City of the Living Dead: The Gates of Hell

I know gore hounds everywhere praise Lucio Fulci, dubbing him, “the godfather of gore,” and a variety of other trite titles. I like some of his movies. Zombie (Zombi 2 in Italy) and The Beyond are highly entertaining, yet I’ve always felt his work is a little underdeveloped. Many of his scenes end before anything happens; it’s like he doesn’t know how to complete a scene, therefore he stops them prematurely. Whether this is intentional – to maximize horror by removing the object of the viewer’s gaze – or unintentional isn’t something I can find much on (maybe I’m looking in the wrong places). Chau Balun’s book Lucio Fulci: Beyond the Gates doesn’t give much insight into Fulci’s constant usage of this technique; in fact, Balun’s meager exploration of Fulci’s work doesn’t provide much insight at all. Instead it gives a superficial historic overview of Fulci’s work, never divulging anything relevant to the director’s thematic motivations or compositional choices. What it does convey is Fulci’s outlook on filmmaking itself. Instead of an analytic approach to horror, Fulci asserts his “nightmares are made of passion,” preferring Poe over Lovecraft.

This assessment of Fulci is valid and The City of the Living Dead (aka The Gates of Hell) is a prime example. His plotlines and characters exhibit this approach: supernatural mediums and metaphysics trump science and rationalism – a trait common in zombie films like Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead (linking the zombie epidemic to radiation) or the 2002 Danny Boyle film 28 Days Later, which implements a disease as the catalyst for the zombie outbreak. Fulci’s films resemble the classics of the zombie canon, where voodoo or the supernatural are to blame. These causes, outside the bounds of empirical knowledge, call for a break from Enlightenment ideals, where the universe is a giant clock and God a mathematical clock maker. I applaud Fulci for this, even if his films sometimes annoy me. While Romero’s work is constantly exploring social and political issues (a valid concern, especially in the horror genre), Fulci takes a different approach, relying on ancient fears for his terror. Aside from the sub-genre many of Fulci and Romero’s films reside in, their approach to their craft is vastly different.

The beginning scene of The City of the Living Dead features a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) hanging himself in a graveyard. Whether this is commentary on the loss of traditional spirituality in post-modernity is questionable, but the act emphasizes much. Since the priest’s suicide opens the gates of hell, this act first symbolizes the death of spirituality in Western culture. Although some may argue that spirituality is on the rise as of late, this may not be the case. This zealous form of religious awareness is a response to a paradigm shift; a shift marking the loss of religion as a focal point in people’s lives. While religion is still vibrantly alive, it’s under attack from many sides: science, different spiritual views, and so forth. The priest’s suicide is also a grand gesture, “ultimately the only authentic act,” as both Lacan and Zizek indicate, allowing under this concept a reading of the suicide as a rejection of Enlightenment rationalism over spiritual sentiments through a grand gesture. By killing himself and opening the gates of hell, the priest’s act symbolizes the character’s desire for a return to a more spiritually pure form of life. His act disavows our contemporary social structure, turning it on its head. Opening the gates of hell signifies an attack on the current path Western civilization is on – a path devoid of an overt spiritual influence where ideologies such as capitalism triumph over religion, where large religious institutions are embedding the tenets of capitalism into their own doctrines, and where a clear cut version of spirituality is absent. In essence, Fulci’s priest embodies the opposite of the contemporary person; his desires don’t match up to the current trajectory of our civilization and by unleashing a horde of supernatural zombies the priest combats the prevailing order.

Another prime example of this tension between religious values and post-modern spiritual and scientific issues in City of the Living Dead is the interrogation of a group of psychics and mediums by a skeptical police officer following the death of Mary (Catriona MacColl), the film’s psychic female protagonist. Although Mary returns to life, after being partially buried alive, her colleagues attribute her death to extreme fright; a perspective the lead officer doesn’t believe. The psychics and mediums believe in the book of Enoch, a 4,000 year old text able to tell the future. Here we have two competing ideologies fighting: one embodying a defunct form of spirituality and the other adhering to an empirical view of the universe. With science and rationalism on his side, the officer believes the supernatural perspective is null and void – the byproduct of a past era and the ramblings of shysters and lunatics. Throughout this scene the officer brings up their criminal records, attempting to use their previous encounters with law enforcement to crack the case. However, like many spiritual adherents, the group refuses to change their story. While both sides hold to a particular schema, both espouse an orderly perspective: the mediums believe an ancient book depicts an orderly view of Earth’s spiritual and corporeal events while the detective asserts rationality and an empirical viewpoint. Both sides contain a structure, but the structure comes from two different perspectives. This competition between worldviews City of the Living Dead embodies is apparent in this scene.

After Mary’s death and resurrection, she teams up with newspaper reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) and head for Dunwich – the location of the gates of hell and the location of witch burnings centuries earlier  – where a tiny army of teleporting paranormal zombies, under the command of the priest, are slowly killing the local residents. This is where Fulci’s trademark gore comes into play. Fulci has his zombies ripping brains out of people’s heads a few times in addition to a scene where a drill impales a man’s neck. Like Zombi 2, Fulci uses worms and maggots, increasing the creepiness of his scenes by making his violence squirm. A scene where the windows fly open and a storm of maggots enters a house features the film’s protagonists unsuccessfully warding off the larvae. The maggots cover their faces and one even vomits in the scene. Aside from the brains, live creatures, and drill bit scene, crying tears of blood is a reoccurring motif in City of the Living Dead. Is this another physical representation of religious symbolism, an ocular stigmata of sorts? This occurs primarily when the priest stares at people. When the priest appears outside the car of a young, sexually active couple, the woman starts bleeding from her eyes when the priest gazes at her intensely. She then begins purging various materials from her mouth; first blood and then her organs.

This leads to another common theme in City of the Living Dead: eyes. Akin to bad Bruce Lee films of the early ‘70s, Fulci’s film features a litany of close-ups on people’s eyes. This brings to mind the concept of the gaze, the embodiment of motivation between two entities. Like in Lacan’s writings, when you gaze at the object it also gazes back at you, conveying the sentiments of the object onto the viewer and vice versa. By making the audience confront multiple pairs of glaring eyes, Fulci’s imparting the seriousness of both perspectives on the viewer. This also gives the audience access to the subjective position of both characters – by switching back and forth between both sets of eyes we witness the subjective position of both the assailant and the victim, allowing for the audience to explore both subject positions. We can see both sides in the film’s conflict: the spiritual past and the secular present. When Mary’s eyes bleed, both viewpoints are on display, since she’s an embodiment of both perspectives – the spiritual past and the post-modern present.

What’s interesting about the priest’s position is his adherence to the religious ideology of the past. Instead of combating the post-modern move towards ambiguity with logic or rational argument, he confronts it with violence. Christianity’s past, marked with violence (the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc.), doesn’t present itself as positive, instead demonstrating how a move from the old ways into the new may prove beneficial for humanity. This doesn’t discount humanity’s violent nature outside a spiritual context, yet nobody can deny the violent history of religious movements. While I’m uncertain whether Fulci’s taking sides, he does imply, especially through the overthrow of the zombies and the victory over evil, that a return to the values of the past isn’t desirable. By making Dunwich the location of former religious violence (the burning of witches), Fulci implies that religious violence is a negative; he makes the location of hell’s gates a site synonymous with religious brutality. It’s entirely possible Fulci embraces a post-modern standpoint, where one religious tradition doesn’t overshadow other possibilities.

Even with this exploration of the film, I don’t believe City of the Living Dead is anything spectacular. Zombi 2 and The Beyond are far better – containing better stories, characters, gore, and cinematography. Maybe it’s the print I watched (subtitled in Swedish), but the scenes change abruptly. I mention this at the beginning of my post and I’m uncertain whether Fulci does this to raise the audience’s tension, but I find it obnoxious. I’m not asking for a post-modern perspective of horror, where the audience confronts everything instead of a modernist perspective where the horror is implied, but continuity is important. His transitions are awkward, indicating a lack of proficiency in regards to editing. I’ve noticed this with other Fulci films – Zombi 2 being a good example. Yet Zombi 2 is a far superior film, featuring not only a great opening scene but my favorite unintentional comedic zombie scene ever: a zombie fighting a shark.

Here is the trailer

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