★★.5 out of ★★★★★
Christopher George fights grizzly bears (Grizzly). He fights masked killers (Graduation Day). He fights a jigsaw killer (Pieces). He fights paranormal happenings (Mortuary). Now, in City of the Living Dead he’s fighting the UNDEAD!!! Is there anything this one man can’t do?
In one of Lucio Fulci’s finer pieces of cinema, Christopher George (a gumshoe reporter) joins forces with a super psychic (Catriona MacColl as Mary Woodhouse) to figure out why those darned gates of hell keep on reopening. City of the Living Dead, AKA Gates of Hell, is the first part of the over-arching Fulci series that includes House by the Cemetery, and the Beyond. If you’ve ever laid eyes on a Fulci film you know you’re in for a big-ol’-bag-of-gross. City of the Living Dead definitely doesn’t disppoint in the delivery of odious sleaze.
Fulci begins City of the Living Dead with a rather disturbing seance interspersed with a priest (Father Thomas) contemplating suicide. The “city” in this case is Dunwich. Dunwich, of course, has its own spooky provenance. From the get-go, Fulci vacillates back and forth between in these two other-worldly events in a panicked fashion, until the priest frighteningly slips his head in a noose, and sha-blam — the gates of hell are opened. But not before super-psychic Mary dies from…fright! Reporter Christopher George takes immediate interest in this spook story and visits Mary’s grave. After kibitzing with the local grave diggers, George realizes that Mary’s been buried alive. Inadvisably, George hoists a nearby pickax and starts hacking away at the shallow grave while Mary tries to claw her way out of her coffin. She eventually makes her way out and she and George go back to the site of the seance to find out that this was all fortold in the book of Enoch and that the priest has indeed opened the gates to hell.
Concurrent to their psychic sleuthing, the good townsfolk in Dunwich start to discover some supernatural happenings. People begin to disappear, corpses start to move from place to place, nooses start to appear, and the Fulci super-gross-out begins. In one of the most disturbing scenes ever, a young woman out on a date with her beau, begins to continuously vomit a melange of worms, body parts, blood, fluids, and who knows what else. Of course these Dunwich simpletons don’t jump to any supernatural conclusions, they put all the blame squarely on local pervert, Bob. It should come as no surprise that Bob is eventually undone by some nasty power tool gore, and the Dunwichians are back to square one.
Christopher George and super-psychic Mary eventually meet up with some of the local Dunwich residents who’ve been living through this nightmare of the living dead and they collectively decide it’s time to get the bottom of this gate to hell business. As the clock strikes All Saints Day, they arrive at the tomb of Father Thomas (the suicidal priest who opened this whole gate to hell). The team wades through the living dead gatekeepers and comes head to head with Father Thomas. After doing battle with his undead minions, Christopher George gets his lid pulled straight off the top of his head — answering the question: Is there anything this one man can’t do? The remaining survivors give Father Thomas the business end of a crucifix right in the gut and all the living dead inexplicably burst in to flames. Case closed, or is it…
City of the Living Dead gives a strange hint at the end of the film that this is not all that Fulci has to offer his ghoulish fanbase. While Fulci mixes in a lot of different genres (witches, zombies, the church, heaven/hell), he does at least give a plausible rationale for the living dead inhabiting the earth. A priest killing himself to open the gates of hell isn’t super-satisfying, but at least it’s a start to piecing apart the zombie mythology.
City of the Living Dead isn’t rated, but we’re going to go with a fairly hard R. City of the Living Dead is available for streaming on Amazon.