What Horrors Await Those in the City of Dunwich?
During a séance in New York City, Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) has a vision about the suicide of Father Thomas in the town of Dunwich, leading Mary to collapse to her supposed death. The vision turns out to be an omen for the sleepy town, as the Father’s death opened one of the gates of Hell, causing chaos for its residents. It is up to the journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George) and Mary to stop the impending invasion of demonic forces before All Saints’ Day.
This is the setup of City of the Living Dead (1980), also known as The Gates of Hell thanks to its 1983 US release, director Lucio Fulci’s return to the horror genre following the success of Zombi 2 (1979). Borrowing from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Fulci, and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti establish an atmosphere of dread whenever the film sets its lenses on the city of Dunwich, where an ever-present fog and harrowing winds accompanied the music of Fabio Frizzi. This provides the moody calm before the storm of violence and gore.
For those who are familiar with Fulci’s other works, such as Zombi 2, The Beyond (1981), and The House by The Cemetery (1981), you will recognize the director’s eye for effects work that will often disgust those with a weak stomach. One of the most notorious scenes in the film involves the spirit of Father Thomas causing a young woman to puke her guts out (and this is not an exaggeration), and this is coupled with other moments of murder that would be best left spoiler-free.
The cast is filled with people whom most would not have recognized at the time, with Christopher George being the most well known of the bunch. For those familiar with Italian horror and exploitation cinema, there are names that people will recognize. We have Giovanni Lombardo Radice, known for Cannibal Ferox (1981) and Stage Fright (1987), as Bob, the outcast of Dunwich who later becomes accused of the murders that happen around the town; and we also have Michele Soavi, the director of Stage Fright, The Church (1989), and Cemetery Man (1994), as one of the victims of Father Thomas. The performances can vary from quality work to downright annoying, which can be at the fault of a lack of care with audio dubbing at times. The best performance comes from MacColl as Mary, as the opening scene displays her talent with such bombast, possibly leading to the future collaborations with her and Fulci.
While the setup and the atmosphere help to create a creepy mood and tone for the film, City of the Living Dead does not have a conventional narrative for the most part. Following Peter saving Mary from being buried alive, the structure often falls into episodic moments of bad things happening in Dunwich, followed by the two leads driving and trying to find the town. This can often make the movie feel slow, or that it is an excuse to show off another gag reel of blood and guts and zombie mayhem. It is never made clear why the death of Father Thomas caused the gates of Hell to be opened, or how Mary was able to witness it in a vision in the first place, so anyone who wants a clear resolution will probably be left wanting at the end of this film. Especially since the true ending was rumored to be destroyed during production, leaving the movie to end on a strange note.
The film might not work for most contemporary viewers, who have become accustomed to the multitude of violence in culture, as they might find what was once considered quite controversial and graphic for the time rather quaint. The slow pace and often nonsensical plot can potentially lead others to dismiss the film as trash, but that would take away from the moody score and production that gives the town of Dunwich a Lovecraftian vibe that is often difficult to capture on film. It is not the best film in Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy (that honor going to The Beyond), but City of the Living Dead provided the director with a foundation of surrealism that would be built upon in his later work and began his late career rise as an Italian horror icon.
Check out this “City of the Living Dead” soundtrack!