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.

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

  1. 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.

    • 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. 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!

    • 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. 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 🙂

    • 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. 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.

    • 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. 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..

    • 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. 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.

    • 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. 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. I love City of the Dead and one dark night that was good too that’s my favorite too but still wondering what happened to the end of City of the Dead that’s crazy they just going to end it like that shake my head

    • There are all kinds of stories. One is that the film of the ending they shot was destroyed. Personally, I’d prefer the “happy” ending. Enough horrible stuff happens in the film that it’s fine to let some people get out alive…

  9. They had to close the gates to hell by midnight, from what I understood, and appeared to have missed that by several hours. So they come out thinking everything’s cool until they realize it’s really not. They scream as the world goes black. That’s my take from looking at how the film proceeds. It strikes midnight before they even go underground to find the gate. Doing away with the priest was but a small consolation.

    • I’ll have to go back and check. I don’t think it’s clear. It’s whenever All Saint’s Day starts. Midnight if we want to be scientific but maybe dawn if we want to be religious? I’m afraid that we have all thought this through much more than Fulci ever did!

  10. I liked the film, but I’m scratching my head on a number of things:

    1 – When Mary was “dead”, but had been buried alive, surely she’d have been embalmed like the other corpses?
    2 – What happened to the old lady? (was it Mrs Hudson?) She’s haunting Sandra’s apartment, then disappears only for us to see a pair of feet behind a curtain. Is that her? Why wasn’t she further utilised?
    3 – Why are the “living dead” mere phantasms at first, scaring people to death, but then they become zombies hungry for flesh all of a sudden? If the answer to that is “All Saints Day” has begun, then why is Father Thomas still appearing as a phantasm at the end?
    4 – It’s clearly night time when the crew arrive at the cemetery, leading into All Saints Day. But it’s light by the time the adventure ends….I don’t think that amount of time elapsed!
    5 – The end scene definitely seems tacked on and makes no sense whatsoever. John-John wasn’t a zombie for sure, as he wasn’t gotten at by Emily. Gary got to him before she did! No?

    But the most burning question of all….did the bartender get that wall fixed, or did he not give a shit because he only ever had two customers?

    • Wonderful questions — especially the last one!

      I’m sure I could, in the grand tradition of apologetics, come up with justifications for all these. But that wouldn’t represent what I actually think. Here is the true answer: it’s a Lucio Fulci film! He don’t need no stinking continuity! It’s just one spectacular scene after another that somehow works as a whole. The one scene that bugs me is when Ann’s father drills Bob’s head. Bob isn’t even trying to get away!

      I’ve noted the timing issue before. You would think they would need to do their thing before midnight. But given that, it doesn’t bother me that it’s dawn when they get out.

      If you liked the film, you should check out The Beyond. I think the plot holds together better with just as much gory, insane fun.

  11. My take on it is they are still in hell. The doors to hell was not closed before all saints day. Even if the doors to hell was closed they could of been trapped in after destroying the priest kind of linked to the beyond film Anyone who ventures near these gates without knowledge thing going on. Might have been same for flesh eating zombies, no zombies actually walking about but anyone who gets close gets a taste of Hell or ends up in hell. Great hearing everyone take on ending:-)

    • Yeah, this is very close to my take. I’m not at all sure anyone involved in the production had a clear idea what the ending was about. In fact, I wouldn’t doubt many of them would have been thrilled to know that 40+ years later, we were all still trying to figure it out!

  12. I just finished watching the movie, and I have some questions.

    1. Why did the priest’s suicide open the gates of hell? Was he the personification of evil? Why was his death so vital? Why was he so special?

    2. Who was Adrian De Niro? While Bill and Mary were driving to Dunwich, Bill mentions Adrian De Niro told him he’d meet a woman who was buried alive. Mary also, apparently, knows Adrian He seems like a pretty important character who deserves more context.

    3. Why is Dunwich supposedly so off the grid? Why can’t it be found on a map?

    • We are talking Fulci here, so explanations can be hard. Also, it’s been a while since I watched it. The priest’s suicide seemed to have something to do with a prophecy. I assume Adrian is someone they discussed when they are taking their road trip? I honestly don’t remember. But the next time I watch the film I’ll try to come back here and tell what I’ve learned (if anything). As for it not being on the map, there are two issues there. One is that this is a trope I’ve seen a lot. Maybe it was true before I was born but for as long as I can remember, maps include every town. But it could also be a cheeky reference to the fact that it’s a fictional town from Lovecraft.

  13. And Dunwich was built on the edges of Salem??? Um Salem is still there. Maybe it’s a multiverse thing?

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