Contains mild spoilers
I'll admit to going into this with no idea what to expect. When I began researching what zombie films I should prioritise, which films were pivotal in establishing or writing zombie mythology, or which were the finest examples of what the genre offered I scoured countless zombie film blogs, articles and forums and whilst recognising Romero's offerings and all the usual contenders, I also frequently came across the name of a cult Italian director held in particular high esteem that I'll confess I'd never heard of.
City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi, also known as The Gates of Hell) is a 1980 Italian horror film directed by Lucio Fulci and the first part of the unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy which also comprises of The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery. The film comes with a notorious reputation having initially been heavily cut to secure its original 1981 BBFC certification and was only granted an uncut release in 2001. I'd read about gruesome vomiting intestines scenes, a lot of brains and an infamous 'head drilling' and went in with some trepidation.
The premise is simple. Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself in a cemetery in the rural town of Dunwich, New England (a deliberate tribute to H.P. Lovecraft) which lies on a former hotspot of Salem Witch Trial activity and unleashes a great evil on the world. Meanwhile in New York, hack reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) investigating the unusual death of medium Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) rescues her from being buried alive and the two of them, after a little explanation, team up and head to Dunwich to dispatch the now undead priest, close the gates of Hell and save the world, all before All Saints Day in three days time, and all as prophesised in the Book of Enoch.
Arriving in Dunwich, they discover a town rapidly spiralling out of control and team up with psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and his patient Sandra (Janet Agren), and set about finding the Father and his tomb, all the while dealing with a town full of recently deceased citizens running amok after returned as revolting maggot covered brain hungry zombies.
The zombies of City of the Living Dead are fascinating and inimitable and they couldn't be more different to the traditional western shambling undead we've generally become accustomed to. Now zombies have traditionally never been the good looking and these days we're used to exposed flesh and bits hanging off but Fulci's undead are truly disgusting demonic monsters with burnt exposed rancid maggot encrusted faces and praise must be heaped on make up team and desire to do something different.
Romero's zombies are clearly reanimated humans and they behave like people devoid of higher brain function, running on instinct and muscle memory, believably would. It's implied that Fulci's zombies receive their strength, power and reanimation from hell itself and as such they're granted improved strength and the ability to perform all manner of supernatural trickery. They can materialise anywhere at will, levitate and possess a particularly devastating and gruesome psychic attack, which extreme and over the top is a hallmark of Fulci. When locked eye to eye they will first blood to pour from the victims eyes then in an ultimate act of destruction, to vomit out all their organs and insides, and yes, it's really as unpleasant as it sounds.
It's the materialising/teleporting that's the most interesting though. Fulci's zombies don't shamble up slowly (or quickly if you look at more modern interpretations), they appear and disappear at will, they can be sighted as distant apparitions or in the blink of an eye manifest right on top of someone. Now it's never clear whether they're teleporting, suspending time or a psychic manifestations merely in the victims mind and it's all deliberately vague; my instinct leans me towards the latter and I'm looking forward to seeing if this is expanded upon in the two unofficial sequels.
I've seen Fulci described as a horror genius and a talentless hack, his films as wry black comedies and farces, and also genuine deeply dark imaginative visions. I'm a firm believer that thinks are never really that black and white and having now watched City of the Living Dead I'd probably say he and his film are a bit of both. This particular Lovecraftian tale is dark, mysterious, cold and imaginatively told, the characters are interesting and diverse and he's not afraid to allow their relationships to develop in unusual ways. However there's not much subtlety to the narrative and the whole film is always on the edge of becoming a b-movie bizarre parody, with wooden acting especially from the extras, and some quite strange but fascinating directing decisions, like having monkey noises in outdoor urban scenes.
Fulci is also certainly not shy of trying to shock and disgust the viewer though at times the death scenes are so gory and downright gruesome that they're almost comical and distracting, and they quite regularly seem a little contrived and staged. It's as if the narrative and story occasionally bends to accommodate a particularly nasty set piece Fulci has come up with and this is especially true of the drill scene. But would the film work without them? Probably not and the film works in part because of the very absurdity and extremity of the many staged scenes; they're integral to what makes a Fulci's film a Fulci film and without them I'm not sure what we'd have, but I do know it wouldn't be nearly the same.
City of the Living Dead is a fascinating film full of suspense, dread and really unpleasant killings and set pieces. From an interesting if little cliché premise it spins a yarn evocative of Lovecraft and full of the absurdities and excesses that make cult horror films what they are. I do enjoy films that dare to be a little different and City of the Living Dead certainly fits into this category. It's nothing like other films I've reviewed and revels in being esoteric, ambiguous and a ridiculous but never at the expense of appearing disingenuous or insulting. Extreme, upsetting and unnecessary, but brilliant, 8/10.
A quick note about this release. I'd read a lot of complaints with some of the Arrow Films Blu-ray releases but I think other than some grain issues in many of outdoor scenes the sound and picture quality and the number of extras on the disc, it's a very well put together release and shouldn't be avoided.