Saturday, April 28, 2012

#131: Gates of Hell aka City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980)

In my last post, about Bill Paxton's Frailty, I wrote: "Frailty is not one of those party-time, exploding-heads kind of horror films. Instead, it presents a dark and twisted look at the unwell parts of us and slowly builds a creeping dread and tension." Well, Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead is one of those party-time, exploding-heads kind of horror films, which was exactly what I needed this week. (Just replace "exploding heads" with "vomiting entrails.") City of the Living Dead, the first installment in a portals of hell trilogy that also includes The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, has that classic Fulci mix of intensely memorable images and atmosphere, stilted and ludicrous dialogue, nonsensical narrative tangents that exist only to show us something cool, whacked-out scenes of gore and violence, lots of fog and breaking glass, and great music. Fulci's best films are an irresistible mix of the sublime and the stupid, and this is a prime example.
Fulci gave us such moments as a zombie fighting a shark (in Zombie) and a cute lil' red-haired, pig-tailed Pippi Longstockingesque girl getting her face shot off (in The Beyond, which happens to be one of this site's two mascots over there on the right). In City of the Living Dead (aka The Gates of Hell), we get to see a blizzard of maggots, a woman vomiting up her own internal organs, a guy getting a power drill through the head, teleporting zombies, and a painting of the head of a rhinoceros floating above waves crashing on a beach. (Where is this painting today?) We also get such wonderfully idiotic dialogue as "Sheriff, what in the dickens is this?" and "I would find such an unusual paradox of tremendous appeal terribly stimulating, if I were a sleuth" and "Lady, you're either on grass, or you're pulling my leg" and "Will you check her out? Talk about a box lunch." You just don't get that quality of zinger in today's popular favorites such as Downton Abbey and Titanic 3D.
Giving a plot synopsis of a Fulci film is a ridiculous undertaking, so here goes nothin'. In the small New England town of Dunwich, a priest hangs himself in a graveyard. In addition to his parish having to find a new priest, the wayward holy man's actions have the unfortunate side effect of opening a portal to hell. Meanwhile, in New York City, a seance goes wild when a young woman (Catriona MacColl) gets a vision of the priest's death and the portal's opening. This freaks her out so much, she dies. Chisel-jawed newspaper reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) gets wind of the mysterious death and starts poking around. He fortunately pokes around in the graveyard, because reports of the lovely young woman's death have been mildly exaggerated. She wakes up in her coffin and freaks the freak out. Bell hears her but ignores her to build suspense before finally tearing the coffin open with a pickax, which almost kills her twice. Newly risen from the grave, the woman convinces Bell to join her on a trip to Dunwich to close hell's portal before All Saint's Day. If they wait too long, the dead will rise from their graves, teleport to wherever you are and telepathically make your eyes bleed and your entrails spew out or just give your head an old-fashioned death grip, causing your brains to spill out. Bell doesn't believe her, but, hey, she's good-looking, there's a story in it, and he's got enough cigars and manly quips for an impromptu road trip. The two set out for Dunwich and enlist the woman who paints the rhino and a bearded psychiatrist into their cause. Soon, all hell breaks loose (pun intended). I left out 200 bizarre plot tangents, for your eventual enjoyment.
In the spirit of those tangents, I want to take a few moments to talk about Christopher George. This guy is hilarious. He plays this character in just the right combination of straight-faced sincerity and goofball camp. He's a man's man, a guy who likes his cigars, his booze, his wisecracks, his women, and a good story. Though City of the Living Dead was filmed in New York, New Jersey, and Georgia, Fulci filmed it without sound and dubbed all the actor's voices later, in the best Italian tradition. Most of these dubs are awkward, stilted, and stiff, but George and MacColl roll with it, giving relaxed performances that, unlike all the other actors, match the lip movements. George was one of John Wayne's close friends, and he was the uncle of Vanna White, who has been trapped in her own portal of hell, Wheel of Fortune, for the last 30+ years. George died prematurely in 1983 from a heart attack, but it was a characteristically manly death, his heart problems stemming from a 1967 on-set accident in which a Jeep rolled over on him and pinned him underneath, causing a cardiac contusion from which he never fully recovered.
Back to Fulci. Most Fulci fanatics consider this period in Fulci's career to be his golden age. Besides the portal of hell trilogy, he also made fan favorites Zombie, The Psychic, The Black Cat, The New York Ripper, and Manhattan Baby in a six-year span. He kept churning them out at a prolific rate until his death in 1996. Though primarily a horror director, he also tackled action movies, westerns, and comedies. Hardly a week goes by in my home base of Austin, Texas without me seeing at least two Fulci Lives bumper stickers. Take that, David Lean.
Of course I'm going to recommend this movie. If you can't appreciate the joyous stupidity and the sublime visual heights of City of the Living Dead, I would never want to walk a mile in your shoes. Zombies, portals to hell, ghosts, entrail vomit, worm blizzards, fog, mediums, live burials, tombs, fire, breaking glass, drills through heads, bleeding eyes, ghost priests, wisecracking reporters and cops, porno-loving gravediggers, bizarre rhino paintings. What is not to love?

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