Features and Columns · Movies

An In-Depth Look: City of the Living Dead (UK Import Blu-ray)

By  · Published on May 9th, 2010

Arrow Video is the genre arm of UK DVD/Blu-ray label Arrow Films, and some of their past releases include George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Dario Argento’s Sleepless, and Lamberto Bava’s Macabre. Their newest title, due out May 24th, is a remastered edition of Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (aka The Gates of Hell). The Blu-ray is an all-region release and playable on most domestic Blu-ray players. **The Sony PS3 may experience playback issues with the extras.**

The Movie:

The debate rages on as to whether the cinematic undead should shamble after their food prey or sprint. It’s a question without a correct answer, but in 1980 Lucio Fulci gave the middle finger to both camps with the release of City of the Living Dead. These zombies say “vaffanculo!” to both options and choose a third method of transportation all together. That’s right, they teleport. (Or ‘jaunt’ for you Tomorrow People fans out there.) Sure they do a little bit of walking and one even jumps from a rooftop, but for the most part they appear and disappear with the blink of an eye and there’s not a goddamn thing you or Christopher George can do about it.

A woman named Mary (Catriona MacColl) has a vision of bad things happening in a cemetery, but it’s a Catholic cemetery so no one’s particularly surprised. She sees a priest hanging himself from a tree, an act that not only lowers the property values in Dunwich, New York, but also manages to open the gates of hell. Sorry, The Gates of Hell. Then she drops dead. Or falls asleep. It’s not particularly clear as she wakes up in a casket partway through her own burial and is saved from suffocation by Peter Bell (Christopher George). The duo discover that Dunwich is built upon the same ground that once witnessed the Salem witch trials… an inexplicably terrifying realization seeing as Salem is in Massachusetts. The dead will apparently rise en masse on All Saint’s Day which is only a few days away, and their only hope for saving mankind from these teleporting zombies is to travel to Dunwich and close the gates of hell.

The beauty of City of the Living Dead is that it fully acknowledges and incorporates everything that makes Italian horror flicks so damn charming. The gore is wet, messy, and constant. The dubbing is dubiously entertaining. (Even a foreign-film snob like myself knows better than to watch these kinds of movies with subtitles.) And the plot is so loosely structured you’d be forgiven for thinking the film-makers made things up as they went along with zero regard for common sense or logic. The following exchange is one of my favorite examples… Mary and Peter are on their way to Dunwich to save the world when they pull over to check their map. “According to your theory we have less than 48 hours before this All Saints Day,” Bell says to her. “Please,” she replies, “not now, do you mind? Let’s go check out the local cuisine.” Hilarious.

The gore effects are obviously one of the main draws of a Fulci horror film, and City of the Living Dead doesn’t disappoint. There’s actually only one scene showing the undead feast on their victims, but there’s plenty of scenes showing the food preparation. One of the zombies’ favorite methods of dispatching survivors involves taking a firm grasp on the back of someones head and squeezing. Bone cracks, hair rips, and pulpy brain matter oozes out between their fingers. Good stuff. But for all the bloodletting the movie is best known for two money shots.

The first involves a young couple neckin’ in their car when the hanging priest suddenly appears in front of them to ruin the mood with his abstinence agenda. He disappears just as suddenly before showing up beside the car where he proceeds to stare down the girl. Her eyes fill will blood which spills down her face like watery tears, she starts foaming at the mouth… and then her entire intestinal tract spills out between her lips and into her lap. It’s an incredibly gross scene, and I pity the poor actress (and even the dummy head) that had to endure it. The second is the infamous death-by-power tool where the town’s local sexual deviant gets drilled by an angry father. Fulci milks both of these scenes for far longer than necessary, but they’re still delightfully gory glimpses into one of the best decades for stylish and blood-soaked horror.

City of the Living Dead is exactly what you should expect of an Italian horror flick from the early eighties. If you like Fulci’s other genre work like House By the Cemetery and The Beyond then you’re guaranteed to have a taste for this classic as well. Does it make sense? Hell no. But does it entertain? Hell yes.

The Blu-ray:

The video looks pretty damn good for a thirty year-old Italian horror movie. It’s an unavoidably grainy film due to being shot on 16mm, but it’s kept to a fine minimum here with as sharp and clear a presentation as it’s ever seen. Credit goes to the new high definition remastering that Arrow Video reportedly shares with Blue Underground for their own upcoming domestic release. Colors are vibrant, contrasts are well-balanced, and it could easily pass for a film ten years younger than it actually is… does that compliment work as well on Blu-rays as it does on women?

There are four audio options for the film including 5.1/7.1 DTS-HD Surround Sound, 2.0 Dolby Stereo, and 1.0 Dolby Mono. I’m not knowledgeable enough on the audio side of things to comment in detail, but I have no complaints over the disc’s sound. Effects and dialogue are distinct and clear, and the mix is effectively ambient. The two music score loops get a bit redundant… but that’s a separate issue.

The Extras:

The extras begin with the packaging itself. Arrow Films have included four interchangeable sleeve options with differing art for the film. Inside there are six poster-art postcards, a mini-poster, and a companion booklet called Fulci of the Living Dead. The disc contains two commentary tracks as well. There’s a newly recorded track with Giovanni Lombardo Radice and a second one with Catriona MacColl and Jay Slater that was originally recorded several years ago for a previous release. The additional featurettes are listed below.

Fulci In the House: The Italian Master of Splatter (17 min, SD) – This includes anecdotes and memories of Fulci from Joe Dante, Anthony Timpone, and others. It’s also the only extra presented in standard definition and PAL format. If your TV can handle PAL (and you’re not relying on a PS3) you’ll be fine, but if not you’re out of luck.

Carlo of the Living Dead: Surviving Fulci Fear (16 min) – Interview with Carlo De Mejo interspersed with multiple clips and photos from the films he made with Fulci.

Dame of the Dead: Catriona MacColl Returns to the City (23 min) – Interview with Catriona interspersed with multiple clips and photos from her films with Fulci. Her memories of the maggot scene in particular offer a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a young actress at the early stage of her career.

Fulci’s Daughter: Memories of the Italian Gore Maestro (27 min) – Interview with Antonella interspersed with multiple clips and photos from her father’s films. She talks about being a child onset, Fulci’s feud with Dario Argento over the “Zombie” name, and more.

Penning Some Paura: Dardand Sacchetti Remembers City of the Living Dead (18 min) – Interview with Dardand interspersed with multiple clips and photos from the films he wrote for Fulci. He talks about the freedom that came from writing scripts that made zero sense, and he admits that while he enjoyed setting up the action scenes the payoffs were all Fulci and his effects crew.

Profundo Luigi: A Colleague’s Memories of Lucio Fulci (16min) – Interview with Luigi Cozzi who was part of the Italian genre film scene at the same time as Fulci. He talks about the industry throughout the seventies and eighties and the twin giants of Argento and Fulci.

Live from the Glasgow Theatre (24 min) – This is a Q&A session featuring Catriona MacColl and Giovanni Lombardo Radice. The two spoke with an audience in Scotland after a sold-out screening of the film. Thankfully, subtitles are provided for the Scottish audience members.

The Many Lives (and Deaths) of Giovanni Lombardo Radice (50 min) – This is easily the best feature on a disc filled with entertaining extras. Giovanni discusses his acting career with a focus on his work in horror films where he seemed to always play guys who get killed. And his deaths were always violent and bloody. Starting with House On the Edge of the Park and continuing up through Stagefright he talks about the films, the directors, and having to hide his dick during sex scenes. The section about making the abysmal Cannibal Ferox is particularly fantastic.

Gallery of the Living Dead – A selection of stills from the movie.

Theatrical Trailer – Here is the film’s trailer in six different audio flavors… English Dolby Digital Mono/Stereo, English DTS-HD 5.1/7.1 Surround Sound, and Italian Dolby Digital Mono/Stereo

Final Thoughts:

City of the Living Dead may not be considered a good film by mainstream standards, but it’s an undeniably entertaining one all the same. Horror aficionados and Italian genre fans in particular will eat it up… and while there have been several previous releases of the film to DVD, I can’t recommend the Arrow Video Blu-ray edition enough. The picture and presentation is undeniably beautiful and the best it’s been, but what pushes this release into the definite Buy category are the extras both in the packaging and on the disc. The features are filled with interesting and entertaining anecdotes, especially the one with Giovanni Radice, and the poster-art postcards and case sleeves are suitable for bathroom framing. The Blu-ray will work on all domestic players, and since (all but one of) the special features are in HD they’re also viewable.

Arrow Video’s release will be available May 24th on Blu-ray and DVD from AmazonUK and elsewhere. Blue Underground is releasing their domestic edition the following day, but since this edition is region free the deciding factor for consumers may come down strictly to the extras. I haven’t seen the Blue Underground release yet but it’s assumed the picture and audio will equal to Arrow Video’s.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.