City of the Living Dead [a.k.a. The Gates of Hell] (1980)

Lucio Fulci

Christopher George - Peter Bell
Catriona MacColl - Mary Woodhouse

Carlo De Mejo - Gerry
Interlenghi - Emily Robbins
Giovanni Lombardo Radice - Bob

Fabrizio Jovine - Father William Thoma
Janet Agren - Sandra

Michele Soavi - Tommy Fisher

Luca Venantini - John-John Robbins

Adelaide Aste - Theresa

Genre - Horror/Zombies

Running Time - 92 Minutes

In the history of Full Moon Reviews, I've discussed multiple genres, sub-genres, and the filmmakers who brought them to life. Alfred Hitchcock. Wes Craven. John Carpenter. George A. Romero. Dario Argento. Mario Bava. The list can go on and on. But there's one director I haven't discussed or even mentioned much, if at all, on this blog. And that man is Lucio Fulci.

Lucio Fulci has a huge fanbase due to his work on such films as ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND, THE NEW YORK RIPPER, and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING. While a lot of snobs consider Fulci to be a B-level director, his bizarre narratives and his constant use of gore are hit with genre fans who love grindhouse and drive-in cinema. Fulci may have never been the best director in Italy or anywhere else during his career, but he would always bring something memorable in each of his films, good or bad, leaving an impression on those who took the time to seek out his movies and watch them. While I'm not a true die hard like some of my friends, I do respect and appreciate the man and his work.

It's really quite a surprise that it took me this long to finally review a Fulci film, but better late than never I say. And for the first Fulci review on this blog, I picked one of the man's classic films - CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD or THE GATES OF HELL. Considered to be one of Fulci's best films, this trippy zombie film would be the first unofficial installment of Fulci's Gates of Hell trilogy which also includes THE BEYOND and THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. First or not, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is a very interesting flick that entertains you while making you scratch your head at the same time.

Psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) watches a priest (Luciano Rossi) hang himself in a graveyard in the town of Dunwich [great H.P. Lovecraft reference] during a late night seance. Mary senses that the priest's suicide will cause the dead to rise from their graves. The visions are so intense that she has convulsions until dying of fright minutes later. The police show up and ask Mary's psychic friends [who would obviously leave Mary for Dionne Warwick years later] about what happened, refusing to believe the story they're given about Mary and her visions. Only a New York reporter named Peter Bell (Christopher George) takes an interest in the story, going to Mary's grave to find some answers about her death. As he walks away, Peter learns that Mary is still alive and trying to claw her way out of her coffin. Peter destroys the coffin with a pick-axe, saving Mary in the process.

Feeling like she now owes Peter her life, she lets him in on her visions about the suicidal father who just opened the Gates of Hell, which will create a City of the Dead on All Saints Day that will destroy humankind. Feeling that finding the priest's grave could help stop Hell from unleashing, Peter and Mary head to Dunwich. There, they meet up with its residents Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and Sandra (Janet Agren), who inform them that strange things are happening in their town. Realizing that the zombies are gaining a strong foothold in Dunwich, the four of them must uncover the mystery before it's too late.

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is one of those zombie flicks that divides an audience. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Others enjoy the film but don't really understand why. It's pretty to see why each side feels the way they do. Lucio Fulci has crafted a story with an illogical narrative, bizarre direction, and gore that will disgust those with weak stomachs. Even with those things, I still get quite a kick out of this weird zombie film. Maybe it's the fact that it's Italian, I dunno. But CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is a cool flick, flaws or not. Still, it should be a lot better than it actually is.

Discussing the narrative in a Lucio Fulci film is like discussing calculus with Snooki of the Jersey Shore - probably a waste of time. It's a task to dissect Fulci's screenplay in a logical, rational way since it's neither. Things aren't explained, zombies teleport when they shouldn't be, and plot holes are abundant. But that's the thing when it comes to Fulci - the story isn't supposed to make sense. In fact, it's to appear as one giant nightmare made of images and moments that are meant to disturb viewers, with other scenes used to sort of keep these moments flow together and balanced. So to really complain why certain characters do what they do and why this situation is happening the way it does is pretty moot. Do dreams and nightmares follow a logical narrative? Most of them do not. And that's what Fulci is trying to visualize, like he does in CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD.

That being said though, I do have issues with the film. For one, I still don't get how this certain priest's suicide can open up the Gates of Hell and unleash an army of the dead. Now the suicide could represent one's decision to separate himself from the norms of society and morals of religion. The priest's rejection of God and Christianity opens up these Gates, which could represent an opposition to these rules that religion places upon people. There are so many things against our religious beliefs, such as science and other spiritual thoughts, that contradict what we're taught to believe. Is that what the Gates of Hell is being used for here - a different way to view the world that goes against that comfort zone of religion that creates chaos and disorder in people's lives? Or is this all just mumbo jumbo for horror's sake? An explanation would be nice.

Also, why are these zombies teleporting so damn much? I had no idea the dead even had that kind of power. One even teleported like twelve times in a single shot for no reason! It was kind of funny that they were doing that, but again - an explanation would be nice. However, I do appreciate that these zombies are different from those we're accustomed to. They don't shuffle their feet and eat brains. They like to mind fuck their victims and scare the hell out of them. The priest, in particular, is awesome as he shows himself hanging but then teleports himself piece by piece just to scare others. These zombies are evil and I liked that aspect a lot.

Back to the issues - what about those embalming techniques that manages to brings hot women to life inside their coffins? Yeah, I won't be sending anybody I care about to that funeral home any time soon. How does a funeral home NOT embalm the dead? That's part of their job! It's not realistic even by dream and nightmare standards. It leads to a great scene where Peter has to save Mary from suffocating in that coffin while trying not to accidentally kill her with a pick-axe to her frightened face, but that's just lazy screenwriting there. Funny, but lazy.

Also, when do people drill murder suspects in the head when there's no evidence that they've done anything wrong? Speaking of which, what was that subplot with Bob really about? I'm sure Bob was meant to represent something, but I couldn't figure it out for the life of me. How come Dunwich is hard to find when it's in Salem, Massachusetts [or built on the "ruins of Salem(???)"]? Why are blow up dolls inflating on their own? How did Mary die and then suddenly come back to life? How does she know so much about the Gates of Hell? I know I'm asking too many questions for a Fulci film, but there's gotta be some sort of logic here! These things don't hurt the film all that much, but those questions do nag at me.

Unfortunately, the worst [and unforgiving] part of the film for me is the very end. Now I don't blame Fulci for this because the reason this ending exists isn't entirely his fault. Apparently, Fulci shot a much better ending, but I guess his editor or someone in the crew spilled coffee on it or something. Since he couldn't reshoot the ending due to time constraints, Fulci had to make due with what he had. It's a shame because the final act of the film is really quite great and has a lot of tension and suspense. Then you get to the "twist ending" and it just falls flat. I won't spoil what it implies, but I read the explanation somewhere and it just made me laugh. No way could I have gotten its meaning from what I saw! Man, I would love to have seen the true ending because the current one is just a mind boggler.

Like I mentioned, Fulci is more concerned with creating disgusting, yet memorable, moments in his films. CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD doesn't hold back on these moments, due to cool FX work by Gino de Rossi. The zombie make up looks okay, but nothing spectacular really. I thought Emily looked the best out of all of them really. The bleeding eyes and the crushing of scalps to ooze out brain matter are good. But then you have the two sequences that truly make CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD a zombie classic. One is the girl vomiting her intestines out. Boy, this scene is so damn disturbing and disgusting, yet it's visually awesome at the same time. Apparently Daniela Doria vomited sheep entrails to make this effect happen. Gross! The other FX moment is the drill scene to poor Bob. Mean-spirited, sure - but it's a visual highlight. We also have a scene where maggots just drop on to the characters, getting into any orifices they can find. The gore in this film is pretty insane on the eyes, but it makes CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD stand out most other zombie films.

Speaking of what else works in CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is the atmosphere and mood that Fulci infuses the film with. Dunwich is a really creepy, bleak town. It's windier than Chicago. The colors pop, with hues of red and blue lighting up scenes, especially at night. It really sets a creepy feel that keeps you watching. The editing is a bit wonky and the picture looks better than average. And like a lot of horror directors, Fulci loves focusing on the eyes of his actors. And when I mean focus, I mean ZOOMING IN each time on a character's eyes whenever they appear on screen. It's kind of annoying at first, but you find it somewhat charming and oddly stylish as the film rolls on. He does this during gore effects as well, but those shots are more effective. No ocular violence here though, which is one of Fulci's trademarks. Sure some eyes bleed, but that's tame compared to stuff like in ZOMBIE [damn splinter]. The direction is what you would expect from Lucio Fulci, which makes it more than alright with me.

The music by Fabio Frizzi is actually quite good. It sounds a bit like Goblin since it's a gothic synth-heavy score and manages to make simple scenes more dramatic and moody. This definitely works during the final act of the film, where the music is truly effective. However like I mentioned earlier, the editing is really wonky and sometimes ruins what the score is trying to do. Sometimes you'd get a scene where Frizzi's score is creating magic, but the edit into the next scene has no music, creating a jarring effect. And it doesn't feel natural, since the music stopping is so abrupt in the next scene. Great score but the editing kind of hindered it for me.

The acting is okay in CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. Catriona MacColl stars in her first [of three] Fulci film here as Mary and does a very good job in the role. She holds her own with the rest of the cast and she's very easy on the eyes as well. Christopher George was probably my favorite as Peter. He's such a ham on camera and a smug bastard with his cigar that he's awesome. I liked him a lot. Carlo De Mejo as Gerry was very cool as well. His beard was more impressive though. Damn I wish I could grow mine out like that. Fabrizio Jovine was creepy as the late Father Thomas. If I ever saw him staring at me from afar, I'd wouldn't hesitate to run. Giovanni Lombardo Rodice is very good as Bob. I didn't understand his story arc or what it was supposed to mean, but I liked his performance. He takes a drill to the head quite well. And future Italian director, Michele Soavi [who would direct 1987's STAGE FRIGHT, 1989's THE CHURCH, and 1994's CEMETERY MAN aka DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE] has a cameo as the boyfriend to the girl who pukes her intestines out. Cool cast and the dubbing wasn't all that badly done either.


- Father Thomas decided to hang himself outside in a cemetery. I guess all his altar boys all hit puberty. It's like dealing with members of Menudo, only except I want to hang myself because they exist.

- Bob was about to have fun with a blow up doll until he saw something disturbing nearby. I don't know about him, but what disturbed me is that the blow up doll had more real parts than Meg Ryan's face. Geez, no wonder Tom Hanks was SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE!

- Patrons at a bar ran away when one of the walls mysteriously cracked on its own. I don't blame them. The only walls I want to see cracked are the ones made of sugar. And I have just the tool to fill the crack in...

- After seeing Father Thomas stare at her, Rosie's eyes bled while she vomited out her intestines. Someone took to auditioning for America's Next Top Model a bit too seriously.

- Don't be a graverobber. The only thing that's gonna be stolen is your life. See also: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II, GRAVEROBBERS, and FRANKENSTEIN.

It's hard to review a film like CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. While it's no THE BEYOND or even ZOMBIE [you should see those two films before watching this one seriously as a great intro to Fulci's work], it's still a very good, entertaining film with great gore and good direction [other than the editing] and acting. While I appreciate the nightmarish presentation that Lucio Fulci is known for, I do think the narrative could have been a bit stronger. Even so, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD has enough mood, atmosphere, and grue that will satisfy horror fans. It's one of those films that is what it is and you have to take it for what it's worth. It may not be perfect, but at least it's somewhat original and unpredictable, even if it falls apart right at the end. It's definitely worth a watch if you haven't yet seen it. Just keep logic and rationality out the door first before doing so.

3.5 Howls Outta 4


  1. Watching his movies, have you ever got the feeling that Fulci had an eye-fetish or something? When not pointing the camera at them, he's mutilating them as much as Argento mutilated throats!
    As for the ending, it proves the unassailable evil of children! Haha! (Which still has NOTHING to do with this movie)
    Did you think that the theme sounded similar to the one for Zombi 2? That's what I thought first hearing it, I guess it's because they had the same main composer.

  2. I think a lot of Italian directors had an eye fetish. Hell, so did Hitchcock. It's because the eyes are our windows and we're vulnerable without them. Humans are naturally visual, so violence on eyes tends to disturb us more than anything else.

    Yeah, what about that ending? When I read that's what it was supposed to be, I was like WTF? Maybe if the full ending wasn't damaged, it would have come across better. Still, how was that aspect of the film even possible when he was protected the whole time? My brain is starting to hurt...

    As for the score, it's commonly known that it was deliberately done to sound as close to ZOMBIE/ZOMBI 2 as possible. I think ZOMBI 2's score is better, but I like both.

  3. Funn you guys mentioned the eye fetish, it's a recurring theme in Italian horror films isn't it.

    Great write up as always Fred, film was pretty fresh in my mind as I'd just watched it a few weeks back.

    The story make no sense and the ending, well what can we say. I did enjoy his visuals and the general psychedelic feel the whole thing has even though it's nowhere near The Beyond.

  4. Nice review! Personally speaking City is a much better film than Zombie, if only from a pacing point.
    I've rewatched this one multiple times. I love it, but the The Beyond remains Fulci's finest hr, bar none.

  5. @Daniel - Yeah, I think a lot of horror directors enjoy focusing on eyes. They tell a lot during a scene. As for the story, it doesn't make sense but at least the moments within it are memorable and entertaining. It definitely feels like a mild acid trip/bad dream. THE BEYOND is definitely the full dosage though - happens to be my favorite Fulci film as well.

    @Gio - I think you're right about the pacing. But ZOMBIE was my first Fulci so I tend to like it above his other work besides THE BEYOND.


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