Chris Alexander’s SHOCK TREATMENT: Why CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD Will Always Be THE GATES OF HELL

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ShockTreatment!

 

In this ongoing SHOCK column, editor Chris Alexander muses on classic and contemporary films and music worthy of a deeper discussion.

 

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I’m glad I live in a world that now celebrates the vision of Lucio Fulci. A world that recognizes and appreciates his singular genius, themes, motifs and philosophies. Because I remember when the only reason folks seemed to endure Fulci’s work was to bask in dollops of gore while the rest of the running times of even his finest films were dismissed as incoherent, incompetent mush.

Case in point, about 20 years ago, I was camped out in line for a horror film screening at midnight in Toronto. I met this guy there. He loved horror movies. We talked and trivia-dueled. But when chat came to Fulci, this kid was dismissive. I mentioned that I thought Fulci was a genius and this dude laughed, dismissing my perceptions and the credit I was giving what he deemed to be a junk-food filmmaker.

“Good gore, but his movies suck. They’re stupid. They’re written with crayons.”

I turned my back. Conversation staked.

But let’s talk more about Fulci, the man, the filmmaker, just in case you’re one of the 8 people reading this website who have no idea who he is/was.

Once a director of mediocre sex comedies, second rate Westerns and rather competent giallo-styled mystery-thrillers (1971’s A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN,1978’s SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK), Italian genre filmmaker Lucio Fulci didn’t truly find his cult status footing until the close of the 1970’s when producer Fabrizio De Angelis, so dazzled by the European success of Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (called ZOMBI in Italy), opted to employ the aging hack to helm an unauthorized DAWN prequel (or “rip-off” as the case may more likely be). The resulting motion picture collaboration was 1979’s festering, maggot-mangled horror hit ZOMBI 2 (or just plain old ZOMBIE in the US), a balls-out cannibal-corpse epic that did even better box office business abroad than Romero’s film did and ushered in a tidal wave of increasingly sickening Eurohorror gorefests that, like the living dead themselves, were relentless in their advances.

This late career spike in popularity inspired Fulci to spit out a quick and dirty series of increasingly surreal and wildly grotesque X-rated horror movies featuring bloodsucking stiffs of every persuasion, including the movie that a majority of the director’s admirers cite as being his spleen ripping magnum opus, 1981’s operatic shocker L’ALDILA (THE BEYOND), which in many ways is a kind of companion picture. And, while THE BEYOND is indeed awesome (hell, I even have a tattoo of the film’s signature “Eibon” symbol on the back of my neck!) there’s another Fulci movie from this period that I will forever claim to be his finest.Downbeat, morbid, weird and enthusiastically gross, I’m talking about 1980’s Paura nella città dei morti viventi aka CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD or, as I’ll forever know and love it as,THE GATES OF HELL.

Let me take you back to the first time I saw this sanguinary stunner…

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The scene was the dawn of the VHS rental craze in the 1980’s. I had one of those ridiculously huge, top loading VCR’s that took two lumberjacks to lift. My friends and I would spend our Friday nights haunting the local mom and pop video store and then camp out at my house in front of our ancient, green tinged TV set, pumping horror flick after horror flick into my machine, basking in the never-ending onslaught of cheap visceral thrills. But it was with a blind rental of a greasy, unrated, Paragon Home Video release called THE GATES OF HELL, complete with that double-dog daring disclaimer on the front cover, that our psyches would spin on dimes.

And I, for one, would never, ever be the same.

After some strange, stylish but standard horror movie foreplay, the first shocking sequence we saw went something like this:

A pretty girl with hypno-gripped eyeballs dripping streams of blood (Fulci regular Daniela Doria), staring into the face of a blue tinged demon priest, belching greasy foam, followed by the impromptu appearance of a bowel, then a heart, a liver, stomach, kidney – everything – the entire intestinal tract pouring out of her gaping maw; and then her shocked boyfriend (STAGE FRIGHT director Michele Soavi) gets his brains squished out of his fist crushed skill…

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That night, with that hideous scene of graphic gut-barfing delirium writhing in front of us, the taboo-demolishing possibilities of the horror movie were redefined for me. Subsequent viewings have done little to dull the bratty genius of THE GATES OF HELL’s outrageous set-piece drenched bravado (courtesy of FX maestro Gino De Rossi), including the flawless bit where a screeching Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen) gets his head penetrated by a whirling table drill manned by someone’s angry dad.

Fulci eventually cited that scene was in fact a cry against fascism. Maybe it was. It’s certainly a cry against good taste!

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The film takes its structural cues from the elder-god writings of H.P Lovecraft to spin the loose story surrounding a suicidal priest and the festering, not so well hidden Gate of Hell he opens in the town of Dunwich, New England (not city, as the title implies, which is just one of many reasons I believe THE GATES OF HELL title works far better). As the natural world slowly gets bent out of shape and the flesh eating dead begin teleporting themselves all over the streets, reporter Peter Bell (cigar chomping American character actor Christopher George who Eurohorror fans will remember from J.P. Simon’s ridiculous and awesome PIECES and the creepy MORTUARY) and psychic cutie Mary Woodhouse (Fulci regular Catriona McColl) along with the late Carlo de Mejo to race against the clock to put a stop to the apocalyptic, metaphysical monster madness.

The enthusiastic Fulci really goes the distance with GATES, creating an audio/visual saturation of death-obsessed sensorial stimulation: rotting flesh, muddy graves, showers of maggots, slowed down sound effect loops of screaming babies and chattering monkeys(!), buckets of blood and endless mist and Fabio Frizzi‘s incredible, doom-laden prog-rock score all combine to disarming and frightening effect.

The main draw for many are of course the film’s jaw-dropping death set-pieces, including those aforementioned spleen spitting and skull splitting sequences that still have the power to shock. As with much of Fulci’s work during this period, THE GATES OF HELL owes more than a dose of vision to mid-period Dario Argento films like SUSPIRIA and INFERNO and, if not a better film than those works, it’s a much more visceral and urgent experience.

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Initially shunned by some as warmed over Romero wankery, now worshiped by many as a fire-breathing masterwork, THE GATES OF HELL is unstable and seething, the crimson proof of Fulci’s power as an artist of major vomitous vision and putrescent power.

You kids, weened as you are on DVD and Blu-ray, might call it CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and that’s fine. That’s its true English language handle. But your perspective on the ride depends on when you get on the train and that dusty, flimsy cardboard Paragon VHS case and the weighty tape enclosed served as a key to a kind of cinematic awareness; a horror film version of being ripped out of the Matrix. And instead of waking up to a turgid world of burlap sack fashion and subterranean stench, it pulled me over the bloody rainbow where everything was louder, weirder, braver and better.

To me, it’s THE GATES OF HELL. Always! Forever!

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