I consider both Argento and Fulci to be true maestros of their craft. It’s hard to even really compare the two because they are so completely different in their approach, technique, and style. Where Argento paints a grandiose, beautiful picture; Fulci likes to dig in and get dirty. Argento uses lavish atmosphere and suspense to make your heart pound, while Fulci uses disgusting and gritty imagery to make your skin crawl and your stomach churn. City of the Living Dead is by no means traditional zombie fare and it’s this uniqueness that ultimately works both for and against the film. The addition of supernatural elements lends a slightly more menacing and psychological quality to the zombies, but I could very much do without the teleporting. Released in 1980, Fulci followed up the success of Zombi with a haunting vision that has been banned and chopped up numerous times over the years. The film basically serves as the first installment in the “Gates of Hell” trilogy and sets up what some consider to be Fulci’s greatest film, The Beyond. But I also believe it stands well on its own as a truly bizarre and unforgettable experience.
In the small town of Dunwich, a priest hangs himself in a cemetery unleashing forces beyond our comprehension and setting forth a series of events that could very well be the end of the world as we know it. Thousands of miles away in New York, a young woman has visions of these events during a seance and the effect is so powerful that she collapses and is presumed dead. Luckily for her, the gravediggers in New York are lazy and the reporters are nosy, so she is discovered alive just in the nick of time. Telling the reporter of her visions and the horror to come, the two team up and head to Dunwich where they have to find the priest that started it all before midnight on All Saint’s Day or else the gates of Hell will be opened.
If you’re looking for a linear, coherent narrative then you might want to look elsewhere. City of the Living Dead plays out more like a montage of loosely connected scenes that present us with a surreal and nightmarish environment. And just when you think you’ve got a grasp on it, Fulci throws you a curve ball. The zombies aren’t your run of the mill walking dead, they have strange powers like the ability to project visions into people’s minds, teleport, and rip the back of your skull off. These guys are freaky because they’re conscious of their actions and are out to kill as many as they can as horrifically as they can. The gore is inventive without going too far over the top, the two notable moments being the gut vomit and the notorious head drilling. What I like about Fulci is that he uses his gore to create disturbing imagery that resonates with you rather than just using it for shock value. Of course, everything is enhanced greatly by the unsettling synth score from Fabio Frizzi. It’s droning and it’s repetitive, but that’s what makes it so effective. As a result the film has an oddly stylized quality to it and that helps give it that nightmare feel.
This film, and Fulci in general really, is not for everyone; you need to have a certain appreciation for something that more concerned with absorbing the viewer into the experience than it is with story. I’ll admit that the experience does start to drag, but the film picks up a little bit by the end and delivers a deliciously ambiguous final shot. Although, that’s not quite enough to satisfy the empty feeling this film gives me. It uses all of these visuals to build a strong sense of tension and as a viewer you hope that it’s actually going to lead somewhere, but when it doesn’t it’s a major letdown. It’s like 90 minutes of foreplay and then none of the good stuff.
It’s funny that the first time I tried to watch this I couldn’t stay awake to save my life, but upon a second viewing it sucked me in to the extent that I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I couldn’t get the images or the music out of my head, so if this was Mr. Fulci’s intention, I commend him. This film is honestly the closest cinematic representation of a bad dream I’ve experienced to date. My scariest dreams make little sense (check), surround me in an ominous atmosphere (check), and they never have a satisfying ending (double check). If you look at City of the Living Dead in the context that it’s a set up for The Beyond, then I think it does the job fairly well and it almost excuses the disappointment of the weak climax. As a stand alone film it personally works for me, but I can see how some people would be completely frustrated by the meandering and nonsensical nature of it all.