One way to look at Italian Director Lucio Fulci‘s 1980 Gore-fest “City Of The Living Dead” (aka The Gates Of Hell) is that it’s boldly going beyond the classical narratives of other horror films, abandoning logic in favour of a delirious, dreamlike mode of storytelling which stresses psychedelic visuals, technicolour surrealism and loads of Italian fog-machine atmosphere…the other is that it doesn’t make one goddamn bit of sense. Like a character out of Fulci’s own ‘Zombi’, “City Of The Living Dead” lurches from scene to scene in a nearly indecipherable story arc that’s as much a part of its entertainment value as it’s oft-delivered buckets of blood, brains and boobs.
Fulci doesn’t waste a single moment establishing his grotesque mood. During a upper west side séance in New York, Mary (Catriona MacColl, who stars in all three of Fucli’s “Gates Of Hell” Trilogy) experiences a vision of a preist (Fabrizio Jovine) hanging himself in a cemetery in the remote town of Dunwich (Note the nod to H.P. Lovecraft here, he’s credited as “Inspiration”). His suicide opens “The Gates Of Hell” and just like that, the dead rise from their graves ready to slay the living and take over the town. Witnessing this vision causes Mary to apparently die of fright. Soon however she awakens in her just-interred coffin and, her hands bloodied from trying to escape, attracts the attention of reporter Peter (Christopher George), who’s there investigating her mysterious demise. After speaking with Mary’s medium friend Theresa (Adelaide Aste) – who likes to ramble about the 4,000-year-old Book of Enoch and it’s prophecies of doom – Peter and Mary head out to Dunwich, a town revealed to have been constructed upon the ruins of America’s most famous witch haven, Salem.
In Dunwich, our poorly dubbed 2nd Protagonist (Carlo De Mejo) treats incest-fixated patient Sandra while Gerry’s weirdly teenage girlfriend Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) backs out on their plans together so she can continue helping local punk Bob, following him to an abandoned garage and leading to the first and most side-splitting sensory assault from Fulci’s bag of tricks. There’s no arguing “City Of The Living Dead” makes a lick of sense, as legendary co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti expends little energy trying to sell the story as realistic. Gerry and Sandra eventually team up with Peter and Mary to stop the apocalypse scheduled to commence on All Saints Day, when the dead will forever reanimate, and we hurtle towards a baffling but wildly entertaining conclusion.
Accompanying the head squishing, eye popping, entail spewing gore is a soundtrack marked by Fabio Frizzi’s creepy “Goblins” style score, the classically awful Italian dialogue dubbing, and a cache of sound effects encased in ominous reverb. Also contributing to the weird, hallucinatory tale are cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s visuals, which careen between mundane police procedural set-ups to inspired, goofy and glorious madness. It’s an orgy of ghastly aesthetics, free from any pretence of good taste. And it’s this gleeful abandon that landed Fucli’s film on the 3rd wave of censorship as part of the “Video Nasties” panic. While allowed to, eventually, be released in England and the US (under the name “The Gates Of Hell”) after nearly 3 minutes of cuts, the original version was confiscated by police, and until Arrow’s amazing 2015 re-issue, was unavailable in the UK for 35 years.
We’re not arguing that “City Of The Dead” stands beside other Giallo horror classics like Susperia or Demons, it’s far too confusing for all but the most devoted fans to digest. But, if you ARE a fan of over-the-top Italian excess and indecipherable adventures in gore, this film delivers groans and grins in equal measure. Available to stream on Shudder, check the trailer below for a taste!
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