FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

May 25, 2010

Film Club: City of the Living Dead

As I think back on Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead (aka The Gates of Hell), I wonder at my own weird prejudices- like, why am I so quick to give Italian horror films a break? Whenever a plot is thinner than wafer-thin, or nothing really makes sense, I just shrug and give it a "Yeah, but it's Italian so it it's okay!" Hmm. Maybe I should clarify: I give a pass to directors like Fulci and Dario Argento. Sometimes their films have no logic to them whatsoever, but even so they're evocative. I'm willing to go hungry on the story if I get all full on feelings and frights, you know?

City of the Living Dead is a prime example of this. Here's what happens, as best as I could figure: Father Thomas hangs himself in a cemetery in Dunwich, which was built on ground that was originally part of Salem. His suicide opens the gates of Hell. A psychic (Catriona MacColl) realizes that stuff is hinky, and she knows that the gates must be closed by All Saints' Day (which is totally coming up soon!) or the dead will walk the Earth. She enlists the aid of a reporter (Christopher George) and together they seek to destroy the body of Father Thomas. They don't manage to do it in time, but it kind of doesn't matter. Or does it?

That "or does it?" comes courtesy of that ending which...was vague and weird and made no sense and felt like it happened spontaneously in the editing bay.

I don't know, I guess if my interpretation is right then it's not that nonsensical. But as the film was passing in front of my eyeballs, it seemed incredibly disjointed- characters come and go and get their brains ripped out and I never felt like I knew who was who...nor did I much care.

But see? I was okay with that because there was so much weirdness going on. Who needs character development when you've got drills going through faces (so gross) and rooms full of maggots (SO GROSS) and people puking up their insides (SO GROSS)? I'm torn regarding my allowances with City of the Living Dead: is it okay to cut it this much slack?

I'm not giving it a total pass, mind you. It was entertaining (and so fucking GROSS), but it's no The Beyond- aside from the TOTAL GROSSNESS of it (have I mentioned how gross it is?), I don't think it'll resonate in my brain for all that long.

It was certainly creepy, though, but that may simply be my weird weakness to Italian flicks (especially the zombie variety) coming into play. There's something about them that makes me incredibly uncomfortable and puts me in a permanent willies-state. I can't really explain it- it's a combination of the music and the dubbing and the anything can happen-ness and the graphic, unrelenting violence and the way characters in Italian horror films seem to simply stare at the oncoming threat until it attacks them...all of it automatically induces goosebumps. I had them before the credits of City of the Living Dead stopped rolling. As I said, though, that's probably just my weird neurosis- your mileage may vary.

I think I'll continue to feel torn about City until...I don't know, until I stop thinking about it, I guess (profound, I know). It did make me nostalgic for the good ol' zombie days, though- where the gates of Hell opening and unleashing walking corpses upon the Earth is kind of a big fucking deal; in this day of virus-riddled notzombies and no one ever rising out of the ground anymore, the undead have lost their otherness. Their otherness and their GD scariness. Too many satirical takes on the genre have sort of neutered them, made them essentially just like us, but stinkier- you know, what if zombies had jobs? What if we used them as laborers? Meh. Give me the rotting, shambling (and TELEPORTING!) variety any day. As torn as I remain, I'll take City of the Living Dead over Day of the Dead 2. I know, that's a big NO EFFING DUH.

Film Club Coolies, y'all!
Nilbog Milk
The Vault of Horror
Less Than 3 Film
Cinema Suicide
Things That Don't Suck
The Hougly Film and Beer Journal
In One Ear...
From Midnight, With Love
emma blackwood
Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
The House of Sparrows
Mondo Bizarro
Aphorisms and Ectoplasm (it's gif-a-riffic!!)
Fear on Friday (first timer!)
Moon in the Gutter
Pussy Goes Grrr


Jon Roberson said...

While there are a few good effects like the drill in the head, vomiting inside out,and the crushing of the skulls even though it's obvious they got someone else to be the hand. I was disappointed with this film. Maybe I expected too much but come on it's lucio fulci, it's supposed to be too much.

Anonymous said...

Great post - I've been soaking up the Italian horror films a lot myself lately.

"the way characters in Italian horror films seem to simply stare at the oncoming threat until it attacks them"

There's something to this, particularly w. Fulci. For me, the difference between the way Argento tackles the violence and the way Fulci captures it is this: Argento gives us savagery - it's quick, it's fast, and it's really often quite shocking. But Fulci wants to really stretch out our anticipation, build to the inevitable moment when the character is impaled/penetrated/etc. So we get these shots that linger, with steady, dead camera placement - and cuts between the victim and the encroaching doom (the drill/eye bit in City is almost comical in how long it gets stretched out - like he was trying to one-up his splinter/eye scene in Zombi 2).
It's the difference between shock and dread. Fulci specializes in evoking that helpless dread. At least, that's how I see it.

Also, there's something so...dirty about the Italian horror films. It's this feeling of gritty sleaziness that just oozes from every frame. I get some of that feeling from the Spaghetti Westerns too. It's all big pores and stern voices.

Stacie Ponder said...

You're spot on about shock vs dread, I think. There's a buncha Argento lovers over on my Facebook talking about how he's soooo much better than Fulci. I think they're too different to really compare.

Ah, sleaze.

Anonymous said...

They are different. It's hard to argue that Argento ISN'T more technically competent than Fulci, even taking into account Fulci's better works against Argento's weaker efforts.
Having said that, I've been FAR more unsettled and disturbed by the imagery in Fulci's horror films. You touch on a lot of it in your post - just how weird and random it all feels - it's like being held prisoner in someone else's nightmare.
Susperia is my favorite horror film, but there's no question The Beyond is more creepy, by far - especially when you're watching it alone in the middle of the night.

beedubelhue said...

Italians rule...or so I hear.Great job,Ponder.


B-Sol said...

"It did make me nostalgic for the good ol' zombie days, though- where the gates of Hell opening and unleashing walking corpses upon the Earth is kind of a big fucking deal; in this day of virus-riddled notzombies and no one ever rising out of the ground anymore, the undead have lost their otherness. Their otherness and their GD scariness."

Bravo, Stacie. Bravo.

Liam [Less Than Three Film] said...

Italian horror does have this slow burning quality about it. Admittedly I've only dabbled, but the appeal of the whole giallo genre is completely lost on me.

You're right in comparing City of the Living Dead to nowadays zombie flicks though, their quality is lost due to trying to ram social commentary down our throats. I just would have personally preferred it if it was a little more coherent - not a great deal, just less head-scratching "uhmm i THINK this is what's happening..." would have been nice.

Anonymous said...

I share your "torn-ness." I mean, I really do cut a lot of Italian films slack-yet at the same time I will go off on how incoherent they are. But to me, that is part of what makes me watch. Sitting there asking "What the hell is going on?!"

And I am sorry, after Mother of Tears? Argento doesn't get a full pass anymore. Even by Italian standards that was terrible.

CWL said...

Great review! I've sort of learned to appreciate horror that doesn't explain ANYTHING, as it's almost always more interesting and entertaining than horror that tries to fill in all the blanks. If there were a City of the Living Dead Part 5, it would almost certainly have some convoluted subplot about Druid symbols or extraterrestrial/government collusion. Or just sent everybody to cry blood in space!

Which would admittedly be off the hook, but I like the sense that the Italians settled on the title and the poster, then wrote the script between brunch and lunch. It's laudable in a punkrawk/grindhouse-y kind of way.

Thomas Duke said...

If you stare at a zombie priest, and you vomit up all of your internal organs, what happens when you stare at a ZOMBIE NUN?? Or, God forbid, an undead pope? An Archdiocese risen from the dead? I guess my question is, how do you one up vomiting up all of your insides? Maybe your skin melts off, and then your nerve endings catch fire. Either way, its still a pretty bad ass superpower.

scarina said...

I'm so disappointed in myself that I forgot to Netflix this in time that I'm going to sit in the corner and think about what I did.
I really kind of love the nonsensicalness of Italian zombie movies and I don't know why. I normally wouldn't tolerate the suspension of logic but it seems to be ok in movies where there are sharks v. divers v. zombies
I still need to see "The Beyond," I've only seen the very butchered version of it called "Seven Doors of Death."

Kevin J. Olson said...

Enjoying the discussion here. My random, nonsensical (see what I did there) two cents:

What's even more interesting is when you compare Pre-Zombi 2 Fulci with post-Zombi 2 Fulci. I actually think his early gialli -- specifically Don't Torture a Duckling and Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes -- are more impressive films than his later, ethereal mindfucks...even though I would pop in a DVD of the latter more than the former.

Fulci's early stuff was legit, and better than what Argento was doing, but once Argento set the standard for nonsensical Italian horror no one could touch him, not even Fulci. I mean Fulci did have flesh eating spiders and a zombie wrestle a shark, but he never had a scalpel wielding chimpanzee!

Oh, and great review as always, Stacie!

Kensington said...

I'm sorry, but what in the leaping hell does that ending mean?

RJ Battles said...

Great review.

I liked what I saw of it but didn't have enough to say about it so I'm sitting this one out.

May I make a suggestion for a future Final Girl Film Club movie?

"Amityville II: The Possesion".

I know it was a past selection and it didn't work out so well, but it's a good movie and I think you'll really like it.

Nick Mullins said...

The Beyond is definitely the best, but this film has some great moments. One thing that both films share, which you mention, is that everyone in them seems so distracted. They don't give into histrionics at the drop of a hat like the characters in American horror movies do. It's like they're thinking about their grocery lists more than the fact that zombies are about to squish the brains out of their heads. And they're all good looking. That helps.

Also, I assume that this is where the creators of the Silent Hill video game got the whole weeping blood thing. Though in the game the scene where Lisa starts weeping blood isn't just creepy; it's also very sad.

Bryan said...

I was "lucky" to see this in a cool old theater uncut, then it returned, but cut, another story. Yeah it makes no sense but it is entertaining. Filmed partly in Savannah as I understand the sitch by way of my very first Fangoria! Which made me wanna see it and never expect to in my small town, but there it was. Oh wow I just recalled I saw House by the Cemetery at the Rocking Chair theater across town. Weird.

Zane Grant said...

I watched this movie on my computer on a bus... and I always wonder if the person next to me thinks I'm a creep for watching gore-filled movies in public. Anyway, someone told me that Fulci made an increasingly conscious effort to abandon cohesive narrative over the years. I thought this article on him was interesting: