Dunwich in New England, and a priest, Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine), wanders a graveyard lost in thought. At that same moment, a seance is being held in New York City, with medium Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) calling the psychic shots until she begins to act very oddly, to the extent that she begins screaming, as if seeing the priest sling a rope and noose over the limb of a tree and hang himself from it - which is precisely what he has done. Somehow this act of self-sacrifice has conjured up something menacing from the depths of Hell itself, and with Mary now dead from the sight of it, what hope for the rest of us?
City of the Living Dead was one of the horror films director Lucio Fulci brought to the world during the period of the late seventies and early eighties, where the genre was going through a mini-golden era that saw many innovations in the realm of special effects to bolster the chillers being produced around the globe. It was the first in a loose trilogy of undead features, which was followed up by The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, and cemented his reputation among horror fans as someone to watch out for in the field, although arguably he never really matched the efforts he made after that time.
Which is a double pity, that he discovered his forte and his fanbase after years of dabbling in other styles, and that when he did the quality didn't last long, although there are those who will tell you that Fulci was never one of the masters of his art in the way that Dario Argento used to be. Yet while that's probably true, that's not to say that Fulci was worth dismissing, as at his best he worked up a texture of a really good nightmare for his work, nowhere seen more convincingly than in this film, which may have been an excuse to string a bunch of shock sequences together and narrative be damned, but for all that haphazard assemblage it was memorable for exactly the reasons that its creators intended.
Of course, so determined to get the audience reeling was City of the Living Dead, also known as Gates of Hell, that more than a few viewers have found themselves chuckling at its demented methods to do so. Take the scene where Mary is being buried and wakes up in her coffin: not only do the gravediggers mutter something about union rules as an excuse not to complete the burial, but when investigative journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George) hears her screams, he decides not to prise open the lid of the coffin (these things aren't locked, are they?) but to take a pickaxe to it instead, narrowly avoiding Mary's head as the spike goes in. It's all done for effect, although that effect might well be unintended laughter.
The plot, such as it is, tells us that the suicidal priest has opened, yes, The Gates of Hell so it's up to the revived Mary, crusading (but doesn't actually do that much) Peter, and Dunwich psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) to get them closed up again, although precisely how to do that is something that they seem to be as much in the dark about as anyone, not to mention us watching. In the meantime, the strangely underpopulated town is haunted by zombies, not many of them, but enough to pose a problem, and red herring Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, aka John Morghen) skulks about getting the blame which leads to the film's most infamous scene involving a tool bench and attached drill. From puking up guts to a maggot storm, it's all about achieving that bad dream flavour, assisted by curiously childish details such as closing your eyes to make the zombies disappear, eccentric touches that lend what would otherwise be a tatty enterprise a distinction it might not have had. Music by Fabio Frizzi.
Italian director whose long career could best be described as patchy, but who was also capable of turning in striking work in the variety of genres he worked in, most notably horror. After working for several years as a screenwriter, he made his debut in 1959 with the comedy The Thieves. Various westerns, musicals and comedies followed, before Fulci courted controversy in his homeland with Beatrice Cenci, a searing attack on the Catholic church.