SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES
You’ll PUKE Your Guts Out!
By Nick Cato
During the spring of 1983, a black and white version of the poster seen above graced the film sections of NYC newspapers. While it didn’t take much to get us horror fans into the theater, it was even easier when a film came out UNRATED and was directed by some Italian guy only a handful of us had heard about. Remember, this was still the age of no Internet. The only sources of horror news came through FANGORIA magazine and, for a select chosen few, a small network of crudely-made underground horror film fanzines.
I had missed Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979) when it hit American shores during the summer of 1980, and was tired of hearing people rave over how wonderfully disgusting it was. But three years later, here was another one from the same director with an equally as creepy ad campaign. To say I was psyched was putting it mildly (I later found out GATES had been released in 1980 in Italy, a year after ZOMBIE premiered there.).
Thankfully, THE GATES OF HELL opened at the (now defunct) Amboy Twin Cinemas, the easiest theater in all of NY’s five boroughs to get into if you were underage. And despite being UNRATED, the Amboy Twin still allowed me and my gang of pimple-faced freshman gore geeks to march right in on opening night.
Let’s back-track one more time: Everything about this film gave the theater itself an uneasy aura: from it’s startling title (that I still prefer over its official DVD release as CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, as well as over twenty other international titles) to it’s threatening blurb at the bottom of its poster (“This film contains scenes which may be considered shocking. No one under 17 admitted.”). A brief NYC television ad even featured a Catholic priest slipping a noose around his neck as a luminous voice said “The gates of HELL are about to be opened!” In other words, there was no bootleg VHS copies available, no Pay-Per View previews on cable TV… just good, old-school advertising and a short & sweet trailer I’ve been trying to track down since the night I saw it on late night television. If memory serves right, even FANGORIA didn’t run pictures until AFTER the film had been in theaters.
While, at the time, none of us saw Fulci as the gore-god he would soon become known as, it was evident the guy wasn’t playing with even half a deck: I can’t recall any other film featuring a zombie apocalypse caused by a priest hanging himself. Well, maybe it wasn’t an apocalypse per se, as all the action took place in a small town.
The strong point of GATES is its constant sense of dread. As soon as the suicidal priest does his business, supernatural-type zombies began to appear all over the small town of Dunwich, ripping out unsuspecting people’s brains, shown in gooey, graphic detail that would become any gorehound’s glory. And just WHY this dead priest caused the dead to rise is anyone’s guess (if you’ve never seen a Lucio Fulci film, logic is rarely—if ever—something to bother looking for). But the audience and myself really didn’t CARE why, as we were having too much fun watching zombies rip out brains, and others become possessed: one poor woman begins to cry blood before puking her guts up (literally) in what seemed like a five-minute sequence. While I actually laughed as this happened, due to the ultra-fake looking teeth during the close-up, most of the audience screamed and gasped, causing me to laugh harder. But any laughs had during this cheap-looking effect were made up for in BUCKETS over the film’s most infamous sequence.
The mentally-challenged Bob (played by the soon-to-be Euro-cult film icon Giovanni Lombardo Radice) is thrown onto a table by his father. On the table is a stationary power drill, which Bob’s head is slowly—ever so slowly—pushed onto. The camera doesn’t cut away. The theater freaked out. I was glad when I eventually found out Giovanni was making another film as I was CONVINCED they had killed the poor guy for this scene! If you haven’t seen it, it’s arguably one of the most gruesome, realistic special effects ever devised for a film. Hats off to FX artist Gino de Rossi for pulling off one of the greatest gore sequences I ever had the pleasure of witnessing in a theater.
Now, despite all the fun we were having, and despite the non-existent plot (and DO NOT even get me started on the ridiculous, completely pointless ending), what TRULY bothered me about the film was its star, Christopher George, who plays a New York City reporter who, for some reason, is in New England covering the priest suicide story. While it’s true George has starred in numerous horror and exploitation films (most notably 1982’s PIECES and 1980’s THE EXTERMINATOR), I’ve just always had a hard time buying him in any role. Thankfully, the lovely Catriona MacColl co-stars as a psychic who helps him discover what happened the night the priest hung himself at a local cemetery.
THE GATES OF HELL, with its slow-moving first half and horrendous acting, is truly an acquired taste. But once things get underway—and if you’re willing to ignore the fact there’s not much of a story to go with—you just might enjoy this gross, over-the-top splatter-fest from the “legendary” Lucio Fulci. And again, despite a few people attempting to explain the ending to me over the years…trust me: IT MAKES NO SENSE!
With all his flaws, I truly miss Fulci and his few films I was lucky enough to see during the Golden Age of the Splatter Films.
And THE GATES OF HELL was one of his better efforts.
© Copyright 2011 by Nick Cato