13 September 2010

Fulci #1: Mood means the most in City of the Living Dead

 1 of 3 posts looking at Lucio Fulci's early '80s death trilogy

"The air in Dunwich is getting awful thick," moans a doomed barfly in Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, aka The Gates of Hell), the first part in his loose death trilogy (followed by The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, both in 1981). He's not wrong: swathes of ungodly fog deliver more than just poor visibility for the town's locals. After a priest hangs himself the Gates of Hell open up, ushering in the arrival of the living dead who start ripping seven shades out of the small New England town. At the same time, psychic Mary Woodhouse (the always wonderful Catriona MacColl, who appears in all three films in Fulci's trilogy) seemingly dies during a seance; reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) digs her up to help him investigate just what in gory hell is going on in the town. Along with doctor Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and painter Sandra (Janet Agren), they have to put a stop to the mass zombie slaughter before All Saint's Day ushers in an almighty undead shitstorm of unfathomable proportions.

Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs around

One of the many evocative exterior establishing shots in City of the Living Dead

Fulci plots are never to be scrutinised thoroughly, or indeed at all: City is no exception. Narrative complexity was never top of his directorial in-tray and neither would I have wanted it to be. In City mood is paramount. How Fulci sustains atmosphere is the chief reason I keep coming back to him. It's the main draw, and - in my view - an integral part of his appeal to horror fans. He was a master of invoking unnerving, off-kilter moods. In particular the weird levels of urgency he instilled into his films through intercutting instances of interior and exterior tension. (Although, of course, some of the oddness may well have come about through a general budgetary raggedness: City was filmed in four weeks). The control he asserted throughout was as assured as many a director working with thrice his budget. The guy had style: many mood-driven moments in City stand as best testament to that.

The eyes have it: Catriona MacColl (as Mary) is afraid to blink in City of the Living Dead

Early on Fulci cuts between Mary alive in her coffin and Peter walking around the tombstones; he barely hears her screams. The sunny exterior is strikingly juxtaposed with the cold blue inside the coffin; the two spaces are edited together in such a way to create a weird unbalance. (The muffled screams audible outside the coffin create the feeling of dislocated suffocation.) It's a minor yet crucial sequence, impressive for its evocation of both immediate tension and eerie calm. In fact, the eldritch mood (pure unfettered unheimlich!) aroused within just about every one of Fulci's many external shots of houses or familiar buildings - of which there are plenty in City - is purveyed wondrously, and with great care. Those familiar buildings are made oh-so unfamiliar on account of Fulci's deft directorial decision making. (More on this in the next Fulci post, regarding The Beyond.)

The way Fulci's camera often foreground a light source entering into, or stationary within, the frame
  conjures a specific feeling of dread; he often evokes vast disquiet through simple technical means...

...and his exterior shots are always strangely memorably vivid

Fulci was also a whizz in conjuring up truly disquieting aural atmospheres to accompany his assured visuals, often to pre-empt his celebrated moments of gore. (Not just in City, or in the trilogy, but over his entire career.)  He often uses the elements to further mystify the feeling of mounting fear extremely well. He purposefully arouses exterior audio effects for establishing shots of buildings, then foregrounds them in subsequent interior scenes through expressive use of sound: wind, distant moans, or simply the weird white noise of night seeping into the relative safety of a domestic dwellings; the volume unnaturally heightened.

Luca Venantini (as John-John) wishes he was starring in Driller Killer

It's subtle, consistent filmmaking and maintains a curiously off-balance tempo from exterior to interior shots: the undead threat lurks everywhere, it suggests. Indeed, Fulci's City ghouls often appear without warning, literally embodying the dread built up through audio means (they teleport wherever and whenever they choose, it seems - as when one turns up in Sandra's house as she's painting a disembodied rhino's head hovering above an ocean!).

An impromptu storm of maggots in the drawing room 
- something that most films sadly neglect to provide.

Of course the prime ingredient in a Fulci film is the gore. Often slow motion, always prolonged - it's rigged to gush all over the screen at a moment's notice. Fulci's plots are almost superfluous conduits through which he channels his signature instances of bloodshed. The moments of gore are junctures of the most gruesome kind - standout set-pieces which pertain to the baggy narrative build-up, but jut out, and  launch off, seemingly embodying their own absurd reason for existing (i.e. Fulci knew his audience wanted it; he provided it). But maybe it's actually the loose narrative that's one long, frequently interrupted intervention - a frame on which to hang his ideas, to be wrapped around the gore more than to be logical storylines.

 Father Thomas eyes up his victims

The scene where a courting couple park up by the cemetery (the location of the entrance to one of the Seven Doors to Hell) sees some of Fulci's best moments of gore trauma. A girl and a guy make out, but that dead priest who insists on hanging around pops up so abruptly that just the sight of him alone makes the woman's eyes bleed and mouth foam; she promptly vomits up her innards (actually sheep entrails which Fulci apparently asked actress Antonella Interlenghi to swallow and regurgitate for realistic effect in the scene).

Tears run red: Daniela Doria (as Rosie) cries blood in City of the Living Dead

The guy, played by director Michele Soavi, watches on aghast before getting the back of his head ripped off. Par for the course with Fulci, yes, but what makes it memorable is the scene's duration (as always) and the way attention is paid to sense-specific horror - eyes slowly bleeding, intestines gradually oozing from the mouth - as well as the frequent imposing cuts back to the face of the priest. The focus on the drawn-out trauma, and its viscerally-detailed particulars, marks Fulci's gore out as a truly singularly sick vision, but always uniquely his own.

The undead are a pain in the neck for Christopher George (as Peter Bell)

There's something rigorously, indefinably reverberant about the way in which Fulci conjures up certain moods in his work, particularly in this death trilogy. His camera often returns again and again to empty sites of deceptively calm and mundane environments, pregnant with potential menace (more often than not wind-blown streets in City), as if he's forthrightly reiterating their importance within the overall effectiveness of the film, and, by extension, the crazed, slapdash - but no less intriguing for it - mythology surrounding the Seven Doors of Hell. Whether through maintaining a consistency of style and atmosphere, or through budgetary necessity, these are the moments which make a Fulci film really fly. Logic be damned.

Next: Fulci #2 The Beyond

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