Maggots, Brains, and Intestines, Oh My: City of the Living Dead

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like innards spewing from a teenage girl’s mouth.]

Ashley:

I’m honored (?) to say that this is my first full Lucio Fulci film. My foremost thoughts on the film are: ewwwwwwww. This isn’t a particularly good film however the things it gets right, it gets really fucking right. What is this movie good at? Grossing me out and scaring the fuck out of me. And as I told Andreas while we were watching the movie, at the end of the day, sometimes I just want to be scared to fuck and back. There are lots of horror movies or ‘psychological thrillers’ or whatever the sophisticated-minded want to call them that try really hard to be scary and fail at it while still being very good movies. But this movie really knows how to scare. The insane ability for the zombie(ghostwitches?) to teleport and pop the fuck out of nowhere at any time demolishes any sense of safety. Characters who you expect to make it to the end get brutally savaged and I’m just sitting here like WHAT THE FUCK!?

I was so tense for almost all of the movie and a lot of it came from how completely disjointed and confusing everything was; the narrative is very jumbled and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sadly, my exposure to Italian horror extends to Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Deep Red. Suspiria is one of my all-time favorite horror movies and yesterday I was thinking about how City stands up next to it. They both have shaky, almost throwaway plots but both have something to make up for it. While Argento’s film was a masterpiece of beautiful, stylized Technicolor death, Fulci’s is full of unrelenting, straight-up nauseating gore. I have never been as disgusted by a film (in a oh-my-God-this-makes-me-wanna-vom way) as I was with City of the Living Dead.

Part of that could be because I don’t seek out extremely gory films but most of it was because that shit was just GROSS. But gore, by itself, doesn’t really scare me; it squicks me out but it doesn’t scare me. This film has the right mixture of extreme violence and gore and suspenseful terror. I haven’t seen Fulci’s Zombi 2 but I have seen the infamous eye-gouging scene; it has the same kind of drawn-out suspense as a very similar scene in City. The only big differences being that the splinter of wood is now a drill and the eye is just general head area. But, man, is that shit drawn out and disgusting! You just watch and watch and watch until it happens. And when it DOES happen, you still just watch because it doesn’t cut away and it’s nauseating and terrifying and strangely gratifying. If a film is going to go the opposite route of less is more, if they’re going to show me scary, gross shit, they better fucking show me scary, gross shit. And Fulci definitely delivers.

I enjoyed this film despite the fact that it wasn’t all the great because it really and truly scared me. It made me feel unsafe in a lot of ways; I had the feeling that Fulci was more than willing to expose the viewer to anything no matter how disgusting or horrifyingly violent and that is scary.

Andreas:

My voodoo priest grandfather used to have a saying about zombies: “In your head, in your head, they are fighting.” After watching Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, I’m starting to see what he meant by that. I’m not too well-acquainted with Italian horror; like Ashley, my experience goes as far as some Argento and Bava. So although I kind of knew where Fulci was coming from, in terms of poorly-dubbed English, violent deaths, and “WTF?” editing, nothing could really prepare me for, well, the grossness of it. Because, as Ashley says, “ewwwwwwww.” We’ve got guts being vomited up, brains ripped out through the backs of heads (multiple times!), icky worm gunk smeared in a girl’s face, a sex maniac’s brain impaled with a power drill, gale-force maggots – all the yucky shit you could ask for, and it’s all on-screen. Fulci does not hold back when he has the option of holding forth.

All this vomitrocious vileness takes place in Dunwich, Massachusetts, or at least in Fulci’s secondhand version of it. This puts us squarely in a warped, Italified version of Lovecraft Country, and many of Lovecraft’s pet themes are present in an obscured, garbled way. A town dominated by undefinable, unpredictable evil? Check. The imminent demise of mankind at the hands of forces from beyond something? Check. The triumph of chaos and insanity over cool-headed reason? Check, check, and double check. The madness is unleashed (somehow, I guess) by Father Thomas, a priest who hangs himself in a graveyard – and continues hanging himself aggressively throughout the rest of the film. The plot never gets past much more than an outline, especially since it has several time-consuming, tangential subplots that go nowhere. You’d think the infamous head-drilling scene is caused by a zombie, right? Nope, it’s an angry father… who’s never revisited again, but probably becomes a zombie at some point.

But Fulci (who co-wrote the film with Dardano Sacchetti) doesn’t appear to believe in exposition, except of the vaguest, most uninformative kind. The first few scenes introduce several seemingly important characters – a medium with a criminal record, a Shaft-like hard-boiled cop – who immediately disappear from the film, as well as several others who aren’t put into any coherent context. But, I admit, faulting City of the Living Dead for not making any sense is missing the point. Its plot holes and baffling ending are among its charms, just like the hilariously overacted dubbing or the many, many random close-ups of eyes. There’s certainly an element of so-bad-it’s-good at work here, alongside some so-well-done-it’s-scary, and of course the so-gross-it’s-oh-lord-stop-that. Let’s call the quality “uneven,” and leave it at that.

For all its inconsistencies, City of the Living Dead does have some moments of Argento-esque beauty. Twice we see houses drip blood, and both times it’s scary; the second time is worse, because it’s dripping into milk, and eww, you can’t drink that milk now. A mortician paints a corpse’s lips, which makes for a good eerie/beautiful moment, but doesn’t quite wipe that “died of fright” look off her face. And the multiple occasions on which women’s eyes start bleeding? Argentastic. (Fulci clearly doesn’t believe in overkill; if an effect looks disgusting the first time around, he has no compunction about repeating it.) I also have to give kudos to what I saw as the most artful part of the film, namely its use of off-screen sound. Sure, horribly scarred zombies are frightening, but it’s ten times worse when you can hear their yowling yet have no idea where they’re coming from. It’s impressive when a movie can show everything, and still have room left to scare you through suggestion.

I’m not willing to commit myself and say that City of the Living Dead is a good movie, or even that good of a zombie movie, but I did enjoy the further taste it gave me of Italian horror. Italian cinema is an inherently strange realm, from Visconti to Pasolini to spaghetti westerns, all the way to Lucio Fulci. To generalize outrageously about Italian movies: nationalities frequently get mixed up – and indeed, City features lead performances by an American, a Brit, and a Swede – as do accents, time periods, and genres. (As noted, City features brief glimmers of blaxploitation.) Fellini is known for his self-indulgent excesses; Fulci matches him, but instead of excessive sexuality or visual style, it’s in putrescence and bodily fluids. Make no mistake: this may not be a “good” movie, but it’s still terrifying. As Bob’s head was pulled closer and closer to that drill, I waited for the last-minute rescue, for Ann to stop her father… and it never came. After all the suspense, that drill still went straight through Bob’s head. At the end of the day, that’s kind of how I feel about this movie.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

2 responses to “Maggots, Brains, and Intestines, Oh My: City of the Living Dead

  1. Erling

    I love this movie, its up there with my Lucio Fulci favorites including ‘House by the Cemetery’, ‘Zombi 2’, and ‘The Beyond’. I think this film teaches important lesson, don’t do drugs with young girls or your brains will be drilled out.

  2. Absolutely right about the sound! i forgot to mention it in my own write up, but that constant howling and meowling through the mist really struck home!

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