Revisiting the “City of the Living Dead”

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!

PS You can check out my latest Helldriver reports in condensed form on the blog of my friend and partner in crime, La Carmina, complete with new photos!  See it here!

Spaghetti Zombi: A Look Back at Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi 2″

With all of my recent posts on Yoshihiro Nishimura’s latest masterpiece Helldriver, and my 6-part Romero Retrospective in between, I thought that it was high time to take a look back at one of the other great directors of flesh-ripping fantasy, the inimitable Lucio Fulci (1927 – 1996).  Born in Rome, Lucio Fulci got his start in the comedy genre and later earned a name for himself with his shocking giallo features, perhaps most notably Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971).  It wasn’t until 1979, however, that Fulci truly took the international spotlight with his seminal horror masterwork, Zombi 2.  Known alternately as Zombie or Zombie Flesh Eaters in the US and UK, the film was marketed as a loose sequel to George A. Romero’s successful Dawn of the Dead (released simply as Zombi in Italian cinemas).  This connection is strictly denied by the filmmakers, but the fact remains that the opening and ending sequences were inserted later in an attempt to cash in on Romero’s Dawn, and the name was clearly a ploy to ride on the coattails of that masterpiece.  Marketing trivia aside, however, Zombi 2 represents a very different take on the zombie genre, with unique special effects and unforgettable sequences that have gone on to become the stuff of horror cinema legend among horrorphiles across the globe.

With Zombi 2, Fulci claimed that he meant to explore the very origin of zombies, looking to Voodoo rituals on cursed isles in the Caribbean.   A derelict yacht drifts into New York Harbor in the opening of the film, and the police who investigate discover that the vessel is not quite as abandoned as they suspected.  One neutralized zombie and a dead patrol officer later, we find that the ship is owned by the father of Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), who insists on going to find him on the tropical island where he was claiming to conduct research.  She is joined by newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch), who has been sent by his editor (played by Lucio Fulci himself) to investigate the ghost ship and its origins.  Their search takes them to the cursed island of Matool, where the dead rise from their graves to feast upon the living, and a lone doctor (Richard Johnson) is driven to unlock the mystery behind the plague of revivified corpses.  The film builds up perfectly to its explosive conclusion, and is chock full of enough violence and gore to earn it censorship in multiple countries and an enduring place on the UK’s list of “Video Nasties.”

Openly deriding the “blue-faced” shamblers of Dawn, Fulci and his team used a unique mix of clay and various makeup products to create the numerous prosthetics for the ghouls in the film, lending them a putrefying decrepitude that remains chilling to this day.  Even if one hasn’t seen the film, the ubiquitous image of a cannibalistic Conquistador corpse (Ottaviano Dell’acqua) is surely recognizable, with living worms still slithering out from one of its hollow undead eye sockets.  Zombi 2 also marks the first instance of Fulci’s trademark eyeball gag, as a woman is brutally pulled by her hair ever closer to a large wooden splinter, with suitably excruciating results.  Often incorporating a clever use of mirrors and first-person camera views, Fulci and cinematographer Sergio Salvati solidify methods in this film that would go on to become the signature style of their later collaborations, and Fabio Frizzi’s haunting score sets the perfect macabre tone for the morbid proceedings.  And who could forget the famous underwater scene, where an aquatic ghoul faces off against a massive tiger shark?  Zombi 2 is a film that must be seen to be believed, and certainly deserves a place on the shelf of any self-respecting zombie fan.

And on that subject, it sounds like bloody good news is on the horizon for fans in the US, as according to horror documentary filmmaker Michael Felsher, Blue Underground intends to release both a Blu-ray and new DVD edition of Fulci’s classic, including brand-new, never-before-seen extra features.  This exciting version is slated to hit the shelves on October 25th this year, just in time for Halloween!

Check back later, when I take a look back at some more of my favorite films from Italy’s “Godfather of Gore.”  Until then, sweet nightmares!

Raising Hell: Thoughts on the “Helldriver” Launch – Part 3

After a brief chuckle over a humorous cameo in the final scene, one could almost perceive a collective sigh (of satisfaction) as the room brightened and the Helldriver launch came officially to a close.  Slowly filing out of the theater, some audience members lingered in the lobby to examine the grotesque film props, observe the ongoing UStream talks, and donate money to the Tohoku Earthquake relief efforts for a chance to vote on their favorite Sushi Typhoon feature of the day.  I’m pleased to say that Helldriver seemed to be winning by a landslide! My date for the evening, a lovely young lady by the name of Jessica, shared with me her impressions of the film as we stepped outside into the slightly cooler night air.

Photo by Norman England

As is tradition at these events, the cast and crew members were standing outside of the theater doors with cheerful smiles on their faces, patiently taking the time to sign autographs and shake hands with their devoted fans.  I felt honored when lead actress Yumiko Hara thanked me for coming both this time and back in March for the Tokyo premiere, saying that she remembered seeing me there even though we hadn’t been able to speak with each other.  Receiving a firm handshake from Director Nishimura, I was congratulating him again on creating such a unique and “gutsy” film when, much to my surprise, he said, “Hey, let’s go drinking!”  Almost before I knew it, Jessica and I were caught up with my friend Norman England and the Sushi Typhoon crew as we hit the streets of Ginza in search of a watering hole that could accommodate our sizable group – no easy task on a Saturday night in Japan’s largest city.  After wandering about the streets like a disorganized flock of thirsty sheep and a few instances of jaywalking, we finally settled into a pleasant little izakaya (Japanese-style pub) with two large tables to seat everyone in our party.

I’m 15 years old. The film in my DVD player is called Audition, directed by Takashi Miike and featuring a beautiful young starlet by the name of Eihi Shiina as Asami Yamazaki.  Having stumbled upon the film in my local rental shop’s woefully impoverished Foreign Film section, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  It started off so innocently, like some kind of drama or romantic comedy…

Stepping into the room, Jessica and I were called over by Mr. Nishimura, and we found ourselves seated with him and director Noboru Iguchi (who told me a little about his upcoming film, presumably entitled Toilet of the Dead [EDIT: The official title has now been announced as Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead]).  A toast is made to the success of the Sushi Typhoon film launches, and the good times begin.

I have to force myself to look at the screen.  How did things end up like this?  What I thought to be, at worst, a scathing dramatic critique of Japanese gender relations, has somehow become a nightmarish buildup of tension, ultimately reaching  a conclusion that even I find difficult to watch.  The director has built up the suspense masterfully, adding another turn of the screw with each new development.  Eihi Shiina’s performance as Asami Yamazaki is terrifying, yet entrancingly beautiful.  I can’t look away.  My God…this is genius.

8 years later, I find a poster and trailer online for an “outrageous” new film.  Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura…hmm…never heard of him.  The theatrical poster draws me in with its simplicity though…a leggy Japanese heroine with raven-black hair stands proudly in a rather provocative police uniform against what looks to be a post-apocalyptic landscape.  The bold capitalized letters of the title seem to tell me everything I need to know about this film: TOKYO GORE POLICE.  But wait a minute…this woman looks familiar…

Flash forward to 2011…

Asami Yamazaki is sitting next to me.  I can hardly believe it, but the lovely Eihi Shiina, who scarred my teenage mind (in the best way possible) with her portrayal of a vengeance-crazed sadist in Audition, and impressed me with her solid performance as engineer hunter Ruka in Tokyo Gore Police, is elegantly sipping her drink in the seat directly beside me!  Having played a key role in Helldriver, Ms. Shiina is also present for the after-party!

Working up my courage, I manage to blurt out an introduction and explain how I was first exposed to her work, and she responds with a warm smile and a gentle handshake.  When I complement her role in the film as Helldriver’s demented Rikka, mentioning that it was certainly a very different character from the calm and collected Ruka in TGP, she informs me with a wry smile that Mr. Nishimura told her to “act like Asami at the end of Audition…only for the whole movie.”  In fact, fans of Audition may notice a subtle (and somewhat humorous) nod to the film’s final moments in the end of Helldriver.  Throughout the evening I discover that Ms. Shiina is an extremely pleasant conversationalist, discussing her roles, the films of Messrs. Nishimura and Iguchi and their reception domestically and abroad, and her recently hatched plans to become the vocalist of her own band!  Not only that, but it turns out that Ms. Shiina is a huge Neon Genesis Evangelion fan, and as the night wears on and the alcohol continues to flow, we discuss the finer points of the story and its implications, along with our opinions of the latest theatrical releases of the series.  Our interests in anime run even deeper still, sharing a special fondness for director Mamoru Oshii’s early work Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer.  Perhaps I’ve found a kindred spirit?

Spending most of her time in her home prefecture of Fukuoka, Ms. Shiina tells me that she truly values such opportunities to exchange thoughts and opinions in a relaxed and casual atmosphere.  While her work as both a model (originally for Benetton) and actress have gained her international recognition, I can only hope to see more of her performances in the future, in film and on stage.  Ms. Shiina is an elegant, thoughtful, well-spoken, and intelligent lady, and I feel truly honored to have been able to meet her under such circumstances.

As the seats empty and the floor space starts to become increasingly consumed by sleeping cast members exhausted from a long day of film launches, I realize that it is time to leave this unique look into the world of Helldriver.  And so, this concludes my three-part look at the Helldriver launch.  Look forward to information on the upcoming DVD release of the film, and in the meantime, check out Shiina Eihi’s personal web site here:  Eihi Shiina Instrumentality Project ~To Tabris With Love~  She also has a report on the Helldriver launch and after-party in her most recent blog entries (Japanese)!  Until next time, stay out of the sunlight!

Raising Hell: Thoughts on the “Helldriver” Launch – Part Deux

Photo by Norman England

Continuing from my previous post, after hearing Mr. Nishimura’s tales of grueling 300-cut days on the set of his latest splatterific masterpiece, it was time to partake of the gore-soaked, adrenaline-charged thrill ride that is Helldriver.  So grab your favorite rubber ducky, we’re about to jump into a serious bloodbath!

While I was able to discuss Helldriver to a fair extent in my previous report on the Tokyo premiere back in March, a second viewing allowed me to evaluate the film on a more personal and thematic level, and see the depth that lies beneath the surface of this hyperactive tale of carnage and mayhem.  The first and most obvious theme is perhaps the politics, whereby Japan’s government is stymied by a political stalemate over whether the infected humans should be captured and treated medically, or simply exterminated.  Minister of Justice Osawa (Guadalcanal Taka) favors the latter path of annihilation, while Prime Minister Hatoda (Minoru Torihada) seeks rehabilitation of the zombified citizens, much to his regret about midway through the film when he is cannibalized by the very beings he was attempting to protect.  Both characters have been assigned monikers that are not-so-subtle parodies of existing politicians, and the government satire almost hits too close to home, especially considering the eerie resemblance of the film’s plot to Japan’s current situation, with clouds of radiation and polluted foodstuffs replacing Helldriver’s plume of poisonous ash and infected population in Japan’s northern regions.

More interesting to me than the critique on politics (which is, let’s face it, almost too easy considering Japan’s recent political landscape), was the way that the film approaches the topic of family.  Woven throughout the story are various plot threads involving familial ties.  Taku (Yurei Yanagi) takes care of orphans in the memory of his departed father, while one of those orphans, Nanashi (Mizuki Kusumi) searches for his lost sister.  Newly included scenes of the always wonderful pair of Asami and Takumi Saito in their roles as “hyper-police” also show a tragic story of siblings facing impossible odds, and a Catholic priest (Kanji Tsuda) offers sanctuary and shelter to the “afflicted” relatives of families who aren’t quite prepared to be separated from their dearly departed. And, of course, the overarching plot revolves around Kika (Yumiko Hara), her sadistic mother Rikka (played by the lovely Eihi Shiina), and her equally insane uncle Yasushi (Kentaro Kishi).  Rikka incessantly reminds her daughter (while killing and eating the flesh of her own husband) that she only exists because of her, and thus is her possession.  The megalomaniacal mother-turned-zombie-queen even goes so far as to tear her daughter’s own beating heart out of her chest to replace her own, insisting that it was her belonging to begin with.

Superseding the various other plot threads, the climax of the film sees an enraged Kika crying out to have her life, her father, and her heart returned, her repetition eventually devolving into a furious chant of “Mine, mine, mine!”  The “like mother, like daughter” irony of the film’s closing casts a shadow over the otherwise fairly upbeat conclusion, and the depth of the relationships explored throughout the film certainly made a repeat viewing more than worthwhile.

So what was different about this new “extended” version?  Well, aside from the aforementioned Asami/Takumi Saito mini-arc and priest storyline, the film also contained an extended scene featuring the capture and subsequent devouring of Nanashi’s school uniform-clad younger sister (played by adult video actress Rui Saotome).  Tied down in a chair, the girl is surrounded by devilishly leering zombies and, in a somewhat disturbing scene, has her shirt torn open and both nipples bitten off a la Castle Freak.  While the unrealistic torrents of blood that gush from her ample breasts are not likely to offend the sensibilities of the film’s target demographic, and the actress herself was 22 at the time, the people at Sushi Typhoon probably thought it wise to omit this particular portion of the schoolgirl cannibal show in the film’s international version.

Some of you might remember the rant in my first review, where I expressed a few gripes about the pacing of the film and the way in which some of the action sequences seemed to drag on a bit too long.  Well, Mr. Nishimura provided an astute and eye-opening statement during the introduction to the film, where he essentially said that he “wanted to create a film that will tire foreign audiences out.”  In other words, he wished to test the limits of viewers in their craving for outrageous action and over-the-top gore, and I truly believe that the director has indeed pushed the boundaries in this particular area.  Recalling his phrase, I was able to enjoy the lengthy scenes more than the last time, although I still have my issues with the race across the Hokkaido landscape.  You can read my previous report for details, but while I still find the discombobulated settings and background images a bit distracting from the action itself, I managed to immerse myself in the scene and enjoy the zany, bloody hijinks for what they were.  Overall, I enjoyed Helldriver even more the second time around, having a bloody good time and becoming even more excited to see what Mr. Nishimura and his crew will be churning out next!

So there you have it, my impressions of Helldriver in its original gut-wrenching glory.  Watch out for a DVD release (and see me in the extras!), hopefully before the end of this year.  And if you’re in or around Tokyo, then what are you waiting for?  Get caught up in the Sushi Typhoon!

Stay tuned for part three, when I will be giving a more personal account of the Helldriver premiere after-party with the cast and crew!