Death becomes everything in Lucio Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. This 1980 horror picture is sometimes referred to as THE GATES OF HELL, while its original Italian title translates to FEAR IN THE CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. The latter is most fitting, as this really is an exercise in utter dread. The screenplay by Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti delivers a foundation on which to mount a series of goopy, foggy set pieces. And all the while, Fabio Frizzi’s purring score plays the part of calamitous metronome.
The film opens with a séance. Mary (Catriona MacColl) sees a vision of a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) killing himself. She breaks the circle of the séance and drops dead-ish. A reporter (Christopher George) is investigating her passing and visits her grave. He discovers that she is actually still alive and drags her out of the coffin. They visit the medium from the séance (Adelaide Aste) and learn that the priest’s suicide led the way for the living dead to enter the world. Said living dead then wreck everyone and everything they can get their creepy hands on.
There is a veritable militia of characters in CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, but few of them matter. Peter and Mary do appear to be the principal points of access, but the spectre of the aforementioned vicar inflicts his terrifying wrath on everyone from a mansplaining shrink (Carlo De Mejo) to a dude with a penchant for squeezing blow-up dolls (Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Fulci even sets his living dead prodigies on a couple (Daniela Doria and Michele Soavi) and things get turned inside out before the poor bastard can get to second base.
CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is essentially a concerto of gore and atmosphere. Sergio Salvati’s lens bluntly captures it all, from a penetrating death scene done up with chunky practical effects to a squall of maggots. Most scenes are drilled in place by Frizzi’s ponderous percussion, which only picks up toward the end. This is by design, as it presents Fulci’s vital thrust: the living dead are emerging and gradually marching and there’s not a damn thing that’s going to stop them from seizing your squelchy little brain.