessarily a good thing if a film is rational and makes sense, whilst it is not necessarily a bad thing for a film to be nonsensical and not make complete sense. In fact the nonsensical I am thinking of is that which, rather than mere gibberish, has a form of connection between the events that take place, that can be accepted and understood to the viewer, but the content throws them off repeatedly or uneases them with its lack of logic. The Italians, deliberately or by lack of budget in some cases, like Europe in the exploitation film boom era, had the golden touch for this. Regular readers may already know that nonsense is likely a good thing to have, and anyone who found this blog looking into weird movies must have some taste in this type of thing anyway, but far from patronising, it feels necessary to point this out. When the regular template for a film is that everything has to be explained, or even over-explained, it can become ingrained that anything that is not rational is inherently a flaw. I was like this once when I first watched these films, dismissing many of them outright, and it took a lot of realisation to see my folly. It feels tedious now to have everything explained and with horror especially this tendency is tiresome.
It doesn't match what horror as a storytelling form is at its best at. Edgar Allen Poe was concerned for mood and emotional dread. The best horror films are usually those that don't give away their secrets, which is why many hate sequels or remakes that think the secrets should be let out. H.P. Lovecraft from what I've read so far is not in the least bit interested in solving everything and is deliberately using the lack of knowledge as the main crux of his horrors. The Lovecraft reference is deliberate, as in Dunwich, a tiny American town part of this film is set in, a priest hangs himself in his own church and opens the gates that keep the dead from re-entering the living world. A psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) is directly linked to the incident, witnessing it, in a séance in New York, starting a countdown to close the gates of the dead as chaos erupts in Dunwich. People vanish or are found dead, the dead randomly teleporting around and increasing their fold, the people are becoming more paranoid, and suspicions are throw towards Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), a troubled migrant being blamed for the deaths. Eventually the walls of bars are cracking and people are being rained on by maggot storms.
Lucio Fulci was, when I got to his films, in a period of immense re-evaluation since the late nineties, between being finally recognised and being still dismissed as a hack who only shot pointless gore scenes and padded them together. Unlike Dario Argento, Fulci was much more a working director who dabbled in various genres since the late fifties, and ironically, wasn't that fond of horror films, the area he is most well known for. Many of his films were still censored in the UK until the mid-2000s for home release, and films varied in reactions given to them. The New York Ripper (1982) added to the fires of misogyny accusations, films like Conquest (1982) baffled, and after the mid 80s to his death in the mid 90s, if A Cat In The Brain (1990) is anything to go by, his later films of that period are not seen in a good light at all baring the most hardcore of admirers. The films that are viewed as his best though, from A Lizard In A Woman's Skin (1971) to The Beyond (1981), have finally pushed him up as one of the best Italian genre directors of his period, one that could be scattershot at points, but even with a film like Conquest, what side of the fence you are with its qualities, shows an atmosphere and style to it rarely found in others films of the genres he worked in. City of the Living Dead is a very well made film returning to it again. Everything that can be contentious, barring the use of monkey howls in the soundtrack which I personally think adds a peculiar unease when used against an American setting with no zoos in the vicinity, is to do with its plotting, part of a traditional of Fulci's to stray off script with the many horror films of his. Everything visual or in craft is exceptional in a deliberate way.
The illogical tone itself adds a sudden dread. Split between two groups of characters for a large portion - between Woodhouse and journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George) and the residents of Dunwich including psychologist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) - the series of escalating events and building numbers of deaths work more as mood building to create a palpable sense of dread. The style pronounced and contributes greatly to the quality, from Fulci's obsession with fog machines that went through many of his films to a slow, considered tone that creates the appropriate level of tension. Fabio Frizzi's score, including reuse of the ethereal main theme from Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), contributes tenfold to adding this tension to the film. City of the Living Dead qualifies as part of a loose trilogy. Out of them, only The House By The Cemetery (1981) feels awkward as part of them, not to dismiss it, as while it matches the other two's abstract tones, its slasher-like tone in the first half does feel jarring on the first viewings. The other two films, City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, feel indebted to the tones of horror fiction that the likes of Lovecraft and his ilk drew from, in which the greatest concern is showing the escalation and chaos rather than a conventional narrative which explains what is causing the horrors unfolding. While The Beyond is the better known film, City of the Living Dead is notorious for scenes such as a person puking out their guts, literally, and a still-to-this-day incredible practical effect involving a drill, though the sight is not for the squeamish and will even make a diehard horror fan cringe. But with this film too, its slower, methodical tone even when depicting this violence feels less sickly and instead of an instant jolt, the content in general is pervasive and lingers, the more abstract content such as teleporting zombies and the general air of death having a longer impact.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Revisiting City of the Living Dead, the reputation Lucio Fulci has for his gore is divisive for me personally. He has filmed some nasty, over-the-top scenes so it cannot be denied. But out of all the films I've managed to see so far, they've been far more interesting for all that is around them, including how the gore connects to the tone and mood. Even the more straightforward films like Zombie Flesh Eaters are far more interesting for the tangents they take. City of the Living Dead is continually distant from rational plotting, never becoming a traditional zombie movie, even anything remotely like Zombie Flesh Eaters for that matter, the greater concern with a corporal phantasmagoria that is displayed which is more gothic and dreamlike in tone.
It's a little funny, but considering Fulci really hated making horror films, he is not only more known for them but he was able to create films drenching in atmosphere, that no obvious prosthetic effect or inappropriate English dub voice could detract from. City of the Living Dead's best sequence is in a cemetery in the day with no violence at all, a prolonged and agonisingly well done sequence contain a horrible event you'd expect to find in 17th or 18th century literature. While not as abstract as it could've been, still retaining a semblance of a narrative, the result is nonetheless adjacent to a conventional tone rather than sticking to one completely.
Somewhat controversially, this is my favourite Lucio Fulci film. Even though it is not seen as highly as The Beyond, and the final scene, with its abrupt and vague plot twist, has been divisive for many, it had an impact on me on the first viewing where I was blown over by its craft. Honestly, it was films like this that cemented my love for these Italian genre films, a gore film but one that has an exceptional artistry and odd tone that you feel no shame in calling a "gore film" because of its visual impact on you.