Blue Underground // 1980 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // May 21st, 2010
And the dead shall rise and walk the Earth!
"The soul that pines for eternity shall outspan death."
In a stark but charming New England cemetery, a priest hangs himself. Meanwhile, in a fashionably shabby New York apartment, a medium named Mary (Catriona MacColl, House by the Cemetery) has a vision of this evil act and drops dead. The police think the medium and her bohemian buddies just over-partied, but Mary's friend knows otherwise -- Mary's second sight foretold the coming apocalypse. Apparently, a suicidal priest in a graveyard is just blasphemous enough to swing open the gates of Hell, enabling the recently deceased to come back and senselessly devour the living!
Reporter Pete Bell (Christopher George, The Exterminator) gets wind of Mary's bizarre death and happens by the cemetery while she's being buried. When the loutish grave diggers knock off for the day before finishing the burial -- they're union, they can do that -- Pete hears screaming coming from the half-interred coffin. Sure enough, Mary wasn't really dead; apparently her clairvoyant shocker was so unsettling it shut down all her vital signs, leaving her to be declared dead by an evidently inept medical examiner and buried without benefit of embalming.
But Mary bears no grudge; she's much more concerned about the dead rising up in quaint Dunwich, the scene of the priest's sacrilegious exit -- which was also the scene of the Salem witch trials centuries before. Armed with nothing besides some vague notions from the Book of Enoch -- some 4,000 year old prophecy that called this one -- she and Pete head to what will forever be known as the City of the Living Dead post haste to try to stop the ravenous post-mortems from carrying out their dastardly plans.
Ridiculously gruesome and unapologetically nonsensical, City of the Living Dead is another Carter/Reagan-era zombieploitation epic riding the coattails of Romero. It was directed by Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci and shot in Georgia. Since he's an avowed critic of the Catholic Church -- his two masterworks, Beatrice Cenci and Don't Torture a Duckling were all-out attacks on the Church of Rome -- it's fitting that City of the Living Dead would use a priest committing a sacrilegious act as a jumping off point for the destruction of the world.
Fulci's previous effort, Zombi 2 (or Zombie), was an "unofficial" sequel to Dawn of the Dead (which had been called Zombi in Italy). Fulci had not written Zombi 2, and the film had actually been started before Romero's film was released; the producers had insisted on including some extra scenes and a title that would cash-in on the popular Dawn of the Dead.
With City of the Living Dead, Fulci took the whole zombie conceit and added his own mythology. Just as Dario Argento created a trilogy about the Three Mothers and their evil efforts to cause misery to humanity, so would Fulci create a trilogy, this one concerned with the consequences of opening up the Gates of Hell, with The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, the second and third installments.
City of the Living Dead is mainly a showcase for extravagant bloodletting. As is often the case with extravagant bloodletting, the gory scenes are both repulsive and frequently a bit silly. Fulci's approach here is to throw everything at the wall and see what congeals, pouring on the gore to the point that, well before the end, you become almost deadened to it. Unlike most mainstream American horror films of the time, Fulci's grisly bits are dragged out; so we get graphically detailed views of things like a girl (literally) puking her guts out, the local pervert getting drilled from one side of his head through to the other, a maggot attack, and the wholesale slaughter of some major characters -- all scored with a trippy synth track that sounds like a lost cut from the Alan Parsons Project.
While these are the memorable moments, Fulci also shows admirable restraint at certain junctures, passing up the chance to toss a few more festooning guts at the screen in favor of some good, old fashioned jolts. These scenes are actually surprisingly effective, simply because you don't spend their duration suppressing your gag reflex. There's an especially creepy sequence at a funeral home, complete with seedy mortician, that could almost stand alone as a short horror film.
While Blue Underground is calling this a Special Edition, there's not a lot of meat on these bones. The main attraction is 32-minute retrospective, "The Making of City of the Living Dead," featuring interviews with all sorts of people who were involved with the film. Besides offering up lots of information about the movie -- particularly the gore effects -- we also get some fond recollections of Fulci. This is a very good piece, but it doesn't quite offset the lack of anything else substantial -- a couple of trailers and some radio spots playing over a photo gallery. On the up side, they give us a superior transfer, with strong colors and solid blacks, that belies the film's age and origins. Audio is also excellent, with the synth-heavy score reverberating nicely along with the screams of the various victims.
If you're looking for logic or cohesive storytelling, you might as well forget about this one. The whole Gates of Hell business is explained so quickly it's almost a throw-away, and I honestly could not tell you what Mary and Peter hope to accomplish by going to Dunwich in the first place -- despite her mutterings about saving mankind, they don't have any sort of plan to stop-gap the encroaching Armageddon. Fulci introduces a whole slew of characters, but we all know that they're only around so we can see what the inside of their skulls look like.
Stylish early '80s grue from the man who made who made intestinal vomit fashionable.
Damned and doomed, but not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Radio Spots
* Photo Gallery
* Lucio Fulci