Guest contributor, the mysterious DwC, returns once more with another edition of Masterpiece Theater. Once more he will plumb the hidden depths of cinema to find you something many others may have missed in some infamously dismissed movies from our past.

This time, he returns to the works of a true master, Lucio Fulci. The Gates of Hell (AKA: City of the Living Dead) is a 1980 opus starring Christopher George and Katriona MacColl, written by Fulci himself with Dardano Sacchetti. It is loosely based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

*Spoiler Warning*

A priest walks through a foggy cemetery in the town of Dunwich, Massachusetts as a group of psychics hold a séance hundreds of miles away in New York city. One of the psychics sees the priest in a vision as he throws a noose over a tree limb and hangs himself, a vision so terrifying she collapses and seemingly dies from shock.

Later, a reporter visits her grave and hears screams coming from her partially buried casket. Upon saving her from being buried alive, the lead psychic informs them that the priest’s suicide has opened the gates of Hell and evil is spilling into the world.

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The only way to stop it is to go to Dunwich, find the grave of the priest, and destroy his body before All Saints Day.  As they make their way to town and All Saints Day approaches, the death toll rises. Upon arriving in Dunwich, they team up with some locals in a race against time to destroy the priest and close the gates of Hell before it’s too late.

The Gates Of Hell

Lucio Fulci was a god. You can have your Steven Spielbergs, your Francis Ford Coppolas, and your John Millii, but I’ll take the unpretentious work of the original Italian stallion over any of them (except Predator and Die Hard, because those are fucking awesome).

The man dabbled in many different genres and was churning out masterpieces in giallo (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), peplum (Conquest), spaghetti western (Four of the Apocalypse), and poliziotteschi (Contraband) by the dozen, but it was in the horror sandbox that he truly excelled.

He is most famous for the masterful Zombi 2 and the hallucinatory fever nightmare that is The Beyond, but today we’ll be taking a closer look at City of the Living Dead, released in the United States as The Gates of Hell and serving as the first film in his aptly titled Gates of Hell Trilogy.

City-Dead-Trilogy

Fulci would dig deep into classic literature for inspiration in crafting this trilogy, drawing upon the work of Clark Ashton Smith and his fictional grimoire The Book of Eibon for The Beyond, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for House by the Cemetery.  But for The Gates of Hell, Fulci would go to the king daddy of modern horror, the Big Weird Dude himself; H.P. “Howlin Howie” Lovecraft.

Since the inspiration came from classic literature, we know we’re in for a very classy horror film on par with The Changeling, also from 1980, starring the great George C. Scott.

The film opens with a title card informing us we’re in the town of Dunwich, and if you know anything about Lovecraft’s work, you know this means the residents are in for a rough couple of days. We watch as a mopey looking priest (Fabrizio Jovine) walks through a cemetery and tosses a noose over a tree branch, at which point Fulci cuts to a group of physics having a séance of sorts in New York City.

Mary (Katriona MacColl), in her psychic trance, sees the priest put the noose around his neck and hang himself, after which a corpse begins to rise from a nearby grave. The vision is so horrifying that Mary screams herself into oblivion and collapses onto the floor, seemingly dead. As the ambulance speeds away with sirens blaring, as per New York City regulations regarding the transport of a decedent, the police question the rest of the psychics in suspicious disbelief.

As the lead detective (Martin Sorrentino) is accusing them of being “on grass” a fireball erupts from the floor and into the ceiling before reversing course and disappearing back into the floor, accompanied by a disturbing moan. It’s a rather effective little moment. The lead detective, still not impressed, gets a warning from lead psychic Theresa (Adelaide Aste) that:

“Things are happening right now in the town of Dunwich that will shatter your imagination!”

Cut To Weird Bob.

Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) is a pervert. He’s creeping around outside an abandoned house in an “atmosphere by Fulci” windstorm before going inside, where he takes his self-inflating sex doll from the fireplace.

He prepares to do whatever it is these freaks do to inflatable humanoid figures with plastic faces locked in a state of perpetual shock when a rotting corpse in the corner of the room catches his eye. Who this corpse is, where it came from, and how it died is never addressed. In fact, it is never mentioned again.  Fulci’s patented “Nightmare Logic” is in full effect.

Back in New York our hero, Peter (Christopher George), is outside the apartment asking questions about Mary’s death, because someone dying of a heart attack was a big scoop in “Death Wish” era New York City.

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The cops are tight-lipped, however, and offer no information. Undeterred, Peter heads to the cemetery where Mary is being buried, about an hour after her death, to get some info for his story. A story he’s writing about a woman who died of a heart attack. In New York City.

In Dunwich, we’re introduced to some more characters who are hanging out and getting shit-faced in the middle of the afternoon in Junie’s Lounge. On a personal level, I found these to be the most relatable characters in the film.

As they’re chatting about recent events, the mirrors behind the bar shatter. Immediately suspecting the supernatural, one of the patrons makes the connection between the priest hanging himself and the general weirdness that has plagued the town ever since. Just as H.P. Lovecraft would create fictional names for real towns, we get a clever bit of exposition revealing that Dunwich was built on the ruins of the real Salem and that all of their ancestors were witch-burners.

Across town, psychiatrist Dr. Jerry (Carlo De Mejo) is in a session with his patient, Sandra (Janet Agren), talking about the usual stuff: incest, girls wanting to marry their fathers, the town elders being witch-burners, etc. Almost in response to this, the lights flicker, Sandra screams, and the cat on her lap attacks and bites her. Strange things are definitely afoot in Dunwich.

Speaking of strange things, Peter is at the cemetery questioning the groundkeepers about Mary’s death.  Shockingly, they don’t know anything about it.  They start to shovel dirt on her casket, but the clock strikes five so, since that’s quittin’ time, they call it a day and then just, well, leave.

As Peter hangs his head in defeat and heads out, Mary wakes up in her casket and starts screaming, because autopsies weren’t a thing in New York City in 1980. If you died, you were chucked into the ground that very day and everyone went home. Peter hears her screams and runs to the rescue and does the most sensible thing possible; try to save her life by almost killing her with a pickaxe.

He takes aim directly at the section of casket where a person’s head would be and buries the pickaxe into the lid, missing Mary’s face by about an inch.  It’s never made clear if he is trying to perform a mercy killing to save Mary from suffocating in her casket, so we’re forced to assume the latter.

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After getting her out and deciding she’s perfectly fine, and feeling no need to explain to the authorities why her casket is destroyed and her body missing, they head back to Theresa’s apartment for some more exposition. Theresa explains that the gates of Hell have opened, evil is slowly infesting our reality, and the only way to stop it is to destroy the priest’s remains before the clock strikes midnight and all Saints Day begins a few days from now.

If they fail, the world will be plunged into darkness and humanity will end.

Meanwhile, Back At Bob’s

At Bob’s squat shack, Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) finds him sobbing in a corner for some reason and tries to comfort him. When they hear a weird noise Bob takes off, but Emily trips and falls. When she gets up the dead priest is there to smother her to death with a handful of foulness.

Story has it Lucio Fulci so despised the actress playing Emily that he insisted the hand forcefully shoving a fistful of blood, mud, and maggots into her mouth be his own. And you thought Stanley Kubrick was rough on Shelley Duvall. Pfft.

Down the road a ways, Tommy (Michele Soavi, who would go on to become a rather well-respected director of Italian cinema himself) and Rosie (Daniela Doria) are parked for a make-out session. What follows is the first of two scenes this film is notorious for: Rosie sees the priest, at first hanging from a tree before disappearing then reappearing outside the car, apparently resurrected as zombie Anthony LaPaglia.

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Try to unsee that

 

As Tommy struggles to get out of the car, the evil gaze of ghost zombie LaPaglia puts Rosie into a trance. Blood starts to flow from her eyes, and she lets out a little burp. Tommy freezes in horror as foam now starts coming from her mouth, followed by a little bit of blood.

Then it begins; she starts puking up her own internal organs; slowly, and in graphic detail. Daniela Doria was so dedicated to her craft that she actually stuffed real animal intestines into her mouth for this scene. Let’s see an overcooked ham like Meryl Streep top that.

Her entire digestive tract now sitting in her lap, she employs the preferred ghost zombie method of dispatching victims by grabbing the back of Tommy’s head and squeezing until his brain squishes out between her fingers. The whole scene is awesome, and oh so goddamned classy.

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Shockingly, our main characters are still in New York preparing to head for Dunwich. Peter is not too thrilled by the prospect of a road trip, but he lets Mary know that if she buys him a bottle of scotch, he’ll take her anywhere. My man.

As the corpses pile up, the locals have discovered Emily’s body. The first suspect is weird Bob because of “What he did to Ann Ross”.  Sherriff Russell (Robert Sampson, who would appear as Dean Halsey in 1985’s Re-Animator) asks the coroner (Lucio Fulci in a cameo appearance) what could have been the cause of death. His theory is she died of a heart attack after experiencing a terrible fright. The locals declare that Bob will pay for this, within earshot of the entire police department.

Spoiler alert: Bob will most certainly pay for this.

Moments later we see Emily being prepared for burial by a tall, pale, skinny, and totally non-stereotypical mortician while the locals gather at the bar to discuss the five people who have gone missing and to continue to accuse and threaten weird Bob. Bob seeks shelter at the abandoned house he has been squatting in, but he sees ghost zombie LaPaglia and runs away.

Mary and Peter, at this point being the most inconsequential main characters in any film ever made, argue about stopping for lunch. Why not make pit stops? It’s only the end of humanity at stake.

But, because it’s a road trip and Mary is a woman, they stop for lunch. Most likely at a restaurant where Mary is sure not to have to use the restroom until they leave and get five minutes down the road and suddenly the fact that they haven’t arrived in Dunwich yet makes perfect sense.

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In Dunwich, the supernatural happenings are ramping up. As the creepy mortician decides to relieve several of the corpses of their jewelry, a dead old lady gets up and teaches him a lesson about stealing from the deceased. At Emily’s house, little brother John John looks out the window and sees Emily appear out of thin air, face all rotted and slimy looking.

His parents, of course, don’t believe him.  Across town, Sandra is painting a… yep, that’s a rhinoceros, when she hears strange noises. She calls Dr. Jerry, while weird Bob decides the garage belonging to Mr. Ross, father of the girl he’s accused of trying to kidnap, would be the perfect place to break into for a nap.

I’m sure there will be no consequences for this decision.

When Doc Jerry arrives at Sandra’s house, she tells him there’s a dead body in the kitchen. Jerry goes to check and just when you think the body will be gone and Sandra will look the fool, Fulci subverts our expectations and the body is still there.

Then they do what anyone would in this situation and start boozing it up in the next room. The party is interrupted by more noises, however, so they do some checking and find the old lady gone. The windows shatter, the shards stick into the plaster, and blood flows from the wall like gory wounds.  The decision is made to leave the house.

Peter and Mary, the top-billed main characters of the film, are still not in Dunwich.  But at least Peter asked for directions.

As Bob snoozes in the back seat of Mr. Ross’ car, Ann, Mr. Ross’ daughter, enters to get the stash of reefer that she hid in a tire.  I really hope dad doesn’t have to change a flat.  She wakes Bob and asks him to smoke a joint with her and it’s really bizarre how the teenage girls in this town don’t seem to give two shits that Bob is most likely a pedophile.

Mr. Ross Enters The Garage…

Earlier, I mentioned that this film is notorious for two scenes. This is the second one.

Mr. Ross catches Bob, who tries to explain he was just looking for a place to sleep, but dad flies into a rage.  A tussle ensues, Bob stumbles, and he hits the power switch for an industrial horizontal drill press with a drill bit that’s at least 19 feet long and three inches in diameter.  Old man Ross gets an idea: he grabs Bob by the head, forces him down onto the drill press, and slloooowwly pushes his head toward the drill bit.

The camera creeps ever closer to the rotating bit as Bob struggles futilely. Fulci, just as he did with the splinter to the eyeball in Zombi 2, drags the scene out until the suspense is excruciating before the drill finally pierces the left side of Bob’s head.

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Fulci doesn’t cut away as the drill enters Bob’s brain until it exits the right side of his head. We see that in all its gory detail as well. The already stunning effects work is capped off by a wider shot of Bob’s head skewered on the still rotating drill bit. It’s pretty goddamn realistic looking, and it’s easy to see why this got the censor’s panties in a twist back in 1980.

Jerry and Sandra arrive at the funeral home and ring the bell, but the place is empty. Jerry concludes that the mortician must be at the cemetery, but Sandra is having none of that and heads to her place instead. As they drive off, a creepy shadow appears at the door while some ominous music plays.

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Cut to the cemetery where… holy shit!  With less than thirty minutes left our main characters have arrived at the primary setting of the film and may now actually get involved in the conflict of the plot!  As they are reading the inscriptions on the tombstones in search of the priest, Jerry arrives.

They ask him if he knows where the priest is interred before heading back to Jerry’s where they tell him about Mary’s vision. As she attempts to expound on things a bit, the windows burst open and real maggots start blowing in by the millions, covering everything and everyone in the room. It’s fucking gross. As they maggot themselves off the phone rings; it’s little John John.

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His dead sister Emily showed up and mutilated their parents to death. We don’t see the aftermath but it must have been something pretty extreme because the film cuts to John John’s house where blood is seeping through the ceiling and making a mess all over the dining room.

They arrive to rescue the little lad as the camera pans throughout the funeral home, revealing row after row of empty caskets while Fabio Frizzi’s amazingly creepy score plays on the soundtrack. Our heroes go back to the funeral home for some reason where Jerry tells Sandra to take John John to her place and to keep him safe.

Outside Sandra’s house, a wild bird that is definitely not native to Massachusetts is heard as ghost zombie Emily peers out from under the staircase. Just as they’re about to enter Emily kills Sandra by way of the brain squeeze as John John runs off.

You may be asking yourself why I refer to the undead as “ghost zombies.” Well, it’s because as John (I’m not typing his goddamn name twice again!) runs down The Exorcist steps and across a park, one of them appears on a bridge, and I mean literally appears out of thin air, and jumps down to attack John.

John gets away but before long he’s face to face with the ghost zombies of everyone who’s been killed up to this point. I love a movie that puts a child in constant mortal peril.

Just as they’re closing in, Jerry shows up to save the day, but all the ghost zombies are gone. A few blocks away, Peter, a total stranger telling tales of psychics, pure evil, and zombies, is getting help from the strangely cooperative police force, but he tells them to just go protect the town folk.  Then, it’s off to the cemetery.

At Junie’s Bar, the remaining locals are getting blind drunk when the ghost zombies show up and kill them all. Just so everyone is aware that they are indeed ghost “zombies,” instead of doing the brain squeeze, they kill and eat everyone. Nightmare logic!

At the cemetery, Peter, Jerry, and Mary find the priest’s family crypt while loons, monkeys, bees, and God knows what else are making quite the ruckus, and Mary informs everyone that it is midnight and therefore All Saints Day has begun. I hope this doesn’t mean we’re all doomed.

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Maybe if you didn’t stop for lunch on the way to town you would have made it in time, ya dingus!  Anyway, they head down into the crypt where, for a family tomb with about eight names on the door, there sure are a lot of skeletons laying around. Like, a hundred skeletons.

As they get to the bottom of the crypt, skeletons start popping out everywhere, and it’s clear where Lucas and Spielberg got the idea for the Well of Souls set piece in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I’m sure it’ll be fine though because our hero, Peter, is going to save the day. He shifts into hero mode and gets ready to fuck shit up when ghost zombie Sandra appears and gives him the brain squeeze.

Wait, Peter?  He’s the goddamn hero!  Damn you Fulci!  Sandra gives Mary the stinkeye and Mary’s eyes begin to bleed. Will she barf up her own guts?  No. Because with Peter dead, Jerry steps up and impales ghost zombie Sandra, killing her.

Just then ghost zombie LaPaglia shows up with all the other ghost zombies and he gives Mary the gut puke stare and her eyes start bleeding again, but Jerry is in the zone. He grabs a wooden cross that luckily has a pointy end and stabs the shit out of that bastard. Ghost zombie LaPaglia bursts into flames, as do the other ghost zombies, and it appears that humanity has been saved.

Jerry and Mary emerge from the crypt and see little John, who, in spite of having witnessed the insanely brutal deaths of half a dozen people, including his parents, runs towards them with a giant smile on his face.

A Happy Ending

So we get a happy ending after all?  Of course not. Remember, this movie is inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, which means everyone is either dead or insane. As John runs towards Jerry and Mary with a big dopey grin on his face, their faces twist into a visage of horror. The screen freezes on John and we hear Mary and Jerry screaming. Roll credits.

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A lot has been written about the films of Lucio Fulci, most of it containing adjectives like “stupid”, “pointless,” “gratuitous”, and even “perverted”.

The reality is that these people just didn’t get films like this.  While “critics” were soiling themselves over heavy-handed schmaltz like Kramer Vs Kramer and falling for safe, obvious Oscar bait pablum such as All That Jazz, they missed out on one of the greatest parables of modern times: a simple tale of the citizenry of an entire town paying for the sins of their fathers, a theme driven home by characters constantly commenting on the history of Dunwich.

These reviewers saw a girl puking up her own jejunum and immediately decided that this film is somehow less profound than Meryl Streep being tortured with regret over having to choose which of her children would be murdered by Nazis.

Talk about shallow. This message is hammered home by that ending, which many find baffling. It is, however, very simple: little John, the stand-in for the younger generation, simply refuses to carry this burden any longer and turns on the older generation.

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The Beyond may be the best of the Gates of Hell trilogy, but The Gates of Hell is the most profound.  Anchored by terrific performances, excellent special effects, astoundingly atmospheric cinematography, and yet another stellar score by Fabio Frizzi, The Gates of Hell stands as one of the greatest films ever made.

10 sets of regurgitated intestines out of 10

Not only does DwC deeply analyze movies that may have escaped such analysis, but it turns out they are a dab hand with a pencil, too! You can check out their work, and order prints of anything that takes your fancy, at www.cuturilogallery.com.

Check back every day for movie news and reviews at the Last Movie Outpost

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