Sunday, April 25, 2010

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)

Oh, hai!Final Girl Film Club FTW!

Literally Paura Nella Città dei Morti Viventi, but called The Gates of Hell in its cut big-box American VHS incarnation and awesomely titled A Cadaver Hung on the Bellrope at one point in Germany (thanx, IMDB!)! CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is perhaps the Fulciest of Fulci films. All of the elements that divide humanity into Fulci haters and fellaters are found here. You like close-ups of eyes? How about 20 minutes of them? Detest sexism? Maybe you're just "nursing a pet neurosis, like about 70% of the female population of this country." And, yes, this brings the blood and gore, too. If it's not his wettest film, it certainly boasts the most audacious kills.

CITY was the first of Fulci's trio of surrealist zombie outings (followed by THE BEYOND and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY) and, like its sisters, cares precious little for straightforward plots or stopping to explain things. But, here let me try: a priest hangs himself in a cemetery just before All Saints Day, opening the gates of hell (Hell?) in Dunwich. Since the gate's open, zombies come out and shamble, teleport, and leap at their victims, at least ten years before 28 DAYS LATER. Now a reporter named Peter (Christopher George) and a psychic named Mary (Catriona MacColl) must travel to Dunwich and close the gate before the teleporting dead get out of the pasture.

The narrative structure here gets quite loose. Events unfold in Dunwich and are paralleled in New York. Scenes are choppy, drifting from character to character, making me glad that I take notes at the movies. For example, we meet psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo de Mejo) and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren of MANGIATI VIVI renown), then meet Emily (Antonella Interlenghi), who enters the scene, then immediately ditches to meet Bob (the superbly scuzzy Giovanni Lombardo Radice). This is interspersed, by the way, with scenes of reporter and psychic in New York.

But it's hard to say that confusion isn't intentional with this film. There are so many jarringly illogical happenings that the viewer never quite gets a firm footing. Even the opening stages of the film delight in offering the unexpected: baby gurgling noises on the soundtrack as we pan across a row of tombstones. The zombies behave with little consistency, although the male zombies are clearly the more athletic and impressive in terms of leaping ability (this aspect of CITY seemed to foreshadow ZOMBIE 3's sometimes-slow, sometimes-fast semi-lucha zombies). And let's not forget the much-derided New England howler monkeys. Whether this was a DO NOT ENTRY-esque bungle or a deliberate addition to the film's surrealistic storehouse, it dovetails well with the rest of the madness on display.

Dialog and situations are laughable in places, but I'm not sure (again) that this is wholly accidental. I heart 33:25, when our two NY heroes are driving away and there is a loud hitting-something sound just as they pass a parked car. Also adorable is the scene in which someone is called a "murderer" just before being murdered. And what of this exchange?

PRIEST: You know that Dunwich was built on the ruins of the original Salem, the village of witches and heresy and evil?

PETER: Yes, but, uh, can you tell us how to get there?

It's a little surprising with the wanton weirdness and lighter touches that CITY can still creep you (by that, I mean me) right the F out at the film's end. The last fourth or so is very harrowing, flush with improbably-already-rotten zombies teleporting to lounges to devour patrons and driving child actors down fog-swirled stairs. Fulci does a fabulous job at exploiting a minimal number of sets and a very small cast (maybe ten people live in Dunwich), and it's still scary! And the end, as noted over and over, is one of the most fortunate accidents in filmdom. Especially in this genre, it's peasantish to start probing for intentions when something good shows up. And CITY is a good film and an easy recommendation.

2 comments:

AE said...

"There are so many jarringly illogical happenings that the viewer never quite gets a firm footing." This is very well put -- I never really found my feet and said "aha, it's THAT sort of movie." Fulci does keep you on your toes! I enjoyed it too, whether the discomfort was intentional or not.

I had never heard of the ending and am not sure what to make of it. The weird thing is, it kind of delivers on all fronts. You don't really want there to be a happy ending; but at the same time you're sort of rooting for Mary and you don't want the little kid to be hurt, so it spares you that. On the other hand, it doesn't seem like restraint was Fulci's thing, so it's hard to buy it as an ending he would've really wanted. Hm. *strokes chin*

Anyway, lovely review! And I agree about the dialogue. Fantastic stuff.

Fear on Friday said...

The ending of the movie, once night has fallen reminded me wholesale of Planet Terrors first half - the dark, the mist, the growls, the scabs. Except of course Fulci never went all dumbass military, he stuck with his zombies and just got yuckier. For that alone I was happy to watch a movie like this, which knew how to end (though obviously changed it's mind about that in editing)