Horror hound that I've become in the last 10 years, I can't help but admit with shame that there are countless films that I should have already seen, but have either never gotten around to, or honestly never heard of. Throw in the fact that I no longer waste my time on DVD, and it makes for a tough time "catching up." It took the assignment of reviewing 'The New York Ripper' to truly get a sense of Lucio Fulci's disturbed sensibilities and vision, but it made an instant fan out of me, so you can imagine how I leapt at the opportunity to cover the next Fulci film, 'City of the Living Dead' ('Paura nella città dei morti viventi,' also known in the states as 'The Gates of Hell'). It combines the European sense of horror with my favorite subgenre, the living dead, along with a seriously perturbed and bizarre vibe that could only come from this particular director.
To cut to the point early: if you're either impatient, squeamish, or overly religious, this isn't the film for you. At all.
When a priest (Fabrizio Jovine as Father William Thomas) commits suicide in a cemetery, the gates of Hell are opened. A botched seance causes a participant (Catriona MacColl as Mary Woodhouse) to die of fright, only to revive just before her coffin is completely covered in dirt. She's had visions of what is to come, and is the key for humanity to shut the gates before the world is overrun by the spirits of the dead on All Saints Day. With reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) at her side, she seeks out the unmapped town of Dunwich, New England, built over the city of Salem (which, in reality, still exists), to find the tomb and body of Father Thomas and save the world. The inhabitants of Dunwich, particularly Gerry (Carlo De Mejo), Emily (Antonella Interlenghi), and John John Robbins (Luca Paisner)...let's just say they're having a small set of problems involving the recently deceased.
'City of the Living Dead' certainly isn't a standard zombie film. If anything, it could be classified more as a film about the occult. Sure, there are zombies, but these aren't your ordinary sluggish draggers. They're super strong and violent. They still feed, eating the living, but they seem to get a kick out of yanking off body parts. They levitate, slightly (in one scene), and most dangerously, they seem to be able to appear out of thin air. While they are the bodies of the deceased, and technically zombies, they're more possessed spirits, considering their powers. With all that in mind, there is no hiding place. The radio may tell you to stay indoors, and don't try to make for the freeway, but if they can get inside completely insulated and locked houses, you know you're utterly screwed.
Fulci creates an interesting tale that leaves much open to interpretation, creating nearly endless replay value, as one can create numerous theories about what is truly going on in the film. Why did the priest even commit suicide in the first place? Was he possessed? Why did Mary come back to life as a normal (non-zombie) person? Does Gerry's afro/beard make him related to Bob Ross, the painter of "happy little trees?" Did Bob actually do anything wrong, and was he possibly possessed? Were the other folks in Dunwich possessed, enticed to rash actions by a means other than fear?
What makes 'City of the Living Dead' even more of a hoot is the fact that it's pretty damn grisly, even by today's standards. No, it isn't like 'Hostel' by any means, but the undead are some pretty malicious sons of bitches here, as they have a tendency to rip brain and scalp straight off their victims. The spirit of Father Thomas creates some very peculiar scenes, including bleeding from the eyes (and yes, the tubes feeding the "blood" are visible each time), and one of the nastiest vomitting scenes in cinematic history. The drill scene is just foul and wrong in every way, and the fact that it's human on human makes it all the more awesome. It's a slow scene, as we inch closer and closer, in a "will they actually do it?!" moment that builds great tension.
And then, there's the ending. This review won't wander into spoiler territory too much, other than to say it's about as ambiguous as any horror film out there. We're left to figure out what truly happens after the final confrontation, as the survivors are approached by John John. There is no clear cut answer, and after doing some light digging, it appears there never really will be, since apparently some footage was accidentally destroyed, and this is just a stopgap finale, in a sense. Was the threat averted, or is it too late? Did the survivors realize they cannot go back to the land of the living? Is John John still human? This is one of those times where no one can truly be right or wrong...unless they think that it was all a dream sequence inspired by some serious, serious peyote.
'City of the Living Dead' isn't your straightforward zombie movie. It's all about tension, disturbing imagery, violence, and atmosphere, a foul and wretched atmosphere that is so ugly and cruel one can't help but be sucked into it. The ending has some amazing set work that is beyond creepy, and it doesn't even matter if there's no real tension in the scene, as the set itself brings the goods and sets the stage. With constant wind creating an offputting feeling, strange occurrences happening at an alarming rate, and random-as-hell moments that can truly be the stuff nightmares are made of, this film brings the goods at every turn. This is a must watch film for horror fanatics, period.
With an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p in the 1.85:1 frame native to the film, Blue Underground brings 'City of the Living Dead' to Blu-ray for the first time (concurrent with the Arrow release in the UK). The result is somewhat in line with the rest of the offerings from the distributor, very true to the source without much tampering. The entire film is coated with a super thick grain that adds a bit of character to the film without taking much detail away, really. That said, some noise issues pop up in conjunction with the grain, to create whites and blacks that have blue tints to them early in the film. Some shots have a super thick misty appearance that mutes colors completely, but that seems to be part of directorial intent. Skin tones are appropriate, save for the noise issue that is relatively short. There are a few remnants of dirt and some lines and scratches, but they're fairly insignificant. Delineation is a tad problematic, as the super inky blacks can crush at times. Additionally, some scenes are a tad blurry, just out of focus/soft, while the occasional spot of color is beyond fuzzy. The film looks good, particularly for its age. It just cannot and will not hold a candle to more modern fare.
Blue Underground gives 'City of the Living Dead' a few audio options, including the default DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix, a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track, as well as the original mono mix with a Dolby Digital track. One cannot expect amazing results with the audio, same as the video, but the job done here is quite worthy of praise. There's no crackle, pop, or hiss to be found, while dialogue retains fidelity and clarity throughout. Disturbing noises and howls hit every speaker, while the absolutely awesome Fabio Frizzi soundtrack hits the rears softly. Sadly, there isn't much bass to the soundtrack, considering its hefty thump, and it doesn't dominate like it rightfully should, considering its bad ass-ness. Ambience is tame, to be polite, but the whispering winds that haunt this film do kick up from time to time in every part of the room. Localization increases way late in the film, but it feels very gimmicky, as sounds leap around the room, moving in a manner that isn't very convincing (let's just say it's choppy, half-assed movement). I was pleasantly surprised by this track, even if it is pretty front heavy and lacking in real power.
While the pile of extras found on this release do cover a lot of ground, sometimes they retread familiar territory. Also, it cannot go without mention that the Arrow UK import of this film has a plethora of goodies not found here, including two audio commentaries!
Lucio Fulci films are fairly sparse on plot, and revolve around visuals and atmosphere. The combination works wonderfully here. Sure, 'City of the Living Dead' doesn't always "make sense," but it's an entertaining and fun trip through the macabre. Blue Underground's Blu-ray release sports average audio and video, and a pile of supplements that is utterly destroyed by those found in the Arrow release in the UK. As is, this one comes with the recommendation to give it a look, with the caveat that one should pick up the import edition if they really enjoy the film.