How should I write about Lucio Fulci's gore classic, City Of The Living Dead? Approach it from today's seen, heard about and done everything standpoint? Or from that of the young teen discovering this movie for the first time on VHS in the mid-'80s? Well, no matter how you slice it, (or drill it, or rip its brains out) this delirious stream-of-consciousness horror is still an unnervingly fun must see for fans of international sleaze cinema.
Back then, City Of The Living Dead (aka Gates Of Hell) stood proudly with other bits of transgressive cinema like Maniac and I Spit On Your Grave, as something almost whispered about in its gory power. It was the movie where That Girl literally pukes her guts out, and to be hunted down for a soda-fueled viewing with friends. Yes, and Giovanni Lombardo Radice also gets his brain drilled, meaning this was, and is, truly a gore film for the ages, logic be damned.
However, illogic is director Fulci's strong point, as the best of his horror movies maintain a nightmarish insanity that subverts narrative formatting and chronological order with gleeful abandon. To wit, weird shit is going down in a Lovecraftian New England town, and Christopher George (Pieces) and Catriona MacColl (The Beyond) are on the case. Priests are hanging themselves in cemeteries, folks are bleeding from the eyeballs, and the living dead beset deserted dive-bars. As should be readily apparent, the town is built over one of the gates of hell, and there's only three days to permanently lock that gate. I think. Indeed, there may be logic afoot, but if there is it's buried beneath foggy, apocalyptic style, arbitrary time-shifts, and gory horror scenes that still have the power to revolt today.
City ranks among the top of Fulci Fan Favorites due to its aggressively disorienting, unrelievedly evil atmosphere, not to mention those gore set-pieces. Fulci's town of Dunwich (in case you didn't catch the Lovecraft connection) seems to be the loneliest place on earth, seemingly shrouded in perpetual dark and choked by acrid fog. The camera glides along abandoned streets for uncomfortable lengths of time, before making a shocking jump cut to a disgusting ghoul or a shower of maggots. Residents seem at best mentally checked-out, at worst crass and evil, creating an air of downbeat hopelessness that fits Fulci's aggrieved take on life. And all this comes in the service of truly detached performances. (That is, excepting when gore is concerned; the director had a penchant for pushing his performers to get genuine reactions. See the rain-of-maggots sequence, for example.) What results is a horror movie with a few effective jump-scares bolstered by extreme gore, sickly tension and a bleak, doomed world-view to truly ruin an afternoon. Counter-intuitively, these are all positive attributes where the City Of The Living Dead is concerned.