Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Paura nella città dei morti viventi (City of the Living Dead) (1980)

The village of Dunwich houses a gate to hell in Lucio Fulci's Paura nella città dei morti viventi (City of the Living Dead) (1980). This is not surprising. Most of us have known this for a while:

"In 1747 the Reverend Abijah Hoadley, newly come to the Congregational Church at Dunwich Village, preached a memorable sermon on the close presence of Satan and his imps; in which he said:

'It must be allow'd, that these Blasphemies of an infernall Train of Daemons are Matters of too common Knowledge to be deny'd; the cursed voices of Azazel and Buzrael, of Beelzebub and Belial, being heard now from under Ground by above a Score of credible Witnesses now living. I my self did not more than a Fortnight ago catch a very plain Discourse of evill Powers in the Hill behind my House; wherein there were a Rattling and Rolling, Groaning, Screeching, and Hissing, such as no Things of this Earth cou'd raise up, and which must needs have come from those Caves that only black Magick can discover, and only the Divell unlock.'

"Mr. Hoadley disappeared soon after delivering this sermon; but the text, printed in Springfield, is still extant." (1)
As a traditional narrative, Paura nella città dei morti viventi fails. My chief complaint towards the plot is the complete lack of desperation and fear driving the main characters. Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) and Peter Bell (Christopher George) are attempting to find the village of Dunwich before All Saint's Day. At midnight at this appointed time, shit will go from bad to worse, and the gate of hell will open unto the city of dead. In my opinion, the opening of the gate of hell is a strong motivation to get one's ass into gear. In an endearing sequence yet one that completely undermines the story, Peter, in a fit of frustration, pulls his road map and attempts to find a navigable road to Dunwich. Mary exits the vehicle and flirtatiously asks Peter to take a break and go for a meal. MacColl has a beautiful smile and most could not resist her charms (including me). Peter, with a beaming smile on his face, succumbs to Mary’s wishes, and the two wisp off to the local town to get a meal (and some information).

In a dramatic sense, this scene is designed to show these two characters growing together and, maybe, growing closer romantically. Earlier in the film, Peter nearly crushed poor Mary’s head with a pickaxe. Why? Mary is a medium, and during a séance, she witnessed in a vision the suicide of a priest in the village of Dunwich. The subsequent evil which would come with this priest’s death was also made available to Mary during her vision. This vision was so powerful that it knocked Mary into a death-like trance, so convincing that she was pronounced dead and was half-buried in a coffin in a cemetery. In a gasping fit for air, Mary screamed from her coffin where only Peter was in earshot to hear her. He pulled a pickaxe and drove it as hard as he could into the coffin, several times, specifically in the region where her head laid. He almost kills her but rescues her. Now Mary wants a snack. This is understandable.

Dardano Sacchetti admits that he and Lucio Fulci were unable to work for a year after the phenomenal success of Zombi 2. (2) He writes that, “Well, Fulci, in the long run, managed to persuade the Medusa people to finance Paura nella città dei morti viventi, which I consider one of our least successful films in as much as it was thought out and shot in an atmosphere of sheer desperation.” (3) Catriona MacColl states that, “I spent a lot of time in Italy which I adore. City was done in the spring. I think that we were in the States in April or May. We would do two or three weeks in Georgia, or Boston or New Orleans, and then about six weeks in Rome. Fulci wasn’t actually present at the dubbing, he had a dubbing director take care of it. On City he was still shooting when we dubbed it.” (4) Fulci began shooting Black Cat (Gatto Nero) on the day Paura nella città dei morti viventi premiered in Roman cinemas. (5) From the little information that I was able to gather in regards to this film, it would appear that Paura nella città dei morti viventi was a hurried production. With this information in mind, many of these flaws are forgivable, and for the forgiving viewer, Paura nella città dei morti viventi is an entertaining Italian horror film.

Like L'aldilà (1981), the best Lucio Fulci cinema are works of haphazard beauty, full of contradictions. Paura nella città dei morti viventi is no exception. The opening low-key sequence in the cemetery where the priest enters to commit suicide is an effective atmospheric set piece. (Sergio Salvati’s photography is always beautiful, but his work is in top form in Paura.) One of the most famous sequences of the film, where a young woman regurgitates her innards, is preceded by one of Fulci’s most affecting images: the young woman whose eyes bleed like tears. This image conjures many themes, mostly religious, yet this image even without a context, is extremely beautiful.

Despite the weak narrative of Paura, the film has some brilliant episodes. For example, Janet Agren plays Sandra, a patient of local Dunwich therapist, Gerry (Carlo De Mejo). She’s alone at home one evening and painting. She hears a strange noise and goes to investigate. Sandra calls Gerry, because she doesn’t know if she’s gone crazy after what she has seen. Gerry arrives and goes to look in her kitchen where the dead body lays of a woman who died days previously. How did her corpse get into Sandra’s kitchen? Who knows? This scene is also reminiscent of a famous scene in Stephen King’s 1975 novel, 'Salem's Lot, where Matthew Burke invites Benjamin Mears over to his house to witness the corpse of Mike Ryerson. It’s one of those fantastic sequences where totally rational people are forced to deal with the completely irrational. They’re not used to it, and it’s both kind of creepy and amusing to watch them squirm.

Fulci certainly doesn’t mind putting his gore on display nor his sadism (the drill scene suffices in this respect). I cannot think of another film which has such a striking balance of the visceral and the atmospheric ethereal. And Catriona MacColl was a real jewel who elevated Fulci’s cinema mightily. Paura nella città dei morti viventi, like L'aldilà, is an extremely important film in Italian horror cinema.


1. “The Dunwich Horror.” H.P. Lovecraft. The Best of H.P. Lovecraft Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. Del Rey Ballantine Books. New York: 1982. p. 100.
2. Spaghetti Nightmares. Edited by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta. Fantasma Books. Key West, Florida: 1996. p. 124.
3. Spaghetti Nightmares. Edited by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta. Fantasma Books. Key West, Florida: 1996. p. 124.
4. Beyond Terror The Films of Lucio Fulci. Stephen Thrower. FAB Press. Surrey, England, U.K: 1999. p. 160.
5. Beyond Terror The Films of Lucio Fulci. Stephen Thrower. FAB Press. Surrey, England, U.K: 1999. p. 160.


Alex B. said...

To this day I believe CITY to be an underrated film. This was the movie that converted me. My first dip into Italian horror. I had it on the same VHS tape as Fulci's ZOMBIE. I think I was 14. After seeing CITY I actually shoved that tape into a dusty corner for a year, so shaken and disgusted I was. During the final confrontation in the crypt I was praying for a happy end. So they kill the priest. And then that final freeze-frame comes! For about a year I suffered nightmares. That priest, his eyes. CITY is the only movie I can think of that ever affected me so strongly. I was shocked by how crude, direct simplistic (but effective) it was. Didn't give a shit about narrative. I still don't in films. About a year later I dared re-watch CITY and ZOMBIE and couldn't get enough. I'd re-watch them steadily once a fortnight, sometimes more often. At the time, I had no clue who Fulci was, what he looked like,w whether he was alive or not, where those films were made. All I knew was that they were the most special and enigmatic kind of films I'd ever seen. My copy was dubbed from French into Russian and the opening title credits said FRAYEURS. Still have that tape, the one that changed me and my life.

Hans A. said...

Alex, you write the best comments, ever. I love hearing your thoughts.

I've watched City many times in the last few days. I've been watching nothing but Italian cinema for the last few weeks. I cannot get enough of it. It's as if I rekindled a passionate love affair.

I didn't even mention Frizzi's amazing score in my review. That music haunts me.

Alex B. said...

Thanks man!

Oh yes, that score. Sounds from beyond the grave. I now have 2 tapes and 2 different DVD's of CITY.

So, you gave in to the charms of Italian cinema once again? Sounds great. I'm in a tough spot at the moment. I download a lot more films that I can physically watch. It's only 2 or 3 nights a month now that I allow myself to sit down properly and watch a feature movie all the way through to the end without getting distracted by having to study or go shopping or whatever. Short films provide some kind of a solution when I haven't got the time to watch a feature. This way I recently discovered Kenneth Anger.
So I don't get to wallow in euro-cinema the way I used to. And when I have a choice whether to try out a rare film I've not seen before or to give Aenigma or Oasis of the Zombies a spin for the umpfteenth time, I usually go for the latter. Re-watching wins.