“The soul that pines for eternity shall outspan death.”
The first and, as far as I know, generally regarded as the least of Fulci’s unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy, City of the Living Dead might nonetheless be my favorite of the bunch. (It’s been way too long since I last saw The Beyond, so grain of salt there.) In some ways, City of the Living Dead is largely representative of Italian horror from this era, in that it is pretty much all vibes, barely held together by Fulci’s signature grue, Fabio Frizzi’s pulsating score, and the loosest sketch of a plot.
In this case, that plot involves the suicide-by-hanging of a priest, which kicks open the aforementioned gates of hell and causes the dead to rise from their graves in the isolated little New England town of Dunwich. A town that, we are told, was built on “the original Salem” – an assertion that I imagine the real Salem would take some umbrage with.
From there, the film is mostly just a lengthy series of odd, inexplicable, and grisly goings-on in the town, while a reporter and a psychic (Christopher George and Catriona McCall, respectively) try to find their way to Dunwich before All Saint’s Day, when the portal will become open for good.
The Lovecraft Connection
According to Wikipedia, quoting from Roberto Curti’s Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1980-1989, Fulci’s co-writer Dardano Sacchetti “noted that Fulci had just reread Lovecraft before working on the film’s script, stating he wanted to re-create a Lovecraftian atmosphere.”
While we can debate the success of that “Lovecraftian atmosphere,” the inspiration is obvious, especially in the town’s name, which will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the Old Gent from Providence. On a recent episode of the Horror Pod Class, we talked a bit about the history of Lovecraftian cinema, starting with the first official adaptation of his work, Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace from 1963.
That film was an actual adaptation of Lovecraft’s only novel (depending on how you count), but many of the movies that were inspired by the author’s work have more in common with City of the Living Dead – sampling some atmosphere and mood, making up a fictional scary book, and throwing in a name or two, but that’s about it.
It’s a time-honored approach. You could argue that it goes back at least as far as some of the Universal Mummy sequels of the ‘40s, which feature the cult of “Arkam,” and it was certainly practiced by John Carpenter long before In the Mouth of Madness, when he tossed Lovecraftian names into decidedly non-Lovecraftian movies, such as the “Arkham Towers” apartment complex in Someone’s Watching Me! or “Arkham Reef” and “Whateley” in The Fog.
Opening the Gates of Hell
I mention John Carpenter for a reason, and it’s not just because there’s never really a bad excuse to mention John Carpenter. As I said before, City of the Living Dead is regarded as the first installment of Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. For those who aren’t familiar, this is a little like Carpenter’s “Apocalypse” trilogy, which consists of The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness – movies made across more than a decade, with pretty much nothing in common save themes and a director.
The same is largely true of the “Gates of Hell,” though they were at least released much more closely together. In fact, City of the Living Dead came out in 1980, while both The Beyond and House by the Cemetery were released the following year. All three are directed by Fulci, all three star Catriona McCall (playing different characters each time), and all three share a distinct vibe. In his book The Second Century of Cinema, Wheeler Dixon described The Beyond by writing that the “slight framing narrative is merely the excuse for Fulci to stage a series of macabre, distressing set pieces,” words that could just as easily be applied to City or House.
Released in Italian as Fear in the City of the Living Dead and sometimes just as The Gates of Hell, City of the Living Dead may at times feel like a practice run for The Beyond and some of Fulci’s other, more celebrated films, but it also boasts plenty of its own eerie power. From some of the maestro’s most upsetting gore sequences – one in which a woman vomits up her own organs is legendary – to uncanny lighting, ominous wind, and plenty of moldy corpses, there’s more than enough suggestion and substance in the film to keep any fan of the director’s work going.
Comparing Apples to Worm-Eaten Apples
Like a lot of Italian horror from this era, City of the Living Dead has had a complicated and storied release history on home video. For this review, I watched the most recent 4K Ultra HD release from Cauldron Films, which comes with both the Italian and English versions of the movie, on both Blu-ray and 4K UHD discs, not to mention a raft of bonus features including some four commentary tracks.
It should come as no surprise that Fulci’s film looks and sounds fantastic in 4K. The risen dead and rancid gore are as putrid as ever, and Fabio Frizzi’s fantastic score booms from the speakers. The question is, of course, is there anything here to justify a double-dip, if one is already in possession of, for example, the similarly features-stacked Region-B Blu-ray put out by Arrow Video a few years back?
The answer, of course, is that it depends on what you’re looking for, as always. Mostly, though, fans will have either made up their mind or not before they ever get to this point, and the real appeal of a release like this is having the film readily available in a handsome and collectible edition, whether you’re replacing an old version or watching this grisly masterpiece for the first time.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.