A summation of his career suggests that he was active for an incredible five decades, during which time he worked in the genres of Comedy, Dramas, Thrillers, Westerns, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror … but unless I miss my guess it would seem that he’s most remembered for Horror. Even his biography on IMDB.com suggests that his career truly kicked into high gear in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s surrounding the completion and release of what’s been called his ‘Gates Of Hell’ Trilogy (per Wikipedia.org) which included City Of The Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), and The House By The Cemetery (1981). I can say that – having read a good deal about Giallo-style Horror – Fulci’s name alongside 1980’s City come up an inordinate number of times, so I’m glad that I’ve finally been able to absorb one of his masterpieces thanks to my contacts with Cauldron Films.
However, I’m going to divulge right up front that when it comes to Italian Horror I’m neither an expert nor a diehard fan. Generally speaking, I’ve found many flicks more unintentionally humorous at times when methinks I’m supposed to be aghast in my seat. I do recognize the skills and talent and intestinal fortitude required to bring a bit of blood, guts, and brains to (cough cough) life on the silver screen; and I have nothing but respect for those good old days wherein practical effects ruled. These artisans went to great lengths to make a brain yanked out of a human head look authentic, and that’s gotta count for something. My issue is usually that the stories almost feel secondary to the celebrated bloodletting, and I do prefer a bit more substance than most of what was explored in this grim titles.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A reporter and a psychic race to close the Gates Of Hell after the suicide of a clergyman caused them to open, allowing the dead to rise from their graves.”
While some might disagree, I’ve never been a shill. Oh, I may enjoy a flick more than the next bloke; and – as a consequence – I might encourage more to see a B-Movie or some direct-to-DVD project, but I only do that when I find the level of enjoyment and appreciation both notable and worth sharing with the reading audience. Honestly, folks: I get nothing in return for putting my two cents out there in cyberspace. I’m not compensated for anything that I pony up. I do this for the love of the experience, and I hope that always shows.
But when I have to go about the uncomfortable business of dismantling popular myths that have surrounded a popular commodity? Well, yes, that does get a bit daunting at times … and that’s what I have to do today: despite everything you’ve read and/or heard, Fulci’s City Of The Living Dead is very little more than a visually visceral encounter with some of filmdom’s most dubious zombies … and even that’s saying something.
As a fan of practice effects work, I certainly give props to the filmmaker and his cast and crew. There are a handful of sequences involving the re-animated dead that work nicely, but still even for an 80’s incarnation of zombiehood this one is occasionally half-baked. In one segment, it looks like little more than colored pasta has been mushed all over the actress’ pretty face; and – especially for this development – I’m left wondering why? Is this supposed to resemble maggots? Or what happened to this otherwise lovely dead lady in life to leave only her face in such a curious state? And now how am I ever supposed to eat pasta comfortably again?
Also, City feels like an incomplete whole. No character gets fully introduced – they’re more like chess pawns being moved around a board than they are real people – and this gives much of the production a feeling of artificiality. Unless I completely missed it (which is possible), I’m left wondering why the central priest committed suicide in the first place, the act that apparently sets all of this affair into motion. Sadly, it’s never given wider context – other than to serve as the catalyst for Hell being opened up – and, thus, City feels a bit lacking. Some of this may be owed to the fact that Fulci’s film is only the beginning to a trilogy; and, if that’s the case, then so be it. Each chapter should still function independently with its own strengths and weaknesses, and this one just doesn’t.
And – as long as I’m on the point – what’s with the big finish?
We’re told that the gate can be closed, and our characters go about the task of seeing it shut necessarily. However, once they emerge from the underground, they’re met by a happy John-John – the youngster they saved earlier – who comes running to them … only for the screen to freeze, visually crack, and a frightened scream curdles the audience’s blood! So … what happened? Did they die? If so … why? What killed them? Was the gate left open, or were there zombies left outside of Hell even in the aftermath? The film gives absolutely zero explanation, and I suspect Fulci scripted it this way not so that there’d be any ambiguity but rather the obvious hint that there’s more to come. As I said, this destroys any prospect of City working on its own merits, and I wonder if it fostered only more confusion than it did anything else.
Still … if you’re a fan of seeing a person’s brain ripped out of their head? Why, you’ll be giddy with delight on more than a single occasion! It’s deliciously gruesome – just as it should be – and such gore appears to be all that Fulci intended. On that front, he achieves nothing short of legendary status.
City Of The Living Dead (1980) was produced by Dania Film, Medusa Distribuzione, and National Cinematografica. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Cauldron Films. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds were very, very good: some sequences are captured in darkness, and they’re curiously photographed, so a bit of discomfort or disillusion was likely intended. Also, Fulci makes incessant use of some throbbing music that can be equally offputting; rest assured that I think this was exactly what he wanted.
Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? Holy mother of dragons, you’d better buckle up! The disc boasts an incredible four separate commentary tracks (only one of which, I believe, is all-new, but still … four?!), a few interview shorts, a Q&A session, making of featurettes, an image gallery, theatrical trailers and more. Seriously, I don’t know what else they could’ve stuffed onto these discs; it’s an astounding collection, and I suspect I’ll be spending a goodly amount of time with it in the days ahead.
This isn’t to suggest – in any way – that there’s no market for the level of schlock inherent within 1980’s City Of The Living Dead because there is, there always has been, and there likely always will be. At best, Fulci’s flick is probably one of the more impressive B-Movie chillers to come out of the storyteller’s library … but the list of flaws keep it from being memorable to me on any other level than schlock, if I’m being honest. There’s far more left unsaid than said, and this makes it an incredibly uneven experience when you try to get beyond its visual appeal. Mark my words: my opinion may not sit well with many of you … but – as the saying goes – “it is what it is.” Either you’re a fan or you’re not.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Cauldron Films provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD of City Of The Living Dead (1980) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.