RotWotLD resumed on Saturday morning, and we decided to tackle Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy.
City of the Living Dead (1980)
Encouraged by the success of Zombie Flesh Eaters the previous night, we launched straight into another Fulci classic on Saturday morning: the first of his unofficial Gates of Hell trilogy, City of the Living Dead.
The film didn’t live up to the high expectations set by Zombie Flesh Eaters. With hindsight, that was an unreasonably high bar: ZFE is unusual among Fulci films for the tightness and linearity of its plot. What Fulci is renowned for is his set pieces and effects; the narratives he uses to link them together are of secondary importance. His films are impressionistic: to appreciate them properly, you have to enjoy each scene for the effect it produces, and not worry too much about how or why you go from one to the next. This is true not just of Fulci, but of period Italian cinema in general, from Suspiria to La Dolce Vita.
To cover the frustrations of the plot though, it follows Peter, a journalist, and Mary, a psychic, as they desperately race to the town of Dunwich, where an evil priest has hanged himself, thereby opening a Gate to Hell, and try to close it again by killing the priest (I said it didn’t make much sense) before midnight, when the world will be overrun by the living dead.
Even though this is all explained to the protagonists right at the beginning, they then proceed in an extraordinarily leisurely and unconcerned manner towards their goal. At one point, en route to Dunwich, they stop off to “sample the local cuisine”. When they arrive at Dunwich cemetery close to dusk, and meet a local who knows where the priest is buried, they decide that instead of going straight there – because they’re in the cemetery already and have to prevent armageddon by midnight – they’ll go to the local’s house instead, for a cup of tea and a maggot tornado.
The maggot tornado is typical Fulci. It’s random, unexplained, and has no apparent relevace to the plot. However, it’s one of the gruesome set pieces which make the film so memorable, along with the infamous scene in which a girl literally vomits up her own intestines.
There’s also a whole pointless sub-plot involving a character called Bob, a local weirdo who’s wrongly blamed by the townsfolk for all the bizarre murders which have been happening. A more conventional American screenwriter would have tied the plots back together by having Bob step up to a heroic role at the end. Not Fulci though, who deals with Bob very differently in another unforgettable set piece, which I won’t spoil here.
I think one reason it’s worth watching films like this is to give oneself a broader idea of the different ways that stories can be told. Fulci’s definitely not predictable; he’s not even predictably unpredictable: he’s on a whole other level entirely.
The film also introduced us to another trademark move, which connoisseurs have nicknamed the “Fulci skull squeeze”: when you grab the back of someone’s head with one hand and, with a crushing grip, pop the top right off and splurt their brains all over the place. Doubting it was possible to get enough purchase on an adult head to do that, even if you had enough strength in one hand to crush a skull, we spent the next few minutes trying it on our own heads, until concluding that it wasn’t.
The Beyond (1981)
Unfazed by the first instalment, the intrepid RotWotLDers ploughed on with the second film in Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy. I described it as an “unofficial” trilogy: Fulci himself never said the films were related. However, they were released consecutively, and are linked stylistically and thematically, in particular by the idea of a Gate of Hell opening up.
Another thing which links them is that they all feature lead actress Catriona MacColl. This is confusing for a number of reasons:
- She plays a different character in each film.
- Her characters are all quite similar.
- Most of the other female characters are played by very similar-looking actresses.
The plot of The Beyond can be summed up in much the same way as City of the Living Dead: a number of characters ignore obvious signs of impending doom, and proceed nonchalantly towards a grisly and extravagantly gory death.
In The Beyond, MacColl inherits a creepy old hotel in Louisiana. Even though the most cursory building survey would have told her that it’s a dilapidated wreck with an uncharted subterranean river flowing through the basement, she decides to move in and re-open it. She doesn’t yet know that the basement contains both a Gate of Hell, and the malevolent spirit of a warlock who was trying to close it before he was lynched by angry townsfolk. But neither a series of bizarre deaths, hellish visions, undead reawakenings, the presence of the River Styx itself, nor actually being told exactly what’s going on by a spooky blind woman who apparently doesn’t exist, are enough to cause her any concern.
On one level, The Beyond can be watched as an instructional film about the importance of Health and Safety at Work. Early on, a painter is badly injured when he falls from an unprotected scaffold. Then, MacColl sends Joe the plumber down into the basement, without the correct PPE for dealing with undead warlocks, and inevitable tragedy ensues. Later, when Joe’s wife goes to see his body in the morgue, a giant bottle of acid left standing without a lid on a wobbly table causes further grief.
A good example of Fulci’s characters’ bizarre indifference to obvious signs of trouble is MacColl’s attitude to Room 36. One of the first things that happens when she arrives at the long-empty and abandoned hotel is that the room service bell for Room 36 starts ringing. MacColl notices this odd occurrence but declines to go and investigate. Personally, I’d at least go and check out the electrics, because not only would the constant buzzing become annoying, but a shorting connection is a major fire risk in an all-wooden building. But instead she completely ignores it… until, that is, the blind woman informs her that the warlock lived in Room 36, and she mustn’t go into it under any circumstances, or it will end the world… at which point she immediately rushes there to have a look.
Once you’ve realised that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living, there are a number of things you might do, and you could be forgiven for not making ideal choices under pressure. However, rushing to the morgue seems a particularly odd choice. Nevertheless, that’s what MacColl and her forgettable co-protagonist do. It was bad news for them, but good news for us, because it led to a final zombie showdown, which was what RotWotLD wanted all along – it was just a pity it took 80 minutes of inconclusive dithering around to get there.
The House by the Cemetery (1981)
Everyone at RotWotLD agreed that The Beyond was awful, but by that point we were in too deep, and there was no choice but to complete the Gates of Hell trilogy.
The final instalment is The House by the Cemetery, and this is where the loose thematic designation of the three films as a trilogy breaks down. Here’s what The House by the Cemetery has in common with the previous films:
- Catriona MacColl is in it
- She leaves New York to go to a place where lots of creepy shit is happening
- She’s freaked out by it, but does nothing
Notably, one thing which doesn’t feature in The House by the Cemetery is any kind of Gate to Hell. But there is an undead monster who eats the flesh of the living, so even if it doesn’t really qualify for the Gates of Hell trilogy, it did qualify for RotWotLD.
If The House by the Cemetery lacks thematic links to its Gates of Hell predecessors, it certainly has them with other films. Consider the premise: a writer decides to move to a big, spooky, abandoned house so that he can work; he takes his wife and young, blond son with him; they have visions of supernatural horrors, and eventually everything goes horribly wrong for them. Sound familiar? It’s basically a mash-up of The Shining (1980) and The Amityville Horror (1979), with a dollop of Frankenstein thrown in. Except that, in The Shining, the wife can’t simply take her son and escape, because they’re snowed in. In The House by the Cemetery, MacColl has no such excuse. Frankly, she deserves everything she gets, because when you’re being driven to madness by ghostly drumming, rabid bats, mysterious blood stains and a goddamned tombstone in the middle of your house, and your husband’s dubious assertion that “all the old houses in this area have graves in them” doesn’t reassure you, if you could just get into the car and drive back to New York at any moment, you only have yourself to blame if you don’t.
It’s not worth saying much more about The House by the Cemetery. After joining the very small and exclusive club of people who’ve watched Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy back-to-back, the attendees of RotWotLD kind of wished they could leave it.
With morale and enthusiasm tested to their very limits, a drastic change of direction was needed. For the remainder of Saturday’s programme, see: