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Review: ‘City of the Living Dead’ (1980) – A Different Approach to Zombies

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Review: 'City of the Living Dead' (1980) - A Different Approach to Zombies

Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo Buonarotti. Lucio Fulci.

All three are Italian, and all three are absolute masters of their mediums.f

For horror fans, “Italian” conjures some very specific imagery. There’s the “giallo” (Italian for yellow) cycle of films, a subgenre specific to Italy that has its own rules and themes and aesthetics. Typically, these films are somewhere between a slasher and a mystery. Typically, a killer in black gloves stalks and murders a cast of characters. There are specific filmmakers associated with giallo movies. Mario Bava, the Master of Italian Horror, created the first giallo with his The Girl Who Knew Too Much (starring A Nightmare on Elm Street’s John Saxon). Dario Argento is one of the most accessible; his The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is credited with popularizing many of the stock giallo characteristics. Argento elevated giallo to new heights of artistry and sophistication. Suspiria is hailed even by fans outside the genre for its vibrant colour palette and incredible score.

But, as does every artform, Italian horror grows and evolves and mutates throughout history. Very few directors embody this progression as boldly as Lucio Fulci. Fulci was first employed as screenwriter and then director of a series of comedies in the late 50s and 60s, even parodying his Italian neo-realist contemporaries with movies like Totò, Peppino e… la dolce vita. Throughout the entirety of the 1960s Fulci maintained a workmanlike output of lighthearted Italo-centric laughfests before shifting his focus to newer and more exciting genres in the 70s. While his movie White Fang was his greatest yet commercial success in 1973, the previous year’s Don’t Torture a Duckling generated international acclaim for Fulci as a filmmaker. Don’t Torture a Duckling, part of Fulci’s stylistic shift toward giallo (including Una sull’altra, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, and Sette note in nero), was the first time the director made use of the extreme gore and violence that would become the director’s trademark in the next era of his career.

City of the Living Dead Image

Following Don’t Torture a Duckling, Fulci’s next significant breakthrough came with 1979’s Zombi 2. Here in the states, the movie’s title is a bit of a misnomer; in Italy, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was marketed with the title Zombi, and Fulci’s was distributed as the earlier film’s sequel. This isn’t the only time Romero’s series created divergent sequels, as in 1985, Night of the Living Dead writer John A. Russo would commision Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon to direct Return of the Living Dead. Continuity aside, Zombi 2 was an excellent take on the zombie story, with its own clear, unique creation myth harkening back to the much-earlier Bela Lugosi movie White Zombie. The zombies were created on an island by a maniacal genius utilizing voodoo to his own end. In addition to having a great story, Zombi 2 also exemplified Fulci’s growing attention toward bombastic set pieces. While the character action sometimes lags in excitement, the movie’s real stars are a series of over-the-top and oft-remembered scenes. There’s a scene where a zombie fights a shark. There’s a scene where a woman has her eyeball impaled on a wooden splinter. And it’s these scenes that really set the movie apart from a glut of other, similar walking dead flicks. Most importantly, it set in motion a trend that would carry Fulci through the following year.

In 1980, Lucio Fulci released City of the Living Dead, his second zombie movie and arguably the first where he was able to truly flex his own bonkers signature style. Untethered by its standalone status, Fulci was free to create his own completely new story without worrying about his movie being sold as a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. For this reason, City of the Living Dead is one of the strongest, most artistically ambitious projects in Fulci’s filmography. He’s completely unleashed on screen, and the results are rewarding for both fans and first-timers.

The movie begins with an apartment séance in New York City, and the powerful conjuring reveals a vision of a priest hanging himself in a town called Dunwich. Whatsmore, Mary, one of the attendees of the supernatural soiree, is so overwhelmed by the image that she drops dead on sight. Hours later, Peter, a journalist tipped off to the suspicious death, fails to gain entry into the scene of the crime. Eager for a scoop, Peter persists, following the story further, and eventually to a gravesite, where he sees Mary’s coffin being lowered into the ground by two gravediggers. As the diggers leave, Peter hears an unnerving scream and a series of knocking coming from inside the grave. He rushes over, grabs a pickaxe, and just before a now-conscious Mary uses the last of the oxygen inside, Peter chops through the coffin and comes to her rescue. But that’s just the beginning. Mary speaks of a harrowing vision of the priest opening the gates of hell in Dunwich. Can Mary and Peter rush from New York to Dunwich in time to ward off the evil before All Saint’s Day? Or will hell be unbound, allowing the dead to walk the earth? Spoiler alert: The dead totally walk the earth.

City of the Living Dead Image 2

Peter, our cigar-chomping sleuth, feels more like a detective than a journalist, helping ground the story with a real feeling of hard boiled detective. While the supernatural occurrences of the séance are what set the events in motion, it’s the way Peter treats it all like a “whodunnit” that pulls us in and gives us something to latch onto. This isn’t a perfect movie, but Christopher George as Peter is a perfect role. In a movie plagued by wonky ADR and an ending that makes no sense, Christopher George’s performance stands head-and-shoulders above as a real bright spot. The real-life United States Marine gives us something to root for as he and Mary fight to save the world.

While the setup to this zombie story might sound a bit predictable, the execution is everything but. These walkers are unlike any you’ve ever seen, vanishing and reappearing from thin air, teleporting in the blink of an eye. They squeeze brains right from people’s skulls. They burst into flame. In one instance, they even make a woman’s eyeballs bleed before she vomits her own entrails. It’s wonderfully colorful, over-the-top gory fun.

Once again, Fulci excels with a series of zany set pieces, which serve the story while standing as pitch-perfect scene-stealers. Look out for a drill-through-the-brain delivered with operatic gusto. If it seemed unlikely that Fulci could ever top Zombi 2’s eyeball-impalement, think again. He’s able to somehow create a realistic, anatomical gross-out gag, making his audience shrink back in disgust and lean forward in fascination all at the same time. This distinctive ability to disgust and compel is what makes Fulci such an excellent horror auteur.

City of the Living Dead is available to stream on Vudu and Amazon Prime, and I recommend bringing a barf bag if you’re squeamish about seeing people’s skulls gets squeezed till their brains squish out.

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