After an extended vacation spent scaling Mt. Fuji, visiting various culture and historical sites across Japan, and consuming copious amounts of green tea, the kaidan (ghost story) mood of Japanese summer has inspired me to dust off an oft-neglected Lucio Fulci classic and enjoy the spirit of the season with one of my favorite directors.
Lucio Fulci’s Paura nella città dei morti viventi, or City of the Living Dead (1980), as it is more commonly known, came shortly in the wake of the director’s success with Zombi 2. Bringing back writer Dardano Sacchetti, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, and composer Fabio Frizzi, City of the Living Dead took full advantage of the zombie craze to create a film that is as absurd as it is disgusting. And let me tell you, I love every minute of it!
The film begins in a cemetery, as a priest named William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) makes preparations for suicide and abruptly hangs himself from a tree, presumably as part of a ritual intended to open one of the gates of Hell. The town is Dunwich (a nod to Lovecraft’s fictional New England settlement), and spiritualist Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) witnesses the events there during a séance in New York City that literally scares her to death. However, she mysteriously revives in her coffin shortly before her interment, and finds herself the recipient of increasingly terrifying visions of unspeakable violence occurring in Dunwich. Together with Peter Bell (Christopher George), a reporter investigating the case of her mysterious “death,” Mary learns of the Book of Enoch, which prophecies that the world will be consumed by evil if they cannot close the portal to the other side by All Saint’s Day. The ensuing carnage once again takes us further into Fulci’s gruesome imagination, a place where it is most certainly NOT safe for the weak of stomach.
With a simple plot that often feels like nothing more than a slightly padded reworking of Zombi 2 sans the Caribbean island setting, the real innovation of City comes in the form of some of the most gut-wrenching scenes ever to splash fake blood across the silver screen. The unholy revenants spawned from the Hell portal possess supernatural strength, and there are liberal doses of crushed skulls and brains squeezed through rotting fingers. One young woman, after being haunted by the specter of the deceased Father Thomas, begins to cry tears of blood and eventually vomits up her own entrails as the camera unflinchingly holds on the various organs flowing from her mouth. Even more disturbing than the scene itself is the way in which it was filmed: while some portions relied on a puppet head for the more extreme instances of purging, a good deal of the footage shows actress Daniela Doria actually regurgitating real sheep entrails that she had swallowed, resulting in an unforgettable sequence that might just make you lose your appetite! The infamous head-drilling scene hardly needs to be mentioned, but it should be noted that it was among the most consistent targets of censorship during the film’s release in countries like Germany and the UK.
Ending with a dark twist typical of Fulci’s works, City of the Living Dead represents another evolution of Fulci’s cinematic techniques, using elements that he would soon perfect in his 1981 masterpiece, The Beyond. As one of my favorite films of all time, I hope to speak about that classic film in detail at a later date. Until then, sweet nightmares!