City of the Living Dead: Special Edition (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits one of Lucio Fulci's most disgusting films in remastered hi-def...
Following two decades of hard work with little reward, Italian mad man Lucio Fulci final struck box office gold with his Dawn of the Dead cash-in Zombie (aka: Zombi 2 and Zombie Flesheaters). The success led Italian producers to ask for more of the same, and allowed Fulci to experiment with a nearly plotless succession of horrific images he liked to call ‘pure cinema’. Horror fans didn’t care as long as the maestro continued dabbling in taboo crushing gore effects. He did. Most of Fulci’s most fervent fans consider City of the Living Dead a wind-up for The Beyond (aka: E tu vivrai nel terrore - L'aldilà and Seven Doors of Death), a true tour-de-force of bizarre, nightmare imagery, and also tend to overlook it in favour of the director’s more restrained and plot heavy Giallo efforts (like Perversion Story, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling and Seven Notes in Black). I’m usually content to agree with the consensus (these are all among my favourite films), but City of the Living Dead made an indelible imprint on me at a relatively young age in the form of a Gates of Hell VHS release, and the Anchor Bay DVD (which is identical to the previous Blue Underground DVD) finds its way into my player more often than any of the director’s other films.
The, heh, ‘plot-line’ is psudo-Lovecraftian (in some countries it was sold as H.P. Lovecraft’s City of the Living Dead), involving a damned priest whose pre-credit suicide opens one of the seven Gates of Hell (the film's US release title) in the imaginary town of Dunwitch (that’s pretty much where the Lovecraft ends). When Mary Woodhouse (played by British actress Catriona MacColl, one of the constants in the loose trilogy of City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery) witnesses the suicide via psychic séance, she screams, foams at the mouth, and drops dead. Reporter Peter Bell (played by B-movie icon Christopher George) takes special interest in Mary’s death, and happens to be on hand when she comes back to life minutes before being buried alive. Peter frees Mary from her tomb, and our heroes journey to Dunwitch (which is inordinately hard to find) to stop the evil undead priest, and save the world.
City of the Living Dead makes zero sense, and its dialogue and character interactions are usually as wooden as Pinocchio’s scalp (despite a few genuinely solid performances from MacColl and George), but Fulci's nightmare vision, enacted with fastidious production design, special effects, and cinematography, is undeniably ominous. The town of Dunwitch is perpetually covered in soupy fog and blowing dirt. It’s impossible to see further than a couple dozen yards in any direction, leading to fair assumptions that there might not be a world beyond one’s line of sight. The people of Dunwitch, apparently the descendants of Salem witch burners, seem normal enough, but are quick to assume the local social misfit Bob (Italian gore cinema’s favourite whipping boy Giovanni Lombardo Radice) must somehow be behind the town’s clearly supernatural murder spree. This ignorant malevolence, though expressed through broad, clumsily expositional dialogue, coupled with the town’s eerie image creates a genuine sense of dread, which leads nicely into the hallucinatory latter half. The constant menace doesn’t make the story compute, but the audacity of maggot showers, deafening cat noises, wall cracking earthquakes, shattering windows and bleeding walls should eventually wear down even the most logical viewer’s defences.
Fulci is still to this day most famous for impaling Olga Karloto's eye on a wooden splinter in Zombie (arguably the most iconic image in Italian splatter history), but the ‘Godfather of Gore’ really outdid himself when he made this follow-up. City of the Living Dead features two of the most stomach churning sequences special effects sequences in Italian splatter history. In the first instance the demonic priest performs a bit of coitus interruptus on a pair of unsuspecting teenagers, played by Fulci fave Daniela Doria, and Italian master director in the making Michele Soavi ( The Church, Cemetery Man). The priest ‘hypnotizes’ Doria (the meaning of this power is unimportant) causing her to enter a trance state where she cries bloody tears. While Soavi helplessly tries to open the car door Doria manages to slowly regurgitate her entire intestinal track. Later, town miscreant and murder suspect Bob is cornered by an angry father who slowly presses Bob's head into a power drill as he screams bloody murder. There’s also an abundance of supernaturally endowed zombies, all with particularly goopy faces, and a penchant for squeezing the brains out of the back of their victim’s heads. Only Joe D’Amato’s Buio Omega (aka: Beyond the Darkness and Buried Alive) features more revolting special gore effects, though for sheer pain quotient I’d say the chain beating at the centre of Don’t Torture a Duckling, and the nipple and eyeball razorblade dissections of New York Ripper see Fulci at his most barbaric.
Blue Underground once again waves their magic wand, and produces another impossibly good looking transfer from less than ideal source material. City of the Living Dead is, coincidentally, an oddity among Fulci’s supernatural horror films in that it was filmed non-anamorphically, and framed at 1.85:1 instead of 2.35:1 (as was the super-excessive gangster flick, Contraband, which was made the same year). The first thing I notice when comparing images from this new 1080p transfer, and the old SD transfer is the extra image on all sides, especially the right. Both releases feature the same 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but the DVD was apparently zoomed. The better framing would be reason enough for obsessive fans like myself to update (DVD consumers take notice), but wait, there’s more.
The new remastered transfer’s details are so sharp fans will finally be able to discern what’s happening during some of the film’s darkest sequences. Besides finally knowing for certain that Bob sees a dead baby covered in worms (pervious transfers revealed only a black and pink blur), the coffin scene is no longer a mix of utter blackness and Christopher George’s ECU, daylight face. Now we can actually see Catriona MacColl’s face and the blood on her hands as she scratches the inside of the coffin. Complete clarity does not remain a constant throughout the entire film, but there isn’t a single shot that appears less impressive than any previous release. The bigger surprise, sadly enough, is the use of colour. The scene where Emily visit Bob at his ‘house’ now reveal pink and blue key lights, similar to those used by Argento in Suspiria and Inferno. Older releases were browner overall, and only very specific articles of clothing and props really popped colourfully. On the slightly negative end of things the overall image is still quite grainy, which is understandable considering the film's age. During wider and lighter shots the grain turns into the same fine, Gaussian-patterned noise that was featured on the New York Ripper transfer. I’m not sure what causes this effect, but I’m assuming it’s similar to digital noise reduction, only clearly less annoying. Blacks absorb some of the colours around them early in the film, but by the last act when night falls dark spots are perfectly rich and sharp against the now discernable highlights.
I review this transfer coming off of years of a very crummy Paragon VHS copy, so my utter amazement is perhaps a little untrustworthy, but I don’t think anyone realistic would disagree with my overall assessment. This is an upgrade over the Anchor Bay/Blue Underground DVD in pretty much every possible sense. Perhaps all this cleanliness robs the compositions of some of their utter creepiness, but things haven’t been artificially lightened, like they were for the ill-fated Zombie re-release transfer. The Dunwitch streets are still mysteriously foggy, dusty, and dark, but some of the special effects appliances are a little too apparent when presented this clearly (specifically Emily’s zombie face is a bit too obviously just covered in goop, though that drilled head still really stands up). I can only assume this is the closest the film has looked to its initial release, and that’s reason alone to celebrate.
Back in the early days of Anchor Bay’s Bill Lustig run Italian horror DVD releases a company named Chance Digital remixed the release audio to 5.1 Dolby Digital. For the most part theses were successful, but awkward attempts. City of the Living Dead was, to my ears, Chance’s best work. The track utilized the original material to create an immersive effect, instead of using additional effects elements to fill out the rear channels. It surely helped matters that City of the Living Dead is more dependent on supernatural sound effects than any of Fulci’s other films. This new 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track seems to use the Chance track as a base, or at least follows similar lines.
There’s a bit too much discrepancy between the volume levels of the centre and stereo speakers, but the stereo and surround elements are reasonably subtle, and pretty natural when needed. The New York street scenes are particularly impressive in terms of basic ambient noise, and outdoor Dunwitch scenes feature a lot of bassy, aggressive wind. The more abstract sounds of impeding evil, or whatever, are especially loud now, without the high end distortion present on the Dolby Digital release. The directional representation of these effects is also slightly bettered with the extra rear channel augmentation, even for folks like me who only have 5.1 capabilities. The scene where Sandra’s dead grandmother tears around her house are fine representations of the track’s surround abilities. Vocal performances are a little inconsistent in terms of volume levels within a particular scene, but there’s a warm reality that was never part of the older tracks, especially in MacColl’s voice, which is so clear it almost sounds re-recorded at times. Lip-sync is all over the place, but this is, as per the usual, expected from a post-dubbed Italian production with a multi-lingual cast.
This brings us to Fabio Frizzi’s score. Though his work is often thinner and more simplified than the more celebrated work of more celebrated Italian composers like Ennio Morricone, Riz Ortolani or Goblin, Frizzi’s ear is still vastly underrated. Frizzi’s evolution from Zombie to The Beyond would make a great lesson plan for would-be composers. His scores broadened in scope, and perhaps more importantly in budget. City of the Living Dead came right dab in the middle of the entirely synthesized Zombie score, and the symphonically enhanced Beyond score. Most of the music is still produced by electronic keyboards, but there are some guitar and bass additions, and one string quartet piece. The main theme features one of Frizzi’s patented off kilter drum beats, which will drive some viewers insane, but the descending guitar and piano motif is one of the most genuinely unnerving musical pieces in B-horror history. The music isn’t edited into the film particularly well, which is an unfortunately common element in Fulci’s films, but this is not the fault of the disc’s producers, who seem to have entirely remixed the score from source elements. The music is presented almost exclusively in the stereo channels, with punchy LFE support. On occasion the score is mixed a little too low, at least lower than it has been on previous releases, but the more important representations (specifically during the fiery climax) sound great.
Unlike most of Blue Underground’s DVD to Blu-ray reissues this disc actually features a collection of new extras (there were none on the original DVD, besides the trailer). These don’t quite add up to the upcoming Arrow UK release, but are entertaining and informative, especially for newcomers.
‘The Making of City of the Living Dead’ (32:00, SD, also available on the DVD reissue) features interviews with filmmaker/actor Michelle Soavi, star Cationa MacColl, production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, assistant make-up effects artist Rosario Prestopino, special effects maestro Gino de Rossi, cinematographer Sergio Salvati and camera operator Roberto Forges Davanzati (some of which appear to have been taken from the Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered: Vol. 1 interview collection). The featurette covers working with Fulci, location shooting, adding fog and dust to the outdoor scenes, production design, casting, photography, special effects, and the filming of the notorious coffin, gut puking and head drilling scenes. Most of this stuff won’t be news to fans, who probably read the great Fangoria article on Fulci back when The Beyond was re-released by Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures, but this is still a solid featurette (it’s very cool to see the original prosthetics), that could’ve been great with a little more content (the story behind the film’s oddly enigmatic ending would be a nice addition).
This Blu-ray also features a collection of exclusive interviews, starting with ‘Acting Among the Living Dead’ (10:30, HD), a sweet discussion with Cationa MacColl, who talks about her casting, her issues with violence (which are minimal), working with Fulci, working with maggots, working in a coffin, working with the other actors, and fan reactions. ‘Entering the Gates of Hell’ (09:50, HD) features a very laid back Giovanni Lombardo Radice, who is his usual honest self (his Cannibal Ferox commentary is a must listen). Radice discusses his reaction to the film’s silly script, his genuine interest in his character, his reactions to Fulci (who he mostly got along with), and working with special effects. ‘Memories of the Maestro’ (21:00, SD) is made up of cast and crew interviews from the Paura DVD release, all specifically pertaining to City of the Living Dead. Good stuff for those that don’t already have a copy of that disc. The extras are completed with an extensive ‘Marketing of the Living Dead’ (13:10, HD) scrolling artwork slideshow set to the film’s soundtrack, the English trailer (03:00, HD), the Italian trailer (03:00, HD), and a selection of radio spots set to stills (SD).
Minus its terrible tarantula attack scene, The Beyond is still the more impressive film, but it was largely made in response to other horror films than City of the Living Dead, which is arguably Fulci’s purest vision. Surely the zombie scenes recall Zombie, and the more expressly gothic sequences recall Mario Bava’s work, but Fulci doesn’t specifically mimic Argento at any point in the film, unlike The Beyond, which features obvious references to Suspiria and Inferno.
City of the Living Dead is not for the faint at heart, or the incurably logical, but fans of graphic violence and nightmarish landscapes should probably give the film a look. Fulci’s fans, who no doubt already adore the film, blood-caked warts and all, will likely find themselves grinning when they witness the utter beauty of this new high definition transfer. Blue Underground have really outdone themselves, and this time around they’ve even included a decent collection of new extras, including some wonderful cast interviews, and interview footage from Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered: Vol. 1. Add the perfectly decent 7.1 DTS-HD remix, and you’ve got a highly recommended Blu-ray disc on your hands.
*Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps, which have been taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. The DVD caps were taken from the Anchor Bay 'Lucio Fulci Collection' release, which is the same transfer as the first Blue Underground release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 25th May 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital EX 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: The Making of City of the Living Dead, Acting Among the Living Dead, Entering the Gates of Hell, Memories of the Maestro, Marketing of the Living Dead, Theatrical Trailers, Radio Spots/Still Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo, Giovanni Lombardo Radice
Length: 93 minutes
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