City of the Living Dead (1980) is not where my relationship starts with Italian director Lucio Fulci. Also known as The Gates of Hell (a way better title, and what I saw it as), COTLD was not released in North America until 1983. By this time, my eyeballs had already been assaulted by Zombie (1979), and The Beyond (1981). This film was made in between, and it shows – it’s a fascinating fulcrum between the flesh eating exploits of the former and the surreal dreamscapes of the latter. It’s a creepy classic from one of the Italian masters of the genre.

Released in 1980 in his native Italy, COTLD was released in the U.S. by North America Marketing in May of ’83. Derided by critics at the time, it’s never up for re-evaluation by the mainstream. And that’s okay. What fellow horror fiends have known for decades is that Fulci at his best created a unique niche on the horror landscape – disarrayed dioramas of fear that have always left (and continue to leave) a lasting impression on the craniums of the macabre.

It’s Fulci, so story is not the game, but here goes: Dunwich, Massachusetts. A forlorn Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine – The Psychic) hangs himself in the local cemetery. Meanwhile in New York, Mary (Catriona MacColl – The Beyond) , a psychic, has a vision of Father Thomas offing himself, which apparently scares her to death. Nosy (is there any other kind?) reporter Peter (Christopher George – Graduation Day) discovers that Mary has been buried prematurely, so he saves her and they begin a pilgrimage to Dunwich – Thomas’ hanging has opened up one of the gates of Hell, and if they’re not closed before All Saints Day (which is right around the corner, folks), the dead will walk the earth (which should include Mary, who is quite fortunate that New York is lax on embalming procedures) . Meanwhile, back in Dunwich, strange events are ramping up in anticipation of All Saints Day. Father Thomas has a nasty habit of popping up everywhere, causing walls to crack, involuntary brain scooping, and in one poor girl’s case, death by stomach evacuation. Holding down the fort in Dunwich are Gerry (Carlo De Mejo – The House by the Cemetery), a local psychiatrist, and his 19 year old girlfriend Emily (Antonella Interlenghi ), who deal with the above shenanigans and other assorted grotesqueries. When they finally join up with Peter and Mary (shades of The Fog’s late in the game groupings), the four head underground into Father Thomas’ tomb to put an end to the madness before things really get out of hand. Have I mentioned that Italian horror is not well known for its happy endings?

COTLD suffers from middle child syndrome, sitting as it does between one of the most revered zombie films of all time and what many consider Fulci’s masterpiece. Fans of his treasure it for its odd, queasy balance of zombie attacks from the former and free flowing phantasms of the latter. It is however, never mentioned by casual fans of the genre and that’s a shame. COTLD contains all of Fulci’s trademarks: gorgeous, languid photography, intense, unflinching pockets of gory gruesomeness, and an unrelenting bleakness that was terrifying to watch as a kid. As an adult, I appreciate Fulci’s commitment to his vision, not kowtowing to the Slasher trend, but rather blending a unique and uneasy mixture of disgusting set pieces and beautiful imagery. With the full Fulci experience, one gets rolling, angelic fog followed by impromptu lobotomies. Alas, in true Italian tradition, one also gets the standard exposition of an event that just occurred (maybe a public service then, a precursor to Closed Captioning?), as well as the usual melodramatic performances – which actually work quite well in these surroundings.

In a Giallo, where the settings and circumstances are more mundane, heightened acting can be distracting, but in a fantastical world of vanishing zombies, flaming priests, and metal shop experiments gone awry, it actually suits the material. A special shout out to Christopher George, who gives a lively, engaging performance as intrepid reporter Peter, and a far cry from his somnambulistic work in Pieces (1982). MacColl also turns in strong work, acting as Fulci’s muse through his Gates of Hell trilogy (this, The Beyond, and the weaker House by the Cemetery).

As we’re in Fulciland, we have to pull the car over and talk about the amazing practical effects. Led by Gino DeRossi (Cannibal Ferox), Fulci always delivered the greasy goods, and COTLD has some work in it that stands alongside the best on this side of the pond from Savini. To be honest, this was the kind of moist magic that made us kids froth at the mouth. The wetter the better, and Fulci knew the waters well.

Creating cinematic nightmares is never easy work. The best of Fulci borrows the beauty of Bava and the sinew of Romero to concoct a heady stew unlike any other. City of the Living Dead delivers all this and then some. Come for the atmosphere. Stay for the intestinal tract barfing.

City of the Living Dead is available on Blu-ray & DVD from Blue Underground and from Arrow Video.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DEATHDREAM
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.