It is still a classic but as I was watching it I couldn't get over how terrible it is in parts. For example, the plot. To be generous, it's a big pile of dog presents. I'll buy the fact that a priest committing suicide has opened a gate to hell. But what happens after that is suspect to say the least. Characters behave in some very strange ways. When faced with a rather slimy zombie, Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) decides to comfort a small child in an incredibly calm manner, then has a look at the zombie in question. Does he attack it with a baseball bat encrusted with razor blades, or just leg it? Nope he shuts his eyes. For about five seconds. Any other zombie film and he's a dead man, but here the zombie vanishes. Not a standard tactic but it worked surprising well. Well done Carlo.
That brings me neatly to the next point: the vanishing zombies. They are brought to you by some stunning special effects technology. Slap the camera on a tripod, film the scene with the zombie there. Then remove said zombie and film it again. The editor can then craftily swap between the two shots and, hey presto, the zombie disappears (or appears as the case may be.) Premium quality.
There is also someone to rival Mary's dad in the bad acting stakes and amazingly he's someone's dad: Emily's dad. His acting is really bad, even compared to the acting in the rest of the film - which can be best described as standing around - but Emily's dad reaches new depths. All he has to do is look upset and he does it spectacularly badly. If he'd have just said, "Emily love," the package would have been complete.
This all sounds like I hate City of the Living Dead. But perversely, I love it. I was trying to work out why, and this was the best I could come up with: the brilliant parts make me forgive, even enjoy, the dire bits. And what brilliant parts there are. There are four standout scenes. Some films can't even manage one so it's doing well already. Beware there are spoilers ahead, as we have a look at those scenes in a bit more detail:
1. Catriona MacColl being buried alive and then getting rescued by Christopher George. The only problem here is that he slams a pickaxe through the top of the coffin narrowly missing her head. On numerous occasions. No acting required here because it looks absolutely terrifying. The pick comes perilously close to her face despite it being rigged to miss her. Add to that the claustrophobia factor and it must have been a nightmare to film. Luckily, the end shot of her screaming through the hole made in the coffin is truly iconic.
2. Daniela Doria throwing up her guts. Literally. This has to be one of the most gip inducing scenes in cinema. The first shots of the actual actress, (who Fulci lovely to put through hell) with intestines pouring out of her mouth are bad enough. And you'd think that when it swaps to a blatantly fake special effects head for the final push the vomit would recede. But no, it gets worse as a huge lump passes out from her lips. Disgusting stuff, but great.
3. Giovanni Lombardo Radice, as the seedy loner Bob, getting his head drilled. Another iconic moment here as the horror is drawn out to really get the most out of the effect. The tension is ramped up as his head gets closer and closer. And it intercuts between shots of the drill bit getting closer and closer. In most other films, he'd get rescued at the last moment, it would show the death in shadow, or cut at the moment of insertion. Not here. The camera loving gazes on as the drill enters his head, pierces his cheek on the other side, and then continues to spin for a while longer. It's a great effect, even now, and must be up there as one of the greatest screen deaths (now there's an idea for a Letterboxd list).
4. The final sequence with Carlo, Catriona and Christopher in the tomb of the dead priest. Not as excessive as anything that has preceded, though still brilliant nonetheless. The set design and lighting are gorgeous with skeletons and cobwebs hanging from the roof, lit with spooky blue lights in true gothic style. Then the music kicks in and the dead rise. In a similar way to The Beyond, the music signals the beginning of the end, and it's stunning mix of visuals and sound.
There are other moments too, for example, the Sherrif's comment about Bob burning in hell, but it's the above scenes that garner the film so much goodwill from the viewer that its faults can be overlooked or, which happens more often, laughed at and enjoyed. Even the shockingly bad ending is part of the fun. For me, the things that stop it from being a 10 are the zombie make-ups, that are more oozy than the crusty examples in Zombie Flesh Eaters, and those disappearing zombies that I can never fully forgive.
Right, now that I've got this review done and dusted, I'm off to Celluloid Screams 2013. Full coverage coming very soon...
If you like this you could also try:
Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery.