City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead is the first movie in Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Lucio Fulci is an Italian horror movie director who worked in the late 20th century (mostly the 70’s and 80’s). His movies are cheaply made, nihilistic affairs that revel in excess; Fulci is the guy who goes for the gross-out every time. Love him or hate him, he’s hugely influential.

Set in scenic Dunwich New England, City of the Living Dead opens with a priest hanging himself. Cut to a séance in New York City, where psychic Mary Woodhouse dies of fright, leading to a scene where a hardboiled trench-coated cop questions the other members of the séance. Ah, I thought, here’s our main character, except the cop never appears again.

It’s hard to figure out who the main character of City of the Living Dead is. Is it Mary Woodhouse, miraculously resurrected from the dead? Perhaps it’s Peter Bell, the crusty yet lovable reporter who is old enough to be her father. Or it could be Gerry the psychiatrist, who tells us that 70% of the women in this country are neurotic. Maybe it’s the woman who draws rhinos for a living or young John-John, who wears a Yankees jersey in New England (one of the most unbelievable things about this movie).

In many ways City of the Living Dead is the Spoon River Anthology of horror movies. There are almost too many characters to keep track of. We have the guys who hang around the bar drinking Schlitz; the necking teenagers; the lecherous mortician. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention town pervert Bob and his blow-up doll, who is unfortunately uncredited. Well, you get the idea. An ensemble cast!

The priest starts hanging around Dunwich. When he stares at you, your eyes bleed. This leads to one of the grossest scenes in horror movie history where a character literally pukes her guts out. A word of warning: don’t eat dinner while watching this. The dead start to rise. We learn there’s a deadline: if Father Vomit isn’t killed a second time by midnight of All Saint’s Day, the Gates of Hell will open! The rest of City of the Living Dead consists of our inept heroes bumbling around while Father Vomit creates teleporting zombies and blows maggot swarms at people.

I have a love-hate relationship with Lucio Fulci: I hated The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, the second and third movies in the “Gates of Hell” trilogy. But I must admit to really liking City of the Living Dead, right up to its gonzo wtf? ending, which supposedly came about because the editor spilled coffee on the film of the original ending. I don’t know if that’s a true story, but I sure hope it is!



First things first: this is not a review of Tom Hanks’ Inferno. Since I review horror movies, it’s obvious I’m talking about Dario Argento’s Inferno, the sequel to his masterful Suspiria. Inferno isn’t as good as Suspiria, but you’ve got to admire him for trying. As horror movies go, it isn’t bad.

The Three Mothers are a trio of witches who live in buildings in New York City, Rome and Freiburg Germany. So says the book of the same name purchased by poetess Rose Elliot at the creepy antiques bookstore in New York City. Taking her cue from Nancy Drew, Rose investigates. She ends up in a basement, where she drops her keys into a flooded underground room. Watching her dive fully clothed into the brackish waters, I sensed she might not be long for this world.

Rose writes to her brother Mark, a music student in Rome. Mark is so bewitched by the sight of the lovely woman in his music class he leaves her letter behind. His lady friend Sara takes the letter and soon finds a copy of The Three Mothers. Sara sort of wanders into this movie, which happens a lot in Inferno. Her long-term prospects aren’t good, let’s put it that way.

Mark travels to New York City only to find his sister missing. He doesn’t contact the police, instead opting to investigate on his own. Mark is no Sherlock Holmes – think Inspector Clouseau’s dim-witted brother – but he’s the best hero this movie has. He wanders around while people are murdered to dramatic music in increasingly creative ways. Argento’s New York City features a Central Park teeming with man-eating rats and psychotic hot dog vendors. It’s a place where a woman who writes poetry can live in a spacious apartment complex that looks like it would cost five figures a month to rent.

Will Mark’s investigations bear fruit? Since we already know what happened to Rose, there’s no mystery involved. Like Suspiria, Inferno has plot elements but no plot. But who cares? This is a visually stunning movie with great death sequences, so just sit back and enjoy the show.

Helloween Day One: Nightmare City

Do you crave bad zombie movies? If so, Nightmare City qualifies! Be warned, though: this movie is bad. If you were to get really, really drunk at a party you might like it. Say you ate a bunch of Oreo cookies while watching it, and then vomited them up before blacking out on the bathroom floor. That’s the kind of drunk Nightmare City requires.

Dean Miller is a reporter. His assignment: interview an important nuclear scientist. Miller goes to the airport, where an airplane full of zombies lands. The zombies kill everyone. Miller rushes to his news station, interrupting footage of a bunch of women in tights doing aerobics (this was the early 80’s!) to try to warn the public of the danger. Soon afterwards the zombies storm the news station and kill everyone. I’m sensing a pattern here.

Miller rushes to the hospital, where his wife works as a doctor. They get out just before the zombies storm the joint and – you guessed it – kill everyone. These zombies are badasses! Instead of shuffling, they sprint around like cheetahs chasing down frightened gazelle. They wield knives and axes and even guns. At one point they are referred to as vampires, but that’s a dubbing error. Trust me, these are zombies.

The best part of Nightmare City is the climax, which takes place in an amusement park and reminded me of Zombieland. Maybe the scene in Zombieland is a homage. Who knows? The last two minutes of Nightmare City contains a twist that anyone who’s ever seen a Twilight Zone episode knows is coming.

Made in 1980, directed by Umberto Lenzi, Nightmare City is subpar Eurotrash. The effects are dreadful, and I’m not saying that as someone spoiled by 21st century special effects. Believe me, these effects are dreadful. That said, there are some gruesome death scenes and also a few scenes where the zombies tear open their female victims’ shirts before stabbing them. If you want more of the latter watch Jean Rollins’ Grapes of Death, a vastly superior movie. If you still insist on seeing Nightmare City, it’s available on Shudder. The version I saw is both subbed and dubbed, and the sub and dub didn’t match up.

You’ve been warned.

Blood and Black Lace

Watching Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace reminded me of an episode of Charlie’s Angels. The music sounds like TV show music and the girls look like TV show actresses. In a way, that makes the violence that much more shocking. This is a very pretty movie with a few very ugly moments, including a short but nasty torture scene.

A man wearing a cloth mask over his face strangles a fashion model and dumps her body in a closet. When the dead girl’s co-workers discover her diary it sets off a daisy chain of murders. The killer stalks his prey through mansions stuffed full of rugs, fancy furniture, exotic art and marble statues. I never knew modeling paid so well! Maybe the killings are the work of a sexual psychopath, but the slayings seem too calculated for that. The modeling world has a seamy side, with drugs and money and sleaze, and the killer seems right at home.

Blood and Black Lace is a giallo, and thus has both mystery and horror elements. What this movie doesn’t have is a protagonist. None of the characters in the ensemble cast are all that likable. The players display a distinct lack of morality, or perhaps it’s personality. Since they live in a superficial world dominated by looks, that’s not much of a surprise. But it is a fairly sophisticated bit of writing/filmmaking.

I saw Blood and Black Lace on Fandor, where it was advertised as ‘retro VHS style,’ not a selling point for anyone who remembers VHS. Despite this, Blood and Black Lace is still a very pretty movie. It’s dubbed, and the dubbing is good, but don’t look at the characters’ lips when they are talking. Despite all the positives, to me this movie gives off a Charlie’s Angels/Murder Mystery of the Week vibe. There are classics that don’t age well, but perhaps that isn’t fair. Blood and Black Lace was influential and it’s not Mr. Bava’s fault other directors imitated him.

What Have You Done to Solange?


What Have You Done to Solange is one of those movies that you used to see being sold at horror conventions on grainy videotape. This is a giallo, an Italian/West German (?!?!) thriller/mystery/horror film. It is dubbed, and the dubbing seemed good to me. To my knowledge What Have You Done to Solange has never been widely released in the United States, and it took me about ten minutes to figure out why.

Enrico teaches at a Catholic girls’ school (college?) in London. A handsome Italian, he’s like a peacock strutting amidst a flock of peahens. Enrico rents a swinging bachelor’s flat even though he’s married and is having an affair with Elizabeth, one of his students. Later in the movie Enrico seems proud that their relationship is ‘pure,’ even though he spends all his time onscreen pressuring her to have sex.

Enrico and Elizabeth are on a boat on the river when Elizabeth witnesses a murder. The killer wears a long black frock and might be a priest. He or she seems to be targeting students at Enrico’s school, which already employs two sexual predators (Enrico and the teacher who peeks at the girls in the shower). By the way, the school’s dean gives Enrico’s relationship an unofficial thumb’s up.

Enrico is what passes for the hero in What Have You Done to Solange, which is this movie’s first big problem (out of three). Things might have been different back in 1974, but today a guy like Enrico would be in jail. At the very least, he is an unsympathetic character. After a nasty twist halfway through the movie, he’s not even vital to the plot.

What Have You Done to Solange contains a lot of symbolism – a white cat, four red apples wrapped in white paper, pins, a red towel – none of which is subtle. The murders are extremely brutal, and the misogyny of this movie is pretty in your face (the second problem). There’s no secret code. According to the makers of this film the girls do evil things like go to parties and do drugs and date and even have sex, and thus bring retribution on themselves.

The third problem with What Have You Done to Solange is that it doesn’t work as a mystery. In Dario Argento’s Deep Red you can figure out or at least guess the identity of the killer. That’s impossible here, because the writers don’t play fair. Solange is the key to the mystery, and she isn’t even mentioned until the movie is half over. If you are a fan of giallo, What Have You Done to Solange might be of interest; if not, don’t bother.

House by the Cemetery

Young Bob utters the best line of House by the Cemetery when he goes into the basement in search of his babysitter, Anne. A few scenes earlier Bob saw Anne’s severed head rolling down the steps. As he walks down the stairs Bob says (paraphrasing) – “Anne. Are you dead? Mommy says you’re not dead.”

I’ve seen enough horror cinema to know that House by the Cemetery, directed by Lucio Fulci, is an influential movie. It’s an important entry in the Monster in the Basement subgenre and contains an element of sadism that was way ahead of its time. This is not torture porn, but it’s close, and nowadays you can see about a hundred horror movies like this: threadbare plot, cutout characters, sadistic killer and lots and lots of blood.

House by the Cemetery opens with a guy and girl, post sexy-time. Instead of treating his date to a nice motel, maybe with mirrors on the ceiling, the dude takes her to a disgusting, grungy basement. He dies and she gets a knife through the back of the head. Cut to Dr. Norman Boyle, his wife Lucy and their son Bob, who are off to the same house in New England.

We meet another little kid, a girl named Mae who doesn’t want Bob to go into the house. Bob sees Mae’s face in a picture, peeking out of the window of the house they’re about to move into. The house the Boyles are renting – which is a piece of shit – was owned by Dr. Freudstein, a half-assed mad scientist who performed medical experiments on people in the basement.

You couldn’t pay me to spend the night in that place, but the Boyles are made of sterner stuff. The results are predictable. Norm and Lucy hear children crying in the middle of the night, even though their son is fast asleep. There’s an honest-to-God tomb in the hallway hidden under a carpet. A bat attacks Doc Norman and he stabs it about three hundred times before it dies. Bats don’t act that way unless they have rabies, so anyone sane would leave the house, post-haste. The Boyles stay. Of course they stay. They’re begging to be killed, and the thing lurking in the basement is more than happy to oblige.

I’m sorry to say that House by the Cemetery wasn’t to my tastes. It has lots of gore, but the script is a mess and the characters are dumb even by horror movie standards. This could be a translation issue. House by the Cemetery is an Italian movie, and maybe the dub isn’t too good. Still, if you want to see the flick that helped inspired the latest hack ’em up streaming on Netflix, check out House by the Cemetery.

Deep Red

Deep Red is a Giallo, an Italian horror/thriller/mystery directed by Dario Argento. Despite Deep Red’s availability in the video stores of the early 80’s, this is yet another movie I missed. As a kid I subsisted on a diet of American slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and thus missed a lot of great horror movies.

The plot: famed psychic Amanda Righetti witnesses a murder in front of a packed auditorium. The catch: the murder occurred decades ago, and the killer is in the audience. Amanda doesn’t seem bothered by that second fact, which is a big mistake. Cut to Marcus and his drunken buddy Carlo, who are hanging outside a bar. Marcus witnesses Amanda’s murder through her apartment window.

Marcus rushes into the psychic’s apartment and finds her body; too bad she didn’t foresee her own death. When the police arrive he tells them he thinks the murderer took one of the many creepy paintings hanging on the walls. Feisty reporter Gianna pastes Marcus’ face all over the front page of the newspaper with the headline EYEWITNESS TO MURDER. This turns out to be yet another big mistake. Later that night Marcus is in his den when we see bits of plaster fall on his piano. The killer is walking on the roof. And then a children’s song starts to play. It’s an eerie, creepy scene, one of many in this gem.

The kiddy song leads to an urban legend about a murder house that turns out to be true. Marcus follows the killer’s trail because – really, I have no clue why. There are a lot of things in this movie that don’t make any sense. Unlike Argento’s masterful Suspiria, Deep Red has a plot, but boy oh boy do the characters do some stupid shit.

Marcus finds the murder house, which has been deserted for years. The realtor’s daughter likes to impale lizards and is a future candidate for the Tanz Academy if I ever saw one. In the house Marcus finds a child’s drawing buried beneath the plaster depicting a brutal murder. In the meantime the killer has been busy. Will Marcus be the next victim?

The body count of Deep Red isn’t high, but Argento makes every death count. Highly choreographed, these murders are works of art. The other thing that impressed me about Deep Red is the ending. I figured out the part about the painting because I have access to the rewind and pause button, so I thought I had the murderer pegged. I was wrong.

Highly recommended!

Helloween Day Two: Across the River

Adam Nevill, one of my favorite horror writers, recommended Across the River. The link to the article is here. The movie’s in Italian with English subtitles, but that doesn’t matter because there’s almost no dialogue. I watched it for free on Amazon Prime.

The plot: Marco catches, tags and then releases animals back into the wild. I don’t know why he does this because I’m not an ethologist myself, but driving around in an RV, trapping beasties and mounting cameras on their backs so he can watch videotape of them skulking around in the dark seems pretty cool.

Marco sees something odd on video that makes him follow one of his ‘charges.’ He drives his RV across the river, which is dangerously high because of the flooding, and ends up in a deserted village in the middle of the woods. Except the village isn’t really deserted. There are the animals…it must be the animals that scream in the night. Then he sees a thing that’s not an animal, but by then it’s too late. The river has risen.

He’s trapped. But he’s not alone…

Set in Italy, Across the River features beautiful scenery and an atmospheric soundtrack. The abandoned village is creepy as hell, and the director knows how to milk the dread from a scene. The first half is better than the second. I didn’t find Marco’s actions unrealistic; he makes a mistake, but he’s just a guy doing his job, which makes what he goes through that much worse.

There’s a lot to like about Across The River. Depending on your temperament, this will either be unbearably boring or a brown underwear movie. The Blair Witch Project comes to mind, although this isn’t a found footage movie. The first part of the movie also reminded me of “The Ritual,” the Adam Nevill novel.

Did Across The River scare me? Yes. It made me abandon my ‘no remote’ resolution. If you like your horror movies atmospheric and scary, check this one out; if you prefer lots of action and gore, skip it.