Blue Underground // 1980 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 24th, 2010
"The dead shall rise and walk the Earth."
Night of the Living Dead kick-started the modern zombie genre, offering the shambling, brain-eating dead to hungry cinemagoers, but it wasn't until Romero's second Dead film, Dawn of the Dead that the international zombie craze was inaugurated. Italian Dario Argento was involved in making that film, and the Italians were near the top of those producing gory gut-munching epics. Thanks to Dario's influence, Lucio Fulci would produce Zombi 2 (which implies that it's the sequel to the Argento edit of Dawn of the Dead). That wasn't enough to curb his undead appetite, so in 1980, he gave the world City of the Living Dead. Here Fulci marries his gore-soaked zombie vision with a test-run for the more supernatural and hallucinatory imagery of The Beyond. Blue Underground has released this Italian zombie flick in one of their typically solid hi-def packages, and fans of Fulci and zombies alike are going to want to make the upgrade.
The city of Dunwich (supposedly the town that hosted the infamous Salem witch trials) lies over a gate to Hell. When a local priest hangs himself, the gate to Hell is opened, allowing the dead to rise. If it's not closed by All Souls Day, then the dead will come out of their graves to overrun the living. Only a psychic (Catriona MacColl, The Beyond) and a reporter (Christopher George, Pieces) can close the gate and save humanity.
In my experience, Lucio Fulci designs his horror films around one or two strong, dominant images. He weaves these motifs into the narrative, giving them a nightmarish significance for the film. City of the Living Dead is no exception. Here, Fulci is working with two particular images. The first is that of a priest, hanging himself from a tree. The second is the image of a rotting face looking in from the dark. They're both simple, direct visuals that orchestrate the rest of the narrative. The hanging priest leads to zombies, which lead to creepy, decaying faces looking in on various characters.
These two images also encompass the extremes of Fulci's style. In the hanged priest, we see Fulci's mastery of atmosphere. What could be more arch and gothic then a priest hanging from a gnarled branch? Fulci exploits that initial setup by drenching the evening shots in fog and the day shots in whipping winds and flying sand. The hostile exteriors are mirrored in the darkened, claustrophobic interiors, which Fulci elects not to light beyond the minimum necessary to see the characters. However, those who came for the gore will not be disappointed. Fulci sprinkles his decaying faces throughout the film, and, when the inevitable deaths occur, they're done in style. This is a film where not one, but two different people, have the brains squished out of the back of their head. There's also a memorable scene with a drill-fitted lathe and someone's head. It's straight-up, old-school gore with plenty of red coloring and pulpy bits.
City of the Living Dead has been a bargain bin staple for years, with two different all-but-bare-bones releases to its name. For its debut on Blu-ray, though, Blue Underground have stepped up, improving the audiovisual presentation and providing some insightful extras.
Assuming that one is aware of the context of City of the Living Dead, this transfer is nothing short of revelatory. That context includes the fact that this film was shot on a low-budget by an Italian director with Seventies film stock. Unless a total (and unfaithful) makeover is attempted, there's no way for City of the Living Dead to look pretty. However, what's here looks as good as I suspect it ever will. First, the problems. There are occasional moments of softness (although these are just as likely to be the source as the transfer), and some of the darker scenes are a little bit noisy (although considering how much of the film is shrouded in darkness, these moments are fleeting). On the plus side, though, there are significant moments of strong detail throughout the picture. Also, the fine patina of grain throughout the film is wonderfully rendered. Amorphous elements like fog are some of the hardest to transfer, but City of the Living Dead has some of the richest fog I've seen on screen. The transfer probably won't drop any jaws, but it is a strong presentation of the source materials. The DTS-HD 7.1 soundtrack is a bit of an overkill for a film like this. Dialogue, as is the Italian tradition, was obviously overdubbed later. This creates an odd sound mix that doesn't always match the film's visuals. Although it might be overkill, fans are likely to appreciate the extra fidelity in the moody electronic score. Dialogue is generally well audible, and the English SDH subtitles are a nice addition. The original mono mix is available for purists.
This isn't Blue Underground's most special of special editions, but the interview-based extras are informative. First up is a 30-minute making of that features interviews with the stars (Catriona MacColl and Michele Soavi) and several of the crew members, including cinematographer Sergio Salvati and Special Effects Artist Gino De Rossi. The participants paint a fascinating portrait of the production and its maestro, Lucio Fulci. Stars Catriona MacColl and Givanni Lombardo Radice are given solo interview time, and then everyone returns for a featurette remembering Fulci. The disc rounds out with promotional material, including a poster and stills gallery, the film's trailers, and radio spots.
I give Fulci full marks for gore and atmosphere, but he wasn't exactly showing his narrative chops in this flick. My viewing companion and I both spent the majority of the movie waiting for it to actually seem to kick off, but instead the simple story acts as a placeholder for scenes of gore and fog. Those looking for a fast-paced horror flick should look elsewhere.
For those looking to branch out from their more Romero-centric zombie films, Lucio Fulci's work is a good place to start. Atmospheric, gory, and beautifully shot, City of the Living Dead is justifiably held as a high-water mark in Fulci's canon and zombie films in general. Thanks to Blue Underground, fans can enjoy the film in glorious high definition. With an amazing picture (given the film's budget and age), solid sound, and extras that paint of clear picture of the film's creation. Fans of Italy's horror flicks and zombie films should definitely consider picking this one up, even if you own the previous DVD editions.
Despite some flaws in the film's pacing, City of the Living Dead is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo and Poster Galleries
* Theatrical Trailer