City of the Living Dead
Lucio Fulci was unfortunate enough to have his career largely overshadowed by two more universally renowned directors, both from the same country and working in the same genre: Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Whilst Bava is known as the man who just about invented the giallo and Argento is affectionately known as 'the Italian Hitchcock', Fulci has a much smaller fan base, but one that is extremely passionate about his work.
There are many different stages in Fulci's career and perhaps the most interesting began in 1980 with City of the Living Dead (released in the US as Gates of Hell but known to others under the Italian title of Paura Nella Citta Dei Morti Viventi). This is the first in his Gates of Hell trilogy, which also contains The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, but this bears some of the visual stylings of the gory zombie hit Zombi 2.
During a séance, a young woman called Mary who is leading proceedings begins to have startlingly realistic visions of a small town called Dunwich where a priest, Father Thomas, quite calmly throws a noose over a tree branch and hangs himself. According to a tombstone there, this sacrilegious event will open the gates of hell and allow the undead to rise. These visions prove so much for Mary that she has a fit and dies.
A local reporter, Peter Bell, begins investigating her death and, by chance, he hears strange noises coming from her partially filled in grave site. It turns out that the fit has only put Mary in a catatonic state and she was buried alive in a scene that was quite clearly cited by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. 2. Mary tells Peter what she saw in her vision and that she firmly believes that, unless Father Thomas' soul is laid to rest before All Saints' Day, the dead will rise and the gates of hell will be opened.
The two of them travel to Dunwich, a small town in New England which has a link to the Salem witch trials, which is no mean feat as the small town isn't on the map, and the first signs of something unholy have begun to show themselves. Once there, it isn't long before all manner of terrible things happen, with one woman throwing up her own intestines, graves begin to open and worms, maggots and other creepy crawlies plague the townsfolk. If this wasn't bad enough, the gates of hell have begun to open so zombies are now beginning to make their presence felt. The traditional zombie, the Romero zombie, if you will, exists only to hunt down humans and eat their flesh, biting necks, arms, legs and anything else they can get their hands on before hitting paydirt with the stomach and all of the entrails they can fit into their mouths. The zombies in City of the Living Dead are a bit different as they are a bit more ethereal, appearing out of nowhere to either stare at you and hypnotise you into doing something terrible, as Father Thomas does with one poor girl who weeps blood before vomiting up her intestines or sneaking up behind you, grabbing the back of your head and crushing your skull to reveal those oh so precious and delicious brains.
Fulci has always struck me as a director who doesn't mind veering off on a tangent and who considers sticking strictly to a narrative structure as secondary to the visuals. This is similar to Dario Argento's approach to filmmaking in which the film doesn't necessarily have to make sense as long as it looks good and is extremely effective -- this is perfectly illustrated with Argento's Suspiria and with Fulci's City of the Living Dead. In City, the film veers off at tangents all the way through and you feel as if there is some bizarre force at work that keeps hauling the film back to the original plot in order to keep it on the rails to maintain some semblance of coherency.
In Dunwich Mary and Peter try to convince the residents that something terrible is going to happen to the town but the opening forays in this hellish battle have already begun with high winds, maggots and corpses ripping open people's heads. There is also a strange side plot involving a strange loner called Bob who lives in a rundown shack with decomposing bodies. In one of the most infamous scenes, which was cut by the BBFC when the film was first released, Bob runs afoul of his girlfriend's father who grabs the simpleton and runs an industrial drill through his head. This is a tour de force scene as you see the device, see the man's fury and then, with slow motion and close up, see the drill go straight through his head, with the drill bit spinning on both sides!
I've seen most of Lucio Fulci's films and only recently found out that City of the Living Dead existed. By then, I was also aware that Arrow Video were about to release a brand-new release, packed to the gills with extra features and remastered picture and sound so decided to hang off buying one of the existing DVDs and wait for the Blu-ray. I'm extremely glad I did as City of the Living Dead is quite possibly Fulci's best film. The performances, by Catriona MacColl as Mary and Christopher George as Peter are very good by Italian horror movie standards and better than respectable as general cinema fare goes. Carlo De Mejo looks suitably gaunt and weird as Bob, the strange loner, who may or may not be a child killer and it is to his credit that he moved into Italian horror films as easily as he moved out of them and into a successful career as a stage actor and director.
Although the script by Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti occasionally loses focus and isn't as taut as it perhaps should be, City of the Living Dead is a beautifully moody and atmospheric film with enough gore and gruesome effects thrown in to satisfy both the more picky horror fans and gorehounds alike.
The Extra Features
This is where the release really comes into its own as the film begins with a newly filmed introduction by Carlo De Mejo and the impressive visuals and soundtracks are immediately obvious.
There are also two commentaries, both of which are illuminating and fun. The first is moderated by Calum Waddell and is with star Giovanni Lombardo Radice who proves to be a rather unusual individual as he is easily sidetracked and, although he is quite happy to talk about the film and his career in general, he somehow ends up talking at length about plastic surgery and why old people shouldn't go under the knife before chastising Waddell and his parents for watching this, and other horror movies at a young age! As Radice likes to veer off on a tangent (a little like Lucio Fulci), it is to Waddell's credit that he keeps the commentary on the subject and prompts Radice to talk about the scenes in which he is involved and others which he might have seen.
The second commentary, recorded in 2001 and ported over from the Vipco disc, is with Catriona MacColl who joins author Jason Slater for a revealing chat about her career, in particular this film, and her experiences working with Lucio Fulci. As MacColl is a very well spoken English woman, she is far easier to understand than Radice but that doesn't mean that his recollections of the shoot are any less valuable. It is quite funny that MacColl actually turns away on a couple of occasions, most notably during the infamous head drilling scene!
There are a series of featurettes of varying lengths and, as a bonus, all of these are in high-definition. The first of them is Carlo of the Living Dead, a nice interview with Carlo De Mejo in which he talks about the film and his career in general. His English is quite good so this is reasonably easy to understand and listen to and there is plenty of information to be gleaned from this piece.
Next up is The Many Lives and Deaths of Giovanni Lombardo Radice which is another fascinating interview, not specifically about City of the Living Dead but about his career in general so it doesn't overlap too much with the commentary track.
Catriona MacColl has always looked great and even now, 30 years on from City of the Living Dead, she is still beautiful and, in the Dame of the Dead featurette, she talks about what it was like working with Lucio Fulci, her experiences on the set of City of the Living Dead (especially working with maggots when she has a phobia of worms) and how she found working in Italy and with Italians and cast and crew members from around Europe.
Fulci's Daughter: Memories of the Italian Gore Maestro is a lovely interview with his daughter Antonella who speaks passionately about her father and his work. She talks specifically about his relationship with the trade press and how he felt overlooked with all the attention going to Dario Argento but how he never gave up, making film after film and where City ranks amongst his movies.
Penning Some Paura is a fairly in-depth interview with Italian screenwriter and long-time Fulci calibrator Dardano Sacchetti who reveals how his script for Zombi 2 was actually signed by his wife so Fulci expected to meet a woman, what he thinks of City of the Living Dead three decades on and where it fits into Fulci oeuvre. His answers are extremely interesting and this, along with the others, very neatly designed so it doesn't become boring, with a camera fixed one person, but interspersing graphics (posters, photos, DVD/VHS sleeves etc) into the interview.
Profondo Luigi: a Colleague's Memories of Lucio Fulci was shot at Dario Argento's little horror shop in Rome and is a piece that focuses on the director Luigi Cozzi, a colleague of Fulci's who reminisces the time they spend together and what he thinks of Fulci's movies and their place in Italian horror cinema.
Finally, at least as far as featurettes go, is a Q&A session with Catriona MacColl and Giovanni Lombardo Radice at the Glasgow film Theatre following a screening of City of the Living Dead and they do well to answer the questions fully, no matter how strange or personal.
In addition to all of this, the set has a couple of trailers, a booklet with an essay by Calum Waddell, a double sided poster, some art cards and, like the Blu-ray Discs of Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and Caligula, the case comes with four alternate covers so you can choose the one you like. Rick Melton has carried on with his wonderful painted cover art and is really carving a niche for himself as the 'go to' guy when you want a nice exploitative cover for your DVD/Blu-ray release.
Whilst Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead were great releases with fantastic extras packages, they benefited from having much of the supplementary material already available but City of the Living Dead is not such a well-known title so there was little in the way of featurettes or interviews already recorded and ready to port over to this disc. It is therefore to Arrow Video's credit that they sent Calum Waddell, Naomi Holwill and Nick Frame over to Italy to interview as many people involved with the film as they could. What you have now is a brand-new set of features which are exclusive to this Arrow Video release though the Blue Underground release in the US will have some different bonus features so fans may want to buy both to get every single bit of extra material!
Arrow Video and Blue Underground did this is a joint venture, sharing the cost of the very expensive high-definition remastering process for the Blu-ray release and it shows. City of the Living Dead is notorious for having never looked very good on either VHS or DVD as there is plenty of fog around to add to the scratches, grain and other detritus on the print. This makes it all the more surprising and pleasing that the film looks as good as it does. There is still evidence of surface grain which comes and goes, sometimes it's quite heavy and sometimes it's virtually non-existent -- I think the film would have looked terrible if the restoration has gone too far and removed every instance of grain so the balance is just about right.
The picture is generally crisp with high levels of detail so the more notorious and infamous scenes look very good with the gore from the head drilling scene nice and red and all of the guts and brains look nice and squishy!
Arrow have really gone above and beyond the call of duty here, providing not only a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, but a 7.1 track as well. Both of these surround tracks are beautifully clear and use the surround and rear speakers to great effect, especially with the wind and other atmospherics that Fulci employed to maximise the claustrophobia and atmosphere in the film. If you have the setup, the 7.1 track is clearly the way to go with as it uses the side surrounds to really maximise the excellent soundtrack and sound design.
In addition to these high-definition soundtracks, you can also choose the original Mono track or a stereo track and these are both very clear but don't hold a torch to the surround options when it comes to the atmospherics.
With all the chat on the Cult Labs website (www.cult-labs.com), this was always shaping up to be the cult horror release of the year and it will take a hell of a Blu-ray/DVD to beat this. The film is not a mainstream horror classic and will not be to everyone's taste, unlike Dawn of the Dead, but it is a wonderfully atmospheric and gory offering from the 'Master of Splatter' and one that many regard as Fulci's best film. I haven't seen it enough times to say where it stands compared to a Zombi 2, The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin or Don't Torture a Duckling but I thought that it was an excellent film and is right up there with Fulci's best.
As I expected, the package is a superlative one, packed full of interviews and retrospectives, plus the two commentaries and the packaging that, although I haven't seen it in the flesh, is bound to be something special. Although Arrow Video have already provided a couple of stunning releases, there are other films like The Exorcist to come, for cult horror fans this is a 'must buy' release.