City of the Living Dead (1980) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, Christopher George, Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Interlenghi, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Daniela Doria, Fabrizio Jovine, Luca Venantini, Michele Soavi, Venantino Venantini, Enzo D’Ausilio, Adelaide Aste, Luciano Rossi, Robert Sampson, Janet Agren
The Beyond (1981) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale, Antoine Saint-John, Veronica Lazar, Anthony Flees, Giovanni De Nava, Al Cliver, Michele Mirabella, Gianpaolo Saccarola, Maria Pia Marsala, Laura De Marchi
House by the Cemetery (1981) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Giovanni De Nava, Daniela Doria, Gianpaolo Saccarola, Carlo De Mejo, Kenneth A. Olsen, Elmer Johnsson, Ranieri Ferrara, Teresa Rossi Passante
WARNING: Some spoilers ahead.
The late Lucio Fulci, Italy’s “Godfather of Gore”, has gained quite a cult following for his notorious grossout movies of the late 70s and early 80s. These films are controversial for their over-the-top effects and questionable treatment of women, but Fulci was no stranger to controversy – the 1969 flick Beatrice Cenci and 1972′s Don’t Torture a Duckling caused him some trouble for their blatant anti-Catholicism. In the 1970s he indulged in gialli (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) and westerns (Four of the Apocalypse). Yep, Fulci’s been all over the genre map, but he found his calling, if you can say that, with 1979′s Zombi 2, considered the “Italian” sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. After that, it was multiple trips to goretown with City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, House by the Cemetery, and The New York Ripper (another controversial shocker that led many to conclude Fulci was a misogynist). When viewing Fulci’s gore output, one detects recurring patterns in his work, related to camera techniques, bizarre plot developments, and certain stylistic touches. They are used widely in the three films unofficially named the “Gates of Hell” Trilogy – City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery.
Also sometimes referred to as Fulci’s Lovecraft trilogy, these movies were made within a span of two years at the turn of the 1980s, and they mostly deal with houses or towns built upon the entrance to hell or some sort of spiritual dimension (dealt with in 1977′s The Sentinel, which I think did it better, but I digress). City of the Living Dead stars English actress Catriona MacColl (well, all three films do), and American actor Christopher George (who also appeared in the hilarious Spanish slasher Pieces). What’s funny about the picture – and there are lots of funny things about it – is that Fulci pulls the rug out from under the audience by making Italian actor Carlo De Mejo the hero. Not particularly a problem, since George’s reporter character is given little to do except for a scene in a cemetery where he has to break MacColl out of her buried coffin with an axe. Otherwise, he’s just a tag-along, as female lead MacColl, playing the psychic named Mary, must race against time to find the mysterious town of Dunwich (a Lovecraft reference), where a priest recently hanged himself. As seen in a seance, the priest’s suicide has opened up the gates of Hell, or something, and the couple have until All Saints Day to close it (there’s no particular reason why the deadline is All Saints Day, and Fulci ignores this plot point anyway). This seance kills Mary, but she is somehow resurrected in her coffin (good thing she wasn’t embalmed!) just in time for Peter Bell (George) to break her out, in the movie’s strongest scene. As he breaks through with a pickaxe, the camera shows the instrument coming dangerously close to Mary’s head, demonstrating that Fulci is more than capable of crafting tense, uncomfortable scenes without the use of stage blood, maggots, or pig intestines.
Not that you won’t get to see that in City of the Living Dead, which features such wonderful displeasures as a girl bleeding from her eyes and vomiting up her intestines, a nasty head drilling, multiple brain-rippings, and a rain of maggots. The film occasionally focuses on a few residents of Dunwich which includes a trio of middle-aged pub-goers (meant for comedic effect, probably), a boy named John-John (Luca Venantini, who plays the part of child-in-peril), and a local weirdo/village idiot character named Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) who is blamed for the sudden rash of disappearances because he’s a pervert, apparently. There’s a weird sequence involving Bob and a sex-doll that suddenly inflates by itself, and another where a man takes the law into his own hands by executing Bob with an industrial drill. Now, I know that some residents of small town America can be rash and quick to judgment, but since when has a frightened suspect been killed in such a manner? If I find a kid in my garage smoking weed with my daughter, I’m going to be pissed but I’m not going to take my chainsaw to him. People don’t act rationally in this film – a Fulci trademark that I will cover in a minute.
What City of the Living Dead has going for it is a moody atmosphere and nice cinematography – the uncut, widescreen print of the film is gorgeous to look at (not the crappy VHS version called Gates of Hell – stay away from that one). There are some effective scenes, like the shots of the dead priest who likes to appear before his victims suddenly, noose still around his neck (Fabrizio Jovine has mastered the spooky look). The makeup effects (like John-John’s undead sister) are great (from Franco Rufini), as is Fulci’s ability to use gore and insects to make you feel very uncomfortable (the maggot scenes prove that Fulci likes to put his actors through the ringer). I might argue, however, that the gore tends to break the mood of the film – it’s as if he’s not confident enough in the material so he feels he has to compensate with effects. The film is also, quite frankly, an incoherent mess. Why and how did Mary return from the dead? How does she know that destroying the priest will close the portals of hell? Why is the town of Dunwich so difficult to find? And what’s with that stupid, nonsensical ending? At least there’s Fabio Frizzi’s awesome score, and the movie gets in one good joke – when they go searching the Dunwich cemetery for the priest’s grave, George says “Good thing he didn’t hang himself in Arlington!”
Similar problems arise with 1981′s The Beyond, also released in an edited version as Seven Doors of Death. The Beyond, considered by many to be Fulci’s masterpiece, moves at a much faster pace and features a lot of slow-moving zombies like Zombi 2. But it’s also much more incomprehensible than City of the Living Dead and the gore this time around, while plentiful, isn’t very convincing. Two shots come to mind – the first is a sequence where a zombie pushes a woman’s head onto a nail sticking out of the wall, which pushes out her eyeball. It’s sick, but not very realistic. The other scene has a man falling off a ladder and then soon eaten by a bunch of fake-looking tarantulas that also make squeaking noises like bats. (Fulci’s power to gross me out was somewhat diluted by my laughter.) There’s also, like in City of the Living Dead, the tendency for Fulci to convey emotion through quick zooms and lots of closeup shots of eyes. (Fulci loves to show eyes, and eye violence – is he indicting the audience for watching?)
“Woe beyond to him who opens one of the seven gateways to hell… because through that gateway, evil will invade the world!” The words are written in the Book of Eibon (fulfilling a function similar to the Book of Enoch from City of the Living Dead). Eibon, of course, was a book from the Cthulhu Mythos (H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith). It’s Louisiana, 1927, and in a sepia-toned sequence, a mob of men assault the painter Schweik in his hotel room with chains (similar to a sequence in Don’t Torture the Duckling) before nailing him to the hotel’s basement wall, Christ-like, then pouring quicklime on him. Fast forward to 1981, and Liza Merril (MacColl) has inherited the place. Having been unsuccessful living in NYC, she sees renovating the hotel as her last chance to make something of herself. Unfortunately, things start off badly as a painter falls off a scaffolding after having a vision of a woman with white eyes. Then Joe the Plumber (of course, that’s his name – what else would it be?) shows up and seems to have some unspoken connection to the strange woman Martha (who “came with the hotel”). But this is a Fulci movie, so that plot point is abandoned so that Joe can have his eyeball squeezed out of his head by a resurrected Schweik (The character of Dr. McCabe, played by David Warbeck, would later refer to it as an “accident”). Liza soon enounters a blind woman named Emily (Cinzia Monreale), standing in the middle of a lone road with a seeing-eye dog. She knows who Liza is, and warns her not to go back into the hotel, since the place sits on top of one of the seven doorways to hell (goodbye, property values!). In the meantime, more bodies pile up – a woman has her face dissolved into a strawberry-froth by a jar of acid, throats are ripped out by possessed pets (lifted straight from Argento’s Suspiria), and a girl has a nice hole blown through her head. The last half hour is filled with good-looking zombies (courtesy of Giannetto De Rossi) and ends in a trip to “the sea of darkness” as portrayed in one of Schweik’s paintings. It’s these final shots of The Beyond that almost make everything that comes before seem worthwhile, as the gloomy afterlife portrayed here is extremely unsettling.
Fulci can be maddeningly frustrating, however. His characters tend to be very stupid. Take the scene in City of the Living Dead where our psychologist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) goes over to Sandra’s (Janet Agren) house and finds a corpse on the floor. Instead of assuming, like most people would, that it was the result of a prank, the woman thinks it’s supernatural and Gerry himself can’t even come up with an explanation. When the corpse disappears and something starts making noises in the house, the two decide to linger around and search every room, instead of doing what any normal person would do and run to the police. A later scene that shows our main cast completely covered in maggots must not have been that big a deal, since nobody decides to leave the room despite their new live-maggot-covered carpet. Contrast this with multiple scenes in The Beyond, where our hero David Warbeck is fighting off a horde of walking dead. It’s established early on that only a head shot will take the zombies down, so why does the Warbeck character only occasionally aim for the head? Point blank range, and he’s still delivering torso shots. There are monkeys that stack boxes to get to the bananas way smarter than these people. The film’s disjointedness is most obvious in a scene where a woman is killed by a bottle of acid poured onto her face. But why was she on the floor to begin with? Who tipped the bottle over? And why would a medical examiner hook up a 6 year old corpse to a brainwave machine? Fulci’s answer surely would be: just because. As with City of the Living Dead, the stupidity of The Beyond is mitigated by the intensity of his images. The gleeful attitude the film takes towards complete body destruction is something to behold, as is his portrayal of ghouls and gore in uncomfortable closeups.
The House By the Cemetery distinguishes itself from the other two films by having some semblance of a plot, although its story gets its influences straight from The Shining, with the use of little boy Bob (Fulci loves to name his characters Bob/Robert) who can communicate telepathically with a little girl (who may or may not be a ghost), a spooky mansion with dark secrets, and an axe-through-the-door gag. The girl warns him not to go into the New England home that his daddy Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) has chosen to bring the family to from New York City. Norman is investigating the suicide of his mentor, who killed his mistress and hung himself. Reluctantly coming along is his emotionally-disturbed wife Lucy (MacColl again – Fulci just loves her) and babysitter Ann (Ania Pieroni), who has a mysterious background, usually communicated through extreme closeups of her eyes and menacing notes on composer Walter Rizzati’s soundtrack. As to be expected from a haunted house, strange noises are heard, including that of a sobbing child. Occasionally, somebody like the real estate lady (Dagmar Lassander) will come around and be gored to death by a fireplace poker – the blood pours out of her like water from a faucet. (There’s also something prurient about how her death is illustrated, a good example of the director’s “pornographic” violence). The story concerns the house’s former resident Dr. Freudstein (LOL), who is entombed in the basement – or perhaps the good doctor is still alive, and has figured out how to stay that way using the blood of his victims. Like Fulci’s other films, House by the Cemetery looks great, and has good makeup effects (and more unnerving use of maggots). There’s also a good death scene where a victim is dragged down the stairs, her face hitting very step with a thud, and a nod to the grave scene in City of the Living Dead where Norman uses an axe to free poor Bob from behind the cellar door, unaware that the monster is holding Bobs face to it, just inches away from each blow.
When the movie finally reaches its conclusion, however, you will still be wondering just what is going on with the little girl Mae (Silvia Collatina) or Freudstein’s wife (Teresa Rossi Passante), or why characters seem to stand still for five seconds before reacting to something, or why Fulci would use his own quote “No one will ever know whether the children are monsters or the monsters are children” and attribute it to Henry James. You might ask why babysitter Ann is cleaning up the blood of a victim, indicating that she’s working with the dark forces of the house, only to be dispatched as just another victim (dropped plot point? What was her connection to Norman anyhow – was there an affair?) Perhaps you’ll just be thinking about the film’s unfortunate dubbing, which like his other films is atrocious, especially that of the Bob character. (It rivals the bad dubbing in flicks like Burial Ground and Beyond the Door.) At the end of the film, Fulci is clearly siding with the children here, attributing their psychic abilities simply to being part of a world adults cannot enter. So maybe in a way, the ending does make sense – the adults can never understand Freudstein’s ghostly plane of existence, so they’re doomed, while Bob and Mae can exist on that level with little effort.
I see Fulci’s splatter output as the horror equivalent of porn. His protracted death scenes end with money shots, and these shots tend to define his films. Other directors show quick shocks of gore and move on; Fulci leers at his gore, lingers on it. I think the strengths of these movies are in their parts, not the whole. Fulci should have been a painter – his films are soaked in unsettling and surreal imagery, ready-made for screenshots. You sense that his victims are doomed from the get-go, cursed to inhabit a universe completely devoid of reason. Fulci’s followers will dismiss critiques of his dialogue or bizarre plotting as beside the point – the visceral experience being the most important. I agree that this is the best way to approach these films. The only thing is, I’m not sure I believe Fulci when he talks about his films’ absence of logic or plot being intentional. Horror films can absolutely get by on nightmarish imagery and intense emotion (like The Evil Dead), but there are just too many weaknesses in direction and plot here to keep me constantly tuned in to that wavelength. What I’m saying is, with all his indulgence in gore and mood, I still find him overrated as a horror director. I would be more willing to give credit to the people he surrounds himself with – Sergio Salvati’s awesome cinematography, Fabio Frizzi/Walter Rizzati’s chilling scores, and Giannetto De Rossi/Franco Rufini’s nice makeup effects. That the Gates of Hell trilogy is phantasmagorical and oneiric, I will not dispute. The ratings of these flicks tend to place The Beyond at the top and House by the Cemetery at the bottom; I think they’re all just about equal in quality. My personal opinion is that City of the Living Dead is the most dreamlike and atmospheric. The Beyond is overrated, but it’s probably the most chimerical and entertaining (especially for its badness). House by the Cemetery is the most straightforward, nowhere near as outrageous as the others, but it still has a certain otherworldly and cheesy charm to it. There’s something about these flicks that grow on you – maybe it’s the feeling that the ghost of Ed Wood is lurking around them, or that I just have an appreciation for over-the-top exploitation fare. Fulci is not sophisticated, he’s more like the loveable brute of horror – stupid, but he tries very hard to please. He’s no Mario Bava or Dario Argento, but at least he’s not Bruno Mattei.
- Bill Gordon