Sunday, May 23, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: 'City of the Living Dead'

(Best thing ever, btw: the backwards E's on this DVD cover. Silly zombies, they can't write good!)

My first Fulci! One hears about the ruthlessly baroque gore of Italian maestro Lucio Fulci -- his work even makes a cameo in "Juno" -- but nothing can really prepare one. "City of the Living Dead" (or, as fancy-pants IMDb has it, "Paura nella città dei morti viventi"*) should really be watched with a crowd, so everyone can bob heads to the catchy organ music and scream "Oh my God" during the gore sequences, and most particularly so everyone can say "What in the name of God just happened?" after the head-scratching ending. The Final Girl Film Club is the next best thing.

Plot's not really the point here, but briefly and with spoilers: During a seance, a comely psychic (Catriona MacColl) has a vision of a priest hanging himself in a cemetery and thereby opening the gates of hell. Paralyzed by fright, the psychic is buried alive and rescued by a cigar-chomping reporter (Christopher George, of "Pieces"! (Or as IMDb has it, "Mil gritos tiene la noche." What is with you, IMDb?)). The two of them set off together to find the cemetery and close the gates before all hell breaks loose. While they're getting their act together, lots of craziness starts going on in Dunwich, the town with the cemetery in question. (Nice Lovecraft reference there, Fulci babe.) This movie doesn't make much sense and it's not really good, per se, but it is a blast to watch.

First, the live burial: This entire sequence is just fantastic, starting with the eerie shots of Catriona lying in her coffin. I wasn't expecting this to go the live-burial direction; I figured she'd just be a zombie or something; and when her eyes flew open and she started gasping for breath and clawing at the coffin lid, oh my, the effect was very chilling. The big lesson here is that if you are going to get buried alive, make sure ANYONE rescues you besides Christopher George. He waits about an hour to respond to her shrieks and then nearly puts a pickaxe through her skull. It's worth it for you, the viewer, because the payoff is the fantastic image below.

Meanwhile, particularly unpleasant things are happening in the town of Dunwich. The gates of hell are being unleashed in the form of a zombie plague; I expected the zombies to advance upon the townspeople in a straightforward manner, but since these are the devil's zombies, their ways are more roundabout. They like to appear and disappear, often covered in earthworms (not a lot of gardeners in Dunwich, apparently, since no one is happy to see the worms). Other strange things happen: a mirror cracks and the shards begin to bleed; a cat freaks out; the streets are filled with creepy sounds, like howler monkeys and crying babies.

But mainly it's a plague of zombies, who bring about some very baroque deaths! The most vivid of these is the famous intestine-vomiting scene -- oh, I am so grateful not to have seen this as an impressionable tyke, because I would have been scared of throwing up to this day. (I mean, I still don't like it, but damn.) A girl sees the priest zombie standing outside her car, a nice scare in itself, and within seconds she's bleeding out the eyes. Then stuff starts coming out of her mouth. I actually put down my tea and started repeating "Oh my God. Oh my GOD." If watching the buried-alive sequence is like sipping a fine chilled martini, this is like slamming a shot of tequila. I mean, damn.

Also famous is the drill through the head sequence, which is just what it sounds like! My favorite thing about this is how early you see the drill. By this point, even the Fulci virgin knows he's not going to power up a drill and let it just sit there without poking a hole in somebody. You (and the victim) get to watch it coming, and watch, and watch, and watch. It's a little like the steamroller sequence from "Austin Powers." Again, this is where it would be fun to have a room full of people screaming "Here it comes!"

And then there's the ending. I found a couple Web reviews that referred to the "much-discussed" ending, but I didn't find much discussion. What, ah, what happened there? Johann, Peewee, Final Girl, help!

Also, I loved how game the cast is. They had goofy dialogue and inexplicable plotlines to deal with but they all just seem really committed. I particularly adore the actresses, who nearly all have to bleed out of their eyes at some point, and most of whom have to do something worse; even the heroine is willing to foam at the mouth. Plus all the main cast members get covered in writhing maggots in one memorable scene. (It's nothing like Argento plunging Jennifer Connelly into a maggoty pit in "Phenomena," but I am not getting into the Argento-Fulci discussion right now.) The point is, these people are troupers! Fulci must have been quite persuasive. "You weel wear maggots on your face! Eet ees perfect."

*I guess this means "Terror from the city of the living dead," in case it wants clarifying that the living dead are scary.


CWL said...

Oh, this review! I went from sheer agreement (Catriona is the comeliest psychic, even trouncing Zelda and Whoopi) to unexpected revulsion (I am selection-printing paragraph #5 and showing it to myself when I next feel nauseous) to admiration at how well it's written and what a fun read Emma Blackwood ALWAYS is! The comeliest of blogs!

And, yes, exactly, I can't see any leading actresses (or actors) being willing to suffer for art as the genre faves of old did! They should confiscate Sandra Bullock's Oscar until she agrees to jump into the maggoty pit. It would have salvaged Crash!

AE said...

*blushes, swoons with gratitude* Thank you, CWL! You grace Emma Blackwood with your presence!

Catriona was a total babe, even while bleeding out the eyes. I would love to wear bloody eyes for Halloween this year but fear that it's been done.