City of the Living Dead (Blue Underground)
With a movie a year output, they call Woody Allen prolific, but how about Lucio Fulci. Fifty six films in thirty five years, and in the span of three years during that period he gave us Zombie, Contraband, City of the Living Dead, The Black Cat, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery. Not bad, considering most filmmakers donít even make one film with the influence and notoriety of any one of those pictures. It was his golden age, as most fans would attest, with four zombie pictures and three, City, Beyond and Cemetery, forming an unofficial ďGates of HellĒ trilogy. The Beyond is the most lauded, and House by the Cemetery will always give us Bob. Wedged in between, though, is one of Fulciís most quietly influential works, City of the Living Dead, or Gates of Hell to those who watched the film on VHS with that iconic zombie head overtop a misty city cover. From Kill Bill and Planet Terror to Uncle Sam it has revered American filmmakers with one virtuoso scene to the next. For years it has existed in shadow amongst Fulciís higher-profile titles, but now finally, itís getting the special edition treatment fans have been clamoring for. When it braaaaains it pours, and City fans are getting not one, but two special Blu-ray editions, one overseas from Arrow and one local from The Lustig Co. Blue Underground. Letís unbury the Blue Ray of this Fulci favorite.
Cutting right to the chase, City of the Living Dead begins with a hanging. Without explanation, Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine, The Psychic, Contraband) drapes a rope around a tree hanging overtop a cemetery, and wrings his neck. Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl, the lead in all three of Fulciís "Gates of Hell" films) witnesses this in full at a sťance, it the shock seems too much to handle. She begins frothing at the mouth and suddenly collapses. Pronounced dead from shock, sheís grieved and buried, but minutes after being put in the dirt she comes back to screaming life. Submerged beneath the earth, she bangs furiously on the casket, clawing her fingernails off at one last chance at life. Lucky for her, a nosy journalist investigating her rather curious death by shock happens to be standing within meters of her grave. Peter Bell (Christopher George, Pieces, Mortuary) grabs a conveniently placed pick axe and without hesitation drives it into the casket mere inches away from her head. Out she comes from her grave, but sheís not the only one.
The dead are coming back to life, and Peter and Mary (Paul must have been off with the magic dragon) head back to the medium to try and figure out whatís been happening. The medium explains that all the events, from the priest hanging to Mary dying and coming back to life, have all been preordained over four thousand years ago in The Book of Enoch. The dead will stay at rest no longer, and unless someone can find the undead priest and stake him, the small town of Dunwich (hello, Lovecraft!), New England and soon after the rest of the world, will face the apocalypse. Time is ticking away, too, for once midnight strikes on All Saints Day, the gates of hell will open and no soul will be safe. Peter and Mary head over to Dunwich, where the priest took his life, to try and crack the case before the cracks in the earth lead to unwavering destruction.
Investigating the priestís actions themselves are a psychologist (Carlo De Mejo, Manhattan Baby, Terror Express) and his fragile patient, Sandra (Janet Agren, Lenziís Eaten Alive). Most of the townsfolk think itís the troubled child sex offender, Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Cannibal Ferox, House on the Edge of the Park), but after Bob has his head drilled through in memorable fashion by a vigilante parent, itís clear there are much sinister goings on in Dunwich. The sun begins to set, and underground the group goes to finally finish the father. Before they get to him, though, they must journey through a tomb of death, passing through cobwebs, rats and rotting corpses. The corpses are coming for them, too.
Fulci must have really liked Un Chien Andalou, and Iím not just saying that because of Fulciís infatuation with pulverizing eyeballs on screen. As much as he is known for his gore, Fulciís got a surrealist and intellectual mind as big as Luis Bunuelís, constantly trying to push the boundaries of structure and what cinema really means. Bunuelís 1929 short saw a womanís eye being cut juxtaposed with a moon (and later many other surreal happenings) to demonstrate literally how reality is only a perception of vision, and when thatís severed surrealism and liberty run free. This connection is evident in Fulciís later work like Cat in the Brain, where he plays himself in a narrative that intercuts footage from previous films to try and blur the layers of filmic reality. He does it again in Door into Silence, using the entire picture as a subjective put-on to explore how only in death can life truly become clear. City of the Living Dead, though, might just be his most profound exploration of the subject, weaving in several different motifs to ultimately make film the ultimate tool of destruction.
In City, Fulci creates his characters to be just like his audience. Theyíre there to be shocked, and we often see their reactions in the first person to emphasize the connection. The fascinating Bob might just be his greatest metaphor for the audience, with the character almost entirely silent, exploring from place to place the horrors that surround him. Early in the film we see him wander and then stumble into a house, where he puzzlingly gropes a blow-up doll before seeing the rotting remains of an infant. Right there he takes part in the two things that often drive us to the arts Ė sex and death. Bob is literally reduced to a pervert of both extremes, and when he dies in an elaborately stagy (and unbelievably graphic) drill to the head, itís tough not to see Fulci thinking Bunuel. Hell, the framing of Bobís death in many ways mirrors that in Andalou, too. What Fulci seems to be saying is that, yes, weíre there for nudity and violence, but ultimately our destiny or Bobís rests with him, our god, our director.
Fulci makes sure his dominance over the audience is established early on with an early cameo as a doctor, yet another figure of authority. Itís all metaphysical from there, with events like the opening of the gates of hell and the illusion of the dead manifested as elements of cinema. Early on in the film the opening of the gates causes the mirrors and walls in a bar to crack and fragment into several pieces. Itís obvious that a mirror is a commonplace metaphor for cinemaís ability to reflect or distort reality, but Fulci takes it a step further. In a controversial finale, where most personal accounts deafen its figurative audaciousness by surmising that coffee was spilled on the final reel forcing Fulci to end the film prematurely, a running boy is for no apparent reason freeze framed and disintegrated with a cracking screen optical effect. Seen on its own, the scene seems totally ludicrous. Thereís a jump scare musical stinger and everything, despite the fact that all the boy is doing is running gaily to the survivors. The scare is totally contrived out of nothing, but THAT is precisely itís brilliance. Itís in that scene, which is again foreshadowed by the similarly cracking mirrors and walls earlier in the film, that Fulci shows us that film, like reality, is a mere construction that can easily be manipulated by the powers that be. Whether itís Satan pulling the strings in hell or Fulci behind the camera, the outcome is the same. It challenges our understanding of safeness, of familiarity, of life. The film frame dissolves and you know what, weíve been had.
But what a grand joke it is. City of the Living Dead is a technically marvelous film, with some of the grandest special effects and perhaps the most elaborately macabre set ever constructed. The notable effects are many Ė blood tearing out of Catriona MacCollís eyes, intestines being vomited out of a living person, Bobís aforementioned drill, and countless shots of brains being ripped out of heads. The maggoty faces of all the zombies are in themselves incredibly artistic, and quite the departure from the usual clay castings Fulci used for Zombie and The Beyond. Whether itís the slimy zombies or the literal rain of maggots, City of the Living Dead has an organic life to it that once again highlights Fulciís play upon our understanding of whatís real and whatís cinema. Throughout the movie there is the device that zombies are walking the earth, but sometimes they are seen and sometimes they are not. Often, the camera will cut between the zombie doing and then the person watching and seeing nothing. Again, itís Fulci making his characters the audience, always questioning the reality of what is being shown. Whatís happening canít be realityÖbut why does it look so real?
The final sequence in the Fatherís tomb is again such a fantastic construction of organic decay. Ridden with cob webs, bones, rats and rotting wood, the tomb seems like it truly was carved out of the earth rather than some giant sound stage in Italy. Spanning a few stories in height, itís a set that seems totally above a movie that was made for the grindhouse. But thatís Fulci for you, always pushing, always trying to use the edges of cinema to play with expectations and to push how powerful an illusion can be. The climax is awesome, possibly the grandest horror Fulci ever put on screen, all set to the menacing, elliptical pulsing of longtime musical collaborator Fabio Frizziís thumping beat. It cannot be denied that City of the Living Dead is a showy collection of amazing set pieces and sequences, but what makes it great is Fulciís literate way of taking this grand, empty spectacle and turning it instead into a grand critique of fascist order. Itís not a zombie movie, itís a movie where the cinema is undead, living and breathing the very conceits and constructs of its story, manifested finally as one big disintegrating frame. But for those who refuse to give Lucio Fulci the artistic credence he deserves, itís one hell of a gore picture, too.
Itís flip a coin with Blue Underground as to whether or not youíre going to get their noisy digital sharpening or not, and in this case, like with Fulciís New York Ripper itís noise city. There is always a thick fluttering noise present in front of the visuals, always veiling the film from what is behind a pretty sleek restoration. The colors really resonate with vivid intensity, even behind the noise, for a pretty vivacious picture. In that respect the print looks like it could have been minted yesterday. While there are some bits of specs and dust, most of these are due to the large amount of optical work done on the film. Itís a film shot uncharacteristically for Fulci on 16mm, so itís got a level of grain to it that films like Zombie and The Beyond just do not have. Despite the grain (which becomes even more apparent with the sharpening), the print has been cleaned up impeccably and looks a good deal better than the now ten-year-old Anchor Bay DVD.
The most notable improvement is the latitude in the blacks, which register a lot more detail this time around, including textures and maggots on the zombieís faces and dirt and debris on all those inner tomb walls. The colors receive an amazing restoration, too. It almost doesnít seem believable for so much more color information to be pulled the negative, but considering how strong and consistent the colors the saturation does look natural. With this new Blu-ray, almost every scene is given a lush new color palette, whether itís grey dirt suddenly moonlight blue or beige entrails a vivid red. Color-wise, this definitely makes for one of the most pronounced before and after comparisons out there. Also noticeable is the added picture information from zooming out slightly on the negative. Not essential, but for scenes in close quarters, and with Fulci and his penchant for the extreme close-up there are those scenes a-plenty, the added space makes the framing a lot more flattering. But still, itís that noise, that sharp flurry of black dots, that distract and keep this from being a benchmark transfer. I wish Blue Underground wouldnít strive to make everything so sharp Ė a slightly blurred image without noise would be much preferred and more much natural.
If itís true that Fulciís story literally jumps out as part of the frame, the same, too, can be said of this omnipresent DTS-HD 7.1 audio remix. No longer is the film confined to a set of front speakers, it gets a major boost in breadth and latitude as itís spread effectively around the eight speaker setup. There are many jump-inducing sequences where a thump on a door or a crack on the floor manifest themselves directionally in the surrounding speakers. There is a lot of movement in the rear, and itís from discrete ambient effects, not just Fabio Frizziís evocative score. Dialogue isnít quite as boisterous, but itís always clear and definitely not flat. The LFE channel has a moderate showing, but the care put into the overall design and sound space of this track is always apparent. Itís very effective, and definitely a restoration worthy of the usually superlative 7.1 spec. One of Blue Undergroundís better sound remixes.
For the last couple years, Blue Underground has seemingly been working on auto-pilot, merely porting all their exceptional titles and DVDs to Blu-ray with the same extras and transfers. This, though, marks a welcome return to new features, with over a half-dozen new extras made specifically for this release. It should be noted that Blue Underground is also releasing a new DVD to coincide with the 30th Anniversary as well, although it has only a small portion of the extras. Blu-ray exclusives will be noted upon mention.
First up is ďThe Making of City of the Living DeadĒ, featuring over 30-minutes of interviews with key people involved in the production, including actress Catriona MacColl, assistant (and now director) Michele Soavi, special effects artist Gino De Rossi, and other members of the camera and effects crews. All the significant scenes in the film are touched upon, from the drill to the barfing entrails. There are anecdotes about Fulci the man and how each crew member got along with him, although thereís another featurette that goes into greater depth on the subject. In fact, the bulk of this doc is pretty light Ė while many things are touched upon, there isnít a lot of depth or elaboration outside of maybe a few of the effects scenes. De Rossi still has a number of the effect pieces used on the film, and his physical demonstrations of their inner workings, particularly the drill, really help to show the creativity in bringing them to life. Outside of that, though, memories and musings are hazy at best, and other than base facts there really isnít as much follow up on all the observations presented throughout. Itís interesting enough, but this, em, never goes below the surface.
The next and best extra is ďMemories of the MaestroĒ, which features a large number of actors from the film, including Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Interlenghi, Fabrizio Jovine and many of the crew members featured in the previous featurette. Even the little kid actor, all grown now, has a great story about how Fulci blew up at him on set and heís all the better for it! Every person has their own personal tale of the genius, demonstrating his duality in being both a dictatorial tyrant and a witty, caring friend. Like the making-of, this does feel abridged, especially when guys like Carlo De Mejo seem to be just brimming with stories to tell about the man, but whatís presented here is wholly interesting and yet another fine addition to the legacy of Italyís great maniac. This is a Blu-ray exclusive.
Next up are a couple interviews with the actors which are also both Blu-ray exclusives. The first, in 1080p HD is the 13-minute ďActing Among the Living DeadĒ with Catriona MacColl. MacColl talks about her respect for Fulci and his respect for her, and how she always respected his unwavering vision. She admits to having a tough time coming to terms with the fact that sheís become and enduring horror star, but she now embraces it and really admires the craft behind Fulciís pictures. The other interview is with Giovanni Lombardo Radice who shares some stories of how Fulci handled himself on set and how he learned a lot on the production. This runs just shy of a dozen minutes, and is highlighted by Radiceís energy in telling some anecdotes about a man he considered a great friend.
The last of the Blu-ray exclusives is a crisp and nicely put together HD still gallery. Rather than your usual menu-driven stuff, this is actual HD video with all the artwork presented like stills on a wall in a computer generated tracking shot. It looks really professional. Itís amazing all the artistic variations the film had across the world, and each one is quite good. Time to start scouring eBay for a UK quad, methinks. Finally, the trailers, radio spots and still gallery from the original Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVDs are also included. The trailers have been re-transferred in HD and look pretty damn sharp.
As many extras as there are, though, the Arrow Blu-ray release overseas has that many more, including audio commentaries with MacColl and Radice, interviews with Fulciís daughter, Carlo De Mejo, Luigi Cozzi, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and many more. A whole second discís worth. Itís tough to really complain, though, since the film has up until now been released without any discernable extras. Itís high time that City of the Living Dead get the recognition it deserves, and the extras on this are one small step in that direction. Fulci Lives!
City of the Living Dead may get lost in the shuffle when it comes to Fulciís other zombie films like Zombie and The Beyond, but it should not be overlooked. It features some of Fulciís most effective sequences, from the visceral buried alive scene to the operatic finale set in one of the most elaborately decrepit and fantastical sets in the history of horror. As much as the gore hits on a visceral level, Fulci imbues his film with a rather convincing deconstruction of reality, cinema and the god-like powers of the director. Hey, Fulci was never modest, but damned if he didnít earn the right to be full of himself. Thereís plenty to laude about this Blu-ray too, be it the amazingly vivid, if over-sharpened picture, the active DTS-HD 7.1 surround remix or the hour worth of new extras. Itís great to see Blue Underground back and in the mix with new extras, and they couldnít have picked a better forgotten classic to unearth. City of the Living Dead has been buried alive for far too long, and with this fine new disc, itís about time it started clawing its way out for respectability. Gore hounds, itís a no brainer, literally, and intellectuals, Fulciís themes go a lot deeper than six feet under. Highly recommended.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
I will have my Blu Ray tomorrow, and it is without a doubt my most anticipated disc yet! thanks for a great review!
Nice review Dooder - Sold!!!
Rhett, a person who loves Fulci as much as you do, what do you think about Roger Ebert's opinion about him?
Ebert is a fine critic for his generation, but his major flaw, and the reason (in addition to his ailing health) that he's becoming less and less relevant as a critical mind today, is that he's unable to appreciate new trends or fringe styles. His embarrassing rhetoric on the lack of art in video games is but one example of how he fails to understand that artforms outside of his generation are indeed that. He's approached horror much the same way, and his review for "The Beyond", which is the only I've read of his on Fulci, is so blatantly condescending you can tell he never even gave the film, or the artist, a chance.
Ebert's always been one to point out how the film noirs he grew up with were flippantly dismissed by major critics as B-movie bottom feeders, yet today they are revered as some of the best of cinema. The reason, of course, is that the critics of today, like Ebert, are the same ones that grew up appreciating these noirs from youth. The trend is likely repeating itself now with modern horror films and modern critics, but Ebert's now part of that same old guard he had to fend against coming of age as a critic in the seventies.
Ebert's always had an outdated appreciation towards horror (again, he's used to the Universal monsters he grew up with), and this has been validated time and again by the gory movies he dislikes (The Thing, The Beyond, etc.) and the classical ones he does (Halloween, Alien). It's this close-mindedness that's made him old hat for years, and the reason we should stop talking about him and start talking about more clever, progressive critics like Ed Gonzalez, Nathan Lee, Jonathan Rosenbaum or Armond White.
What Ebert has said in the past is simply shocking in the "not getting it" department. The jaw drops when he rants.
Anyway I did buy the Blu-Ray it indeed it's like seeing it for the first time. The ending always confuses me tho'. I've heard it be said that he ran out of time/money but I don't know.
Regardless of my shortcomings in understanding the ending it's a must buy. The extras in HD are a nice touch.
Rhett, I think you're attributing FAR too much depth to Fulci and this film.
Still, this is by far my favorite non-giallo Fulci film. I've suffered with a bad transfer (LD) on this one for years, and I'll most definitely get this Blu-Ray.
There is far too much going on in Fulci's films, both visually and thematically for them to continually be dismissed as mere gore films as they usually are. His films, good and bad, always have a distinctly Fulcian feel; he's definitely an auteur, and with a vision as strong and long-lasting as his, I'd say he's definitely earned the right to be deconstructed along with other horror auteurs like Carpenter, Argento or Craven. You've got to start somewhere...
I admired Ebert.He always has at the very least a valid point when dissmissing something and I personally couldn't care less about him saying that videogames aren't and couldn't ever be art.That's his opinion.BUT recently he stated in Twitter that people who prefer to play a videogame instead of reading a book are fools.That kind of run of the mill, offensive treatment of myself (I don't like reading books.I just don't have the patience) and of the gamers demographic is just wrong, stupid (people who prefer sports instead of reading are fools too?) and uncalled for.I didn't tell him cause I kinda feel sorry for him.I just unfollow him on Twitter.
Well, I don't dismiss Fulci's films as "mere gore films". (Oh, and for anyone else reading, I will state up front that I absolutely enjoy the work of Lucio Fulci). I do think they're extremely random and meandering though, and while that is often the sign of an auteur, it's also often the sign of someone who is simply making it up as he goes along. And Fulci falls into the latter category for me.
Three things really drive this theory home for me: one is how prolific he was in this time (as Rhett mentions in his review). While the films were certainly well made, they're also unpolished, as you can expect with a release rate like what Fulci achieved. I think he just had several ideas for scenes and scenarios rolling around in his head, and he threw them on screen, regardless of whether or not it fit into the context of the film. Again, I want to emphasize that this does not make Fulci a BAD filmmaker, just an unfocused one.
two, he was still pandering to the popular themes in film at the time. Case in point: Zombie vs. shark. While Rhett believes this was his way of making his films and monsters "bigger than Jaws", it shows he was looking at commercially viable concepts, rather than his own creativity.
finally, the zombie attack in The Beyond was allegedly put in at the request of the German distributor, who wanted a zombie sequence added. Sorry, an "auteur" does not change his vision just for a distributor.
Still, it's nitpicking. Fulci's films are Fulci's films. If you dig 'em (and most of us here do), then who cares? Who cares if he was an auteur, or a guy who made crazy-ass movies with tons of gore and wild scenes? I say he's the latter, and that's good enough for me.
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