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DVD SAVANT

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD,
THE BEYOND,
LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Night of the Living Dead punched a hole in the ozone of the Horror film in 1968. Coming from way out of nowhere, it was released just about everywhere in the next three years.  1   Nothing on the above-ground circuit could touch it. A quality shocker with style and power, it moved the masses the way the high-class horror film Rosemary's Baby never could. Curiously, in the experimental atmosphere of the early 70s the already marginalized 'gore' film genre pioneered by Herschel Gordon Lewis withered into oblivion. Why watch ridiculous unconvincing atrocities when westerns like The Wild Bunch were around? Even films like Catch-22 had their moments of gore -- the waist-gunner with his guts coming out; the man on the raft reduced to a pair of legs spraying blood into the air.  2

Orson Welles once pontificated that real Sex didn't work in movies because the sex act is so arresting. When it is portrayed in movies nothing can compete -- the story stops and our suspension of disbelief vanishes. Gore has a similar effect. The ending carnage of Bonnie & Clyde was so powerful when new that it had to happen right at the end. After such a shattering scene what movie could keep on going?

As films like The Exorcist ratcheted up the explicit violence quotient, what the audience was expected to take become rougher. Psycho was given a PG when reissued, as time had made its once-shocking shower killing almost a quaint relic, a model of restraint.

While low-budget American horror still for the most part tried to appeal to very young audiences and therefore made attempts to avoid grue, imports from Spain and Italy started pouring in, of movies that were clearly artistic in intention but (in their original versions) completely unrestrained in violence and bloodletting. Dario Argento picked up the thread begun by Mario Bava in a series of gialli: Murder mysteries where the mystery was far less important than the visual sheen of highly fetishized killings.

The three films reviewed here are Zombie movies, all traceable to George Romero's Zombie original, Night of the Living Dead. The strength of that film can be judged by the fact that three unrelated and not particularly similar Euro-horror films were retitled early in the 70s for a triple-bill, all with 'Living Dead' in the title: Fangs of the ... etc.. In Spain (repressive Franco Spain, go figure) a mini-renaissance of adult horror began, and not all of it exploitative in nature. In Italy, the 60s gothics were superceded by kinkier and sexier slasher films. Although few made it to our shores intact, enough Exorcist imitations kept the line going ...

Reviewed here are two from Lucio Fulci and one from Spaniard Jorge (or Jordi, it seems) Grau. Although the Spanish film predates the other two I'm going for the Fulcis first. Note that I've included a selection of alternate titles, as all of these films went under different names in different territories or for repeat releases. Reading these multiplying monnikers in a reference text like Hardy's Encyclopedia of Horror Films is an exercise in poetry: How can one not go for a film with a perplexingly spelled title like Shock (Transfert-Suspence-Hypnos)?  7



City of the Living Dead
Anchor Bay
Alternate titles: Paura nella cittá dei morti viventi, Fear in the City of the Living Dead, The Fear, The Gates of Hell, Twilight of the Dead
1987 / Color / 1:85 / Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Interlenghi, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Daniela Doria, Michele Soavi
Cinematography Sergio Salvati
Production Designer Massimo Antonello Geleng
Special Effects Gino De Rossi
Film Editor Vincenzo Tomassi
Original Music Fabio Frizzi
Writing credits Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti
Produced by Giovanni Masini and Robert E. Warner
Directed by Lucio Fulci

One of the most popular Italian releases of the late 70s was George Romero's Night of the Living Dead followup, Dawn of the Dead, which was known in Italy as Zombi. Soon thereafter, Italian Lucio Fulci released his own Zombi 2, in the time-honored Italian film tradition of faking the status of sequel to profit from someone else's work. As grindingly literal as Romero's Dawn, yet possessed of its own visual style, this exercise in suspense and pessimistic carnage was able to pass itself off as an American product by virtue of a few scenes filmed in NYC, including a final apocalyptic image of a horde of zombies on the Brooklyn Bridge.

City of the Living Dead allows Signor Fulci to make his own statement by launching itself from the premise of The Sentinel: In various damned locations there are Lovecraftian doorways to hellish alien dimensions, and that extraordinary circumstances could let loose all manner of horrifyingly inhuman manifestations of evil.  3

Synopsis: In the town of Arkham, built over the original site of Salem, a priest commits suicide in a graveyard and opens a portal to hell. This happens just as a seance commences in New York, and the psychic shock waves from the suicide put Mary Woodhouse (Catriona McColl) into a coma. She 'meets cute' with impulsive reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George, perhaps his best performance) when he hears her cries in the graveyard and saves her from being buried alive at the last possible moment. Once they realize that Arkham on All Saint's Day is going to be neck-deep in demons from Hell, they rush there just in time to become part of the fun. Phantoms are turning up everywhere and ordinary people commit atrocious murders. Unexplainable things happen, such as a girl vomiting up her insides while sitting in a car. And finally the zombies themselves come, accompanied by the ghost of the dead priest himself.

Polished and slick, the first thing to be remarked on about City of the Living Dead is that never before have so many Italian actors been so convincingly American. The Italian director's vision imposed on the American locations (presumably with many interiors shot back in Italy) perhaps accounts for the not-quite-on-the-level feeling possessed by the 3 Fulcis Savant has seen.

But the real subject here is the gore. Catriona McColl and Christopher George are likeable and winning but there's little doubt but that one or both of them is going to become zombie food or die in some other horrible way. The horror sequences are well prepared, with atmospheric scenes and excellent photography, but they arrive with such regularity that they seem perfunctory ... as in, oh, another ten minutes has gone by in a Harryhausen film, it's time for a new monster to make an entrance. The catalog of Fulci hallmarks in three films seems to boil down to the following: 1) Very gross bullet and shotgun blasts on perambulating zombies. 2.) Grotesque murders by saws or drills to the head. 3.) People (or their lifelike simulacra) spewing out all manner of entrails and sloppy gore (with yummy sound effects). And 4.): Slow walkin', fast-grabbin' mutilated zombies tearing humans to bits with remarkable ease. Abdomens open up like saran wrap to reveal tasty livers and such; bones and skulls crunch like cantelopes for the brains to gush out between the clutching zombie fingers. All the gore repressed in the 50s horror comics is here out in the open, a spectacle for which the plot only seems to be a pretense.

Oh, yes, there's one more: 5.) The Fulci eye-trauma gag. This borrowing from H.G. Lewis is in all three films. In City it manifests itself in the hammering of a sharp pickaxe through a coffin lid -- right into the heroine's screaming face.

In Fulci, the ironic pessimism of Romero gives way to an assumed universal pessimism. There's no hope for any of the heroes, who will go down like the rest of humanity before the onslaught or themselves be turned into the living dead. The thrills are all mechanical unless the viewer is superstitious enough to believe in the Hell-portal premise as a literal given. The appreciation of the film depends on embracing the entertainment value of gore galore as a virtue in itself. Before one gets uppity on the subject and dismisses it outright, it's important to remember that millions of movie fans have!


The Beyond
Anchor Bay
1981 / Color / 2:35 (Techniscope, from the original negative) / Dolby Digital 5.1
Alternate titles: (E tu vivrai nel terrore) - L'Aldila, Seven Doors of Death
Starring Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Antoine Saint-John, Veronica Lazar, Anthony Flees, Giovanni De Nava
Cinematography Sergio Salvati
Production Designer Massimo Lentini
Special Effects Germano Natali
Film Editor Vincenzo Tomassi
Original Music Fabio Frizzi
Writing credits Dardano Sacchetti, Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo and Lucio Fulci
Produced by Fabrizio De Angelis
Directed by Lucio Fulci

Fulci's followup movie is said to be his best, his ultimate 'terror machine'. It's a simple repeat of the premise of City, but this time assayed with more directorial assurance and an even more consistent tone.

Synopsis: Liza Merril (Catriona McColl) has inherited a New Orleans hotel and is working on renovations, but no sooner have the plumber and painter gotten started than a killing spree begins. Local doctor John McCabe (David Warbeck, from the Leone film Fistful of Dynamite) tries to downplay her skittishness but a preponderance of evidence tends to support Liza's fears: Two employees who 'came with the hotel' may be phantom ghouls themselves, attendants to one of the seven Gates of Hell located in the flooded hotel basement. A blind woman with a dog who appears to be a Ghostbusters-like gatekeeper provides the backstory. During the depression, an artist (Antoine Saint-John, also of Fistful of Dynamite) obsessed with visions of a hellish afterlife (The 'Beyond' of the title) was lynched by a mob of rednecks and nailed to the basement wall. Now his putrifying corpse as well as countless others are preying on the living, and even the resourceful doctor and hotelier are unable to kill zombies fast enough to keep up with the macabre pace.

Always liking romantic Italian titles, Savant was calling this nightmarish fright-fest L'aldila until Darren Gross said it sounded like a Connie Francis song.  4 The reputation The Beyond enjoys as the most excessive film ever given a release on American screens stems from its adoption by Quentin Tarantino for a 1998 Rolling Thunder reissue. Tarantino likewise championed the career of Jack Hill by reviving his Switchblade Sisters from the forgotten dead, like the demonic artist in Fulci's masterpiece.

In The Beyond Fulci has mastered the atmosphere to a 'T', even though his dramatics again build up formulaic structures (the ghostly hotel attendants) that are not carried through. The horror is more smoothly integrated here even if the feeling is that Fulci is repeating himself in an effort to "get it right."

He comes close. The gore is completely over the top and as arresting as an auto smashup. The eyeball-trauma business here has the graphic verisimilitude of an industrial accident. If the aesthetic of slasher horror is to investigate the ways a human body can be outrageously violated, The Beyond may be the front-runner. A hapless researcher who dares just look at the floor plans for Hell Hotel  5 is paralyzed to become breakfast for a horde of (barely convincing) tarantulas. They naturally make a silk-line right for his tasty eyeballs. Zombies reach into faces like your toddler might grab at a lemon-merengue pie, pulling out all the juicy goodies. There are some effective and convincing effects, such as half of an adorable young girl's head being blown away, on camera, point blank. Like Orson Welles' observations on sex, these moments exist completely outside the narrative experience. The viewer is entranced or repelled by them, as a purely subjective shock.

Savant has written about his experience with the Herschel Gordon Lewis movie The Gore-Gore Girls, where the delight of a bloodthirsty and vocal audience brought on feelings of despair. I don't think I'd like to see this movie with its likely theatrical audience either. The Beyond has merit but even with its cosmic ending, which pays off on the original Italian title "And You will live in Terror ..." the only real message given is that gore is cool, and nihilistic doom is the only lasting human condition. I'm sure that recipe is just the ticket for The Beyond's legions of fans. When a film's attack is so subjective that blanket statements don't apply, then perhaps that's a measure of success. A horror film living on the edge of psychic acceptability is never entirely exploitational. Michele Soavi'sDellamorte Dellamore is more to Savant's taste but the daring savagery of The Beyond can't be dismissed as gore-porn junk, as can the Lewis films.


Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Anchor Bay
1974 / Color / 1:85 / Dolby Digital 5.1
Alternate titles: Fin de semana para los muertos, Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue, Don't Open the Window, Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, No profanar el sueño de los muertos, Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti, Sleeping Corpses Lie, Zombi 3 (Da dove vieni?)
Starring Cristina Galbo, Ray Lovelock, Arthur Kennedy, Aldo Massasso, Giorgio Trestini, Roberto Posse, José Lifante, Jeannine Mestre
Cinematography Francisco Sempere
Production Designer Carlo Leva
Special Effects, physical: Juan Antonio Balandín and Luciano Byrd, optical: Gianetto De Rossi
Film Editors Domingo García and Vincenzo Tomassi
Original Music Giuliano Sorgini
Writing credits Juan Cobos, Sandro Continenza, Marcello Coscia and Miguel Rubio
Produced by Edmondo Amati and Manuel Pérez
Directed by Jorge Grau

About half a decade before Fulci turned from complex Gialli to his hellgate films, Spaniard Jorge Grau was given a hefty budget to make Let Sleeping Corpses Lie with express instructions from his producer to basically remake Night of the Living Dead in color. With some impressive exceptions the Spanish horror films of the time tended toward the makeshift and crude, mostly the result of very low budgets. Whereas Fulci would later locate his films in the United States, Grau and his compatriot Jose Larraz filmed in England. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie mines an entirely different, politically-minded take on the George Romero original, a concern with social issues that is in perfect synch with Romero's anti-consumerist leanings.

Synopsis: Art dealer George (Ray Lovelock) becomes a reluctant travelling companion for Edna (Cristina Galbo) when she accidentally damages his motorcycle at a petrol stop. Detours and tragedies keep them from parting ways in the green countryside of Northern England. She claims to have been accosted by a man the locals say is dead, and when she gets to her destination she finds that her sister appears to have murdered her photographer-husband and is blaming the killing on a similar zombie fiend. Finding nude photos of both sisters and George's vaguely pagan-appearing statuette, the bitter local Inspector (Arthur Kennedy) labels the pair as longhair degenerate satanists and prepares to throw the book at them. When more revivified corpses attack the detective has plenty of evidence to support his thinking. George correctly tracks the source of the zombies to an experimental agricultural machine that agitates the nervous systems of insect pests with ultrasound waves, but his protests are treated as the ravings of a madman. He must flee both the kill-crazy Inspector and a horde of zombies, as the entire resurrected inventory of the Manchester Morgue closes in on him.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie not only offers a quasi-credible rationalization for its zombie holocaust, it also hews resolutely to a strict line of realism. Unlike the "anything for a disembowelment" logic of the Fulcis, Jorge Grau's writers provide a neat set of accumulating incidents that doesn't lean too heavily on coincidence. The three central characterizations are more credible and better developed. Ray Lovelock's no-nonsense art dealer is one of the few well-written longhair English heroes of the day, and the very good actor Arthur Kennedy plays the reactionary cop as a fully-developed Dirty Harry character: a policeman who uses his authority as a means of purging personal resentments against society.

Grau's thesis is not fully developed yet resonates as worthy of consideration: he begins with a montage of London anthill life with multitudes of citizens rushing about in busy but alienated activity.  6   An early bit of a woman streaker suddenly running naked through rush hour traffic, is an attempt to inject the theme of society producing random insanity (she looks nuts), while showing the lumpen commuters who ignore her as insensate pod people. It comes off as a gratuitous attempt to sex-up the film and create interest during Grau's slow build-up to the terror scenes. Unlike Fulci, this is no gore machine of interchangeable carnage set-pieces every nine minutes or so. The feeling of attachment to the characters and their hopes of surviving the film's running time are maintained along with a thread of rising tension. Like the same year's The Texas Chainsaw Masscre, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a superior horror film that balances genre thrills with underlying concerns worth contemplating.

Not that there aren't the prerequisite mangled corpses and bloody butchering of screaming victims, no sir. Grau's makeup effects artist later became Fulci's main man with the cosmetic grue. In his interview / docu, Grau non-apologetically shows a number of morgue photos that inspired his zombie creations; I hope nobody recognizes a relative in the human remains placed on view. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie's zombies are more physical than the quasi-supernatural phantoms of the Fulcis, but they kill in much the same way. A cute hospital receptionist is torn to pieces while she squirms, her flesh torn from her bones like cooked chicken meat. A gaunt cadaver with a huge stitched and stapled incision down his torso attacks the hero with a fire hatchet. Because the narrative doesn't stop for each horror scene, as a musical does for each number, horror and viewer involvement rise together with the story arc.


Anchor Bay's DVDs have established a benchmark of quality and these zombies-in-extremis epics are beautifully presented. The Fulcis tend toward grain more than Grau's film. The audio on all three has been remixed in vibrant 5.1 Dolby. Savant saw a miserable graymarket copy of City of the Living Dead a number of years back; this disc ups the visuals to a level where appreciation is possible for this reviewer. The extras for City are some fairly standard trailer and TV spot material. The Beyond has a Fulci interview, a music video by Jim Van Bebber, audio commentary with stars Warbeck and McColl, an alternate German pre-credit sequence and English and Italian tracks. Let Sleeping and Beyond have mini essays printed on the backside of the cover artwork sleeve. Besides the very interesting interview / docu, Jorge Grau looks pleased as punch at the presentation of his film, and even provides a video intro for it, speaking in Castillian Spanish.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie rate:
Movie: CLD: Good TB: Very Good LSCL: Excellent
Video: CLD: Good TB: Excellent LSCL: Excellent
Sound: CLD: Excellent TB: Excellent LSCL: Excellent
Packaging: Alpha Case
Reviewed: October 4, 2000


Footnotes:

1. Real tragedy in Pittsburgh: George Romero & Co forgot to put a copyright on their film, resulting in mass piracy.   Return

2. Which by the way, was longer and gorier in the original prints -- the legs seemed to stand there forever, and folded up as they fell down, entirely realistically. It was perhaps the first full-fledged 'gore' effect Savant saw in the theater.   Return

3. Combine the 'Hellgate' concept of The Sentinel or City of the Living Dead with the phantasm-entrapment paraphernalia of The Asphyx, add comedy, and you have Ghostbusters, 1984.  Return

4. So what? Savant ripped off the most deliriously romantic Italian love song, Senza Fine for his Spanish-language student horror film, Sin Fin.   Return

5. Also 'borrowed' for Ghostbusters.   Return

6. Many reviewers complain about dropped threads and inconsistencies -- a killer baby, the actual reviving done by one zombie anointing another's eyes with blood. These loose ends didn't pose a problem for Savant at all. There was the feeling of a vague overall logic to the proceedings. Like Fulci's operatic non-narrative emphasis on gore set-pieces, it's all subjective.  Return

7. Tim Lucas has a couple of corrections for Savant here. Night of the Living Dead apparently retained its copyright but the filmmakers just didn't know it for a long enough period of time for the pirates to clean up. Savant got his info from an early 70s Cinefantastique. Also, Tim has corrected my use of Phil Hardy's incorrect titles for Shock and L'aldila.  Return




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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