Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Vamp or Not? City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead is a Lucio Fulci flick from 1980 that does appear from time to time on vampire filmographies. Recently Leila examined it and concluded that it wasn’t a vampire film but suggested “there's grounds for argument.” Dutifully I picked up the mantle, as it were, and decided to look at the film here.

The film is odd, it does have to be said. Mixing hints of witchcraft, séances, the Book of Enoch, a Lovecraftian nod (the location is called Dunwich), zombies and some vampire lore sprinkled on top for good luck. The story is bereft of detail but Fulci makes it dreamlike enough that you don’t care and it has some of the best gore sequences from eighties horror. The arrow DVD set – as always – is a fabulous release.

death of Father Thomas
The film begins with a priest, Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) in Dunwich graveyard. This is intercut with a séance in New York. Mary (Catriona MacColl), the medium, sees Father Thomas hang himself and knows the location through a gravestone that reads “The soul that pines for eternity shall outspan death. You dweller of the Twilight void come, Dunwich.” She sees a corpse rise from the earth, cries out about it being a city of the dead, has a seizure and dies.

Christopher George as Bell
Of course this brings the cops over, though Sgt. Clay (Martin Sorrentino), has little time for those there – especially main mystic Theresa (Adelaide Aste) who is connecting it all to the Book of Enoch. Even the appearance of a floating fireball doesn’t make him believe in the occult goings-on. Outside a newspaper journalist, Peter Bell (Christopher George), tries to get in to the apartment but fails.

Over at Dunwich a strange young man called Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) goes into a disused building, finds a blow-up doll and then sees something that looks like a worm infested, rotting baby. In the bar nearby the barflies comment about odd things since Father Thomas’ suicide as they speak a mirror breaks and then a crack opens in a wall. A woman called Sandra (Janet Agren) talks to a man called Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) – it seems like a psychiatrist session, that is interrupted by a girl who might have been Gerry’s other half, called Emily (Antonella Interlenghi). Emily says she is going to go and see Bob. After Emily leaves, Sandra talks about her mother being branded a witch – we hear a lot about Dunwich being cursed as it was built over the original Salem.

cracking scene
In New York, Bell goes to the graveyard in which Mary is being buried. He takes some notes at the grave (whilst dealing with two of the laziest gravediggers ever. We see, in the coffin, Mary awaken (clearly an autopsy wasn’t done on the young lady who suffered a sudden death in a mysterious situation). The next scene is really well done with her scratching at the inside of her lightly buried casket (the gravediggers put about three spades of dirt on and then left because of the time), ripping at fabric as her fingers shred. Bell hears something but is dismissive until she screams and he realises what is happening. Being a bit stupid, he goes at the coffin with a pickaxe and nearly puts it through her head three times (though it made for a good scene) before revealing her face.

Catriona MacColl as Mary
Back home (presumably after some time lapse) Bell is told that the events were foretold in the Book of Enoch and that, somewhere called Dunwich, one has been summoned whose “search for blood is never satiated.” This is the first vampire like clue then, though this is never repeated again. Somehow Bell is persuaded enough to help Mary find Dunwich – a town on no map. She tells him they have to close the gates of Hell, opened with the suicide, before All Saints Day or the gates will forever be open and the dead will never rest.

those old red eyes
Over in Dunwich bad things happen. Emily is looking for Bob but, instead, finds father Thomas. He grabs her and forces grave worms into her mouth – Emily dies of fright. In a car, teens Tommy (Michele Soavi, Black Sunday) and Rosie (Daniela Doria) are making out. Father Thomas appears, he looks at Rosie with an eye mojo highlight to his eyes and she starts to bleed from her eyes. This reminded me of Messiah of Evil, though the reasons for the eye bleeding were different. Rosie starts to vomit her organs, in a well-made and thus gross scene. She then grabs the back of Tommy’s head, breaking the skull and ripping the brains out.

back and looking rough
Long story shorter, the bodies are found but start getting up and moving around, attacking (and at times part eating) those they go after. Unlike your standard zombies, these are very rotten – more so than they should be at this stage – dripping with putrescence. They also have the ability to disappear into thin air and then mysteriously reappear. At one point Gerry is faced with Emily, closes his eyes and she vanishes. Why, I don’t know. Indeed part of their modus operandi seems to be to scare as much as to kill – given some of the activity.

maggot storm
They can manipulate the weather it would seem, as there have been dust storms since Thomas died and, as part of the causing fear aspect, the heroes are afflicted with a maggot storm at one point. We see, through Sandra (once she is killed and comes back), that they can eye mojo like Thomas can, causing their victim to bleed from the eyes and fixing them in fear. We also see Sandra stabbed in the stomach (was it meant to be the heart?) and fall down dead again.

fangs or a trick of the light?
It is with the final conflict with Father Thomas we see our most vampire like moments. Firstly there is a shot where he looks like he has fangs. Now I don’t know whether he has, or whether it was an accidental effect of lighting – but I am leaning towards the latter. We need to remember, of course, that he hung himself and suicide is a traditional path to vampirism. He is defeated by being staked (in the stomach, again, or perhaps even the groin) with a wooden cross. This causes him to rapidly decay (he was not decayed like the other dead) and spontaneously set on fire. This fire spreads to all the dead who are awakened.

Bob murdered
The film has, as I mentioned, some astounding gore. The murder of Bob, with a drill through the head, holds its own as an effect now – a truly masterful piece of horror/gore. The epilogue (if you like) is just bizarre. In Gerry we have one of the most sanguine, beardy heroes to grace a horror film and we have some moments that touch on the vampire genre: staking, use of the cross (as a stake), spontaneous combustion, ability to appear and disappear, eye mojo and, maybe, fangs. If I could be sure of the fangs I would be saying Vamp. As stands I am unsure, I really am. There is enough to go down a zompire line and it is most definitely of genre interest, as well of interest to Fulci fans. Despite its disjointed storytelling, which works hard not to tell you any background to the story whatsoever, it is worth watching.

So, what do you think on this one, Vamp or Not?

The imdb page is here.


Clark49 said...

One of my favourites from the 80's I have to admit.............but personally, despite the lore and the nods to the vampire I'd say not, a zombie movie for me

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Fair call, that said it isn't standard zombie either (vanishing and reappearing just isn't normal shambling behaviour, lol). I recommend the arrow addition though :)

Margaret said...

Excellent review as always! I have to say I agree with your assessment on all counts. That a fan of the original could enjoy a remake is just proof that they really did a good job of making it their own in this case. Cheers!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Margaret thanks, I assume this was about the Fright Night review - I'll transfer across for you :)