This film has nothing to do with George Romero’s Dead films. In a bit of shameless commercialism, City of the Living Dead is another Italian film that tries to ride the coattails of a profitable American horror franchise. And it’s not a case of an American distribution company changing the name of the film. When it was released in Italy, this film was given the title Paura nella città die morti viventi, which, according to the internet, translates as Fear in the City of the Living Dead. Clear? Good. Compared to other low-budget Italian horror fare, these title shenanigans are nothing.
From writer/director Lucio Fulci, who shared screenwriting credits with Dardano Sacchetti, comes City of the Living Dead, released in 1980. The film tells the story of a cursed town in New England called Dunwich. There, the local priest, Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine), hangs himself. For some reason that was either never explained or that I didn’t catch, the priest’s suicide opens a gateway to hell, allowing evil to pour forth into the world of man.
Meanwhile, down in Manhattan, a séance was being held at the precise moment of the priest’s death, and one of the participants, Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl), becomes overwhelmed by visions of a ‘city of the dead.’ These visions are so powerful that they kill her, but it isn’t long before she’s back on her feet, because that’s what the story calls for.
An intrepid reporter, Peter Bell (Christopher George), thinks there’s a story somewhere in Mary’s vision, and the two head north to Dunwich to close the gateway before All Saints Day, after which the gateway cannot be closed.
Back in Dunwich, the evil has not been resting on its laurels waiting for Mary and Peter to arrive. The dead priest stalks the townsfolk at night, appearing and disappearing at will, and killing people to add to a growing army of the undead.
These death scenes are made for the horror film gore junkie. For a film with such limited resources, they are quite impressive. I won’t spoil my favorite, but I will say that it is a long, drawn out process that looks like an absolute horror to go through, for both the character and the poor actress playing her. My next favorite, which I will spoil, is an effect whereby a baddie grabs the back of a character’s head and squeezes, causing the skull to burst and brain matter to ooze between the assailant’s fingers. It’s an effect so nice they used it thrice. All the effects in this film, in fact, are better than one would expect. They don’t have explicit realism, but there’s a good amount of splatter and nastiness.
While Mary and Peter road trip up to Dunwich (I’ve always thought it a mistake when filmmakers place their lead characters in road trips. It takes them right out of the movie for extended periods.), the main action is handled by a different pair. They are local psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren). Gerry comes to similar conclusions as Mary, and after more of the townsfolk meet their grizzly ends, the two disparate pairs come together for denouement in the final act. The dead priest must be found and some religious stuff performed over his body to end the demonic menace before All Saints Day, or the world is lost.
This is a shitty movie. In appearance and pedigree, it’s right at home with many of the other Italian flicks of the era that have been featured in Shitty Movie Sundays. In fact, this isn’t the first Lucio Fulci flick that has made that cut. There are moments when this flick threatens to climb out of the basement, but then it always falls short.
Mostly, that has to do with pacing. It was maddening to watch Gerry confront all the bad stuff going on in the film with a blank face. And it wasn’t just him. The lack of urgency in some of the characters was so pronounced that I can’t place all blame on the performers. That has to be on Fulci. The lingering nature of the pure horror scenes was possibly meant to evoke tension and deep dread in the viewer, but it would have been better if cast members had been allowed to show a pulse before they got their skulls popped. It’s not every death or action scene that is like this, but there were enough that it became a problem for this film.
City of the Living Dead relies on its gore to entertain the audience. There isn’t much else. The two main characters spend an entire act driving to where the movie is happening, and there are only the barest threads of plot. The amount of padding in the running time is egregious, as well. With proper pacing and a ruthless pair of scissors in the editing room, something better could have been salvaged, although it would have lasted only about 20 minutes. As it is, there’s just way too much empty space between the good bits. Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than City of the Living Dead.