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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective

ON DVD & BLU-RAY

City of the Living Dead (1980) Limited Edition Blu Ray (Arrow)

The Gates of Hell are open!

Catriona MacColl plays Mary Woodhouse, an acolyte under the tutelage of New York medium Theresa (Adelaide Aste). One day, while Theresa’s group conducts a ritual, Mary experiences a terrifying vision: a priest named Father William Thomas (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself in the graveyard of the H.P. Lovecraft-referencing town Dunwich - an act which causes the dead to start rising from the ground. The vision proves to be such a shock to her system that her body collapses to the floor, apparently lifeless.

Newspaper reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) snoops around and attempts to get the scoop on her mysterious demise. His investigations lead him to the local graveyard where she is in the process of being buried. A pair of lazy gravediggers lower her coffin into the ground but, before covering it over with dirt, decide to knock off work and resume their task tomorrow. Suddenly, Mary wakes up from her apparently lifeless state, frantically attempts to fight her way out fo the coffin and then screams desperately for help. Just as she is running out of oxygen, Peter hears her cries and manages to rescue her from a horrific (real this time) death.

Mary and Peter return to Theresa, who explains that the priest’s suicide has opened up the Gates of Hell. If it isn’t closed again before All Saint’s Day (which arrives in two days’ time), then the living dead will take over the world, eradicating all of humanity. Meanwhile, back in Dunwich, all sorts of crazy stuff is happening. A thick mist is swirling all around. Mirrors and windows break suddenly for no apparent reason. Psychologically-troubled artist Sandra (Janet Agren) is attacked by a cat belonging to her psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo). Most of all, a number of people are gruesomely succumbing to a series of supernatural attacks. Naturally, the townsfolk blame these killings on a local weirdo named Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice).

Can Mary and Peter put a stop to the nightmare before it engulfs humankind?

Watch a trailer:

Cult classic Fulci

City of the Living Dead was the first of three Lucio Fulci films, along with The Beyond (1981) and The House by the Cemetery (also 1981), which collectively became known as “The Gates of Hell Trilogy”. While there is no real connection between the three in terms of storyline, they share a lot of similarities in their collective approach. They follow on somewhat from Fulci’s first nod at the zombie craze, Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), but also bring in stylistic and story elements from the gothic horror genre - especially Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria (1977). Another connection between the three is that they all feature English actress Catriona MacColl in a leading role, albeit playing a different character each time.

All of them have gone on to gain cult followings, thanks in no small part to the director’s inclination towards rubbing explicit, creative, censor-baiting scenes of gore in the viewer’s face. However, there’s some ongoing debate as to whether they are legitimately great horror films. Detractors point to the frequent loopholes in logic and moments of baffling character behaviour. Defenders, on the other hand, note Fulci’s considerable ability to generate and maintain atmosphere and, while not denying the nonsensical elements, excuse the latter issue by saying that it reflects the inherently irrational nature of nightmares. City of the Living Dead is textbook example of why these films are so polarising.

There’s a severe lack of consistency in the behaviours of the living and the dead alike here. At one moment, our two protagonists are racing against time to close the Gates of Hell. In the next, they’re discussing taking time out to sample the local cuisine. While the zombies clearly have the ability to teleport instantaneously, they never think to use it when people attempt to vanquish them (for good this time) by charging towards them, in clear view, with sharp objects in hand. Sometimes, the living dead kill people by pulling their brains out with their fingers. At others, they telepathically cause people’s eyes to bleed and for them to vomit up their internal organs. At other times, they just pop up and do nothing apart from being scary. There’s a scene where the main characters are suddenly showered with maggots which plays like an amped-up version of a similar sequence in Suspiria. In Dario Argento’s classic, we at least got some form of explanation as to why this occurred (there were boxes of spoilt meat stored in the attic of the film’s central dance academy location). Here, however, it’s just another bit of random supernatural craziness.

Atmosphere and gore

On the other hand, when taken as a quasi-surrealist horror film, City of the Living Dead undeniably gets under the skin. Fabio Frizzi’s bone-chilling score effectively mixes jazz, prog rock and electronic pieces. Great use has been made of smoke, coloured light sources, gothic-flavoured interior sets, wide-angle lenses and POV shots to imbue a suitably nightmarish mood. Those trademark Lucio Fulci close-ups of eyes (bleeding or not) are thrown in numerous times throughout. Most of all, there are a number of well-executed gory pay-offs which are lingered upon in obsessively nauseating detail. Brains are pulled out of heads and squished between zombie hands with the loving enthusiasm of a child squeezing Play-Doh. We watch a young woman, having been caught making out with her boyfriend in his car, spending about a minute of screen time vomiting out her innards in close-up. We see a young man get an electric lathe drill pushed through one side of his head until it emerges from the other. On the less gruesome side of things, the sequence where Mary is trapped inside the coffin is agonisingly suspenseful.

City of the Living Dead

While most of the cast is made up of the usual dubbed Euro actors who popped up again and again in Italian genre films during this era, the top-billed name here is the American actor Christopher George. He shot to prominence during the mid-1960s on the back of his leading role in the successful television series The Rat Patrol. From then on, he maintained a high work rate up until his untimely death (at the age of 52) from a heart attack in 1983. His career has mixed TV appearances, supporting turns in major Hollywood productions (including three John Wayne films) and leading roles which were mostly confined to B movies such as this one. While he never quite became a big movie star, he brought a certain easy-going, down-to-earth affability and screen presence to his performances - and here is no exception. While she may not be one of the world’s greatest actresses, the beautiful Catriona MacColl handles her expressive “scream queen” duties with sufficient aplomb and possesses a noticeable on-screen chemistry with the charismatic George.

While I don’t necessarily consider this the best of the three Fulci “Gates of Hell” films (I prefer The Beyond), I still find it to be a lively enough piece of delirious Italian nastiness. On the other hand, your own opinion of it may vary a lot. There’s so much room between the striking horror images and the disjointed strangeness of its narrative that it’s hard to form any sort of authoritative viewpoint.

Runtime: 93 mins

Dir: Lucio Fulci

Script: Lucio Fulci, Dardano Sacchetti

Starring: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo, Janet Agren, Antonella Interlenghi, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Daniela Doria, Fabrizio Jovine, Adelaide Aste

Blu Ray Audio Visual

This 4K restoration looks a lot better than Arrow’s previous blu ray version (released in 2010). Vivid details such as the actors’ skin textures and the elaborate set decor (especially in the medium’s home) come out very well. Some of the foggy scenes still look a bit grainy but that’s probably due to the limitations of cheap film stock. The disc’s sound is clear and immaculate throughout. The soundtrack is presented at its richest and most multilayered.

Highlights amongst the extras

There are an incredible number of extras here: a sixty-page booklet, a fold-out poster, lobby cards, two audio commentaries, a couple of video essays, numerous lengthy interviews and more. In fact, this is a definite candidate for being the most extras-stuffed disc ever created. Fans of the film can rest assured that they will be getting a veritable bounty here! Here are some of the better ones:

Commentary with Catriona MacColl and Jay Slater

Writer Jay Slater interviews actress Catriona MacColl, who makes for pleasurable company as she takes us through her experiences working on the film as well as touching on her wider career. She worked on the film under the pseudonym Catherine MacColl on the advice of her agent, who said that the -ona part of her given name meant “huge” in Italian. While she disliked the script and the graphic descriptions of violence, the same agent advised her to take the money and and told her that nobody would see it outside of Italy anyway (how wrong she was). She continued to work with him on the two subsequent Gates of Hell films before moving onto other things.

While Fulci had a bit of a reputation for shouting (especially at female cast members), she took it as a challenge to win respect from him as a serious actress. However, she doesn’t have particularly fond memories of being trapped in the coffin (she panicked for real, especially during the shots when it was smashed open with a pickaxe), or the maggot shower scene (she was in tears as she got the impression that the director enjoyed humiliating his cast). While the exteriors were shot in New York City and Savannah, Georgia, the interiors were filmed at Incio De Paolis Studios in Rome. An Isabella Rossellini comedy was shooting there simultaneously and they saw her then-husband, director Martin Scorsese, in the studio canteen.

Commentary with Giovanni Lombardo Radice and Calum Waddell

I rarely go to the length of reviewing two commentaries on the same disc. However, since I loved the Radice interview on Shameless Films’ Cannibal Ferox disc, I decided to give this one a go as well. He is interviewed here by writer and film critic Waddell; they talk extensively about this film and a number of Radice’s other cult favourites from this period (including his two cannibal films). Radice has a great personality and a distinctively morbid sense of humour: during the opening scene involving priest’s suicide by hanging, he states that it would be an appealing way to go since you wouldn’t have to worry about anyone else having to clean up the blood!

He has some particularly interesting revelations about co-star Antonella Interlenghi. While she was under 20 at the time of filming, she was the mother of twin girls (whom she gave birth to at 15) and was rather wild on set, regularly smoking pot. If you listen on, he has a particularly amusing story about them partaking together while wearing zombie makeup.

Through Your Eyes

A 37-minute interview with actress Catriona MacColl, who covers a lot of the same ground as her commentary. Nonetheless, she has a few interesting things to say about the treatment of animals in this era of Italian cinema (the rats were white ones spray-painted grey, and one died while coming down a chute into the set) as well as the day when she learnt that her films with Fulci were brought up at a Mary Whitehouse conference on “video nasties”.

Dust in the Wind

Cameraman Roberto Forges Davanzati talks about working with director Lucio Fulci. Surprisingly, he reveals that the notoriously grumpy director was, in fact, much more pleasant with the camera crew than he was with the actors (one of whom - apparently Christopher George - got his own back on Fulci by putting maggots in his pipe!) The flying dust in the exterior shots was achieved by throwing cement and talcum powder into a large boat propellor and blowing it over the set. Davanzati also discusses his time shooting the cat scenes on Fulci’s later The Black Cat.

The Art of Dreaming

Another longish (45 minute) but still worthwhile interview, this time with the film’s production designer, Massimo Antonello Geleng. He found it a challenging production to work on because a number of the special effects necessitated the construction of studio sets. Conjuring up the requisite Lovecraftian atmosphere in Savannah, Georgia was also difficult because of the sunny weather and cute architecture. They got around this by shooting mainly at night and with a heavy artificial fog. Geleng recalls that he particularly enjoyed creating the artist’s studio set, which he decorated with paintings featuring an eerie eye motif. Since the costume budget was so small, he had to persuade the actors to wear their own clothes when possible - something which Christopher George wasn’t too happy about.

Tales of Friendship

Cinematographer Sergio Salvati discusses his working relationship and friendship with Lucio Fulci, with whom he collaborated over the course of 12 films. He reveals that they played around with filters a lot, as well as admitting that they tended to overuse the zoom lens (which was a common visual shortcut during this period of cinema, especially amongst Italian filmmakers). He also talks briefly about working on films directed by Sergio Leone and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Towards the end of the interview, he tells us that Maria Callas (who starred in Pasolini’s Medea) sent him into tears of delight by dedicating a two-minute aria to him.

Reflections on Fulci

Actor, writer and director Andy Nyman (Ghost Stories) talks about his love for Lucio Fulci’s zombie movies in this highly entertaining documentary. When he worked on the film Uprising, he was overjoyed to discover that his character’s burn makeup would be designed by none other than Giannetto De Rossi, who worked on a number of Fulci’s productions. Needless to say, he leapt at the opportunity to talk to him about the films. He also took a role in a play just for an opportunity to talk to actor Richard Johnson, who starred in Zombie Flesh Eaters. Nyman’s lively personality and infectious enthusiasm makes this a great watch.

The Dead Are Alive!

Diabolique Magazine editor Kat Ellinger narrates this engrossing, superbly-researched video essay on Italian zombie movies and how they fit into the wider world of both zombie and Italian genre cinema. Amongst the more surprising films uncovered here include a couple of 1960s peplum featuring the living dead, as well as a necrophilia-tinged zombie porno flick in the shape of Joe D’Amato’s Porno Holocaust - which even went on to spawn its own subgenre!

Behind the Fear

Here, we get a few minutes’ worth of 8mm behind-the-scenes footage, narrated by Roberto Forges Davanzati. We can see how bright and sunny the Savannah location was when compared to how it is seen in the final film.

Overall:

This amazingly exhaustive package is an absolute must for Lucio Fulci fans. However, the uninitiated should watch the film first. It’s not for all tastes - even amongst horror fans.

Movie: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆☆

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