City of the Living Dead ReviewJoe Shaffer
I couldn't sleep after watching City of the Living Dead (also known as Gates of Hell) for the first time. Sure, it was schlocky and dated, but the film's depictions of brutality played in an endless loop in my mind. There I saw Giovanni Lombardo Raddice's character murdered endlessly, his noggin inching along a workbench as a drill bit slowly pierced his skull. My mind lingered on Christopher George's character losing the back of his head, as well as a heart-stopping scene in which the film's wight-like antagonist stuffed a handful of worms and filth into a woman's mouth, causing her to die of shock. I was therefore convinced that even though City is a B-movie through and through, it's still an effective horror flick.
The movie isn't without its faults, though, as it sports some horrible acting. Unfortunately, it's difficult to track down a subtitled version these days, which means you may have to stomach poor dubbing. In many cases, especially those featuring Italian actors with voice overs, lines and mouth motions didn't sync well. In other cases, the voice acting itself is terrible. For instance, there's a scene in which a old psychic lays out the film's basic premise, revealing that a priest somehow opened the gates to Hell--as well as turned himself into an zombie-commanding wight--by committing suicide in a graveyard. With a look of desperation on her mug, the psychic peers into the camera and proclaims that the protagonist and his friends must "CROZE DOZE GEITS!!!" before All Saints Day arrives.
I was able to look past City's dodgy acting, though. What hooked me in was its broken narrative, which unfolds in an illogical and nightmarish manner, with events transpiring without rhyme or reason. Windows shatter as demonic winds inundate the intrepid heroes in live maggots, and pillars of fire leap from the floors without any apparent source. Worst of all is the appearance of legions of teleporting zombies*, who seem to materialize only when it's most inconvenient or unexpected. In the most benign cases, they act as impediments to the main entourage; at worst, though, they manage to tare a few of the heroes in grisly ways.
City may seem like an incomprehensible film, which can be off-putting for some moviegoers. However, those who enjoy a little surrealism in their Italian splatter flicks will appreciate director Lucio Fulci's brand of nonsensical butchery.
Atmosphere also plays a huge role in City, and without it I don't think the movie would have been as enjoyable. Mostly, the film's atmosphere has to do with the era in which it was made, that being the early '80s. Cinematography from that time tended to be grainy and unrefined. The grittiness combined with expertly lit (or unlit) sets gives the film a very unwelcoming aura. Characters mosey into homes, touched only by scant light. In nearby rooms, you can hear the guttural cries of undead creatures, and you might expect one to emerge from the darkness. Most of the time, the coast seems clear. In other occasions, though, a hand reaches from the gloom and snags an unwary victim, refusing to relinquish the hold until the person in question is dead on the floor.
To its core, City of the Living Dead is a B-movie. It features plenty of zany sequences and unintentional humor. In one scene, for example, a funeral home employee attempts to rob an old woman's corpse. With the camera focused on his face, a dog-like snarl issues from below him and the man cries out. The camera pans down to reveal what looks like grape preserves globbed on his hand. Yeah, City is filled with charming bits of old school schlock, but it's still a brutal enough flick to show off some great gore and creepy sets. Suffice it to say that it's not a horror movie that everyone will enjoy, but those it aims to please will likely find a worthwhile supernatural splatter flick in City of the Living Dead
*For lack of a better term, I'm calling them zombies. People have argued that they're a wide variety of other undead and spiritual beasties, from ghosts to banshees. I'm going with teleporting zombies. You might argue that zombies can't teleport, but you also can't kill a ghost.
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