City of the Living Dead | Varied Celluloid

City of the Living Dead

Posted by Josh Samford On July - 17 - 2008
Plot Outline: In Dunwich Massacheusettes, something real bad wrong is going on. You see, Dunwich is built on the ruins of the old town of Salem (which is funny because Salem is still around and continues to go by it’s name) where all those people who were thought to have been witches were burned at the stake way back in the day. After a priest commits suicide in the Dunwich graveyard, the gates of hell are cracked and by All Saints Day, hell on earth will no longer just be an expression. While all of this is happening down in Dunwich though, Mary Woodhouse and a couple of her psychic friends are holding a seance to contact the dead. Mary gets a little more than she bargained for when she watches the priest unwillingly (well, I don’t think he did it on purpose, it’s never explained) open the doorway to hell. This immediately kills her from some kind of psychic overload. Mary is laid to rest at the funeral parlor as we watch Peter Bell, a nosy reporter, snoop around trying to find out what killed Mare. As Mary is plunked in the ground six feet, Peter wanders around her graveyard, obviously looking for clues I guess. Just as he begins to leave though, he hears Mary scratching in the coffin. Oh deary me! She’s alive! Turns out Mary didn’t die, and I guess having the embalmer suck her organs out and fill her body with fluid didn’t quite do the trick either. So Mary then fills Peter in on this priest she seen during the seance and the two are on their way into Dunwich. The two hook up with Gerry, who works as a psychiatrist, and his girlfriend as the four of them set off to find out just what is going on and how they can stop it.


  

The Review: This might sound crazy, but I consider City of the Living Dead to be one of the most controversial Italian horrors I’ve ever seen. Not because of gore or anything such as that. Most fans of the genre (Italian zombie films) only watch the films to get a good dose of violence anyway, so no matter how ample the amounts of gore on display are nothing like that could make a film ‘controversial’ for this crowd. No, what really sets it apart and inspires debate within many communities is the fact that some people contest that the film is a brilliantly crafted surrealist horror film, with added buckets of blood of course. While yet another faction remains loyal to the simple philosophy that City of the Living Dead is about as pleasant to sit through as having your fingers sawed off by Bob Villa. Well, as with many great hearty debates, I stand in the center of these two groups. Perhaps because I’m afraid of confrontation and thus never choose sides because of my wimpy outlook on life, or perhaps just because I don’t exactly hate the film with such vitriol yet could never waste my breath to dare defend such a film. You make the call, I’m just here to give an opinion, whether it sucks or not. Anyway, many could argue that City is just another sub-par outing by Lucio Fulci, and they do, but among his filmography I usually find films I love, films I despise and films that are brutally bad but yet I like them to a great degree. City fits into the latter category, but only by small chance. The film hits you over the head with it’s inept script like a blunt object. There is absolutely no denying the fact that City is by all accounts a very bad film indeed. The only things that save it from being a complete waste of time are the gore effects and a great Fabio Rizzi score, but good score and decent gore (ladies and gentlemen, the new Eminem) are things that aren’t exactly groundbreaking within the Italian scene. If you’re looking for a finely crafted film, Fulci just doesn’t deliver here in any possible way. Yet, part of me feels bad about diss’ing the film, and I believe even a part of me likes it a good deal, I just don’t know what it is. There’s the simple love of anything Fulci, recognizing his style throughout the film is fun, but there’s no excuse to have such a ragged script. This is especially a problem with City. Fulci has put out some films with little in the way of subtext or even any rational thought, but if you strained hard enough you could kind of see where he was going, but with City you can’t help but be lost while watching. The ending is baffling, as has been documented so many times over that I can recite a dozen rumors in my sleep. Essentially the biggest story is that Fulci lost some footage and had no budget for re-shoots and thus left the film with an ambiguous, to say the least, finale. I knew of this before watching it my first time, so this doesn’t leave me beating my fists in concrete, but what does annoy me is that the film has no plot and goes nowhere. People die, zombies walk and an audience is left bored.

Am I being harsh? No, not really. Not by the standards set forth by the many people who have lambasted the film in reviews written well before my time. I can only give you a simple opinion as with so many other clowns. Not to be a complete apologist for Fulci, but to tell the truth, City isn’t THAT bad. It is assuredly a painfully excruciatingly dumb film, but is it deserving of your or my hatred? I wouldn’t think so. At times it’s fun to laugh at by how campy and stupid it gets, but even within all of this Fulci crafts a fairly atmospheric story when he’s not blundering with obvious movie mistakes or bizarre turn of even. There are moments in the film where I could perfectly understand a person actually being frightened by such a film on a dark and lonely night. Sure, while watched with the eyes of someone preparing to give the film a verbal thrashing it’s obvious that we’re dealing with a low budget mess but I could see someone perhaps letting the atmosphere affect certain viewers and Fulci can be nothing but commended for his work in that area. His directing is stylish with his usually great cinematography (in my eyes of course, some complain that the film is lit too dark) but at this point it’s easy to say he could very well be on auto-pilot. There’s no real interesting use of color like in The Beyond and very few interesting tension filled shots like in Zombie (the graveyard sequence is the exception mind you), but for what it’s worth he keeps the film watchable. The score by Fabio Frizzi also adds to the effect of the film and it’s sure to be one of those things that some people like and some people don’t. Seemingly a bit similar to Goblin’s score for Dawn of the Dead, the music is well received by the likes of me. Near the end when the score is fully unleashed it comes off as, and I know this is stupid, a bit like the music from Castlevania or something along those lines. If you don’t know Castlevania, it’s a videogame (and I’m particularly thinking of Castlevania IV for Super Nintend) series about vampires and vampire hunters. It has the same bouncy yet gothic vibe to it that the last few soundtrack cues in City seems to have. Mind you that this all comes from my delusions, but I felt the comparison necessary if only because I’m insane. The only other real commendable thing you can talk about in City though is the gore, and that only consists of two impressive scenes with a few not so well done brain squeezings. The two highly infamous death scenes are as follows: A drill through the head and a girl vomiting up her intestines. Isn’t that just yummy? The drill scene is probably the best of the two, in terms of realism, yet it’s hard to really say you like the scene because of how terrible the death has to come about. I’ll get to this in a moment. The second scene isn’t quite as important in my eyes, it’s done fairly well but there are moments where you can tell how the effect is achieved and it kind of lessens the impact because of the editing. The mere idea of it though definitely gets points in my book. To bring back the drill to the head sequence, what really destroys the moment is the radically bizarre idea to make the person being killed completely likable for the audience. For some reason Fulci perhaps thought it would be a brilliant idea for the character of Bob (played by John Morghen, who I’ll get to in the next paragraph) to be killed by a jealous father who completely gets the wrong idea about the relationship between the man’s daughter and our doomed yet lovable Bob. An easier solution to this would have been for Fulci to make the priest appear (as he did earlier) and end Bob’s life, yet instead he is thrown into a situation out of his grasp and killed at the hands of a mere man. This makes the whole sequence more tragic, and this isn’t something you want for a character who’s whole existence is in that of a sub-plot! In the end you feel sorry for the character of Bob even though it is hinted at that he may or may not have tried to molest a girl (the only clue is given by the father of the girl, and a cop with one line in the whole film. We at least know that the psychopath dad isn’t the most reliable of sources), and then you’re not even given the satisfaction of seeing Bob’s killer receive his just deserts. It’s a complete and utter let down for all involved.

The rest of the film is full of as surprisingly strange choices and directions. With all of the inconsistencies you would begin to suspect that maybe Fulci was going somewhere with some of it, but by the end of the film you have to look at it and realize that it was all for the sake of nothing. The characters in the film might as well be zombies themselves because they seem about as in touch with reality as the living dead. In one scene the character of Emily just barges into her boyfriend’s psychiatry office and begins jabbering on about her day, even though a patient is already in the room. The doctor says nothing, the patient says nothing and this inconsiderate little girl says nothing. For god’s sake has no one ever heard of knocking! It’s just one of those tiny things that you probably wouldn’t notice if you weren’t paying close attention, but during the last time I watched it I had to make a note because it aggravated me to no end. Not only are the characters simply drawn and obviously used as shells for the director to get what he wants out of them, but the film is just sad when it comes to any kind of technical detail. No offense to Fulci, but this is just shameless. I’ve never really been one to point out small errors within films, I really haven’t. I know I do it fairly often on here, but for the most part if I’m watching a film and someone has a glass that is half empty or a cigarette half burned in one frame yet full in the next, I won’t notice nor will I care. City obviously goes beyond that, but the limits to the strange errors and such never ceases to amaze me. To name some examples, why are these zombies who have been dead for maybe two days or even half a day so decayed? One of them even goes to the funeral home and is prepared by a mortician, yet in moments looks as if their face was burned or beaten with a cheese grater. Why do the zombies teleport? I know there’s an evil force in the City or what have you, but please, surely they could have thought of a better form of transportation than simply editing them into frame. You would think that this evil gateway being opened would allow the corpses to rise from the grave, and that alone, seeing that the dead bodies are made of flesh yet I guess it makes just as much sense for them to teleport around like Nightcrawler. Why is it that Mary’s body could be buried alive when everyone laid to rest since well before the eighties are always embalmed? I made light of this in the plot outline, but it’s just another one of those small annoyances I had during the film. The ending, or the ending before the ending as it would be in this case (i.e., the scene before the big twist at the end which I shall not disclose, even though it is moronic), is so absurd that it makes you wonder why you just wasted so much of your time with the film. Fulci spends so much deliberate time introducing us to character, subplots, events and such and yet the ending is resolved within a matter of moments and the worst part of it all is the lack of good zombie carnage. If a film is going to call it’s self City of the Living Dead one expects more than two or three people killed on screen at the hands of hordes of killer zombies. If you’re expecting a neck biting or two, you’re going to be sorely disappointed because the only actually ‘murders’ on screen are done by zombies using their HANDS! Fulci was perhaps trying to separate himself from the rest of the crowd by giving his zombies at least some logic, and of course the ability to transport, but this tends to harm the film far more than it helps. Maybe only for the fact that the film sets it’s self up to be so formulaic in every other respect. Yet another head scratching moment arose from a conversation between Catriona MacCol’s character and Christopher George, where they both refer to a psychic (assuming) that seems to go by the name of “DeNiro” who told George’s character that he would meet a woman in a coffin. Question is, who is DeNiro? If he’s one of MacColl’s friends at the beginning then he certainly wasn’t properly introduced, and if such a plot element was missing from the film then it’s just bizarre that they would keep a scene directly referencing it. Another of my favorite moments that makes little to no sense whatsoever is a small segment when we watch someone park their car at night while monkey sound effects scream over the soundtrack. Apparently there’s a jungle landscape somewhere in the suburbs of Massechusettes. I literally can continue counting up these oddities all day but I’ll stop at one last little grievance, which is the writing. Not just the bad scripting, but the terrible dialogue offered by our actors. A favorite sequence near the beginning has a female fortune teller/witch looking directly into the camera and letting loose the most unimaginative threat of evil ever concocted. It’s like something from a bad trailer, just repeat these lines and imagine clips from a lame zombie film “Keep refusing the truth. At this very precise moment, in some other distant town, horrendously awful things are happening. Things that would shatter your imagination!” try and pretend you can’t imagine the horrendous trailer it would produce, we all know you’re lying.

Now that I’m drawing this review to an end I might as well comment on the acting within the film. It’s not exactly a film you should expect to have a lot of merit in this area, but there are some talented people on board and even though the dialogue and dubbing is ridiculous there’s still a lot of entertainment to be had. So, I have two words for you: John Morghen. At this point in my life the man is like Marlon Brando was for all of those film students back in the sixties. Sure the man may not be the most talented actor in the world (but if you ask me, neither was Marlon Brando) but pretty much any piece of schlock he’s in he rises to another level. The man is just fun to watch! He deserves the proper respect from anyone who watches one of his films, here in City he isn’t really given a big part nor a very important one but he makes it his own and delivers one of the funniest and most bizarre moments with a blow up doll caught on film. That says a lot. The sad thing is that Fulci keeps his scenes so disconnected with the rest of the film that you could easily edit him out of the film, take away the references to ‘Bob’ and you miss nothing within the story. It easily could be done, and that’s just a little sad. Catrionna MacColl shows up starring in yet another Fulci film, such a beautiful woman and great actress, one would imagine she would have made that transatlantic jump at some point, but no. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the films she did do (and hopefully she will continue to make movies although I haven’t seen any of her films outside of Fulci’s), and her work in City is well received by me. She’s reduced to a mere scream queen here but just watching her do what she does is plenty enough to entertain the likes of me. Christopher George, our second star, is an interesting actor to watch. Such a rough and tumble character, watching him here makes me wish to see more of his earlier work. With this and his role in Pieces though, he easily solidified a place in genre history that’s for sure. Lastly I’ll comment on the other actor of any interest which is Carlo de Mejo. Also a Fulci regular, he kind of agitates me in his role. It seems no matter how implausible or horrific the situation may happen to be, he takes it upon himself to show absolutely no emotion whatsoever. ‘Oh, my girlfriend is dead? Sucks. Oh, my town is over run by hordes of the undead? Total bummer. Let’s get a taco’. Whether this is a product of bad acting or just horrendously incompetent English dubbing, I can’t rightly say, but I can say that he annoys me severely. Anyway, now I figure I should bring an end to this review. I know I’ve bashed the film senseless, but to tell the truth it’s not horrible. There are days where I wake up and count City of the Living Dead in my list of top five Fulci films and there are days where I wish I had never seen it. At the moment, I’m a little of both and even though it likely deserves a two, I don’t think that would be very expressive of the way I really feel about it. I give it a three. Is it a bad film? Yes. Is it entertaining? Yes, but will it be that way for everyone? Not in a million years. It’s preposterously insensible, even by Fulci standards. I’ve explained all of this well up until now, but why do I like it so? I can’t really begin to understand that even myself. There are moments of atmosphere and even a few tense moments as in the scene where MacColl is buried alive. The music and the violence are very well done for the most part, and although the editing in the film and direction tend to be choppy, I find that the film looks and comes off very clean. In the end this is going to be up to the viewer to decide just where they stand, and no words I can come up can express what all will feel. The best I can tell you is you’ve been warned, and boy did this review go long because of it!



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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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