City of the Living Dead isn’t really about a city of the living dead, more an unincorporated municipality of the living dead. An unincorporated municipality of the living dead is far less scary than a city of the living dead. Though the film is rarely scary. It’s occasionally gory, even more occasionally awesome in its gore, but it’s rarely scary. It’s kind of a grody scary.
Most of the scares come toward the beginning, as ingenue psychic Catriona MacColl gets buried alive. Sure, the NYPD investigates her death as a possible homicide or at least drug-related thing (the detective is suspicious of pot use among MacColl’s fellow mediums), so one would think there’d be an autopsy, but no. No, she just gets buried alive. Luckily, intrepid reporter Christopher George happens to be being intrepid in the graveyard at just the right time to save her.
It’s actually one of director Fulci’s best sequences–George pick-axing into MacColl’s coffin–just because he never gets too carried away. Fulci likes his gore, doesn’t really like thinking about how it works. Later on, zombies appear and disappear at will. Both the zombies’ wills and the wills of their potential victims. The zombies are all presumably under the command of undead priest Fabrizio Jovine, who doesn’t have a character, he just stands around trying to look as much like Christopher Lee as possible.
But MacColl and George are pretty good, particularly George, and they’re able to carry the film. Fulci and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti spend most of Living Dead splitting between MacColl and George trying to get to the City (unincorporated municipality) and the residents of said city (unincorporated municipality) dealing with zombies. While MacColl and George’s scenes often aren’t great–sometimes they’re entirely useless–at least there’s a narrative drive to them. MacColl isn’t great playing a haunted psychic, but she’s not bad. And George chomps on the scenery just enough to maintain believability while still entertaining.
It’s the townsfolk who are the problem. There’s a runtime killing subplot about the town pervert (a reasonably effective Giovanni Lombardo Radice) who gets blamed for all the zombie murders. Maybe the most successful thing about how Living Dead’s narrative functions is how Radice can just disappear and the film doesn’t hit a speed bump. Because in the town, Carlo De Mejo is the lead. He’s the lovable town shrink, who seems to have gotten his degree from a Crackerjack box. De Mejo is awful. He doesn’t emote at all. You’ll have half-eaten corpses, everyone else freaking out, De Mejo blandly staring into space. In some ways, it helps the film through its sillier narrative moments. If De Mejo can’t get worked up about it, why should the viewer?
There are some decent supporting cast performances–Antonella Interlenghi, Janet Agren, not annoying little kid Venantino Venantini–but the film plods along. It’s also a technical mixed bag. Fulci and cinematographer Sergio Salvati do create a creepy town–the wind machine effects are awesome–but Vincenzo Tomassi’s editing is weak and Fabio Frizzi’s synthesizer horror score doesn’t do what it’s going for.
But for most of its runtime, City of the Living Dead isn’t awful. Just when it gets to the third act and Fulci fails with the evil zombie priest showdown. The whole film’s been building to this scene and it tanks. De Mejo standing around like a twit doesn’t help things, of course.
Still, it’s far from unwatchable and even has its charms.