Saturday, 6 February 2016

City of the Living Dead (1980)

I could just have typed 'WTF Fulci?' about a hundred times, but instead I'm going to try and convey the essence of what I experienced as I watched this remarkable film. I recorded my 'thoughts' on a small digital device as I went along. I may have been slightly drunk. What follows has been edited for swearing, repetition, and repetition.

Do I hear Tubular Bells in the distance?

Okay, this is City of the Living Dead, a Fulci film from 1980. It begins with a piercing scream followed by the familiar white titles on a black background. Then we find ourselves in a graveyard as the credits roll. The camera moves in a wobbly way as I read a list of Italian names. The soundtrack has a distinct whiff of John Carpenter about it. 'Story and screenplay by Lucio Fulci, Dardano Sachetti'. An Italian production, but from the blurb I know it's set in America, and I'm watching the dubbed version, so fun and hijinks will probably ensue.

Now we see someone walking through the graveyard - it's a priest, and he's looking a bit pale. Not at all well. This is a man who's seen too much, and possibly drunk too much. And at the bottom of the screen appears the legend 'dunwich', with a small 'd' - perhaps this was trendy in 1980? 'Yeah, capital letters are like, capitalist? Tools for fools, man!' Shut up and have the last Mars Bar.

Anyway, close-up now on a tombstone that reads: The Soul That Pines For Eternity Shall Outspan death. You Dweller Of The Twilight Void. Come, Dunwich. oo-er

The priest is now looking up a tree limb that might well be sturdy enough to support the weight of a man. Just speculating wildly, here.

Now fade to an interior where a seance is under way in 'new york'. Lots of bangles and rings in evidence, and a bit of cable-knit jumper, as hands link on the table. A young lady is getting a bit agitated. 'I see!' she says. But what does she see? An older woman (who's obviously in charge because of the sheer quantity of jewellery she's wearing) asks for clarifcation.

Back to Dunwich, where the priest has flung a rope over the branch. The younger medium, whose name is Mary, is obviously seeing his final moments. The priest is about to top himself in Dunwich churchyard. A good thing? I doubt it. Mary screams, as well she might if she was after Pocahantas or Mary Quant and got the Dunwich clerical suicide channel instead.

Now, in the misty churchyard where a priest is a-dangle we zoom in on the grave with the weird inscription, and something horrible emerges. 'City of the Dead!' screams Mary. 'Don't break the link!' says Medium One. Wherepon Mary has hysterics and falls to the floor as the soundtrack goes mental, with noises attempting to convey weird stuff.

A hairy beardy bloke now examines Mary and pronounces her dead. We see her being put into an ambulance, and now the fuzz have arrived in what does actually look like New York. A detective arrives who is black, takes no shit, and wears a nice coat, so he's somewhere between Shaft and Columbo. He concludes that Mary died because these people are all junkies. 'You expect me to believe Mary Woodhouse died of sheer fright?' Well, yes, they do.

Medium Woman refers to the prophecies of the Book of Enoch. Some fairly garbled chat about this is interrupted by a dodgy visual effect consisting of a gout of flame running up the wall, then going down again because they ran the film backwards. Wow. Everyone looks at the area where this non-sequiter occurred. Or is there a gas leak in the flat downstairs?

The dubbing, I should say, is 'interesting' but not terrible. New York cops do sound about right. Perhaps they had to raise their game, given the run of really good American horror movies during this period.

Back to Dunwich, where a man is walking through a dust-storm to an old clapboard house which has a slight Lovecraftian look to it - though to my untutored eye it looks more Midwest than New England. Anyway, this bloke is walking a bit funny and looks dim, but I don't think he's a zombie. He goes into the house and find it derelict. Oh, he's found a deflated blow-up doll in the fireplace. He picks it up and throws it against the wall, whereupon it inflates itself, because they ran the film backward again, didn't they? Our dozy chap wanders over to embrace its rubbery charms, but then suddenly notices a rotting corpse lying in another part of the room. The corpse is covered in earthworms, as it happens, so it looks like a huge spaghetti bolognese that's just got out of hand.

Pervy Bob & Friend

And we're back in New York where a man in a raincoat gets out of a car and races up the steps of a precinct, where his way is barred by a cop who's playing with his truncheon. This new character is a newspaper reporter, who tries to cajole his way inside to see Sgt Bell about this weird death at a seance. Cop is having none of this cajolery, and the fact that he has a chunky moustache - coupled with the truncheon play - does give this scene a slight Village People vibe.

Anyway, back to Dunwich and a bar called Junie's lounge. It's still dust-stormy and the bartender is talking to the obligatory two regulars. It's all gone a bit weird, they agree, and some girl didn't get home last night. Then a mirror shatters itself, something I expected to happen because the conversation stopped just a beat too soon. There's an ominous chord on what sounds like a Hammond organ with asthma, and we're told that, since Father Thomas hanged himself, Dunwich has become 'kinda scary'. 'You forget who our ancestors were', says one boozer. More weirdness leads to a crack appearing in the wall, and the clientele - both of them - leave the bartender to his insurance claim.

Now we cut to a pussy cat, which is observing an attractive young woman lying on a couch telling a new beardy man about her troubled childhood. Now another attractive young lady comes in and says 'Hi, Sandra!' New girl tells beardy bloke she can't make their date tonight. It's all to do with Bob, who I deduce is the bloke with the sex doll and the wormy corpse.

And now we get clunky exposition, which reveals that their ancestors were 'Salem witch burners', which is bollocks on stilts when you consider Lovecraft's Dunwich. Never mind, it's Italian. Anyway, we've also established that Sandra has a problem with men, then the cat goes bonkers and scratches her.

(If all this sounds incoherent, rest assured it's mostly the plot, not my brain.)

Now where are we? Back in New York, yes, and two gravediggers are having lunch, reading girly magazines, talkin' manly. And the journalist arrives, looking quite sleazy I must say. He's one of those ageing actors who dyes his hair but misses his grey eyebrows. I have a terrible foreboding that he is going to get his leg over with a woman young enough to be his daughter at some point.

Anway, he's probing Mary's bizarre death, and asking question. He is told to sod off, basically. The sleavy gravediggers half bury Mary, then knock off because it's five pm. Reporter guy starts to follow them out of the graveyard, but then Mary wakes up inside her coffin! Now there's a some good direction here, not least as he poor girl claws at the lid with bloodies fingers.

Fulci redeems himself here after all the earlier blague, but then he throws it away by having the journalist dither about, despite Mary making a hell of a racket. Okay, New York is a noisy place, but still. Anyway, he hears her and rushes back to the grave. Then he digs her up with a shovel? Oh no, he takes a pickaxe and smashes it through the lid of the coffin, narrowly missing Mary's face. Twice. He really does act like a total moron, here, almost killing a woman who's been buried by mistake.

Anyway, we're back in Medium Central and hearing more guff about the Book of Enoch. It seems the evil priest has opened a portal to Hell and a City of the Dead will result. Then the dead will go on the march and take over the world. If the gates aren't closed before All Hallows we're screwed. 'Where is this place?' All she knows is that it's called Dunwich. Do we cut to a library where maps etcetera can be consulted? Do we buggery.

It's all about the eyes

Back in Dunwich an attractive young lady gets out of a sports car. She's in search of Bob the shambling perv. She finds him lying in a shed, quivering with terror. There's a scary noise and Bob runs for it. She tries to follow but stumbles and is caught by the priest! Yes, evil and dead Father Thomas is very much still active in the community, and apparently kills the girl with a handful of earthworms.

Cut to bearded psychiatrist, who takes a call from Mr Robbins, who's worried about Emily who hasn't come home. 'Ignore the rumours', says the physician, the chances of her having been smashed in the mush with some worms are marginal at best. Well, words to that effect. The psychiatrist makes a note that Bob is involved. It seems we have a scapegoat that will waste some time while evil gathers its forces!

Now we cut to a courting couple in what seems to be a landrover parked in a remote spot. He's copping a feel as they snog, and we know what's going to happen to these unsuspecting teenagers, who look about thirty. To reassure the girl he turns on the headlights, and the dangling priest appears! Then disappears, in an un-special effect. Can zombie priests teleport? It seems so. The priest has a slight Poundshop Christopher Lee vibe. He reappears and does the starey hypnosis thing, whereupon the girl bleeds from the eyeballs, then coughs her guts up. Quite literally. Silly, and horrible - perhaps an attempt to out-gross US horror movies of the day. Now something equally horrible but different happens to the young man, which doesn't quite scan. Never mind.

Back in the Big Apple young Mary is going on a road trip with the sleazy old reporter, who's chewing a cigar. Creepy. Back in Dunwich the medical examiner is baffled by Emily's demise. Jerry, the psychiatrist, is at a loss, but hey! Let's all blame Bob. A horrible slimy maggoty lump is found, and the sherriff resolves that Bob's 'gonna fry'.

Quite a lot of short scenes, now, as we alternate between sleazy reporter and Mary - who's been dubbed with a British accent, but seems to be talking in American vernacular - and events in Dunwich. We learn that the priest must be destroyed to close the gates of Hell. Mission established.

Now we see blood being drained from Emily's corpse, and a mortician then does the make-up and so forth. This creepy guy is very remniscent of Donnie Pfaster in the X-Files ep 'Irresistible'. Anyway, this bloke sneaks in after the relatives have viewed the body and tries to steal some jewellery etc. And gets his, as a corpse of an old lady who was supposedly 'frightened to death' bites his fingers off. Oh, cut to exterior as we see the funeral parlour is 'Moriarty and Sons'. They're all round the target with this script.

Back in the bar, everyone's blaming Bob, because he's a dimwitted pervert. Glad I don't live in Dunwich. We see Bob on his moped returning to the clapboard love-nest of inflatable passion. He's wandering about doing some decent village idiot acting, but now here comes the teleporting dangly priest!

Meanwhile Mary and sleazy reporter (I never did catch his name and don't care) are looking at a map. Finally. This is quite dull as it's an attempt to establish 2-D characters as interesting. Obvious hair dye and a cigar, plus the dress sense of a third-rate comedian down on his luck. Yuck.

God, we're only halfway through. Anyway, back as chez Robbins, a little boy is upset because his big sister has just died. But no! Here she is outside his window, in a scene not at all reminiscent of Salem's Lot, eh Signor Fulci? This little boy's name is John-John, and he rushes downstairs to tell his parents that his sister's living corpse is outside. It's just a nightmare, son!

Cut to Sandra, who is painting a rhino. Is this intended to imply she is creative and horny? Anyway, she hears a strange noise and rings beardy psychiatrist Jerry. 'I'm having a nervous breakdown!' she says. 'Calm down, take it easy!' he says, professionally. He comes over and they find a corpse in the kitchen. It's the old lady who allegedly died of fright. Why she doesn't just attack them, I don't know. Instead she disappears as mysteriously as she arrived. Hmm.

This is all happening at a very leisurely pace, and there are quite a lot of shots of dark, small town streets that are reminiscent of Halloween and The Fog. Fulci really is trying to channel Carpenter here, I feel. Add this to dialogue that is very dull and the film keeps losing pace between some quite effective, if gory, scenes. Its narrative engine is sputtering like a faulty Vespa. Another problem is the zombie sound effect, which is laughably bad even for 1980. It sounds like a wildcat with piles. At best it is reminiscent of one of those 'lizards dressed up as dinosaur' movies. Crap.

Meanwhile Mary and her creepy beau are talking to a priest who explains that Dunwich was 'built on the ruins of Salem', which must have come as a shock to anyone living in the actual Salem. Anyway, our supposed heroes are on the right road to Dunwich. Or even dunwich.

Back in the town built on the ruins of Salem pervy Bob has been discovered sleeping in a car, there's a kerfuffle, and the irate householder then uses a power drill on Bob's head. This is quite ludicrous and gratuitously stupid, even for a giallo. Poor old pervy Bob, the scapegoat.

Sandra and Jerry go to Moriarty and Sons, perhaps to inform them that a corpse has escaped. But there's nobody in, apparently. This pairing is just as creepy as the one between Mary and Hair Dye Guy, because while the age difference is smaller it is a doctor-patient relationship. This is a film badly in need of feminism as well as narrative pace.

At last, Mary and Sleazo have arrived at the graveyard and seach four the weird gravestone. Casually bad acting as they amble around while at the same time pointing out that it's almost All Hallows and the world could be about to end. Jerry the beardy psychiatrist arrives in search of the funeral parlour staff (why?), but he's sent Sandra somewhere else. More exposition about Father Thomas. 'It's a long story!' 'I'm just about ready to believe anything!' Tick-tock, people.

Now we adjourn to Jerry's office and all four principals are here, hooray! Then the windows burst open and a storm of maggots blankets the room in wrigglyness. It's one of the more effective scenes and presumably heralds the Apocalypse or at the very least a major fishing tournament. The maggot-covered phone rings! It's John-John - Emily has eaten her parents a bit. Oh dear. But at least now we're all on the same page re: zombies.

Rather a good scene at the Robbins place, with things spattered around the dining table. Frustrating, not for the first time, how well Fulci does this set piece. If only the whole thing looked this strong. It's a film of clunky exposition, few ideas, and bad acting redeemed by visual excess that borders on the hilarious at times.

So now the party consists of a little boy, two young woman, and two highly unsuitable boyfriends. Saving the world doesn't look like an option at this point. Now the two sleazy guys go off with Mary while Sandra is detailed to look after the recently orphaned kid. And now, in a crazy twist, Sandra is killed by Emily, who tears her brains out! Didn't see that coming.

John-John scarpers, and visually it's again an excellent scene. All bets are off. Emily reappears, but is dispelled when Jerry simply closes his eyes. I have no idea why. But this leaves Jerry to accompany Mary and her Poundshop Rockford to the graveyard for the showdown. Nobody has said how they will win this one...

Cut to the bar, where there's Schlitz on tap but the radio informs us that Dunwich is in a state of emergency. The proprietor shuts the door, unaware that teleporting zombies can still get him and his few remaining customers. And they do.

Meanwhile, in the graveyard, there's more ambling around as they search for the priest's tomb. It might be one of the newer ones, who knows? Oh, now Jerry points out that Thomas is buried in the family tomb, over there. Cue more standing about looking stupid. 'Guess what?' says Mary, who's been walking as slowly as the rest of them. 'It's All Saints Day now!'

At last the Three Stooges open the Thomas family tomb, sliding off a big slab to reveal the entrance to a huge catacomb. As one finds in small town New England. 'Be careful!' says Mary as Jerry climbs in. Lots of folk are buried in wall niches behind plaques. They find Father Thomas' cubbyhole, and fortunately a crowbar is handy so they can open it. Too late! The zombie priest has broken out of the other side.

Mary screams at rats and skeletons, then undead Sandra appears and kills Hair Dye Guy by hoiking his brains out. At last, a plot twist we can all get behind! Now Sandra does the stare at Mary, and Jerry must act. He stakes Sandra with a wooden stake that happens to have a sharp end. So teleporting zombies can be killed by the old anti-vampire method. Who knew?

Grecian 2000 cannot save him

Now they make their way to the centre of this other 'city of the dead' to find Father Thomas. Behind them all the dead come to life, and this is a very good scene by any standard. Visually it's perfect, and I'm struck by the way these white-haired zombies in a blue-lit world resemble the Morlocks in George Pal's The Time Machine. Are they supposed to be the Salem witches? Maybe.

Still, we find ourselves in some kind of underground temple with a nifty glass roof. Looks a bit Masonic. Just saying. It's a fairly low-budget gate of hell, but interesting. And here is Father Thomas, teleporting himself into the fray. How will they sort him out? Mary's bleeding from the eyes, now, as Jerry searches for something handy. Ah, here's a cross with a sharp end. He stabs the dangly teleporting priest and the Big Bad goes up in flames, as do all the other zombies. The music has become quite terrible by this point, slightly spoiling the denouement.

Now a couple of deputies are in the graveyard with John-John, and our surviving two heroes emerge from the tomb. 'Mary!' shouts the boy, running towards her (even though he barely knows her). So, all is well. Or is it?

The film ends, as it began, with a scream. It was not mine. Or was it?


Anonymous said...

I quite like this film, along with some other Lucio Fulci films. By no means are they perfect, but are still great evocations of macabre, spectral terror, and I think the complete disregard for character development and narrative coherence perfectly suits the films' eschatological notions.

Anonymous said...

Catriona did her own dubbing. It wasn't her fault the script was so lousy.