These days The Gates of Hell is known to people on the internet as City of the Living Dead, although I never saw it on a video store shelf under any title other than The Gates of Hell. But did you know that the Italian title, Paura nella città dei morti viventi, translates directly to “Fear in the City of the Living Dead?” Out of VHS nostalgia, I prefer The Gates of Hell, but Fear in the City of the Living Dead is the most appropriate title. The film is known as a splatter epic, and it is an impressive entry in the gore subgenre, as well as my favorite of Fulci’s Unholy Trilogy, but it’s more than just an showcase of how Fulci and his effects team decided to “kill” people on film. It is a film about fear.
The film opens with a priest committing suicide, but we soon pull back to find that what we are really seeing is the vision of a psychic woman named Mary. In the middle of her vision, Mary dies of fright. However, and without explanation, she is soon resurrected, but not before she is buried. Then, with the help of the journalist who rescues her, a psychiatrist, and one of the psychiatrist’s patients, Mary has to try to stop the end of the world before midnight on All Saints’ Day.
Except that it’s not Mary who ends up saving the world. It’s actually Gerry, the psychiatrist, who destroys the undead priest and causes the walking dead to lie back down. There’s a pivotal scene in the film that often goes overlooked in favor of the drill through the head and the vomiting of guts. Gerry comes face to face with the zombie formerly known as his girlfriend, Emily. But instead of standing there and pissing himself, or screaming, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. When he opens his eyes, Emily disappears as if by magic, or stop motion, and Gerry lives to fight until the end of the film. Other than Emily’s little brother, who manages to evade the zombies because little kids can run faster than hell, Gerry is the only person to face off with one of the undead and suffer no effects. Even our heroine, Mary, bleeds from the eyes when the priest looks at her.
If you don’t believe me, you can hear it right from the mouth of Mr. Fulci himself. I’ve noticed that when a director inserts themselves into the film, but only has one or two lines, those lines often make up The Whole Point of the film. In Desert Hearts, for example, director Donna Deitch appears as a gambler who says the line, “If you don’t play, you can’t win.” That’s because Desert Hearts is a film about taking chances, not in the casino, but in relationships. Similarly, Fulci appears in The Gates of Hell as the pathologist who explains Emily’s death, Emily being the first victim they find when the horror begins in the doomed city of Dunwich. The pathologist says she died of fright, so we should listen to him, because he is the director. This is not a film about zombies, it is a film about fear. That’s why it doesn’t matter whether the zombies teleport or shuffle, or whether they stare you down until your eyes bleed or smear worms in your face, because they’re just here to scare the shit out of you.
If I had to write an academic paper about The Gates of Hell, I’d probably expand to say that the priest represents the way that religion controls people through fear, and the psychiatrist defeats him through rational thought. Science! But I’m just one more horror nerd with a blog.
If it sounds like I’m discounting the gore in the film, I’m not. I love the bleeding eyes and the guts, especially because I can tell how the effects were done and therefore appreciate them that much more. As for the drill through the head, if I hadn’t seen the same actor in Stage Fright a few years later, I’d probably think he actually died on film here because that’s how impressive that effect is. I’ve read about how it was done, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around it. It’s just that this is a gore film in which the gore is a means to an end: scaring you. And the gore itself is, in the context of the film, a symptom of the much greater fear that the victims experience. The fact that the film is disgusting, but doesn’t make me feel like someone removed my soul with a grapefruit spoon, is the reason why I keep returning to it, and noticing new things.
I will say this, though: my favorite gore scene is the one that happens mostly in the mind of the viewer. After Emily kills her parents, we are told, instead of shown, that she ripped them apart. Whatever she did to them, it left so much blood on the floor upstairs that it leaks through the ceiling and drips into a glass of milk, drop by drop. Beautiful red swirling in white! I can think of creative ways to “kill” actors, but I could never have come up with the blood dripping into the milk as a way to make you imagine how they must have died. It impressed another filmmaker as well; Jose Ramon Larraz used the same image of the upstairs blood falling into the downstairs milk about eight years later in Edge of the Axe.