1979, Color, 91m.
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Auretta Gay, Olga Karlatos, Al Cliver
Arrow (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Media Blasters, Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Italian Shock (Holland R0 PAL), Dragon (Germany R0 PAL), Vipco (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
By far the most famous and influential contribution to the horror genre from director Lucio Fulci, Zombie still ranks as one of the most outrageous gore features ever made. It also played a pivotal role in introducing Italian horror to the international masses, serving as a sort of cultural time bomb that triggered several generations' worth of growing affection for a genre once regarded as gutter material. Time has also been very kind to this film; its guttersnipe nastiness now seems almost endearing after two subsequent decades of watered-down horror remakes and CGI blood, while its origins as Fulci's first plunge into the purely fantastic and irrational (excepting perhaps The Psychic) made it the cornerstone of his essential early '80s horror cycle.
The plot (what there is) follows Anne (Farrow, Mia's look-alike sister from The Grim Reaper and the excellent Fingers) as she travels with reporter Peter West (Zombie Holocaust's McCulloch) from New York to look for her missing father on the cursed tropical island of Matoul, where the dead have been coming back to life and attacking the locals. The mayhem all stems from the reckless mad scientist, Dr. Meynard (The Haunting's Johnson), who has been combining science with ancient voodoo rituals. Pretty soon, the entire cast (including Fulci regular Cliver and Gay) is fighting off hordes of the living dead, and the blood runs deep enough to require a raincoat.
Originally released under the title Zombi 2 in Italy, Fulci's epic was intended as a pseudo-sequel to George Romero's profitable living dead classic, Dawn of the Dead (released in Europe as Zombi). However, Fulci opted to drop Romero's satiric approach and goes straight for the jugular, offering no social commentary whatsoever beyond the spooky past of the "old world" invading modern cities. Of course, it proved an easy film to deride at the time with its erratic dubbing and rough visual style; it lacks the flair of Fulci's The Beyond or House by the Cemetery. Farrow and McCulloch have little to do besides look neurotic, Cliver looks sleepy, and Johnson skulks about in a haggard fashion and grumbles about the dead disturbing his work; however, the uncanny atmosphere of the film turns these approaches into assets, creating a twilight world where everything's going to hell faster than anyone realizes. The best acting award easily goes to the beautiful Olga Karlatos, who also enlivened Fulci's Murderock and played Prince's mom in Purple Rain; she makes a very strong impression in the two scenes she has, including the iconic splinter scene that remains one of the most famous moments in European horror.
The VHS editions from Wizard Video, Magnum Video (who also issued a long out-of-print pan and scan laserdisc), and a handful of public domain companies looked pretty wretched, suffering from greenish skin tones during the island scenes and muffled, scratchy audio. The Japanese laserdisc (under the Zombi 2 title) looked substantially better, though the print was somewhat worn, with hissy sound. The Roan and Anchor Bay versions on laserdisc and DVD respectively marked the film's widescreen US debut and feature a digitally remixed soundtrack in Dolby Digital, with some oddly recorded new sound effects. The colors were digitally enhanced and punched up a little too much for comfort on the laserdisc; for example, during a couple of faded scenes, the shadows glow an electric blue. On the other hand, the Anchor Bay DVD is too pale, washing out even the blues of the ocean scenes. The fun bonus material includes the US theatrical trailer, a couple of TV spots, and some hilarious radio promos. The commentary by McCulloch with Diabolik moderator Jason J .Slater provides quite a few chuckles, including an amazing comparison between Fulci and Preston Sturges! More often, though, the comments stray way off the subject and may not please Fulciphiles, but there are still some nice nuggets in here. In Britain the film fell afoul of the video nasty panic and was only available for years missing as much as four minutes, under the title Zombie Flesh-Eaters. The first DVD was still cut slightly and marketed as the “Extreme Version," with cuts eventually waived for later versions. The German disc from Dragon, under the title Woodoo, is uncut and also features an Antonella Fulci interview.
Now things get really complicated. Due to a rights snafu, both Media Blasters and Blue Underground wound up with the American DVD rights for the film, which resulted in the latter company issuing its version first. Both versions are culled from the same master and contain the English and Italian audio tracks with optional English subtitles, in a more faithful 5.1 mix than the previous one or the original mono mix. The transfer is an improvement over its predecessors, and both look very similar except for the BU one featuring a slightly cooler color palette and the interlaced MB one looking slightly yellower. Both appear to be boosted in the brightness department, which isn't wholly satisfying during the night scenes. The BU DVD contains the same barrage of trailers and TV and radio spots, while the Media Blasters edition (confusingly branded under the title Zombi 2) includes a fun bonus interview with the portly New York boat zombie ("Captain Haggerty") and a whole disc packed with interviews with most of the participants, including the FX artists and actors. However, it's cut into an incredibly long, rather shapeless documentary form and requires viewers to carve out a lot of time and patience to get to all the good stuff. Die hards will want it, but neophytes will probably give up about ten minutes in. For the record, participants include Dardano Sacchetti (an uncredited writing contributor), producer Fabrizio De Angelis, FX artist and gorehound favorite Gianetto de Rosi, director Enzo G. Castellari (who was approached for the film before Fulci), Cliver, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua (the worm-faced zombie and one of the stuntmen), composer Fabio Frizzi (making his first solo collaboration with Fulci on this film), and many additional production crew members. Also included are bonus interviews with costume designer Walter Patriarca and zombie actor Dakar, bonus zombie-themed trailers galore, and different still galleries, all spread out over two discs.
Of course, that was hardly the end of the road for what has now become regarded as one of the most significant zombie films in history. (Incredibly, it even turned up famously in a Microsoft TV commercial for Windows 7 in 2010!) As should also be obvious by now, it's tough to pinpoint exactly how Zombie should look given the variety of color schemes found on various releases, and things took another turn with Blue Underground's HD, 2K-transferred "Ultimate Edition" in 2011, contained on two Blu-Rays. The transfer supervised by cinematographer Sergio Salvati definitely looks more vibrant than others, with rich colors and, for once, consistent skin tones. Black levels are also deeper and silkier than before; for example compare this shot from the Blue Underground DVD, this one from the Media Blasters disc, and this one from the Blu-Ray. Interestingly, this is the first home video version where you can clearly see that a bright red light is being blasted onto Gay during that underwater scene, an expressionistic flourish completely lost before when it turned into a dull, dirty purple color. Overall it's a significant upgrade across the board over the DVD, but it's also noticeably soft and even mushy at times; the prelude to worm-eye's appearance with Farrow and McCulloch lying on the ground has a soft, waxy appearance that will have noise-reduction phobics raising some red flags. This film has been a nightmare of visual strangeness and inconsistency over the years (as anyone who's seen it theatrically can attest), so perhaps only the people who sat in on the telecine process can tell the whole story of exactly what the original elements should look like.
Audio is presented as usual in both English and Italian, with the former feeling more legitimate given the three leads' performances (though Fulci's brief appearance only synchs up in Italian). Both are in 7.1 DTS-HD, 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX, and mono, with the former two options mostly adding some ambience to the music in the front speakers with extremely minimal bleed over elsewhere. That's definitely preferable to the gimmicky fake mix of the first Anchor Bay disc. English subtitles are offering as both SDH (transcribing the English track and sound effects) and a translation from the Italian track, which is very welcome; other subtitle options include Japanese, Chinese, Koren, Thai, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. (Whew!) The US and international trailers are included on the first disc in new HD transfers, plus a new hi-def poster and photo gallery, a brief new intro by director Guillermo Del Toro, and those TV and radio spots. Disc two (which features an amusing maggot-themed menu) kicks off with the 22-minute "Zombie Wasteland," filmed at Cinema Wasteland's zombie-themed event in Cleveland. McCulloch ("There's an awful lot of metal sticking out of people's bodies"), Johnson, Cliver (who speaks in a whisper due to health issues), and Dell'Acqua are on hand to talk about their warm feelings for the film and its fans, their more ambivalent memories of Fulci, and of course, the perils of getting worms in your ears and mouth when shooting a zombie attack. Ken Kish and interviewer Art Ettinger are also on hand to talk about the film's appeal, and it all wraps up with an amusing homage to the original film's finale. "Deadtime Stories" features Sacchetti and co-writer Elisa Briganti talking about working on the scenario of the zombie film after the smash Romero hit (some similar material to the MB doc but much more compact here), while the rest of the features (all in HD) include "Flesh Eaters on Film" (with De Angelis), Salvati and Patriarca elaborating on the visual scheme of the film in "World of the Dead," De Rossi and fellow make-up artists Maurizio Trani and Gino De Rossi discussing the creation of some of the best zombies in screen history in "Zombie Italiano," Frizzi spending a surprisingly small amount of time on his iconic score and its sparing placement in "Notes on a Headstone," a general remembrance of the director from his dedicated daughter Antonella in "All in the Family," and a return appearance from Del Toro who talks a bit more about his admiration for Fulci and this enduring work of surreal terror in "Zombie Lover."
Released the following year, the UK Blu-Ray edition from Arrow (as Zombie Flesh-Eaters, of course) caused a stir immediately by touting an exclusive new restored transfer from the original Italian negative, sourced for the first time. So, does it make a difference? Hell, yes. (A DVD was also issued at the same time, but seriously, there's no logical reason to pass the opportunity to watch this film in the best presentation possible.) The Blu-Ray only can be played with three options for opening credits (as Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh-Eaters, or good old Zombie), each preceded by an 89-second video intro by McCulloch in which he discusses his belated appreciation for Fulci's classic. The image quality is a pretty startling upgrade, with levels of detail never seen on video before (or in most prints for that matter); you can make out textures in the makeup and production design never visible before, including some wonderfully atmospheric mobile shots in the makeshift medical clinic on the island that simply looked drab and grungy before. There's also a significant amount of additional information visible, particularly on the right side; just compare this shot from the US Blu-Ray with this one from the UK. (All other frame grabs seen in this review are from the Arrow.) It's easily the most impressive Italian horror release from Arrow, whose previous Argento and Fulci releases are an elaborate saga most videophiles probably know already. Audio is presented in LPCM mono in English and Italian with optional English subtitles for both language options (which is just as well), both sounding great, and you also get two new audio commentaries as well. First up is crackerjack discussion with writers Stephen Thrower (author of the excellent Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci) and Alan Jones, and as usual, both of them are extremely articulate, smart, and funny, rattling off keen observations and bits of history about the film and keeping up the standard of their essential past work. The second commentary features Arrow's Callum Waddell interviewing Elisa Briganti, the sole credited screenwriter on the film, who talks about working on it with husband Dardano Sacchetti, the tax-based reasons for the onscreen credit, working with Fulci, and thoughts on pretty much all of the crew members. It's obviously not as loaded as the first track, but it's fascinating to hear her take on the story and her anecdotes about subsequent films with the same team. Also on the first disc is "From Romero to Rome: The Rise and Fall of the Italian Zombie Film," an hour-long look at how Fulci's film was inspired by George Romero's hits to kick off a wave of successful vehicles for the shambling dead. There's a pretty fair amount of background on the first two Romero zombie films courtesy of Russ Streiner, while other on-camera interviewees include Sacchetti, writer Antonion Tentori, writer Kim Newman, Twitch critic Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg, and directors ranging from Luigi Cozzi and Ruggero Deodato to Darren Ward (A Day of Violence). The usual barrage of promotional material is also included like the US and Vipco trailers and TV and radio spots.
Now on to disc two which starts off with "Aliens, Cannibals and Zombies" is a substantial, 45-minute video interview with McCulloch, who spends most of the time talking about the making of Zombie (including thoughts on Fulci and his fellow actors) as well as his start in acting doing theater and his starring roles in two other Italian cult favorites, Contamination and Zombie Holocaust. He admits to never watching the latter film and speaks especially favorably of working for Luigi Cozzi, and his thoughts on working on multilingual Italian productions are always entertaining. The brief, 3-minute "Zombie Flesh Eaters from Script to Screen" shows off the original script (under the title Nightmare Island) with a discussion featuring Dardano Sacchetti, Callum Waddell, and Nick Frame, including a fascinating peek at the written shark attack scene (with a mention of a microscopic view of blood cells getting zombified) and the eyeball/splinter encounter. "Music for a Flesh-Feast" spends half an hour with composer Frizzi in 2012 at the Glasgow Film Theatre, again hosted by Waddell and Frame. (And watch your speakers -- the opening is really loud!) It's a much more thorough discussion than the prior Blu-Ray, and though his accent's a bit thick of course, he tells some good stories about his tenure with Fulci and still seems like a very nice and enthusiastic guy. Finally, "The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi" kicks off with a montage of the FX maestro's greatest hits accompanied by Zombie's calypso music and spends 26 minutes at his workshop, where he shows off a particularly memorable bit of custom-designed machinery from City of the Living Dead and talks about performing the gory illusions for this film, House by the Cemetery, Piranha II: The Spawning, Burial Ground, Make Them Die Slowly, and others. ("In Colombia, with cannibals, Leticia remains in my heart.") The package comes with a liner notes booklet featuring a new Thrower essay, a text interview with Karlatos, an overview of the film's ongoing BBFC issues by Craig Lapper, relevant script excerpts showcasing some unfilmed effects scenes, and a Jay Slater Fulci filmography. The Blu-Ray is available in a standard version as well as a limited steelbook edition with pretty nifty cover art; either way, it's quite a beauty and an absolutely essential upgrade. If you live in Europe there's no excuse for passing this up, and if you're in America, it's certainly a convincing reason to invest in a region-free player. Chow down!
Updated review on December 9, 2012.
Buy from Diabolik DVD
1981, Color, 86m.
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Katriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Giovanni de Nava, Dagmar Lassander, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Daniela Doria, Carlo de Mejo, Ania Pieroni, Silvia Collatina
Arrow (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD2.0
A middle class couple (Italian horror vets MacColl andMalco) moves to New Whitby, Boston, ignoring the protests of their young son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza), who experiences visions of a spooky freckled girl (Collatina) warning him about bloody events in their new house. While MacColl is a little miffed to find out the house is next door to a cemetery (irrelevant, but it does give the movie a cool title) and the tomb of a Dr. Freudstein situated in the middle of their hallway, the family decides to tough it out and make the best of the situation. Not surprisingly, nasty things begin to happen: Malco is attacked by a bat, a spooky-looking babysitter (Tenebrae's Pieroni) seems to know more than she's telling and looks like a mannequin in one of Bob's visions, and real estate agent (Lassander, a long way from her sex starlet days) meets up with a poker-wielding assailant.
A rare film that even Fulci haters tend to enjoy, House by the Cemetery contains his typically strong emphasis on atmosphere and shocking visuals but also devotes more time than usual to character development and surprising plotting, allowing the graphic gore to serve as a function of the story rather than an end unto itself. The last of Fulci's gothic excursions and sort of a classical addendum to his trio of zombie classics from the early '80s, House is also a strangely beautiful film with Sergio Salvati's expert scope photography crafting a strange world of childhood fairy tales gone very bad and Walter Rizzati's poignant score (with some harsher piano-heavy contributions from Alexander Blonksteiner) providing much-needed emotional support.
In the last half hour, Fulci really shines and produces some of his finest work; the claustrophobic mixture of chills and supernatural poetry would do Mario Bava proud, with an unexpected but very satisfying supernatural resolution. He also wreaks havoc with audience expectations, which adds immensely to the air of childhood uneasiness in which the whole world feels like it can collapse from underneath you at any moment.
When House was released to U.S. theaters and on Lightning Home Video, the gore remained intact but two of the reels were placed out of sequence and much of Rizzati's score was stupidly replaced. The Japanese Daie laserdisc, letterboxed and uncut, was a very welcome alternative, and EC's Holland-produced Region 2 DVD went one even better by removing those pesky subtitles. To make things even more confusing, EC then anamorphically remastered their DVD, supposedly from the original negative, while retaining the same extras: the European theatrical trailer(be warned, it contains a lot of spoilers), juicy trailers for A Blade in the Dark and Mountain of the Cannibal God, and a half hour 1994 Eurofest interview with Fulci (in Italian with a translator on hand).
Anchor Bay's belated release of House marked both its first widescreen and correctly sequenced appearance in America, discounting an unauthorized bootleg disc from the notorious Diamond. The image quality bested them all with exceptionally rich colors, less noise than its counterparts, and a sharp overall appearance that mostly belies the film's age. Inexplicably, the disc does not contain the same jolting 5.1 remix treatment afforded to The Beyond or City of the Living Dead; instead the viewer is left to settle with a moderately effective two channel surround mix, which tosses in a few nice directional effects to the front speakers but leaves the rear channels largely silent apart from some very mild ambient support to Rizzati's score. The striking full motion menus (which take the viewer through the house, of course) lead to the hilariously lurid U.S. trailer with voiceover by Brother Theodore ("Be sure to read the fine print! You may have just mortgaged... your life!"), the European trailer, a handful of abbreviated TV spots, a gooey still gallery, and cast and crew bios, plus an Easter egg with silent footage of a deleted scene following the bat attack. Like many Fulci films, this ran afoul of the censorship board in the UK but was eventually released uncut from Arrow with an exclusive 18-minute featurette, "Fulci In The House: The Italian Master Of Splatter," with Simon Boyes offering an overview of Fulci's most acclaimed period of horror filmmaking with interview snippets from former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, Sergio Stivaletti, Lloyd Kaufman, Sergio Stivaletti and Joe Dante.
Not surprisingly, Blue Underground added House to its slate of Fulci titles on Blu-Ray and thankfully decided to go all out with supplement this time around, as the film easily deserves it. It should go without saying that the new HD transfer is several notches above what its standard def coutnerparts could offer, and for the most part, it looks great; the nocturnal scenes (which comprise pretty much the entire second half of the film) in particular look clear with much more depth than before. On the other hand, the bright daylight scenes, while colorful, suffer from a more mild case of that funky 10th Victim syndrome with some splotchy-looking grain and an odd lack of detail in some shots. Again this only counts for a minor percentage of the running time, but it's definitely there for anyone who's been bugged by it on some past Italy-sourced HD transfers. The English audio (again in moderate 2.0 stereo or original mono) sounds fine, with optional English SDH subtitles included. At last the Italian audio has been included as well (in mono), and it's amusing to note that in this version as well, Bob is unconvincingly voiced by an adult female. What's most interesting is the fact that the Italian track is much, much lighter on dialogue than the English version, which had a lot of extra lines added with people calling to each other and offering additional superfluous comments when walking down hallways or turning away from the camera; instead, the Italian track soaks in the ambience of the music and sound effects far more subtly and makes for a markedly different viewing experience. Unfortunately the English subs, while welcome, aren't offering in another option with a translation of the Italian dialogue (something their Zombie disc got right, as mentioned above). Much of the Italian dialogue has a completely different meaning from that of the English version(including some of MacColl's more idiotic observations about that tomb in the hallway), as is obvious from the opening scene in which cries of "Steve! Steve!" are instead simply "I'm afraid!" in the Italian version. Optional subs are also included in French and Italian.
On the extras front, the trailers (now in HD), TV spot, poster and still gallery, and deleted scene are carried over, but the real paydirt here is in six new HD featurettes. "Meet the Boyles" features the always charming MacColl and Malco talking about working with Fulci on this particular film and the rigors demanded of the harrowing climax (including that ouch-inducing scene with the stairs), but for the film's fans, the coolest new extra is probably "Children of the Night." Yep, you get to see Bob all grown up, and in his affable Italian accent he opens open by saying, "I'm sorry for that stupid voice; it wasn't me!" He's joined by Collatina (no longer a redhead), and they both have some great stories about shooting the film including their nonchalant reactions to all the gore, the traumatic nature of that scene with the axe chopping near Bob's head through the door, and Collatina's surprising revelation about her "second" role in the film. In "Tales of Laura Gittleson," horror and sexploitation star Lassander talks about how she was hired onto the film and offers her own anecdotes about shooting her protracted and truly unforgettable death scene, capped off by a nice glimpse of her at a cast reunion from the film. "My Time with Terror" has sleaze veteran Carlo De Mejo (who plays real estate agent Mr. Wheatley) discussing his trio of Fulci titles and his wild '80s career; this would make a great follow-up to his chat on the Terror Express DVD. Co-writers Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti (in what appears to be the same session from BU's Zombie Blu-Ray) talk about the genesis of the story, the influence of folklore, the inspiration for the graveyard setting, and how Fulci "took the reins" on the character of Dr. Freudstein. Perhaps the most substantial segment comes last with the 20-minute "To Build a Better Death Trap," with Salvati, actor Giovanni De Nava, and FX artists Gino De Rosi and Maurizio Trani covering everything from the singular antiquated look of the film to the creation of the many great gore effects, including a detailed demonstration of the dental prosthesis for that great knife-in-the-head effect during the prologue. If you're a Fulci fan, get ready for hours of blood-soaked bliss with a proper tribute to one of his best films.
UPDATE: A 2012 Blu-Ray and DVD edition in the UK from Arrow offers another variation for fans, and as is the case with most of their Italian horror releases, the extras differ significantly from their American counterpart. Available in both a limited packaging and standard three-disc editions, it's a "dual-play" option containing three discs: a Blu-Ray of the film on disc one, a DVD on disc two, and a DVD of additional supplements for disc three.. The standard def version definitely looks closer to the older Arrow and Blue Underground releases in terms of color timing and grain structure (or as much of it as 480p will allow) and is on the brighter side of the scale as far as transfers for this film go, while the Blu-Ray looks very similar to the Blue Underground one, with the same problematic daylight scenes and fuzzy noise issues. Frezza provides a quick video interview (again apologizing for his voice), and for the film you get a choice of two audio commentaries: one with MacColl and Arrow's Calum Waddell, and another with Collatina and Paura Productions' Mike Baronas. MacColl's always a lovely speaker and a pleasure to spend some time with, and this is no exception as she recalls working with Fulci, going through the trauma of being dragged down cellar steps, doing horror conventions, and becoming an English scream queen in Italy. The second commentary isn't as dense with Collatina often just reacting to the film, but she really comes to life and has some fun stories whenever her footage plays onscreen. The 14-minute "Back to the Cellar" is a different Frezza interview, with the actor appearing (after one of those loooooong animated openings) talking about how he got his first audition, appearing in other films like A Blade in the Dark and Demons, and explaining his parents' growing ambivalence about his career. If you didn't get enough MacColl on her commentary, she pops up again for a 28-minute "Cemetery Woman" featurette in which she talks more generally about how she transitioned to Italian filmmaking (including her improving language skills) and taming the "misogynistic creature" named Lucio she grew to adore. The 8-minute "Finishing the Final Fulci" segment with FX artist Sergio Stivaletti is an Italian (with English subtitles) overview of how he came to direct one of Fulci's last projects, Wax Mask, along with the involvement of Dario Argento. (Sadly, it didn't turn out too well...) A 9-minute "Freudstein's Follies" interview with Fulci's most famous FX collaborator, Gianetto De Rosi, goes into detail about collaborators like cinematographer Sergio Salvati and hte mechanics of making molds and pumping blood all over actors. Finally the tangentially-related, 23-minute "Ladies of Italian Horror" has a few familiar faces from the era like Stefania Casini, Barbara Magnolfi, and Collatina (in what looks like the same room) offering wild and sometimes hilarious overviews of their careers in Italy from start to finish in films like Suspiria, The Sister of Ursula, Blood for Dracula, and Murder Rock.
The biggest of the extras on disc two is a 42-minute Q&A with the cast from a HorrorHound screening of the film with MacColl, Frezza, Collatina, De Mejo, and Lassander (wearing an amazing red cape) talking about Fulci both on this film and in general. A couple of the accents are a little tough to make out at times, but it's a warm and involving chat with some great anecdotes (some not terribly flattering) about the temperamental but talented director. You also get the theatrical trailer and TV spot, the usual deleted post-bat scene, and a mammoth Italian cult trailer reel with trivia notes in between (Zombie, Lisa and the Devil, Contraband, Beatrice Cenci, Dr. Butcher M.D., Beyond the Door, Four of the Apocalypse, the headache-inducing Italian one for Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, The Sect, Conquest, Perversion Story, All the Colors of the Dark, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Danger: Diabolik, Nightmare City, Murder Rock, Eaten Alive, Slaughter Hotel, Killer Crocodile, and the American Seven Doors of Death).
1980, Color, 93 mins.
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Christopher George, Katriona MacColl, Janet Agren, Carlo de Mejo, Antonella Interlinghi, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Daniala Doria
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) / DTS7.1/DD5.1, NoShame (Italy R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1
Following the wild success of Zombie, outrageous Italian horror director Lucio Fulci next splattered blood on the drive-in screens of America with this gothic feast of zombies and the supernatural, known to most of its first VHS-reared fans under the catchier title of The Gates of Hell. Though a few minutes of transition dialogue were trimmed, the film's splashy thrills remained intact and earned it a heavy fan base at the dawn of home video, particularly the most famous scene in which a village idiot (oft-abused Giovanni Lombardo Radice, a.k.a. Make Them Die Slowly's John Morghen) has a nasty encounter with an electric drill (a sequence which raised the hackles of British censors and landed the film in trouble around the world).
In New York, psychic Mary Woodhouse (MacColl) goes into a catatonic trance and apparently dies while experiencing a vision of Father Thomas, the local parish priest in a small town called Dunwich, hanging himself in the local cemetery. Soon Dunwich is plagued by worm-infested bodies, bleeding walls punctured by glass, and the aforementioned priest who now has the ability to cause people to expel their digestive tracts through their mouths. An aggressive reporter (George) narrowly rescues Mary as she's almost buried alive, and together they drive to Dunwich to stop what promises to be an evil, extremely squishy apocalypse on All Saint's Day.
From the late 1970s to 1982, Fulci transitioned from a string of stellar thrillers to a landmark quartet of zombie-centric horror films, all featuring the same stellar crew. Thanks to Sergio Salvati's magnificent cinematography, Gino de Rossi's skincrawling special effects, and Fabio Frizzi's haunting score, this particular entry (the only one not filmed in scope) works up a feverish series of incidents which provide a heavy visceral kick missing from Fulci's later comeback efforts. The game cast does quite a job, with the lovely MacColl proving her mettle in her first of three Fulci outings which cemented her as his greatest scream queen, and blonde starlet Janet Agren (Eaten Alive!) offers a very neurotic counterpoint as Dunwich's most insecure resident. While the story barely holds together and skips giddily through barely-connected stories involving drunk bar patrons, the aforementioned town idiot suspected of being a child killer, and the town's other oddball residents, Fulci keeps the viewer gripped through a thick, deeply creepy atmosphere loaded with unease and dread greatly aided by a constant barrage of dust storms and fog. Simply put, this is one of the moodiest, most unsettling films ever made from a visual standpoint, and Frizzi's peerless music manages to turn the whole experience into an uncanny feast of sights and sounds. If it weren't for the nonsensical dull thud of a final scene, this would equal Fulci's subsequent masterpiece, The Beyond, and even so it still stands as one of the decade's most indelible terror offerings.
Fulci fans are quite aware of what a nightmare this film has posed to video technicians over the years. The mixture of film grain, fog, dust, and deep, dark shadows has defeated several formats over the years, including some dire VHS releases and marginally better laserdiscs. Anchor Bay's DVD, which was subsequently ported over by Blue Underground, offered the best standard def digital option, presenting a crisp if slightly overly sharpened presentation that adequately captured the experience of watching an average film print. That disc also includes the original English trailer, a solid 5.1 remix, and a sills gallery coupled with some fantastic radio spots. At the other end of the spectrum, Italy's NoShame release contains the Italian and English tracks in mono with one terrific exclusive: a long reel of footage from the original film shoot in Savannah, Georgia, complete with lots of spooky graveyard shots. It's a wonderful bit of Fulci memorabilia and is almost worth the price tag by itself. Unfortunately, the transfer is an utter disaster, slathering so much noise reduction on the film that actors' faces constantly blur into a sludgy mess and any onscreen movement accompanied by blurring and ghosting galore. On top of that, the image has been brightened far too much and drenched in an artificial yellow tint that makes the whole experience unwatchable after a few minutes.
While Blue Underground pulled off a miracle with its crackerjack Blu-Ray of New York Ripper, fans had reason to worry about whether this already grainy film would prove to be a nightmare with the added clarity of high definition. Well, surprise, surprise; the Blu-Ray taken from the original camera negative is a real stunner, featuring a far richer color scheme than anyone could have guessed by past transfers (the Anchor Bay/Blue Underground standard def one now looks pallid and far too cold in copmarison), with accurate and vibrant flesh tones as well as some eye-popping color designs in the cinematography completely impossible to appreciate in past versions (and theatrical prints). From the lush green and mahogany furniture in the New York seance room to the searing, Argento-esque neon lighting in the local Dunwich watering hole, this now feels much more like an accomplished, artistic film than before. Interestingly, the opening cemetery scene seems to vary greatly from one version to the next; in most prints it's a murky gray, while on the Anchor Bay disc; it featured a heavy blue tint that mysteriously vanished after the switchover to New York. Here it looks like a misty, overcast afternoon, which feels about right. The film grain here is present but far more natural and under control; detail is excellent and very filmic throughout, especially in the exterior scenes shot in New York and Savannah. The limitations of the original shooting conditions are still evident in a handful of the darker scenes, but it's hard to imagine how this could possibly look better. The Blu-Ray's 7.1 DTS-HD mix is also a real treat, with Frizzi's score sounding very robust as it pumps out of the front and rear speakers and some of the more manipulative sound effects getting a nice shot in the arm as well. The 50GB disc (which allows for a very healthy, very necessary high bit rate) also includes the original mono track (which now sounds pretty anemic in comparison) and the same 5.1 mix from the DVD, along with new English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitle options.
If the huge improvement in quality weren't enough of an enticement, the Blue Underground release tosses in a huge helping of extras produced in conjunction with Paura Productions. The 32-minute "The Making of City of the Living Dead" features MacColl, co-star and future director Michele Soavi (who gets his brains memorably squeezed out of his cranium), Salvati, De Rossi, production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, assistant FX artist Rosario Prestopino, and camera operator Roberto Forges Davanzati talking about their experiences on the film, sometimes very candidly indeed. Most of them confirm Fulci's reputation as "very difficult," with George apparently butting heads with the director so much he wound up pulling a surprisingly grotesque prank on the set. All of the nasty highlights are covered here including the methods used to create the maggot storm, the tears of blood, the head drill, and much more, along with the problems of shooting in a Georgia cemetery and the difficulties of trying to swing an axe into a coffin containing the leading lady. Soavi in particular has some fascinating bits as he talks about taking his small role to get some directorial work snuck in on the set and offers a graphic explanation for his death scene. MacColl turns up again for a separate interview, "Acting among the Living Dead" (shot at a different time and place than her earlier chat), in which she talks about first being hired by Fulci, her personal methods of finding peace with the subject matter of the script, and her much-delayed realization of the film's huge cult reputation. It's a fine companion to her magnificent commentary on The Beyond and once again shows her as an intelligent, very likeable presence. The always hilarious Radice pops up for a welcome separate interview, "Entering the Gates of Hell," in which he rattles off his own uncensored memories of working with Maestro Fulci and recalls his hedonistic days on the set. "Memories of the Maestro" is a more generic piece with most of the same participants chatting about Fulci in stories and recollections unconnected to the main feature; it's a nice tribute and similar to Paura's feature-length Fulci doc. "Marketing of the Living Dead" is a new, HD gallery of posters and stills, while the older DVD gallery and radio spots are carried over as well. The package is rounded out with the English and Italian trailers, both also presented in new HD transfers. Simply put, this phenomenal package should be enough to spur on any fan of European horror to spring for a Blu-Ray player right away.
1982, Color, 93m.
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Jack Hedley, Almanta Keller, Howard Ross, Andrea Occhipinti, Alessandra Delli Colli, Paolo Malco, Cinzia Di Ponti, Daniela Doria
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD, US R1 NTSC/HD), Another World (Sweden R0 PAL), Shameless (UK R0 PAL), Neo (France R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
In Zombie, Lucio Fulci turned a tropical island into a desolate wasteland of the walking dead. In The Beyond, he transformed Louisiana into a nightmarish doorway to the underworld. However, none of Fulci's elegiac, haunting visions can compare to what he inflicts on the landscape in New York Ripper (Lo squartatore di New York), his most controversial film. Rough, unsettling, and surprisingly well crafted, New York Ripper has borne the brunt of countless charges of misogyny and other cinematic hate crimes, particularly after being banned in the U.K. as a "video nasty." Like most entries in the European cinema of the extreme, this will outrage many and provoke more than a little laughter (probably intentional), but for any viewer, New York Ripper is a difficult film to forget.
Hooker-loving police detective Lieutenant Williams (Hedley) finds himself pursuing a brutal serial killer who, according to one eyewitness, quacks like a duck as he slashes his victims. Yes, indeed, every time a broken bottle or razor blade is wielded in malice, the soundtrack explodes with a deafening "quack quack quack!" Each murder becomes more unsavory than the last with women from all walks of life falling victim to the madman. Suspicious professor Dr. Davis (House by the Cemetery's Malco) offers his services to the police, and a young potential victim, Faye (Keller), escapes the killer's clutches (a splendidly weird half-dream sequence) and begins to unravel the mystery herself. When the killer cuts a little too close to home for Williams, the stakes increase and uncover a startling revelation lurking behind the madman's psychosis.
Tossing in every convention of the Italian giallo formula, Fulci emerges with an unholy response to such slick urban thrillers as Tenebrae and Dressed to Kill. Like Tenebrae, with which this film shares more than a few interesting structural similarities, the earlier scenes of brutality focus mainly on women, but the director turns this malefic gaze back on the viewer by ultimately offing virtually every cast member in a spectacularly nihilistic display of misanthropy. While the gore scenes here are alarming and convincingly executed (for the most part), the killings also elicit a great deal of agony from the viewer and ultimately implicate any observer for participating in a society only the beautiful get rewarded. Granted, most of Fulci's social observations may be complete hooey when you consider they're being delivered by a homicidal duck (a weird tribute to his earlier Don't Torture a Duckling, perhaps), but the eerie final ten minutes provide enough poignance and food for thought to at least indicate Fulci had more on his mind than simply trading in hardcore sexist gore. On the other hand, this finale also spurs a hilarious version of Psycho's concluding psychiatric monolgue as the viewer is pelted with such insightful nuggets as "The duck provided the onus for him to start killing."
Even many Fulci fans find this film repugnant, an understandable reaction given the treatment and subject matter, but a few elements are noteworthy even with these misgivings. Francesco De Masi's marvelous big city crime score gives the proceedings an appropriately jazzy and sleazy bent, while cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller (Deep Red) magnificently uses the scope frame to capture an atmosphere of rotting claustrophobia which was completely lost on transfers before the age of DVD. Though only a small portion of the film was actually shot on location in New York, the setting is all too convincing and bizarre. The actors generally do a good job despite the chaotic and frequently hilarious dubbing job, with Hedley making an interesting social hypocrite and genre stalwart Andrea Occhipinti (A Blade in the Dark, Conquest) expanding his range somewhat as Faye's boyfriend. And finally, if you ever wanted to know where Dario Argento got the idea for the cheek-piercing bullet in The Stendhal Syndrome, look no further than this film's showstopping finale.
Most American viewers first encountered The New York Ripper through Vidmark's atrocious VHS release in the mid-'80s. Unwatchable panning and scanning coupled with an ugly faded and brown transfer immediately earned the film a bad reputation which was only slightly improved when Cult Epics issued a much needed widescreen laserdisc several years later. Though smudgy and overbright, the laserdisc at least provided some indication of the visual artistry inherent in the film and restored several brief bits of sex deleted from the U.S. cut. Surprisingly, the most notorious restored scene involves no gore but involves a toe job in a local Puerto Rican dive, and for better or worse, Anchor Bay retained all of this legendary footage in their DVD release. Strangely, the last shot of Malco standing on the sidewalk froze and faded into a wild psychedelic pattern on the laserdisc, while the DVD simply fades to black -- a much more rational choice. This utterly inconsequential snippet was originally intended to appear halfway through the film (after Fay's hospital interrogation) but was shuffled, removed and replaced by the distributor several times, apparently tagged at the end of some versions to cast some doubt on the killer's identity. The only extras for the Anchor Bay version (subsequently carried over to Blue Underground's DVD reissue) are the outrageous European trailer and a Fulci filmography.
While other companies have offered their own subsequent editions of New York Ripper in the ensuing years, the most notable one on DVD is a "special restored" version from Sweden's Another World series. The transfer is indeed noticeably crisper than the AB one, with somewhat punchier colors as well and a bit more picture information visible on all four sides. It also boasts the correct placement of Malco's final scene, so we'll take their word for it. Extras on this one (culled from an earlier French release but augmented with English subtitles here) include a great 52-minute De Masi interview, a "Ti Ricordi Lucio Fulci" featurette running just under an hour, a funny interview with stuntman-turned-actor Howard Ross, a giallo trailer reel, and for the feature itself, optional subtitles in Danish, Norweigan, Finish and Swedish. It's also quite cheap, so even if you have the earlier release, it's worth the double dip. If you feel like hunting down that French disc (which features an inferior transfer), it also contains an additional featurette solely devoted to the making of this film.
And now we arrive at the most surprising incarnation of The New York Ripper -- a Blu-Ray from Blue Underground newly transferred from the original negative. Simply put, it's a beauty; the huge leap in detail is astounding, and you can even make out the fine patterns in Mrs. Weissberger's hairnet. You'd never believe this film could look so good, and the eerie landscape shots (especially during the first ferry murder) now look like finely rendered landscapes out of a nightmare. Yes, it still looks like an early '80s Italian horror movie so anyone expecting something comparable to Wall-E isn't going to get it, but there's no way this could look any better. Interestingly and not surprisingly, as this is from the negative that pesky street shot of Malco is nowhere to be found, which doesn't affect the movie much at all. The original English audio can be played either in the original mono or a fun DTS-HD 7.1 mix which pumps De Masi's infectious music to the surround channels and really adds to the entertainment value. Optional subtitles are available in English, French or Spanish. Along with a new HD version of the trailer you get two exclusive extras, also hi-def; the first, "NYC Locations Then and Now," spends a nifty four minutes comparing location shots from the film in '81 with the current locales, including Times Square, the subway to Nassau Street, the Staten Island ferry, the Cavalier Hotel, and of course the now-destroyed World Trade Center, all set to De Masi's jazzy score. "I'm an Actress!" spends ten minutes chatting with Czech-born actress Zora Kerova (in Italian with English subtitles), who was hired from Prague for the film in the quick but memorable role as a sex show performer who gets the wrong end of a broken bottle. She calls her sex scene "the most difficult I've ever done" but has better memories of her murder scene; Kerova's other notable films from the period include Anthropophagus, Cannibal Ferox and The New Barbarians. Most interestingly the still-gorgeous actress talks about how the role got her in hot water with her native country, shares sometimes unpleasant memories of other directors like Bruno Mattei and Umberto Lenzi, and remembers a nice relationship with Fulci, whom she believes was more angry at the world than women in particular. A standard def DVD of the special edition is also available, but since it costs slightly more and can't compete with the glory of watching this nasty classic in full 1080p, it should be obvious which one to buy.
dio is fine, but in this case an alternate Italian track might have been welcome (as opposed to titles like Shock where it makes little difference at all).