The Gates of Hell/City of the Living Dead/The Fear/Fear in the City of the Living Dead/Twilight of the Dead/Paura nella Citta dei Morti Viventi (1980/1981) ***
Most Americans who know him at all know Lucio Fulci-- among the most important of the great Italian gore-schlock directors-- as the man behind Zombie/Zombie 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters, the bastard sequel to Dario Argento’s re-edit of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. But Fulci, as I said, was a busy man, and while you Fangoria fanboys were renting Leprechaun 4: In Space instead of digging around to see what else the Zombie guy had made, you were missing what has to be the most imaginative (if also the most nonsensical) Italian zombie flick of them all: The Gates of Hell/City of the Living Dead/Paura nella Citta dei Morti Viventi.
In marked contrast to most Italian zombie movies, The Gates of Hell actually has a story and a few genuinely original ideas. The trouble is, I’m not completely sure just what that story is supposed to be, or how those original ideas relate to each other-- Fulci wrote the script too, you understand. What I am sure of is that we begin with a seance, in which a young New York psychic named Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl, from Hawk the Slayer and The Beyond/Seven Doors of Death, another Fulci flick) has a vision of a sinister-looking priest hanging himself in a cemetery in the town of Dunwich, Massachusetts. Dunwich as in The Dunwich Horror, I’m sure. Then, after the priest hangs himself, something begins to claw its way out of the grave beneath his dangling body. The whole business is a bit more than Mary had bargained for when she started the seance, and she starts screaming and twitching and drooling, and eventually falls out of her chair unconscious. More than unconscious, in fact-- I believe the technical term is “dead”.
So it’s really too bad for Mary’s friends that they’re all known loonies and dope fiends, because when the cops come to talk to them about Mary’s death, they aren’t terribly interested in stories about seances and trances and spiritual contact. They also aren’t interested in the “Book of Enoch,” which one of Mary’s friends claims describes either Mary’s death or the death of the priest in her vision (I told you I wasn’t quite sure what the story was!) in exact detail despite having been written 4000 years ago. Even when balls of flame start shooting out of the floor in the parlor of the house where the seance took place, the policemen refuse to take such talk seriously. But Mary’s creepy friend is adamant that “At this very precise moment, in some other distant town, horrendously awful things are happening-- things that will shatter your imagination!”
What kind of horrendously awful things, you ask? How about Bob, the town bug-eater of Dunwich (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, of Cannibal Apocalypse and Make Them Die Slowly), romancing an inflatable sex-doll in an abandoned house out in the woods? Is that horrendously awful enough for you? Well, what if I told you that right when Bob seems to be about to whip it out and go all the way, he notices the extremely rotten body lying on the floor not ten feet from him? Okay then. So we are in agreement that this scene qualifies as a horrendously awful thing to have happen. Elsewhere in Dunwich, a fat, mustachioed man is having some problems with his bar. First his mirror breaks for no fucking reason, an event which he tries to rationalize by saying that a truck must have driven by on the road just outside, and that the resulting vibrations shattered the glass. Alright, Mr. Mustache Fatty, if you’re so smart, let’s hear you explain the great big crack that opens up in your cinder block wall a scant fifteen seconds later! Can’t do it, huh? I didn’t think so. Maybe you should listen to your customers, who have been going on at great length about how Dunwich hasn’t been the same since Father Thomas hung himself, and how the people of Dunwich are descended from “Salem witch-burners.” Never mind that there were no Salem witch-burners (just Salem witch-hangers and a few Salem witch-pressers)-- when you live in a town named after an H. P. Lovecraft story, you’d do well to heed the words of your superstitious bumpkin neighbors!
Meanwhile, back in New York, Peter Bell, the world’s worst investigative journalist (Christopher George, from the old “Rat Patrol” TV show and such beloved art-house classics as Grizzly and Pieces), is roaming around the city, meekly accepting rebuffs from everyone he turns to for information regarding Mary Woodhouse’s death. First, he gets turned away by a cop (whose voice is dubbed by someone whose name I couldn’t tell you, but who has dubbed more anime voices in his time than you can shake a stick at). Then he gets nothing but grief from the grave-diggers charged with burying the psychic. In fact, the grave-diggers shoo Bell away twice! Peter is left hanging around Mary’s halfway-open grave (apparently, we are also dealing with the world’s worst grave-diggers!) after the uncooperative, lazy slobs punch out for the day, with the result that, against all odds and with no thanks to his own reportorial skills, the man gets his story after all. Mary Woodhouse, you see, isn’t quite dead. She wakes up screaming in her coffin, just within earshot of the reporter, who after much hesitation moseys to her aid, chopping her out of the casket with a pickaxe left conveniently beside the unfinished grave by the men who had been filling it. I guess Mary’s next of kin was too big a cheapskate to spring for the embalming job...
But it’s a good thing they didn’t, because otherwise, we never would find out what this fucking movie is supposed to be about. Mary shortly gets together with Peter and her talkative friend from the seance group, and reveals what she saw that put her in that shoddy excuse for a grave. Seems that Father Thomas hanged himself in order to open the Gates of Hell. Why? How? I don’t know, and I don’t think Lucio Fulci knows either, but the important thing is that they’re open now, and if they are not closed by 12:00 Monday night (the point of transition into All Saints’ Day), “no corpse shall ever be able to rest in peace, and the dead shall take over the world from the living!” Clearly, Peter and Mary need to get their asses over to Dunwich and close those Gates! This may be a bit difficult, though, because Dunwich “isn’t even on the map” despite the fact that it was supposedly built on the ruins of Salem (which, just to make sure we’re all on the same page here, was never ruined!). But I think we both know our heroes are going to get there eventually, even if they do keep stopping for food on the way. (And they seem to do that an awful lot for a couple of people who are trying to avert the end of the world...)
Let us now turn our attention to Dunwich and the rest of our dramatis personae. First, we have Jerry (Carlo De Mejo, from The House by the Cemetery and Women’s Prison Massacre), the town psychiatrist. (You know, I wouldn’t think that a town that doesn’t even merit inclusion on maps would be able to support a psychiatric practice...) Either Jerry isn’t a very good psychiatrist, or the APA wasn’t too picky about its code of ethics in 1980, because one of Jerry’s patients-- her name is Sandra (Janet Agren, of The Emerald Jungle)-- seems also to be his girlfriend. The last character about whom we need to concern ourselves is Emily Roberts (Antonella Interlenghi, of Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century and New York Ripper fame-- well, okay, maybe not fame exactly...), a friend of Jerry and Sandra’s, who seems also to be one of only two people in town who like poor, stupid Bob. In fact, Emily interrupts one of Sandra’s therapy sessions with Jerry to tell them both that she’s headed off to see Bob that very night. Bad move, that. While she’s over at the bug-eater’s place, Bob receives a visitation from Father Thomas, who kills Emily by suffocating her with a handful of wormy mud. This gets all of Dunwich up in arms against Bob, because whenever anything happens to a pretty girl in a small town, the town bug-eater is the automatic suspect, and the fact that Emily isn’t the only one to meet a grisly fate about this time doesn’t help matters any. Not long after he shows up at Bob’s place, Father Thomas puts in an appearance at lover’s lane to off a couple necking in the guy’s truck. (The guy, by the way, is now a hot-shit director of horror movies himself-- does the name Michele Soavi ring any bells?) This is a great scene-- the famous gut-puking scene. Rather than grab and eat the couple, as is the standard operating procedure for post-Romero zombies, Father Thomas puts some kind of black magic whammy on the girl, causing her to bleed from the eyes and literally vomit up her viscera! The girl then goes zombie herself, and yanks her boyfriend’s brain out through the back of his head in what we will soon come to recognize as the signature move of The Gates of Hell’s zombies.
So with all this grisly death going on, and with Bob being blamed for most of it, it’s fairly clear that the twitchy little bastard isn’t long for this earth. And sure enough, Bob gets what the townspeople think is coming to him before much longer, when the enraged father of a girl who had had a previous run-in with Bob catches his daughter and the bug-eater out in the garage about to smoke some pot. Dad grabs Bob, heaves him onto his workbench, and sticks a big-ass power drill through the man’s head!!!! Fulci does a wonderful job with this scene. The way he drags it out, combined with the fact that the man wielding the drill is not some crazed psychopath but merely a concerned father overreacting to a perceived danger to his daughter makes it seem impossible that the scene will really end with Bob’s death. And yet it does. Truly no one is ever safe in an Italian horror film.
Meanwhile, Dunwich is fast becoming the scene of a full-on zombie apocalypse. Emily rises from the dead to attack her family. The old lady who was buried on the same day as her causes all manner of havoc in Sandra’s house. Mr. Mustache Fatty’s bar is absolutely overrun by zombies in the only scene that has the undead doing what we expect of them and eating their victims. Finally, Peter and Mary reach Dunwich, meet up with Jerry and Sandra, and find Father Thomas’s empty grave. They descend through a hole hacked in what ought to be the tomb’s inaccessible side into a vast underground necropolis that I can only guess is supposed to be the suburbs of Hell. Despite the fact that All Saints’ Day has begun, when Jerry and Mary (some very nasty things have happened to Sandra and Peter by this point) finally corner Father Thomas underneath this weird stained glass skylight that is probably supposed to be the Gate of the title, and run him through with a wooden cross, Father Thomas and all of his zombie minions (a couple dozen of which were closing in on our surviving heroes at the time) burst into flames, apparently signaling victory snatched from the jaws of defeat for the forces of good. But then again, maybe not, because we haven’t quite gotten to the last scene yet. When Mary and Jerry return to the surface, something happens. But (and this is not altogether surprising) I have absolutely no clue what that something might be. All I can tell you is that Jerry and Mary seem extremely alarmed at the way Emily’s kid brother (the only survivor of the zombie girl’s attack on her family) comes running up to them for a hug after it’s all over. I don’t know why, because the picture breaks up into fragments like a shattered window before he reaches them, but they sure as hell seem scared.
Which brings me to the biggest question raised by The Gates of Hell: Do Italian horror movies make sense to the Italians? I mean, the logical difficulties that beset this movie are a bit on the extreme side, but they are also far from unique-- just exaggerated forms of an almost ubiquitous phenomenon in these movies. We never, for example, learn anything about Father Thomas’s reasons for wanting to open the Gates of Hell, nor do we learn why Mary seemed to die from the shock of her vision, nor do we learn how the doctors who must surely have examined her before she was declared dead missed the fact that she was not. We never learn for certain what the zombie-infested labyrinth beneath Thomas’s tomb is supposed to be, we never learn what makes All Saints’ Day so special that it becomes the deadline for closing the Gate, and the incomprehensible ending leaves completely unresolved the issue of whether Jerry’s failure to kill the zombie priest until the deadline was past actually meant that the Gate now could never be closed. And yet for all its disregard for sense and reason, The Gates of Hell is a strangely effective movie. What it lacks in logic it makes up for in atmosphere and imagery. Fulci has a strong intuitive sense of the uses of light and shadow, even if he tends to go overboard on the darkness. (Some scenes are so poorly lit that it’s next to impossible to tell what’s happening.) The shots of Mary in her coffin as she struggles to free herself are an excellent example of this-- note how the shadows falling on her face make it look like a bare skull. The director also makes good use of lighting from below to make his zombies look scarier. And finally, the biggest point in this movie’s favor is the simple fact of its bucking the almost irresistible pressure in favor of the derivative that characterized the Italian movie industry at the time it was made. For better or for worse, there was no other movie quite like The Gates of Hell... at least until Fulci went and made one himself a year later.