Review: City of the Living Dead (Blu-ray)

Review: City of the Living Dead (Blu-ray)

Blue Underground Blu-ray CoverAs you’ve probably come to realize by now, the heydays of Italian horror was not always filled with the most original ideas. For every Phenomena or Dellamote Dellamore, we have a veritable slew of films that are just trying to cash in on whatever the latest trend was (for more on that idea, be sure to check out Jayson’s piece on the subject HERE). Now, this may just be my opinion, but it seems that some directors in the genre (such as Bruno Mattei) never really tried to rise above this, but others (like Lucio Fulci) found themselves churning out films of this nature because they were the only pictures they could find financing for. However, in some strange, brilliant way, some of these directors managed to give these “knock-off” films enough personality that they eventually rose above the rest and took on a life of their own. To me, Fulci is one such director, and City of the Living Dead is one of his films that I feel should be essential viewing for any fan of Italian horror.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the plot, City of the Living Dead follows a storyline that is a great example of Italian horror during the time it was made. Basically, a priest, played by Fabrizio Jovine, hangs himself in the cemetery of a small town called Dunwich (shout out to H.P. Lovecraft!). Now, if you’ve seen enough horror films, then you should know that this is obviously not a good thing for the people living there. In fact, it’s so bad that it actually ends up opening a portal to hell (hence the film’s alternate, and for some, more preferable, title, The Gates of Hell), and unleashes all sorts of bad shit on the town’s citizens.

A young psychic, played by Catriona MacColl (The Beyond, The House By the Cemetery), has a vision of this and sees the dead rising and the world basically going to Hell. Eventually, she convinces an investigative reporter, played by Christopher George (Graduation Day, Pieces), that they need to head to Dunwich (which is, of course, not locatable on any maps) to try and close the portal before All Saints Day. If they don’t succeed, shit is basically going to get really real, and everyone is pretty much screwed.

I don’t really need to tell you more about the film, or what happens in it, for you to get the idea. Just know that it has all the staples of a typical Fulci film: Zombies, pissed-off animals, Catholics, a Fabio Frizzi score, and of course, lots of blood and gore. This last point is usually the selling feature of any of Fulci’s films, and this one has some of his most notorious scenes. People get drills through their heads, have maggots and worms smeared on their face, and they bleed from their eyes and vomit out their own intestines. There’s even a weird-ass dude who has a random affair with a blow-up doll. To put it simply, if you’ve enjoyed the director’s other films, you’ll likely be a fan of this one as well. In fact, this is probably my second favorite Fulci film of all-time (my personal favorite is The Beyond). However, if you still have yet to visit the director’s works, this is a great place to start.

Up until the early 2000’s, most of us who had seen City of the Living Dead (or any of the director’s other works, for that matter) probably tracked it down on VHS (or Laserdisc, if you had the means) under one of its many alternate titles. However, all of that changed when Anchor Bay (then run by William Lustig) released the film on DVD as part of its “Lucio Fulci Collection.” That version finally gave us a nice widescreen transfer of the film that let all of us in on the fact that Fulci’s visuals were actually a lot more impressive when the whole frame was in view and the colors were corrected, but it was still mostly barebones. After Lustig left Anchor Bay and started up Blue Underground, the film was released again, this time with multiple audio mixes. Other than that, there was nothing new to really discuss. However, those releases are not really the subject of this piece. Instead, I am going to focus on the new Blu-ray version of the film that Blue Underground recently released.

Head Drill

The Infamous "Head Drill" Scene

First of all, I have to say that the transfer included on the disc is nothing short of stunning (or in this case, gore-geous). I have seen almost all of Fulci’s films in a variety of formats, and I can honestly say that none of them have looked this good. This new HD transfer puts all previous versions of the film to shame. Presented here in 1080p, with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, picture is a huge step up from any previous editions. Even though the film is very dark, there is minimal noise, and in general the blacks are very deep. Likewise, the colors that are present are very vibrant, and the sharp picture really showcases the cinematography of Sergio Salvati. In fact, this transfer stands as proof that those who believe there is no point in transferring older films to HD are out of their minds. There is little to no DNR present in the picture, which is so clear that you can see the film grain (not to be confused with noise) on the print, which is also pretty free from dirt and debris.

The audio tracks are just as impressive as the video. The disc contains a new 7.1 DTS-HD lossless audio track, along with a 5.1 Dolby EX lossy track and a Mono track (like the original track that played with the film. The lossless track is the most noteworthy here, and it definitely satisfies. Though most of the action is generally carried out in the front channels, the film has a few moments here and there where the surrounds are utilized to good effect. To me, one of the best things about the new track is hearing Frizzi’s score in all its glory. The score is very well balanced with the dialog and action (well, as balanced as a Fulci film will ever be, anyways), and it doesn’t overpower any of the other elements, as sometimes happens when Mono mixes are opened up. I’m sure that some audiophiles will find something to complain about here, but honestly, for a 30-year-old film of this kind, I don’t think you can do much better. The lossy Dolby EX track is good, but nothing better than what was included on the previous DVD version, and the Mono track is, well… Mono.

As for extras, we finally get some supplements this time around. Included on the disc are a 30+ min making-of feature (creatively titled The Making of City of the Living Dead), interview features with Catriona MacColl and Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Acting Among the Living Dead and Entering The Gates of Hell), a 20+ min piece where the cast and crew pay tribute to the late director (Memories of the Maestro), and a poster and still gallery (Marketing of the Living Dead). Also included are the usual trailers and radio spots for the film. All of the features are fairly enjoyable and pretty self explanatory. The centerpiece, however, is really the making-of feature, which includes discussion of the film from pretty much every living major cast and crew member; including Michele Soavi, director of Stagefright and Dellamorte Dellamore, who had a small role in the film. To some, these extras may not seem like much, but given the film’s age, I think this is a pretty good collection. However, it would have been nice to get some of the features that are on the UK edition (namely the audio commentaries by MaColl and Radice).

Peter Bell

Oh Snap! Wonder If That's His O-Face...

Still, in the end, the City of the Living Dead Blu-ray release exceeds my expectations. The picture is better than I ever imagined it would be, and the lossless audio track here is extremely satisfying. Though the extras may not include all of the bells and whistles of the UK edition, they are still a huge improvement over previous US releases, and they wind up being satisfying enough. TO be honest, the only thing better than watching the film in this format would be to see it projected on film. I’ve seen the movie many times, and in many different incarnations, over the past 15+ years, and watching it on Blu-ray really was a whole new experience for me. I can’t wait to see more of Fulci’s work in HD (currently, the only other title available in the US is The New York Ripper), as the format really lends a lot to his visual style and reinvigorates the film in many ways. If you are a fan of Italian horror or Lucio Fulci, and you have the means to do so, I highly recommend that you go pick this bad boy up, as it is a very great presentation of a very fun movie.

Here’s hoping The Beyond is next!

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One Response to “Review: City of the Living Dead (Blu-ray)”

  1. I agree with you on all counts-I have both this and the Uk blu ray and the wealth of bonus material on each release is staggering and awesome! And the best part? The UK version is region free…so no excuse fulci fans, get BOTH!

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