For the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies Italian Horror Blog-a-thon, tonight I dig into Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi / The Gates of Hell).
After a priest makes nice with a tight noose, the quaint out-of-the-way town of Dunwich becomes the cornerstone of the opening gates of hell set forth from the words of an ancient curse. That is unless a gruff reporter (Peter, Christopher George) and psychic (Mary, Catriona MacColl) who witnesses the graveyard hanging in visions during a séance can stop the creaking doorway from bursting completely open condemning all mankind. As they travel to find Dunwich, the priest begins giving its citizenry the intestine-laded dry heaves and those pesky undead start springing up. Will Paul and Mary (where's Peter?) succeed in time and more importantly why can't the barflies in Junie's Lounge stop shitting themselves over cracked mirrors and just enjoy their Schlitz?
This film is the first in il maestro's pseudo-trilogy that continued the following year with both The Beyond (L'aldilà) and The House by the Cemetery (Quella villa accanto al cimitero). Each of these features can be likened to macabre snowglobes that Fulci vigorously shakes before our transfixed eyes. The fluttering pieces of zombie and gore splat settle to varying coherence but each beautiful all the same. If you're searching for a stopgap between the director's gory glory days and his latter nadir-- City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi) is where it's at.
The Gates of Hell is squarely focused on the fear of death itself, as opposed to Beyond and House centering on the unknown afterlife and childhood trauma respectively. Though Fulci pretty much lays it all on the table with Gates and it's difficult to dig into any metaphor, symbolism, or even really much of a linear plot amongst all the squishy occipital lobe death grips. Also, it's unwise to expect a literal city inhabited by the dead, once the story gets to the brass tax we're talking about a localized rural township of the living dead at best. These potential issues to some are easily forgivable as Gates has more dire fog-smothered atmosphere than a dozen lesser horror efforts and a very game cast not afraid to spill their guts via their mouths, embrace the maggoty wind, or go into the armpit of the world to chase galloping cadavers.
Christopher George as our leading man has that attitude that tells you to fuck off while blatantly smiling to your face no matter his mood. The then veteran actor with two first names was in the twilight of his career, finding work in a number of notable cult items (Pieces, The Exterminator, Graduation Day, Mortuary) shortly before his death in 1983, but does enough rugged scenery chew and visage stubble muggery to not make it seem he's merely there for the bank. Catriona MacColl, Fulci's favorite (well, most tolerable) actress, essentially plays the same approachable character here as in Beyond and House. Her portrayal of Mary comes off as an intrepid burden for Peter's stubbornness on a quest that's more hers than his. Despite their failure meaning the end of the world; Peter is more concerned with his next cigar while staring into Mary's coy lashes as Dunwich's residents befall to the creeping terror of the purple-faced priest.
Poor Giovanni Lombardo Radice, the often cited whipping boy of Italo Horror, continues to receive the gore-end of the stick in Gates as the dimwitted Bob. Overzealous Dunwichians soon peg this dirty white boy for the recent tight t-shirt girl killings and he soon finds his head sliding along the ways of a buzzing lathe with drill-in-chuck. For all we know, Bob dies a virgin not only to the real thing, but also to the plastic blow-up variety that magically inflates simply my throwing the pink penile tarp on the floor. Wish mine had the feature, dammit!
Rounding out the important minors, Janet Agren shows up as Sandra, a townie whackjob who finds psychiatric assistance after pondering the chromosome damage of incest and painting triceratops profiles over water. Carlo De Mejo seems to never blink his glassy marbles as Gerry the psychiatrist and nails being a lanky American nerd-type that's as boring as milktoast. Fulci himself appears in a cameo as a detective investigating the mysterious frightened-to-death murders.
Fulci employs his zombies to interesting effect in Gates. Along with the priest, the handful of shamblers compromised of his victims don't seem too concerned with consuming the living. Despite one quick flesh-eating aftermath shot, Fulci conveys the horror of simply seeing a decayed body and this is a major component to what makes the walking dead so terrifying lost in many other horror outings of this type. FX guru Gino De Rossi and Franco Rufini only heighten their director's intentions by making the zombies look pan seared in sheep guts, rotten scrambled eggs, and funky greasepaint. Did I mention the rotted ones can suddenly vanish, apparently bend spacetime, and reappear to further frighten and chase their living prey?
Yes, The Gates of Hell makes little sense when taken logically (don't even think about the meaning behind the final frames), but the elements detailed above combine to make a thunderous explosion of all things ghoulishly revolting with that distinct Italiano favoring featuring several of Lucio's best fantastically edited showstoppers throughout. You'll also remember Fabio Frizzi's perfectly nightmarish spare beats, moaning guitar, and piano strikes whenever you find yourself walking at night. With this film and its brethren in Fulci's cannon, the late goremeister helped greatly in defining just what Italian horror mavens were capable of when not dawning the black glove, flipping through yellow novellas, or exploiting indigenous jungle civilizations. Watch this in pitch black with the sound cranked.