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.
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.
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:
- Zombies could have appeared from out of the forest.
- The police, who brought John-John to the tomb, could be zombies.
- 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.