Lucio Fulci was an Italian director who, along with Herschell Gordon Lewis, is referred to The Godfather of Gore. As much as I love Lewis’ work, Fulci made better films — and not just because he had far larger budgets.
Although he wrote and directed various kinds of films, I know him mostly for his horror films — especially his Gates of Hell trilogy.
City of the Living Dead
City of the Living Dead was released in Italy on 11 August 1980. It wouldn’t be released in the US for two more years.
It’s the kind of film that stays with you. I always associate it with Phantasm because the plot is not all that important. It just moves from horror to horror. But if anything, it’s a more effective film because it stays within the constraints of the form while also providing extremely effective horror sequences.
The story is about a priest who kills himself, thus opening the gates of hell. As a result, recently dead people hang around as some of the coolest zombies you have ever seen.
Because of what is going on, a number of people find themselves moving toward the gates of hell. One is a psychic and a reporter who saved her from being buried alive. They are searching for the source of her vision.
Another is a psychologist whose girlfriend is turned into a zombie and who later turns others in her family into zombies. The psychologist teams up with one of his patients.
These two couples eventually get together leading to the greatest scene involving maggots ever put on screen.
The couples work together to close the gate of hell. And they seem to manage it. But did they?
What’s most remarkable about City of the Living Dead is its creativity. I love Romero’s work, but his zombie films are all pretty much the same. First, zombies attack a house. Second, zombies attack a shopping mall. Third, zombies attack a military installation. (Okay, not exactly! But you get my point.)
Here, we get unique zombies with many outstanding horror set-pieces. In one case, a zombie (or a ghost or a ghoul or something) kills a woman by suffocating her with a hand of worms and maggots. In another, a woman is made to vomit her insides. A couple of zombies rip off the backs of people’s heads.
And there are tons of non-zombie stuff. Like the maggot storm and the buried alive scene and the bleeding glass.
Fulci’s films are usually criticized for not making much sense. There’s something to that. But it seems an odd criticism to me.
Do we really need to know why the two couples finally meet? Would the film be improved if there were an extra scene in the film that clarified this? I think it would be worse. It would be like those horrible quasi-scientific explanations in absurd 1950s science fiction films.
All the film needs to do is motivate the characters. We don’t need all the plot details. And the truth is that if you dig, you’ll find all movie plots have holes. You just need to accept that you aren’t being told all the details for the sake of the story.
Having said that, I can explain the plot as well as I can any other film. But I don’t care to. I’m much more interested in the brains dripping out of Christopher George’s head.
There is one difficult thing about City of the Living Dead. And that is its ending.
After the gates of hell are all taken care of, the surviving people walk out of the tomb where the gates were. They see John-John running toward them smiling. John-John has seen his family eaten by zombies and so this should represent a happy ending.
But then we hear the others, in voice-over, screaming. The screen shatters with a bunch of black lines that eventually take over the whole screen. What happened?
Well, we know this: something happened to the original film footage. I’ve heard that the editor, Vincenzo Tomassi, spilled coffee on it, but that doesn’t make any sense. Editors don’t work with the original negative. The producers would just have another print made for a small amount of money.
So for whatever reason, they didn’t have the final footage and they weren’t able to reshoot. So Tomassi apparently came up with that ending and Fulci liked it. But I have yet to hear anyone say what was originally shot. And Fulci was always cagey about it.
I’m not going to speculate on it. Based on the other two films in the trilogy, I think we can say that it means they didn’t actually close the gates of hell and that at the end, they realized that.
The second film in the Gates of Hell trilogy is The Beyond released in Italy 29 April 1981 and in the US two and a half years later.
If I were pressed, I’d say this is my favorite of the three. That’s probably because its denouement is more chilling than the other films. But its plot is also a bit clearer.
A woman from New York, Liza (Catriona MacColl), inherits an abandoned hotel in Louisiana. But it has a history (laid out in an opening sequence about a mob killing a painter who they claim is a warlock). You should not be surprised to hear that this hotel is located on top of one of the seven gates of hell.
The hotel has long been abandoned, so Liza proceeds to repair the place. Joe the plumber is hired to fix the flooding in the basement. But some kind of demon gouges out his eyes, killing him. Then his wife passes out at the morgue and dies after a container of acid pours onto her face in quite a spectacular fashion. And their little girl, well, something happens to her. It isn’t good.
The office of the hotel keeps getting buzzed from room 36 even though no one lives there. Fortunately, a blind other-worldly woman warns Liza not to go into that room. Unfortunately, Liza doesn’t realize she’s in a horror film and goes into the room anyway. But she’s right in one sense: no one lives in room 36!
A romance seems to be blossoming with the hunky Dr McCabe (David Warbeck). But he’s far too rational and thinks Liza is crazy until it is way too late.
Eventually, they are trapped in hell and no amount of rational thought can deny it.
Here is a standout gore scene:
Cycles of Horror
This synopsis misses pretty much everything that is great about The Beyond. It’s just one fabulous moment after another — all of them created to push the horror further and further.
Structurally, the film cycles. This becomes very clear at the end. But even during its early moments, this goes on. In terms of a standard plot, it’s weird. Liza goes through a horrifying event. But soon she is back to working on the hotel when any reasonable person would have put up the hotel for sale and moved by to New York.
But during each round, the horror gets more intense. And it does it without getting gorier. In fact, the ending has no gore at all.
The House by the Cemetery
Unlike The Three Mothers trilogy, which took 30 years to complete, the Gates of Hell trilogy was completed in just over a year when The House by the Cemetery was released in Italy on 14 August 1981. (The trilogy took one and a half years in the US with its release on 30 March 1984.)
But very much like The Three Mothers trilogy, The Gates of Hell ended with a film that doesn’t fit that well within the context of the trilogy — at least not one supposedly about the gates of hell since there are none here.
This is not a criticism of the film itself, however. The House by the Cemetery is a fantastic horror film — very much in keeping with the other two.
A professor, his wife, and son move into an old house so he can complete research by a colleague who was working there and recently killed himself after murdering his mistress.
The little boy plays with a little girl, who is a ghost that no one else can see. She warns him not to live in the house, but what is he going to do being just a kid.
Unknown to them, there is an evil doctor living in the basement who keeps himself alive using the bodies of his murder victims. Eventually, there is a big confrontation in the basement. It isn’t clear what this doctor is because when stabbed, he bleeds maggots.
Unlike with the first two films where I don’t care about the missing information, this film goes out of its way to raise questions it has no interest in answering.
For example, people claim they have seen the professor in town before but he, uncomfortably, claims he’s never been. Then there is a babysitter who the film implies once had an affair with the professor.
And later, Ann is cleaning up the blood left from the doctor’s murder. Why doesn’t she think that’s worth a comment?
It all seems like it is kind of like Clive Barker where odd things are present just to add to the terror. But it’s hard to escape thinking that this film really wanted another half hour. Not that I do. Having all this stuff wrapped up would undoubtedly harm it.
Gates of Hell
All these films feel like they are part of the same whole. That is mostly because of the deliberate pacing and the fact that they never slow down for unnecessary exposition.
The horror sequences are generally very long — for people who dislike gore, they are probably unbearable.
For most viewers, this makes all of the films feel like a literal nightmare. Stories are told and characters are developed. But the point is always to horrify the viewer.
This may seem obvious, but far too many horror films do not take this approach. And the reason is obvious: most people don’t like to be scared. A nice horror comedy is easier to make and sell.
It’s thus great to have films like the Gates of Hell trilogy to offer us horror in its purist form.
Buy the Gates of Hell Films
There are various ways to get these films.
City of the Living Dead
- Blue Underground DVD (with an hour and a quarter of interviews and a few other items)
- Blue Underground Blu-ray (same as DVD)
- Arrow Video Blu-ray (two commentary tracks and a ton of interviews). This is a Region B/2 disc but worth getting an all-region Blu-ray player for.
- Grindhouse Releasing DVD (commentary track with stars, Fulci interview, lost footage, and more)
- Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray (same as DVD plus some other things including the censored footage in the film).
The House by the Cemetery
- Anchor Bay DVD (deleted scene)
- Reel Vault DVD (duplicate of Anchor Bay)
- Blue Underground DVD (deleted scene, hour and a half of interviews)
- Blue Underground Blu-ray (same as DVD)
- Blue Underground 2 Disc Blu-ray (same as DVD plus a commentary track with Troy Howarth)
- Blue Underground 3 Disc Blu-ray (same as the 2 disc).
There aren’t many Lucio Fulci collections and, of course, no one has yet to put all the films into a single collection.
- Blue Underground Lucio Fulci Collection — includes City of the Living Dead, The House by the Cemetery, and The New York Ripper (same as the respective Blue Underground discs).