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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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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