City of the Living Dead Review

I remember when 28 Days Later came out and Internet geeks the world over were making a fuss about the concept of running zombies and how the rage infected creatures in said film couldn’t be zombies because of their agility. All I’ve got to say to that is: Running Zombies? Pah! Teleporting zombies is where the true terror lies, and Italian maestro Lucio Fulci had cottoned on to this way back in 1980 when he was looking to follow up the international success of Zombi 2 (AKA: Zombie Flesh Eaters) with his next tainted zombie opus: City of the Living Dead.

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The City in question is Dunwich, but the story starts in New York during a séance held by followers of the Book of Enoch where one member Mary Woodhouse has a vision so powerful the shock literally kills her dead! Well... For two days at least, after which she wakes up in a half-buried coffin at the local cemetery ready to be coincidentally rescued by Peter Bell, a journalist investigating her death. She tells Peter her vision was of Father William Thomas hanging himself in a cemetery which a tombstone states is in Dunwich, and it’s an act so sacrilegious that it opens the gates of hell under the ground where his body hanged. If those gates are not closed by the advent of All Saint’s Day on Monday, then on that day the dead will rise up from their graves and devour the Earth.

Meanwhile at Dunwich in the aftermath of Father William’s suicide, ominous occurrences are afoot and local psychiatrist Gerry is dragged into his own personal hell when murdered bodies start turning up all over town - starting with his lover Emily. His investigation leads him to believe the perpetrators of these crimes may not be ordinary livings souls, a feeling shared by his patient Sandra: an artist whose subconscious dread has become so palpable that she’s started to paint Rhinoceroses! (On a canvas obviously, she’s not sneaking into the Rhino pen at her local zoo and going to town with a can of emulsion as that’s probably a quicker way to get yourself killed than fighting a horde of zombies!)

The fate of mankind rests in the hands of these two couples, who will meet IN THE CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD!! MUWAHAHAHAHA........... HA!

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City of the Living Dead

is generally considered to be the weakest of Fulci’s Zombie themed classics from the three year period between 1979 – 1982 in which he produced his most Internationally successful films:- namely Zombi 2, The Beyond, and House By the Cemetery. It’s not hard to see why, it isn’t very well written and the budget and ergo: scale is very modest even for a cheap Italian production from the early 80s, plus in many ways the story feels like a dry rehearsal for the themes and stylistic touches Fucli would expand more memorably upon in The Beyond a year later. However, to me City of the Living Dead is more than just the sum of its modest parts, for it retains a cheese factor so strong it gives the film a certain charm that isn’t quite so endearing in other Fulci works.

The characteristics that made Fulci’s films so memorable are all in this film, only some are distinctly more subdued here while others are more tangible – not least of which is the dreamlike feel brought on by a complete lack of narrative and character cohesion. The Beyond for instance has a half decent narrative with a strong backstory, but it flits in and out of logic at will. One example is a scene where a plumber arrives to assess would-be hotelier Liza’s flooded basement and she introduces him to her housekeeper Emily, who for no apparent reason always has a anxious sweaty facade. Anyway, they stare at each other like they’re complicit in something that will prove significant to the plot, but this is something that never actually materialises so you’re left wondering just what the hell that scene was supposed to have meant. In The Beyond that “WTF” feeling is generally fleeting, but City of the Living Dead’s narrative and characterisation are both so slight and irrational that you pretty much have this trippy, logically stupefied feeling from almost beginning to end.

When that end does come you almost feel the need to psychoanalyse parts of the film to try and make sense of them, much like you would a waking dream; but ultimately this feeling is overshadowed by the distinct impression that Fulci and fellow scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti just didn’t think things through at all. This hazy nonsensicality can be incredibly fun or annoyingly vague depending on your inclination as a viewer. My inclination is apparently towards the former as I found myself laughing out loud at intentionally serious moments far more in this film than any of Fulci’s other classics. Unintentional humour aside, City of the Living Dead’s narrative is bland and workmanlike, but it does at least plod along at a solid and continuous pace like the beating drum in Fabio Frizzi’s effective, minimalistic score. That score and every other aspect of the film really come into their own in the big finale; when the location of the portal into hell is discovered and Fulci’s direction is at its most stylish and lively, building up into a final shot that is perplexingly ambiguous. Massimo Antonello Geleng also deserves a lot of credit for some sterling set design.

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Another major element of Fulci’s horrors – in fact THE major element – is his brutal and graphic depiction of violence and gore, which he achieves with achingly prolonged takes that keep the camera transfixed on the whole bloody matter at hand - his very own Ludovico technique if you will. Fans of these films will tell you that the splatter “money shots” are where most of the fun of these films lie, so one of the reasons City of the Living Dead hasn’t been remembered as well as the likes of House By the Cemetery is that it’s actually relatively low on those kind of shots by Fulci’s usual standards.

It has its moments though - chief among them being a sequence where a woman is mesmerised into spewing up her entrails and another where a man’s face is graphically shown being shoved into the business end of a large power drill - but really there’s very little in here to grant the film it’s 18 certificate, let alone justify it taking 21 years to finally find a release uncut by the BBFC! Most of the nastiness is for gross-out purposes and are unintentionally comical; you have one girl being killed early on when a zombie smothers a mixture of what can only be described as blackcurrant jam and earthworms into her face. Obviously she’s never seen an episode of Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival or else she’d know that’s an excellent source of protein in a deliciously fruity base! The rest of the zombies in the film are happy to take people out with a manoeuvre I call the Zombie Claw: a grip so powerful it would make a Vulcan weep!

It’s comic book nonsense, which is why at the very least you can say City of the Living Dead has got a strong enough mixture of cheese and grand guignol to make it an enjoyable enough beer and pizza film. If you phone your friends and tell them to pop round ready to poke fun at what they’re going to watch, it will not disappoint. Watch it on your own in the middle of the night however, and its shortcomings will no doubt be felt more acutely.

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Presentation

I was still an infant back in 1980 when City of the Living Dead came out and I can’t really claim to be particularly knowledgeable on the subject of Italian splatter films either, so I can’t really offer any insight into the ongoing debate about whether Fulci shot City of the Living Dead in 16mm or not. What I can do is simply state what I see up on my screen when watching this 1080p AVC encoded offering from Arrow Video, and that is a transfer which isn’t very sharp, lacks fine detail and is writhing in so much noise that more detail is further sapped away, so stunning 1080p HD clarity isn’t exactly going to be this disc’s selling point. Mid-to-long shots look very fuzzy and indistinct but close shots fare much better, with less heavy grain and more detail - certainly more than what you’ll probably get on Arrow’s DVD counterpart. It’s not just detail that takes a hit from the sheer amount of grain though, the AVC compression has a reasonably high bitrate averaging 30Mbps but it too struggles to render the grain fully in places and digital noise is certainly an issue, in fact for my money it is the main issue.

In other areas the image is quite stark; brightness levels can fluctuate wildly as we jump from bright, often over-exposed and foggy daytime exterior shots to the low lighting conditions in night time exteriors, so expect dramatic swings in brightness and low shadow detail, but people more familiar with how City of the Living Dead has looked in its various incarnations over the years may consider the brightness levels to be higher than what they’re used to. Contrast is also a touch high at times, but generally seems quite solid. The colour scheme is rather muted as City of the Living Dead has a rather cool palette with lots of blue lighting and hazy colours that can look quite indistinct, as if they were bled into the image. Skin tones are a touch pallid but feel natural enough, and the print itself is impressively clean with just the odd nicks and scratches popping up - although there is a shot near the start which looks like some fine dust or perhaps blotches of liquid appear on the print, and a shot in the finale sees what looks like a tiny coil of thread or wire appear right at the top of the frame briefly.

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Now here’s where I say “The thing is....”. The thing is... this IS after all an old ultra-low budget splatter flick from a director deliberately going for a dreamlike feel, so you have filming conditions that aren’t going to lend themselves well to a digital HD release 30yrs down the line. It seems like diffusion filters have been used throughout so that could explain some of the softness issues in certain shots, but another important point to consider is that IF City of the Living Dead wasn’t actually shot on 16mm then maybe it would have been shot in a cost-effective 35mm format like Techniscope (and it's a big IF - read Chris Cooke's comments in the section below the review), which Fulci used on other films over that time period. Techniscope was a 2-perf format, so like 16mm it also had to be blown up by an optical printer to create 35mm release prints. So forget about whether it was shot in 16mm or 35mm, the optical blow up process would have introduced a load of noise and reduced the sharpness anyway, and that may be why City of the Living Dead looks the way it does on this release.

There are a plethora of audio options on the disc, half of which are completely redundant but there you go. We have the original English audio in DTS-HD MA 7.1, DTS-HD MA 5.1, DD2.0 Stereo, and DD1.0 Mono. The immediate question that came to my mind when viewing the Set Up menu was: Who in their right mind would ever want a 7.1 remaster of City of the Living Dead? It’s overkill, pure and simple - and unsurprisingly there’s pretty much nothing to separate the 7.1 and 5.1 tracks, so I’ll talk about them as one track here. Moaning about the options aside, the 7.1/5.1 audio tracks sound very smooth and are impressively clean with solid bass levels and clear and audible dialogue. Naturally there are some elements to the sound that still sound a little raw - like sound effects that exhibit some tearing - but you really would have to be quite picky to not be pleased with how fresh the track sounds. Purists can be reassured that the surround mix is suitably subtle with only ambient sounds being relegated to the rears, although there are a couple of more aggressive set pieces where the rears spring to life.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track sounds pretty darn close to its lossless counterparts; it has a lower volume level and is perhaps just a touch less expressive, but the rears are pretty much the same only it’s your amplifier doing the separation. If you are a strong enough purist to not be enticed by the remastered surround tracks then you have the (sadly, lossy) English DD1.0 Mono option with the audio centred solely in front, which offers a pretty good sonic presentation in its own right - sounding just a little rougher round the edges compared to the surround tracks.

Sadly there are no subtitle options on the disc, so it’s tough luck if you’re hard of hearing or just want to make sure you’re hearing some of the film’s dodgy dialogue right!

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Extras

If you count the audio commentaries then there is just over six and a half hours of extra material on this disc, which should be more than enough to satisfy the most zealous of splatter fans. Let’s go through them:

Please Note: Unless otherwise stated, all featurettes and interviews are presented in HD with English DD2.0 audio and no subtitles.

Commentary with Giovanni Lombardo Radice & Calum Waddell
Exploitation film expert Calum Waddell moderates this discussion with Giovanni Lombardo Radice, whose acting CV reads like a shortlist of the most notorious Italian splatter films of the 1980s. He’s also the guy who gets his face drilled out in City of the Living Dead, so he’s never short of a topic to discuss in this commentary: be it his time working with Lucio Fulci or the work he did with numerous other iconic directors. He certainly doesn’t mince his words about certain people in the industry so this has the information and the bitchiness to make for a fun commentary track, but Giovanni does reveal a lot of information here that he repeats in some of the featurettes elsewhere on the disc.

Commentary with Catriona MacColl & Jay Slater
This time we have Fulci’s favourite horror leading lady: Catriona MacColl with another horror/cult film expert: Jay Slater along to moderate. Catriona’s memory of City of the Living Dead’s shoot is a little hazy in places but it is a whole lot more vivid than Giovanni Lombardo Radice’s - which is understandable given she did have one of the film’s main roles – and so this is much more illuminating on the topic of City of the Living Dead. Like Giovanni, Catriona comes across as a remarkably direct and honest person with no delusions of grandeur about the films she starred in or Fulci himself, but unlike Giovanni she reveals a lot of memories here that are not in her individual interview elsewhere on this disc, so you may want to make sure you check this track out.

Introduction by Carlo De Majo (00m:36s, 1080i)
As the title implies this is a very brief introduction to the film by main star Carlo De Majo, it plays before the film automatically and isn’t playable from the Extras menu.

Theatrical Trailer (03m:00s, 1080p)
Much like the feature film you have a plethora of audio options that you choose before the trailer starts, you have English: DD1.0, DD2.0. DTS-HD 7.1, DTS-HD 5.1, and Italian: DD1.0 & DD2.0.

Fulci in the House – The Italian Master of Splatter (17m:50s, 576i)
The only Standard-Def extra feature on the disc, this featurette is a rather brief look at the late director’s career with input from the likes of Joe Dante, Lloyd Kaufman, Sergio Stivaletti, and Fangoria editor Anthony Timpone. At just under 18minutes it’s not nearly long enough to properly examine the appeal and legacy of Lucio Fulci, so it’s a little superficial and more of a feature for Fulci newcomers rather than hardcore fans.

Carlo of the Living Dead - Surviving Fulci Fear (17m:28s, 1080i)
We’re back with Carlo De Majo for his full interview, which as you’d expect focuses on the City of the Living Dead shoot and his memories of working with Fulci in general. This is a good natured interview as Carlo clearly has a lot of affection for the filmmaker and enjoyed his time on City of the Living Dead specifically.

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Dame of the Dead - Catriona MacColl Returns to the City (24m:51s, 1080i)

Like in her commentary Catriona proves to be a very frank and down to earth interviewee so she’s not nearly as gushing as Carlo De Majo about her time on the film or Lucio Fulci himself, but she does clearly respect the director. As a result this is a much more fascinating and insightful interview, probably the best on the disc.

Fulci's Daughter - Memories of the Italian Gore Maestro (27m:34s, 1080i)
A pretty long chat with Antonella Fulci that may be appreciated more by Fulci aficionados for its detail on more personal aspects of his life and the various relationships he forged within the industry.

Penning Some Paura - Dardano Sacchetti Remembers City of the Living Dead (18m:12s, 1080i)
An interview with prolific screen writer Dardano Sacchetti, who has writing credits on many classic horror films and worked with Lucio Fulci on a number of his most famous films, including City of the Living Dead. It’s interesting enough, but not quite as engaging as some of the other interviews on this disc.

This is also the first interview to be recorded in Italian with burnt in English subtitles, but one thing worth mentioning is that the Italian DD2.0 audio appears to have been mixed wrong because all the dialogue comes out the rear speakers. It’s a little off-putting at first but no major problem.

Profondo Luigi -: A Colleague's Memories of Lucio Fulci (16m:59s, 1080i)
The Luigi in question is Luigi Cozzi, director of films like The Killer Must Kill Again, Contamination, and the Italian rip off of Star Wars: Starcrash. He gives a cracking, heavily-anecdotal interview where he reminisces about that golden period for schlock Italian Zombie films during the late 70s/early 80s and all the filmmakers working in close proximity to each other back then. Like the Sacchetti interview this is also conducted in Italian with burnt in English subs and the same rear-centric glitch in the Italian DD2.0 mix.

Live From the Glasgow Theatre (24m:47s, 1080i)
Footage of the Q&A session held with Catriona MacColl and Giovanni Lombardo Radice after a recent screening of City of the Living Dead at the Glasgow Film Theatre on March 13th 2010. Moderated by Calum Waddell, this is one of the best features on the disc as Giovanni Lombardo Radice is clearly in his element in front of a live audience and is at his most charismatic. Both he and Catriona seem like peas from the same pod and it’s surprising how similar their respective backgrounds were (both were training to be ballet dancers before injury pushed them towards acting) or that they’d never met before being brought together for that screening (obviously they had no scenes together in City of the Living Dead).

The Many Lives (and Deaths) of Giovanni Lombardo Radice (50m:26s, 1080i)
It’s perhaps fitting that this is the most substantial interview on the disc given the number of fondly remembered roles and iconic death scenes Radice has performed. Again like Catriona MacColl, Radice is as honest and engaging in his interview as he was during his commentary, and talks at length about his time working with Fulci and the rest of his career. Naturally, there’s not a tremendous amount of information here that you won’t have heard in Radice’s commentary or in the Q&A session, but he does discuss his work for other directors more intensively and has lots more harsh words for Cannibal Ferox and Umberto Lenzi in particular.

Gallery of the Living Dead (03m:55s, 1080p)
A video reel of various City of the Living Dead production stills alongside a good amount of theatrical posters and home video covers from all over the world.

Overall

City of the Living Dead

may not have the widespread recognition (and conversely criticism) as some of Lucio Fulci’s other gore-strewn horror films, but it’s cheesy enough in the right way and gory enough in its own way to merit a solid recommendation from this casual Fulci fan. Arrow Video have put together a very impressive package to sell the film to the non-Fulci nuts who are less inclined to take the plunge. You have strong audiovisual presentation combined with an exhausting amount of extras that will reveal much about the film, the man who made it, and the charismatic performers who starred in it.

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Film
6 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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