***This is my little contribution to this month's Final Girl Film Club. Please note that these stills are taken from the OOP Anchor Bay edition and not the new Remastered Blue Underground disc.***
It was early on in my days as an Italian Horror Film Fanatic that I discovered Lucio Fulci’s pulverizing 1980 feature City of the Living Dead. Of course at that point in the early nineties I knew of the film as The Gates of Hell, and my borrowed copy from a friend at a local video store in Lexington, KY was a full-frame VHS version that came in one of those giant clamshell cases. I was in my early twenties and had recently had my cinematic life eternally altered by my first, of many, encounters with Dario Argento’s Suspiria and I was hungry for more of this strangely compelling beast called The Italian Horror Film.
City of the Living Dead wasn’t my first Lucio Fulci film, as that friend had also let me borrow a copy of Zombie, but it was the first one that really alerted me to the fact that Fulci was far more than the cinematic hack that I had seem him described as (which isn’t a swipe against Zombie but that film’s gore effects overwhelmed Fulci’s considerable cinematic techniques on my first viewing.)
Despite a muddled narrative, City of the Living Dead is clearly the work of a cinematic master and the fact that is has continued to grow in stature as a major cult film of the period strengthens that fact. Even as that ugly full-frame pan and scan video tape The Gates of Hell , Fulci’s compositional skills come through and he is clearly a man in total control of his camera. Roger Ebert once called Fulci the Herschell Gordon Lewis of Italian Cinema but just one look at a work like City of the Living Dead in glorious widescreen, where Fulci’s incredible framing really breaks through, shows this to be one of the most idiotic and ill-conceived statements Ebert ever put to paper.
While I was blown away by all of City of the Living Dead in those early viewings of it, the moment that kept coming back to me didn’t involve the film’s unbelievably effective Gino De Rossi created gore sequences or the hypnotic and incredibly eerie electronic Fabio Frizzi score or the spellbinding Sergio Salvati cinematography. It was a short stretch in a cemetery that quickly became one of my favorite moments of pure cinema that I had ever seen.
A clear inspiration for a similar sequence in Tarantino’s masterful Kill Bill Volume 2, the unforgettable section of City of the Living Dead where Christopher George’s Peter Bell discovers Catriona MacColl’s recently buried Mary Woodhouse very much alive is one of the most amazing sequences I have ever seen. A masterpiece of tension highlighted by genius shot-selection and sheer-nerve, these few moments are among the main ones I would put on a sample Fulci reel to convince the many doubters.
While I was capturing these images from this part of City of the Living Dead, I was struck by how controlled Fulci is as a director here and how he allows a steady tension to build and then finally explode. I was also struck by how delightfully and brazenly illogical the scene is. Fulci isn’t looking for logic here so he isn’t worried about why the bumbling cemetery workers leave Woodhouse’s coffin half-buried, or why Peter picks the head end of Mary’s coffin to plunge a pick-house into. Fulci, like many of Italian Horror’s greatest masters, wasn’t afraid to risk being silly in order to capture an incredibly shocking and resonate moment and these few minutes in City of the Living Dead are wonderful examples of that kind of do-or-die attitude. Audience members might be giggling in the first part of this scene but they won’t be by the end of it.
City of the Living Dead (or The Gates of Hell as I am still known to call it) led me on several years of passionately trying to collect Fulci’s, then hard to find, films. Years of watching blurry grey market tapes, and reading time and time again that Fulci was some sort of second-rate Argento, have led me to a moment in time where City of the Living Dead is being honored as one of the must see new DVDs of the year, from everyone from the expected horror fans to mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly (who recently placed the film on their top ten must see list).
While I will never recapture my first moments with the majestically odd and extremely compelling City of the Living Dead, I can’t wait to see the new remastered edition and re-experience it all again. The film, much like the sequence I have highlighted a bit here in stills, remains a startling fresh experience and extremely powerful film. This little low-budget Italian shocker from 1980 frankly puts most corporate big-budget driven horror films to shame. Viva Fulci!