1980, Color, 92 mins. 41 secs.
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Starring Christopher George, Katriona MacColl, Janet Agren, Carlo de Mejo, Antonella Interlinghi, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Daniala Doria
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), NoShame (Italy R0 PAL) / WS (1.85:1)

In City of the Living DeadNew York City, psychic Mary Woodhouse (MacColl) goes into a catatonic trance and apparently dies while experiencing a vision of Father Thomas, the local parish priest in City of the Living Deada 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 combinations of the same indispensable crew. Thanks to Sergio Salvati's magnificent cinematography, Gino de Rossi's skin-crawling 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 with a heavy visceral kick that the maestro only occasionally managed to muster in his later days. 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 City of the Living Deadthe City of the Living Deadmoodiest, 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 for sure. Unfortunately, the transfer of the main feature is an utter disaster, slathering so much noise reduction on the film that actors' faces constantly blur into a sludgy mess and any on-screen 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 pretty miraculous job early in the Blu-ray format with its inaugural Fulci release New York Ripper (later City of the Living Deadeclipsed by a 4K redo), fans City of the Living Deadhad reason to worry about whether this already grainy film would prove to be a nightmare with the added clarity of high definition with the label's 2010 Blu-ray. Well, they pretty much pulled it off here (at least for the time) with a far richer color scheme than anyone could have guessed by past transfers (the Anchor Bay/Blue Underground standard def DVD looking pallid and far too cold in comparison), 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. Film grain is present but so is some scanner noise, albeit nowhere near the catastrophic levels of many other Italian-sourced transfers that came after it; as a result, fine detail can be a bit clumpy at times and look artificial. The Blu-Ray's 7.1 DTS-HD mix is a 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 and the same 5.1 mix from the DVD, along with new English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitle options.

If the 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 Making of City of the Living Dead" (32m10s) 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 City of the Living Deadmore, City of the Living Deadalong 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" (10m34s) (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 likable presence. The always hilarious Radice pops up for a welcome separate interview, "Entering the Gates of Hell" (9m49s), 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" (21m9s) 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" (13m14s) 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. The same transfer was utilized for a Blu-ray release from Arrow Video later the same year, utilizing only English options (7.1, 5.1, 2.0 stereo, and 1.0 mono) while offering two audio commentaries, with Radice and MacColl (the latter in conversation with Jay Slater). Video extras include "Fulci in the House: The Italian Master of Splatter" (17m50s) with a variety of sound bites from names like Lloyd Kaufman, Joe Dante, and Tony Timpone but mainly focused on House by the Cemetery for some reason, "Carlo of the Dead" (17m28s) with De Mejo, "Dame of the Dead" (24m51s) with MacColl, "Fulci's Daughter" (27m34s) with Antonella Fulci recalling times with her dad, "Penning Some Paura" (18m12s) with writer Dardano City of the Living DeadSacchetti, City of the Living Dead"Profondo Luigi" (16m59s) with Luigi Cozzi, a 2010 "Live from the Glasgow Theatre" (24m47s) Q&A with MacColl, Radice and Calum Waddell, "The Many Lives of Giovanni Lombardo Radice" (50m26s) career overview, and an image gallery (3m55s).

In 2018, Arrow Video took another stab at Fulci's classic with a new transfer sourced from a 4K scan from the original negative. Language options are the same here (5.1, 2.0, and 1.0 DTS-HD English plus Italian mono, with English SDH or translated subtitles), and the transfer is a significant bump up from its predecessors with finer handling of the film grain along with a more natural look overall. The two audio commentaries from the earlier Arrow disc are ported over here, though with the exception of the De Mejo interview, all of the earlier featurettes have been chucked out in favor of an entirely new slate: "We Are the Apocalypse" (53m) with Sacchetti; "Through Your Eyes" (37m1s) with MacColl; "Dust in the Wind" (13m14s) with cameraman Roberto Foges Davanzati; "The Art of Dreaming" (45m50s) with production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng; "Tales of Friendship" (30m49s) new interview with Salvati; "I Walked with a Zombie" (22m49s) with Radice; "They Call Him Bombardone" (26m55s) with De Rossi; "The Horror Family" (19m14s) with father and son actors Venantino and City of the Living DeadLuca Venantini; and "Songs from Beyond" (19m49s) with Frizzi (recorded years ago by the looks of it but debuting here). On the scholarly side you another essential Stephen Thrower analysis courtesy of "Building Fulci's City" (37m34s), an overview of the Fulci Gothic quartet from Ghost Stories' Andy Nyman in "Reflections on City of the Living DeadFulci" (26m50s); and "The Dead Are Alive!" (25m26s), a new video essay by Kat Ellinger on Fulci's zombie chronicles along with ties to everyone from Jacques Tourneur to Andrea Bianchi and Sergio Martino. The Super 8 behind the scenes footage (10m38s) from the Italian DVD also pops up here with Davanzati commentary (and no big watermark this time), followed by the usual English and Italian trailers, the U.S. TV spot, and radio spots. Multiple galleries are also included divided up into Stills, Posters and Press, Lobby Cards, and Home Video and Soundtrack Releases.

In 2020, Scorpion Releasing issued its long-awaited American Blu-ray edition (as The Gates of Hell, still the much cooler title), available via Ronin Flix with an intriguing selling point: a"new 2020 4K color grading and restoration of the film from a 4K scan of the original camera negative." Indeed, there are some marked differences; the color timing for most of the running time is similar and usually just about identical, but from the opening seance scene onward you'll notice in motion that tactile details in clothing and hair look a bit more detailed and natural. Where this one really vaults ahead is in the outdoor night scenes; whereas the Arrow has a harsh appearance in several shots with very hot contrast (see the fourth frame grab comparison below), this one features natural flesh tones and a much more convincing, pleasing appearance. The one big difference in color timing comes at the very end during the underground confrontation with the priest; on the Arrow and Blue Underground discs, that bit has very strong color saturation that verges on electric blue while this one ratchets it down to a more subdued color temperature. All in all it's a very strong presentation that should make fans very happy. (Frame grabs seen in the body of this review are from the Scorpion Releasing edition, with comparisons for the Blu-rays City of the Living Deadand Italian DVD below.) Almost all of the featurettes from Arrow reissue have been carried over here, namely the Sacchetti, MacColl, City of the Living DeadDavanzati, Geleng, Salvati, Radice, De Rossi, and Venantini interviews along with the Thrower, Ellinger, and Nyman featurettes; only the Frizzi interview is MIA for some reason. The Arrow commentaries are not present; instead you get a new one featuring yours truly and Troy Howarth, which obviously can't be assessed here. Ported over from the NoShame DVD and apparently making its first English-friendly appearance anywhere is an audio commentary with Salvati and Davanzati moderated by film professor Paolo Albiero, which comes with English subtitles and is loaded with interesting stories about Fulci's work practices, the aesthetic approach to the Gothic horror films of the period, and the budgetary and scheduling limitations in Italian films of the era as they skipped back and forth between Italy and the U.S. Audio options for the feature itself are DTS-HD MA English 5.1, 2.0 and 1.0 mono with English SDH or translated subtitles, plus the Italian mono track. Again the multichannel mixes sound great and are quite faithful to the balance of the original mono version. While the Arrow had the option of playing the Italian version with those titles intact, the Scorpion puts them as a separate extra along with the American titles; the Italian and English international trailers are here of course, plus the TV and radio spots.


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Updated review on June 4, 2020