The Ending of City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead - Ending Shot

I recently published a discussion about Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy. In it, I briefly discussed the ending of City of the Living Dead. I’ve given some thought to it, and I now think I understand it.

The Ending

At the end of the film, Mary and Gerry have managed to kill Father Thomas and thus close the gate of hell. They come out of the tomb and see John-John, the young boy they had rescued after all his family was murdered. He runs toward them smiling.

Then they look concerned. We see John-John running toward the camera, still happy. But we overhear the survivors screaming. The shot freezes and then is cracked with black lines that expand to fill the screen. The end.

What Happened

It is widely claimed that the original footage shot was destroyed. That may be true. But it isn’t necessarily. What we do know is that Fulci decided, for whatever reason, that he couldn’t use the ending that was shot.

Clearly, whatever the original ending, it had to include something that Mary and Gerry saw and recast the happy ending it appeared we had reached was not a happy ending after all.

There isn’t a lot to work with here, though. They are in an isolated area. So:

  1. Zombies could have appeared from out of the forest.
  2. The police, who brought John-John to the tomb, could be zombies.
  3. John-John could have been a zombie.

What most people say about the ending as it stands is that we are supposed to understand that John-John is a zombie. But so what?

Ending in Context With “Gates of Hell”

It doesn’t really matter who is a zombie or even how many zombies there are. When Mary and Gerry killed Father Thomas, all the zombies burst into flames. If there are zombies outside the tomb, well… Are they really back in the normal world?

Based on the ending of The Beyond, it would seem that the appearance of zombies means that they are rather in Hell itself. So they saved the world but imprisoned themselves in the process.

The other possibility is that they simply defeated Father Thomas and his minions but the gates of hell are still open. But in that case, what were the characters doing for the previous hour and a half?

Does the Ending Matter?

To be honest, I’d rather the film just end with the death of Father Thomas. As I mentioned before, City of the Living Dead is more of a cinematic nightmare than anything else. Sure, it has a plot and character. But the point is to horrify the viewer.

No one watching the film thinks, “I wonder what happened to John-John”! The scene outside the tomb seems tacked on. And it isn’t as though the world is now safe. There are seven gates of hell. What are the odds that a plucky psychic and harried psychologist will manage to show up to close the other six just in time?

The epilogue deprives the viewer of a satisfying ending. So instead of reflecting on the masterpiece that you just saw, you spend a bunch of time trying to figure out what you were supposed to take away from the ending.

City of the Living Dead is an exceptional film with a third act that kills (literally and figuratively). But I don’t think it’s deep. It isn’t the kind of film that is supposed to make you think. So don’t!

I’m going to pretend this epilogue doesn’t exist and that Mary and Gerry will always be standing in the tomb in front of the ash of Father Thomas.

Image taken from City of the Living Dead under Fair Use.

16 replies on “The Ending of City of the Living Dead”

  1. Gian says:

    Thank you for this discussion! It is a masterpiece, indeed. Although I must say that I was one of those who actually did get into thinking, “I wonder what happened to John-John.” 🙂 Despite this, though, I somehow did like how I was left hanging in the end. I’ve yet to see the first two parts of the trilogy (as I had only discovered this horror masterpiece this weekend) and am looking forward to another Fulci horror cinema experience.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Definitely watch The Beyond! It is my favorite of the three. And it does provide context. The trilogy hangs together much better than The Three Mothers. Although those are great films too! I’ve become a big fan of Italian horror generally. It’s very addictive!

  2. Kevbi says:

    Here is what happens. At the crack on screen. it returns to the Tombs…U seen Zombies and hear them. Title on screen says “The soul that Pines for Eternity shall outspan death, you dweller of the twilght void come to Dunwich” i have a Foriegn Video off this. Lucio Fulci is the Master. Silver Saddle to Cat in the Brain!

    • Frank Moraes says:

      You need to clarify this because it sounds like you are saying they are in hell, which is my preferred take.

      You are definitely right, though: Fulci is the master!

  3. Jim says:

    I just watched this, and had to Google the end ‘explained’ and ended up being here with this great set of explanations. My feeling was that Mary and Gerry were themselves possessed and we missed some footage of them trying to stop the boy from running at them. I’m clearly wrong about this 🙂

    • Frank says:

      Not so fast: that’s a really interesting take! I’m not so much interested in what is “true” as I am in new ways to view the film. Now I’ll have to put it on and watch it tonight, which is good given I was going to watch Gappa: The Triphibian Monster! I would be interested to know what was in the original script, though.

  4. Stacey says:

    I just watched this again tonight. Wouldn’t John-John look all messed up if he was a zombie? My take was that they heard the creepy wind come back and realized the nightmare wasn’t over yet. Although, them being in hell would also make sense.

    • Frank says:

      That’s another interesting (and reasonable) take. Maybe I should add a section here on other ideas. I’ll be sure to credit you and Jim if I do!

  5. Pete says:

    i’m kinda tired writing this but i’m gonna just blurt out a bunch of ideas I have about the end lol. sorry if it makes no sense.

    The cracked screen at the end means that the gate wasn’t actually closed when Gerry rams the stake through the priest. This scene show reality literally ripping apart at the seams. The logic of narrative/meaning starts ripping apart earlier when inexplicable things start occurring in the lead up to all saints day. The dead rise, a woman cries blood and barfs up her guts, a guy gets his head drilled for basically no reason, maggots fly through the window, etc… The cracked screen is simply the culmination of all these events, with meaning and reality dissolving completely with the arrival of all saints day.. the gate to hell is a doorway to death, and the realm of death is slowly consuming the world of the living.. chaos, formlessness, and amorphousness is associated with death. meaning, logic, and sense is associated with life. through the course of the movie, death slowly swallows life as the gates of hell engulfs the realm of meaning and logic that is associated with the living..

    • Frank says:

      I like that! It’s not that different from what I’ve written except that it explains the cracked screen. It also happens at dawn, so that makes sense. So we can see the cracked screen as the cracked gate between Earth and Hell!

  6. William Vincent says:

    I always felt that they didn’t seal the gates of hell in time and in turn the dead come alive around the world. I was a teen when I watched it the first time, I just rewatched and I get a simular thought process.

    • Frank says:

      That’s a reasonable take. I imagine Fulci in some netherworld watching us all discuss this issue and laughing endlessly. I fear we have put much more effort into it than he ever did!

  7. Dick Longfellow says:

    The boy was a monster but the original footage was cut. I mean I really don’t know what else it could have been except for the cops maybe too. Either way the endings that are ambiguous, non happy open ended conclusions are so much creepier and last with you for awhile don’t they?

  8. Roy bratton says:

    I think they just were drove insane by the things they saw

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