It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 20082009 (a bad year), 201020112012 (when we left the blog behind), 20132014201520162017201820192020, and 2021.

City of the Living Dead, or Paura nella città dei morti viventi, or Gates of Hell (1980)

Directed by Lucio Fulci

Screenplay by Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti

When, in 1979, Lucio Fulci released Zombi 2, his unofficial sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) (which had been titled Zombi in its Italian release), it grossed more than Romero’s film and kicked off an Italian wave of zombie cinema. Fulci had intended to continue with the Zombi series, but illness forced him to hand over the reins of that franchise to Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso. Instead, Fulci began working on a new script with Dardano Sacchetti, influenced by Fulci’s recent re-reading of works by H.P. Lovecraft, where a priest in Dunwich (Salem in the first draft) hangs himself in the church cemetery, thereby opening the gates of hell.  

And thus, City of the Living Dead was born, featuring principal photography shot in New York City and Savannah, Georgia, with interiors shot back in Rome. The film stars Christopher George as New York reporter Peter Bell and Catriona MacColl as psychic Mary Woodhouse (we’ll be seeing more from MacColl in the next two EZMM entries), who team up to figure out how to close the gates of hell before All Saints Day, when the entire world is overrun by the living dead.

The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t a big fan. The talky bits are too talky – and barely make sense sometimes. There are leaps of logic in the narrative that were too problematic for me to overlook. Adding to this, there are almost no zombies in the film until the finale and that was unacceptable to me back then. I don’t think I’ve watched it since, before tonight.

Well, I don’t know what I was smoking back then, but City of the Living Dead is pretty damn fantastic. Everything I thought was a minus back in the day, was actually a plus. These are features, not bugs.

Opening the film with a priest’s suicide in the church cemetery, witnessed by a New York psychic medium with a British accent, who then dies from fear, only to wake up in her coffin, saved by the cigar-chomping newspaper reporter who’s ready to believe that the end of the world is coming in just over forty-eight hours. All they have to do is figure out where the hell Dunwich is and then figure out where the hell the suicide priest is buried and then figure out how to close the Gate of Hell before midnight on All Saints Day.

Meanwhile in Dunwich, we have a psychiatrist and his neurotic patient dealing with disappearing and reappearing corpses, a vagrant potential pedophile, local bar patrons who think the town may be cursed, and lots of worms and maggots and in one case, a woman’s entire insides vomited out her mouth after the suicide priest cock blocks her boyfriend. Oh yeah, and a few people get their skulls graphically ripped open, spilling their brains in full vivid color.

By the time the film ends, we learn that Dunwich was built on the ruins of the original Salem village where the witch trials were held, that underground city is still around, sort of, almost everybody dies, and we get a happy ending that doesn’t actually turn out to be that happy. Or maybe it does. I don’t know. That’s one of the big points of debate when discussing City of the Living Dead. The film just kind of ends with a happy little boy freeze-framing, then screams overwhelm the image as it fragments into black.

Roll credits.

If you’re looking for a more traditional narrative, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for the more traditional Romero-esque flesh eaters, this isn’t going to be for you. The undead in City of the Living Dead are from Hell. Literally. Or, more accurately, they are from an ancient darkness from before god or the devil. They stalk and hunt their victims, vanishing and reappearing at will, making the idea of barricading oneself in a house a meaningless attempt to fend off the inevitable. This is a waking nightmare. A fever dream of a film that still maintains a semblance of plot and has a solid beginning, a trippy middle, and an ending that only serves to call everything into question.

Gorehounds will be thrilled, though. There are impressive feats of gore throughout the film, but the most impressive are the hurricane-like rain of maggots via two wind machines and 10 kg of real live maggots. There’s also a disturbing death-by-drill that hasn’t got anything to do with zombies but is all the more tragic because it’s just a straight up murder of an innocent (sort of innocent). My personal favorite gross out is a scene where the suicide priest magically makes a woman vomit up her own intestines, beginning with the actress actually spitting up baby veal intestines before movie magic replaces her with a stunt head, out of which pours more intestines and organs that all look remarkably real. In fact, I’m sure they are.

Christopher George is fantastic as the reporter on the hunt for the story of his life. He’s almost always got a cigar in his mouth, a sardonic attitude, and lights up the screen every time he’s in a shot. Catriona MacColl is also great as the back-from-the-dead psychic, Mary Woodhouse and not only brings her best screams, also brings a gutsy fearlessness in the face of overwhelming, gory violence. The psychiatrist, Gerry, is played amiably enough by Carlo De Mejo, while his patient Sandra gives Janet Agren little to do for most of the film before spotlighting her in the subterranean finale.

Lacking the overtly political, and subvertingly atheistic, subtexts of Romero’s zombie outings, Lucio Fulci gives us a world where there’s no god or devil, but something older and darker, hope is meaningless, and everyone is damned, crafting a narratively original apocalypse – even if we don’t quite get to see it in full force. This is a film about atmosphere, surreal dread, and goodness condemned to lose. As our heroes descend into the suicide priest’s family crypt, we leave reality behind for a nightmarish dreamscape of the titular City of the Living Dead. It’s a clear step up in imagination and narrative vision from Zombi 2 and serves as a sort of test run for Fulci’s next film, The Beyond.

City of the Living Dead was released theatrically in Italy on August 11, 1980, with a runtime of 93 minutes. The German release cut 10 minutes, removing some dialogue but keeping the gore intact. When the film reached the UK on May 7, 1982, it had to remove the drilling scene before it could be released, and then when it hit the US, it had to be retitled The Gates of Hell as the result of a cease-and-desist order from United Film Distribution Company due to its similarity to their own film, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

In 2000, the film was released on DVD in the United States by Anchor Bay, and then on DVD and Blu-ray by Blue Underground in 2010. Most recently, in 2018, Arrow Video released a UK limited edition 4K remaster of both the City and Gates versions.

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