Friday, August 20, 2021

All the Scenes at Once!

Films: City of the Living Dead ( Paura Nella Citta Dei Morti Viventi)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

If I live to be 200 years old, I will never understand Italian horror movies in general. Much like I feel that a great deal of anime passes over me because I always feel like there are cultural elements that are assumed I would know and I don’t, Italian horror always leaves me feeling lost I am constantly under the impression that most of the movies come at the plot secondarily at best. So many Italian horror films feel like a series of loosely connected set pieces. The director has a few ideas (“Let’s have a woman literally puke up her guts! Let’s attack people with maggots! Let’s have a guy killed on a drilling lathe!”) and then tries to patch them together in a loose semblance of story. I’ve had that sense before with Italian horror, but never as much as I did with City of the Living Dead (also known as Paura Nella Citta Dei Morti Viventi).

That being the case, I’m not really sure how much sense a plot summary is going to make. At a séance in New York, a medium named Mary (Catriona MacColl) experiences a vision of a priest named Father Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hanging himself, which is evidently going to cause an army of the living dead to rise up. Mary collapses and does such a convincing job of this that everyone thinks she’s dead. Eventually, she’ll be saved by journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George) as she is being buried. This, clearly was an early set piece idea of Fulci’s since getting to this point means that Mary was able to convincingly appear dead to multiple doctors, make it through a funeral service, and get to the gravesite in the coffin without being embalmed. Like I said, it’s a series of set pieces that are loosely stitched together regardless of how they might make sense.

Meanwhile, in the Lovecraftian town of Dunwich, a guy named Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) finds a rotting body in an abandoned house. Why? Why not? He then encounters Emily (Antonella Interlenghi), the very young girlfriend/assistant of psychologist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo). Bob runs away and Emily gets killed by the spectral incarnation of Father Thomas. Or something.

Like I said, a lot of this is planned set pieces. A woman and her boyfriend are making out in a car, but when she just sees Father Thomas, she literally pukes up her guts—it all comes a-pourin’ out of her mouth. Why? Why not? Because Fulci wanted that scene in the movie. The living dead start appearing more and more as we approach All Saints’ Day with varying effects. Bob turns up in someone’s garage. A young girl finds him but then her dad shows up and kills Bob by shoving his head onto a drilling lathe. Why? Why not?

Eventually, we get to All Saints’ Day and the living dead start making their appearance. They all appear to be covered in Bolognese that has crusted to their skin. And, somehow, they appear to be able to teleport. We see some men get attacked in a bar and the spaghetti sauce-covered zombies just…appear…inside the bar. Why? Well, you know the answer to this by now.

Those set pieces I mentioned in the first paragraph all literally happen in this film. People are killed specifically so that they can show up again when needed. One of Gerry’s patients, Sandra (Janet Agren) gets killed by the Emily zombie when she is caught. Emily kills her by squishing her head until her brains come out. When the undead version of Sandra shows up at the end, her head is miraculously restored.

I fully understand the desire for specific scenes to be in a film. Plenty of horror movies are about “that one scene” that everyone talks about later. The problem with a lot of Italian horror in my opinion is that the directors aren’t contented with “that scene” and instead want one of those every 20 minutes or so. The plot suffers because of that.

I’m not expecting horror movies to be believable. What I’m expecting, though, is a sort of internal logic and consistency. The movie should make sense within its own context. Return of the Living Dead or Ravenous or Event Horizon are ridiculous movies, but internally, everything works. It’s consistent. There’s nothing consistent about this movie, because this isn’t about the characters or the story, but entirely about specific scenes regardless of how we get there.

Some people are into that. Good on them. If you’re that person, City of the Living Dead is here with my blessing. But I’m not that guy. I need the story to work, at least while I’m watching it. When I can see the plot holes and the strings and wires in front of my face while I’m watching the movie, I genuinely stop caring.

Why to watch City of the Living Dead: If you’re into people having maggots sprayed on them by way of a giant fan, this is here for you.
Why not to watch: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again—this movie makes as much sense as a lemon flavored suppository.


  1. OK then, I'll take this film into consideration in the maybe pile.

    1. I won't lie--it has moments that, divorced from an attempt at narrative, are pretty great to watch. Don't try to make sense of it, though.