In New York City, a group of people sit around a table, holding a seance. One of them, a woman named Mary (Catriona MacColl) has a vision. She sees a sickly, hollow-cheeked priest walking through a cemetery. She watches as he hangs himself and, as the priest dangles from a tree branch, Mary lets out a piercing scream and collapses to the floor. The police are called and they promptly declare that Mary has died. Later, while a hard-boiled reporter named Peter Bell (Christopher George) watches as two grave-diggers walk away from her half-buried coffin, he hears something coming from the grave. From insider her coffin, Mary is screaming and struggling to get out!
Peter grabs a pickax and smashes it down into the coffin. Peter may be trying to free her but what he doesn’t realize is that, with each blow of the pickax, he comes dangerously close to hitting Mary in the face. Somehow, Peter manages to avoid killing Mary. Once he gets her out of the coffin, Peter and Mary go and see a medium to try to figure out the meaning behind Mary’s previous vision.
What they don’t discuss is why or, for that matter, how everyone was convinced that Mary was dead for at least a day or two. Mary doesn’t mention that Peter nearly killed her with the pickax. In fact, for two people who have just met under the strangest and most disturbing of circumstances, Peter and Mary seem to be getting along famously. For that matter, they don’t appear to be too surprised when the medium informs them Mary’s vision indicated that the dead will soon be entering the world of the living.
And so begins Lucio Fulci’s wonderfully odd and surreal City of the Living Dead. Reading the paragraphs above, you might think that I was criticizing City of the Living Dead but nothing could be further from the truth. From the start, Fulci establishes that City of the Living Dead is going to fully embrace its own unique aesthetic.
The majority of City of the Living Dead takes place in a small town with the name of Dunwich, a name that immediately (and, I believe, intentionally) brings to mind the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. Dunwich is a town that always seems to be covered in fog. At the local bar, men talk about the recent suicide of Father Thomas and they discuss what to do about Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), who the majority of them believe to be a a pervert. Meanwhile, Bob comes across an inflatable sex doll in a deserted warehouse and, for the most part, just tries to stay out of everyone’s way.
(Bob was one of Radice’s first roles and, along with his turn as David Hess’s sidekick in The House On The Edge of the Park, the one that many fans of Italian horror continue to associate him with. It’s a testament to Radice’s talent that he could make even a creepy character like Bob sympathetic.)
Even without the presence of the living dead, Dunwich doesn’t seem like the ideal place to live. A greedy morgue attendant attempts to steal a dead woman’s jewelry. A psychiatrist named Gerry (Carlo de Mejo) struggles to calm the nerves of his patient, Sandra (Janet Agren). At one point, one man gets so angry with another that he drills a hole in his head. That’s Dunwich, for you. Who needs the dead when you’re surrounded by the worst of the living?
Speaking of the dead, that dead priest is still wandering around town. When he comes across two teenagers making out in a jeep, he rips open the boy’s head while the girl bleeds from her eyes and proceeds to vomit up her intestines. (Somewhat inevitably, the boy is played by Michele Soavi who, before launching his own acclaimed directing career, always seemed to die in films like this. Even more inevitably, the girl is played Daniela Doria, who appeared in four Fulci films and suffered a terrible fate in every single one of them.)
By the time that Peter and Mary actually reach the town, the dead are already moving through the fog while storms of maggots crash through windows. Even the sight of a seemingly innocent child running towards the camera leads to the sound of people screaming off-screen….
Even though it’s actually one of Fulci’s more straight-forward films (i.e., a character says that Dunwich is going to be overrun by zombies and then Dunwich actually is overrun by zombies), it still plays out like a particularly intense dream. From the fog-shrouded visuals to the often odd dialogue, City of the Living Dead is a film that plays out according to its own unique logic. The film’s surreal atmosphere may have partially been the result of a rushed production schedule but it also serves to suggest that, as a result of the priest’s suicide, the nature of reality itself has changed.
City of the Living Dead is not a film for everyone. If I was introducing someone to Fulci for the first time, I would probably have them watch Zombi 2, The Black Cat and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin long before I even suggested they take a look at City of the Living Dead. That City of the Living Dead is a gory film should come as no surprise. That was one of Fulci’s trademarks, after all. Instead, what makes City of the Living Dead a difficult viewing experience for some is just how bleak the film truly is. Even before the living dead arrive, Dunwich is a town the seems to epitomize the worst instincts of humanity. There’s a darkness at the heart of the City of the Living Dead and it has nothing to do with zombies.
First released in 1980, City of the Living Dead is generally considered to be the first part of Fulci’s Beyond trilogy. Catriona MacColl, who gives such a good performance here, appeared in the film’s two follow-ups, The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery. (MacColl played a different character in each film.) With each film, Fulci’s vision grew more and more surreal until eventually, he seemed fully prepared to reject the idea of narrative coherence all together.
Though initially dismissed by critics, The Beyond trilogy is today celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in the history of Italian horror. City of the Living Dead is probably the most narratively coherent film in the trilogy, even if its ending raises more questions than it answers. Personally, I love the ending of City of the Living Dead, even though it was apparently a last-minute decision. (According to Wikipedia — so take this with a grain of salt — someone spilled coffee on the original work print of the ending, which led to Fulci having to improvise.) It’s an ending that suggests that not only has the film broken apart but that the world is shattering right along with it. In the end, the world falls apart not with a bang but with one long scream.