Commentary Track

The City of the Dead (1960)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

The City of the Dead (1960) | 5.8.2020
Featuring: Austin, Maxx

Commentary track begins at 12:48

— Notes —

  • Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover — This is a seminal book in academic criticism on the horror genre. We highly recommend this book, and although we didn’t quote the passages at length during our conversation of The City of the Dead, we’ll include Clover’s analysis of “White Science” and “Black Magic” from the second chapter, “Opening Up’:
    • “The world at the opening of the standard occult film is a world governed by White Science—a world in which doctors fix patients, sheriffs catch outlaws, mechanics repair cars, and so on. The intrusion of the supernatural turns that routine world on its head: patients develop inexplicable symptoms, outlaws evaporate, cars are either unfixable or repair and run themselves. Experts are called in, but even the most sophisticated forms of White Science cannot account for the mysterious happenings, which in turn escalate to the point at which the whole community (school, summer camp, family) borders on extinction. Enter Black Magic. Some marginal person (usually a woman, but perhaps a male priest or equivalent) invokes ancient precedent (which in a remarkable number of cases entails bringing forth and reading from an old tome on witchcraft, voodoo, incubi, satanic possession, vampirism, whatever). Her explanation offers a more complete account of the mysterious happenings than the White Science explanation. The members of the community take sides. At first White Science holds the day, but as the terror increases, more and more people begin to entertain and finally embrace the Black Magic solution. Doctors admit that the semen specimens or the fetal heartbeats are not human; sheriffs realize that the “outlaw” has been around for four hundred years; mechanics acknowledge that the car is something more than a machine. Only when rational men have accepted the reality of the irrational—that which is unobservable, unquantifiable, and inexplicable by normal logic—can the supernatural menace be reined in and the community returned to a new state of calm. That state of calm is not, however, the same as the opening state of calm, which is now designated as a state of ignorance. It is a new, enlightened state in which White Science, humbled in its failure, works not arrogantly against but respectfully with Black Magic. It is an ABC story, the C being a kind of religioscientific syncretism” (97-98).

  • “Brief History of the Concept of Heterotopia” by Peter Johnson from Heterotopia Studies — This quick essay is a wonderful introduction to the concept, even to those unfamiliar with Foucault. We’ve only discussed the concept of heterotopia several times in the past, but Peter Johnson’s website will certainly be one of our resources should we ever discuss it in the future.
  • Signs and Meaning in the Cinema by Peter Wollen — Despite its brevity, this book is one of the most exciting entry points to film studies I’ve encountered. The field may have passed Wollen by, but this book remains incredibly engaging and informative. We’ll include some passages highlighting the system of signs Wollen appropriated from Charles S. Sanders:
    • “An icon, according to Peirce, is a sign which represents its object mainly by it similarity to it; the relationship between signifier and signified is not arbitrary but is one of resemblance or likeness. Thus, for instance, the portrait of a man resembles him. Icons can, however, be divided into two sub-classes: images and diagrams. In the case of images ‘simple qualities’ are alike; in the case of diagrams the ‘relations between the parts’. Many diagrams, of course, contain symboloid features; Peirce readily admitted this. for it was the dominant aspect or dimension of the sign which concerned him” (122).

    • “An index is a sign by virtue of an existential bond between itself and its object. Peirce gave several examples. I see a man with a rolling gait. This is a probably indication that he is a sailor. I see a bowlegged man in corduroys, gaiters and a jacket. These are probable indications that he is a jockey or something of the sort. A sundial or a clock indicates the time of day” (122-23).

    • “The third category of sign, the symbol, corresponds to Saussure’s arbitrary sign. Like Saussure, Peirce speaks of a ‘contract’ by virtue of which the symbol is a sign. The symbolic sign eludes the individual will. ‘You can write down the word “star”, but that does not make you the creator of the word, nor if you erase it have you destroyed the word. The word lives in the minds of those who use it.’ A symbolic sign demands neither resemblance to its object nor any existential bond with it. It is conventional and has the force of a law” (123).

  • Merchants of Menace: The Business of Horror Cinema edited by Richard Nowell — This is a collection of essays I’ve yet to complete reading, although the Robert Spadoni’s essay “Horror Film Atmosphere as Anti-narrative (and Vice Versa)” is decent. Spadoni’s essay discusses The City of the Dead directly, discussing the seemingly opposed forces of atmosphere and narrative in the film, although the essay isn’t remarkably deep all said.
  • “The Folk Horror Chain” by Adam Scovell from Celluloid Wicker Man — Here’s a wonderful article that runs through some of the defining features of the folk horror genre, alongside some of its prominent films. The City of the Dead isn’t discussed at length but it fits in nicely alongside the rest examined here.

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