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City of the Living Dead (Blu-ray)

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Paura nella città dei morti viventi
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Directed by: 
Lucio Fulci
Catriona MacColl
Christopher George
Carlo De Mejo
Giovanni Lombardo Radice
Michele Soavi
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 Lucio Fulci’s Paura nella città dei morti viventi, or “Fear in the City of the Living Dead” as its full English title translates, becomes the next horror classic to receive the full, deluxe, super-duper high definition package from the amazing Arrow Video, and once again they've done an outstanding job - scrubbing away thirty odd (very odd!) years of murk and grime from this most charming Italian-made receptacle of maggoty delights and shining it up all spick and span  - ready for a whole new generation of fans to get their brains squeezed and their guts puked up as they acquaint themselves with the cruel and bewildering world of Italy’s premier gore master for the first time; while the rest of us can only marvel at the piercing levels of clarity newly revealed in the images of demonic nastiness therein.

Once again, Arrow aren't content with giving us just the very best home viewing presentation this once-derided ’video nasty’ has ever received, but have jam-packed it with exclusive extras and wrapped the whole thing in lovely colourful packaging, too: we get four sleeve art options, a double-sided poster, six postcards and a newly commissioned booklet (“Fulci of the Living Dead”) full off exclusive new interviews conducted by Calum Waddell - in which Sergio Stivaletti (“Wax Mask”), Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Fulci and Ian McCulloch (“Zombie Flesh Eaters”) contribute to an in-depth career retrospective of the famously grumpy old Italian master of gut-mince and gore himself. This is eye-bleeding-ly good stuff!

“City of the Living Dead” was the follow-up to the Fulci-directed splatter classic “Zombie 2”, producer Fabrizio De Angelis’ cash-in on the Italian success of George A. Romero and Dario Argento’s “Dawn of the Dead”. Ironically, the Italian film became an even bigger success in the U.S. and led to Lucio finding himself at the helm again for this: ostensibly a cash-in on his own previous zombie-based rip-off, with co-backing from U.S. producer Robert E. Warner and infamous Italian exploitation merchant Giovanni Masini with filming divided between the U.S for the exteriors and Rome for the interiors. The film subsequently became the first informal entry in what became known as The Gates of Hell Trilogy. For the other two films in the trilogy, production duties reverted to De Angelis, but a preponderance of actors and technical crew spanning at least two of the three (particularly the sterling work of cinematographer Sergio Salvati, who lensed all of them) helps give the films a unity in appearance and general approach.

Lucio Fulci was the quintessential Everyman of Italian cinema; learning his craft in the fifties, he proceeded to experience some degree of success with a whole slew of genres from comedies and musicals to adventure films and Hitchcockian thrillers; he was a proficient exponent of the craft of film-making who evidently did not see himself as much of an auteur. Sporadic ventures into the world of the giallo resulted in several highly regarded and beautifully crafted examples of this most Italian of genres during the ‘70s, but the director is revered and derided in equal measure thanks to his work in the horror/exploitation market during the boom years of the early eighties.

Fulci may not have been drawn to horror out of any deep passion in the way Dario Argento or his protégé Michele Soavi were for instance, but his films -  particularly the immeasurably influential Gates of Hell Trilogy - have a unique quality which combines dreamlike narrative irrationality, an almost prurient regard for festering images of extreme unpleasantness and an overriding atmosphere of pessimism and hopelessness.

While Romero made fantasy horror films, they were still usually grounded in at least a semblance of the real world, with taut narratives and a logical coherence always discernable in the structure underpinning their fantastical nature. Fulci’s zombie films, on the other hand, are steeped in notions of supernatural dread, a theme ripped from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft - a body of work for which the Catholic-raised and self-declared Marxist Fulci had some high regard. Furthermore, the zombies in Fulci’s films are often so worm-riddled and skeletal in form that they can barely be said to be human beings at all, and are held together more by muck and cobwebs than any scant remains of decaying ancient flesh that might still be left clinging to their desiccated shuffling frames! These are expressions of supernatural terror animated by illogical, irrational forces that cannot be understood or defeated through the rituals usually prominently fore-grounded in western horror: it is this fundamental difference to most other cinematic manifestations of the zombie in cinema which lends Fulci’s films something of  a kinship with Japanese supernatural horror films, in which vengeful spirits wronged in life, wreak a horrible vengeance on anyone unfortunate enough to stumble upon them, and whose malign influence cannot be assuaged through any rational means.

“City of the Living Dead” starts off as though things might just make a lick of sense if we tried hard enough, when a detective turns up at the New York residence of a bubble-permed psychic, to investigate the death in mysterious circumstances of a trance medium called Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl). Determined to make sense of the events, the detective is, however, thoroughly ridiculed by the psychic, who tells him that he’s wasting his time trying to understand such things and that everything that needs to be known is contained in the prophecies of the four thousand year-old Book of Enoch. Mary dropped dead from fright after making psychic contact, during a group séance, with a priest called Father William Thomas, at the precise moment he hanged himself from a tree in Dunwich cemetery in New England. This act of sacrilege has opened up the Gates of Hell, and, as All Souls’ day approaches, the dead are set to pour forth and claim the Earth from the living. The detective isn't too impressed by such sonorous declarations, but unholy moaning noises from some intangible source accompanied by a ball of flame that hangs in mid-air, is enough to send him scurrying, perplexed and confused from the flat and, indeed, from the rest of the film! This will be the last time anyone is so foolish as to attempt to understand what the heck is supposed to be going on in this film.

Meanwhile in Dunwich itself, the patrons of Junie’s Lounge are a hardened weather-worn lot, descended from Salem witch persecutors. They hardly bat an eyelid when a mirror in the bar shatters on it own and one of the walls cracks open emanating a strange fog. Other strange events are happening and soon people are disappearing or dying of extreme fear … or just puking up their entrails and getting their brains ripped out of the back of their heads by moaning teleporting zombies! Back in New York, journalist Peter Bell (Christopher George) visits the freshly dug grave of Mary Woodhouse only to hear screams of terror emerge from the casket just as it’s about to be interred. He rescues the restored-to-life-medium and together they set out for Dunwich, hoping to close the Gates of Hell before midnight on All Souls’ day.

Other persons become involved in the increasingly weird events; principally a psychiatrist (Carlo De Mejo) and one of his clients (Janet Agren) who is plagued by a corpse of an old woman that keeps appearing and disappearing on her kitchen floor, accompanied by various poltergeist manifestations: knockings, moaning and walls that seep blood. Also, little John-John Robbins (Luca Paisner) sits alone in his bedroom stuffed full of giant cuddly toys (??), in mourning for the horrific death of his older sister Emily (Antonella Interlenghi), who got chocked to death on wormy mush after it was ground into her face by the zombie-ghost of Father Thomas, only to witness his dear-departed sister materialise in the guise of a pizza-faced zombie creature who peers in at him through his bedroom window. Even worse, she kills and eats their parents right in front of him!

This grimy Gothic masterpiece obviously owes much to Italy’s horror heritage; we can surely see the influence of Mario Bava’s “Operazione Paura” in the ghostly face in the window described above, and Bava’s hand can also be felt in such elements as the mortician who steals trinkets and jewellery from the coffins of his deceased clients - an idea that recalls the “Drop of Water” segment from “Black Sabbath”. Perhaps it isn’t all that far fetched to look for the influence of Hammer Films in the strange undead manifestation of Father Thomas, who appears at various points throughout the film, but particularly at the end, lit from below looking much like Christopher Lee in numerous Hammer Dracula sequels. Though the Gothic is an important part of Fulci’s Gates of Hell Trilogy, and although, like the work of Bava - which exuded a deep cynicism with regard to human nature - there is a great dark cloud of pessimism hanging over the films, not many other horror directors’ work dwells in quite such lingering, obsessive detail on the processes and results of violent death, and the decay and the rot that accompanies its aftermath. 

“City of the Living Dead” is one of the best (if that’s the right word) manifestations of Fulci’s twin obsession with both the corporal physicality - the ugliness which is part of the nature of the process of death - and the existential dread that accompanies the subject’s consideration. Scenes set inside Dunwich’s funeral home, Moriarty & Sons, express Fulci’s dark, cynical humour on the subject when we see the film’s creepy mortician move from ‘comforting’ the parents and younger brother of the murdered Emily, to draining her corpse of blood in the next room and applying a garish streak of red lipstick to its immobile features in a sad, necrophilic mockery of her previous sexual allure. A subplot involving the unfortunate character ‘Bob’ (Giovanni Lomardo Radice) is perhaps the film’s most pertinent example of this deep well of disgust mixed with dread which exists at the core of Fulci’s horror ouvre: this hoplesss, despised, semi-mute character lives in a dilapidated shack accompanied by what appears to be a decomposing, worm-infested infant. The descendents of witch burners who live in this sandblasted derilict wasteland of a town suspect him of all manner of crimes; the fact that his dead mother had been hounded as a woman of loose morals, and also probably for suspected witchery, means this is yet another example of the age-old Biblical/Gothic theme of the sins of the elders being visited upon the children. Bob is given probably one of the cruellest, most unnecessary death scenes in horror cinema history and there is no doubt that we the audience sympathise with his plight; but it’s completely in keeping with Fulci and his perverse double standards that Bob’s murder - a drilling through the head on a lathe drill - is carried out  and dwelt upon by the camera in such unbelievably vivid and prurient detail - savouring and almost celebrating every last horror-struck gasp and visceral blood-spewing second of the character’s painful demise.

Death is sudden yet always horrific for all of the characters in “City of the Living Dead” and if you don’t die quickly you’re certain to have your face rubbed in it (literally!). The fractured narrative gradually draws together a core group of surviving characters as the moment of reckoning draws near; but before then we’ve seen eyes weep tears of blood, internal organs vomited up accompanied by the most grotesque retching sound-effects imaginable, a storm of sticky maggots clinging to the faces of our distressed protagonists, brains ripped out and bar-room bullies eaten by a re-animated zombie Bob - much of it accompanied by the ever-catchy orchestrated euro-synth score of the great Fabio Frizzi. A clammy cobwebbed crypt full of flaming skeleton zombies in dirty rags provides a climax in which only a few of our protagonists survive, but Fulci saves his last shock for the very final seconds of the film when, although it appears that all the horrors of Hell have been averted, he somehow manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in one of the most bewilderingly incoherent and ambiguous endings to any movie outside of Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.           

"City of the Living Dead" has never previously looked all that good compared to his other films from the eighties, even on DVD. It has always looked by far the worst out of them, with muddy prints and a large amount of grain usually giving the whole viewing experience a dark and murky feel. The truth is that there were a lot of problems with poor film stock during the making of the film itself; indeed, it's this fact which has often been rumoured to have been the cause of the strange and rather baffling 'unfinished' quality to the film's final scenes. Certainly a lot of exterior shots look rather over-exposed, and given all these past problems, I actually wasn't expecting too much from the new high definition  Blu-ray transfer, co-financed via a collaboration between Blue Underground and Arrow Video. Which is why I was blown away by just what they have managed to achieve here!

The film actually starts off looking pretty poor (it always has!): thanks to the use of a huge amount of dry ice, which appears in an awful lot of exterior shots in Savanna Georgia during this film, the opening graveyard sequence appears washed-out and bathed with a swarm of excessive grain. About five minutes or so in though, the transfer seems to shoot up several notches in quality, displaying a vividness of colour and a level of detail I would have scarcely believed possible. I certainly don't believe that the  film will ever look any better than it does here. This is surely going to be the final stop on this film's long journey in the home viewing medium (famous last words, I know!) That's not to say you should expect the perfection of a modern film transfer by any means. But the jump in quality here is actually greater than the move from VHS to DVD by a long mile in my opinion - you will never before have seen the film look this good, period. 

The audio options only add to the new richness of the viewing experience. The Blu-ray owner is presented with a smorgasbord of audio options including:  7.1 DTS-HD Surround Sound; 5.1 DTS-HD Surround Sound; 2.0 Dolby Stereo and the original 1.0 Dolby Mono. Hell, even the theatrical trailer sends you to a sub-menu when you click on it, where you'll be presented with a bewildering six audio options: English Dolby Digital Mono; English Dolby Digital Stereo; English DTS-HD 5.1 Surround Sound; English DTS-HD 7.1 Surround Sound; Italian Dolby Digital Mono and Italian Dolby Digital Stereo! ... Phew!!  

Arrow Video have excelled themselves once again when it comes to the extras on this disc: it's packed to bursting point with a humongous set of featurettes and documentaries and commentaries that are completely exclusive to this UK release! Take a deep breath ... it's going to be along time before we come up for air again!

Fulci In The House:

We start quietly, with the least of the extras: a short featurette originally produced for the Arrow Video DVD release of "The House by the Cemetery" last year. It is a narrated overview of Lucio Fulci's career with talking head contributions from Joe Dante, Lloyd Kaufman (?) and ex editor of Fangoria, Tony Timpone. Naturally there is more emphasis on Fulci's work in the Horror genre during the '80s and the censorship controversies it resulted in than other areas. Although it is hard to see exactly what Troma boss Kaufman is doing here; he seems a bit confused and not too up on the UK's Video Nasty controversy when asked to comment on it. Timpone has some nice anecdotes about Fulci's participation in the New York Fangoria convention where, shortly before he died, the ailing grandfather of gore was finally exposed to the love of US Horror fans and was touched, and no doubt just a little bewildered, by their total devotion to his legacy.

Carlo of the Living Dead:

One of a small repertory company of Fulci film regulars during the eighties, the aged Italian actor Carlo De Mejo gives a nice little presentation lasting about seventeen minutes, on the subject of his recollections of working with Lucio during this strange period in the director's career. He also provides a short introduction which appears at the start of the film. 

Dame of the Dead:

The still stunning and extremely articulate Catriona MacColl gives a very engaging account of her work on the Gates of Hell trilogy lasting about 24 minutes, relaying once again how she took the role offered her on "City of the Living Dead" despite the fact that the characters and the script lacked depth, because her agent advised her it would be a cheap way to spend time in Rome and New York and in any case - quote: ' no one's ever going to see it anyway!'  MacColl admits to leaving these films off her CV for years, which is understandable when you think of the reputation they had in the mainstream media at the time; it's hard to credit it now, but they were actually considered dangerous. These day MacColl seems much more reconciled to her role in their creation, and is full of praise for 'the mystery of Fulci' which is at the heart of their enduring appeal to horror fans.

Fulci's Daughter: Memories of the Italian Gore Master:

Antonella Fulci considers herself a champion of her father's work and gives a lovely account here of growing up around Italian film sets and being given his scripts to read when she was a little girl. Her first experience on a set was watching Florinda Bolkan being whipped with chains in a graveyard for "Don't Torture a Duckling", and one of the scripts she was given to read was "The House by the Cemetery"! Antonella talks about her dad's attitude to Dario Argento and the mini 'feud' that erupted when Argento tried to sue him for the use of the title "Zombie 2" in the wake of the release of Argento's cut of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead", which was re-titled "Zombie" by Argento in Italy. Fulci sent Argento a letter listing every film with the word 'zombie' in the title and suggesting that he sue them as well! Elsewhere, Antonella gives a pretty definitive statement on exactly what makes "City of the Living Dead" one of her father's best films and certainly one of her favourite ones, which would be pretty difficult to better for its insight and clarity. (27 mins)

Penning Some Paura:

Dardano Sacchetti gives some fascinating background on how "City of the Living Dead" came to be written in the wake of the success of "Zombie: Flesh Eaters", with Fulci's love of H.P Lovecraft becoming Sacchetti's kick-off point for penning the strange, dreamlike screenplay. Sacchetti claims that Fulci changed the script as he shot, and it is this that accounts for the film's almost completely nonsensical plot; although it is worth pointing out that some dispute this account of the matter. For instance, Antonella Fulci claims there were only four pages of script completed when the film began shooting. Still, this is a valuable little monolog which is mainly concerned with Sacchetti relating his opinion on Fulci's attitude to his films. It's probably to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it's a great addition nonetheless.

Profondo Luigi: A Colleague's Memories of Lucio Fulci:

Luigi Cozzi speaks - as always - from the Profondo Rosso shop in Rome, about his recollections of the period in which Fulci's zombie films were made. It is mainly an account of that time in Italian film-making, with Cozzi relating that, aside form the works of Dario Argento, horror films were never really that popular in Italy and were primarily made for overseas markets. There is another account of the Argento-Fulci 'feud' with more emphasis on their reconciliation just before Fulci's death when Argento planned to produce a remake of "The Mummy" with Fulci as the director. This project later become "Wax Mask", but Fulci died before the film went into production. 

Q&A Session at the Glasgow Film Theatre:

This is a great little 25 minute extra featuring Catriona MacCall and Giovanni Lombardo Radice fielding questions from the audience after a screening of the film, moderated by Calum Waddell. A jovial atmosphere of good-natured bonhomie radiates from the screen, here. When asked what made them both want to become actors, each is surprised to learn that they both have exactly the same answer: they both wanted to be ballet dancers but were forced to give up after an injury. Neither is a fan of the horror genre, it seems. But both are happy if slightly bemused to find themselves legendary figures in the cult Horror community.

The Many Lives and Deaths of Giovanni Lombardo Radice:

This film is blessed to have so many articulate and good-natured people involved in the making of it; Radice provides what just may be the highlight of the extras, here, with a comprehensive look back at his career in the exploitation and cult Italian Horror industry. He gives a wonderful insight into not just "City of the Living Dead" but every major Italian exploitation piece he's had a part in, citing his own problems with anorexia and his slightly neurotic and fragile nature when a young man as the reason he was drawn to playing so many victims in these sorts of films. A brief overview of his early career in stage acting and directing leads onto a cavalcade of anecdotes and remembrances from each of the cult classics he's been involved with from "The House at the Edge of the Park" to "Cannibal Ferox", a film for which he seems to have nothing but contempt. He does little to enhance Umberto Lenzi's already dubious reputation with his account of the director's efforts to force him to kill a live pig on screen, despite his insistence beforehand that he would never do such a thing! The shoot for that film sounds like an absolute nightmare, and Radice is not overly keen on his own  performance in the film, either. Radice gives an amusing account of Fulci's diabolical behaviour towards actors, but claims they mostly deserved it, and that it was all part of a calculated policy on the Gore Master's part. Radice also has good things to say about "City ..." co-star Michele Soavi and the difference between him and many of the old-guard directors such as Fulci, who did not have a particularly deep love for the Horror genre but worked in all types of movies, seeing the whole thing as just another job.

Commentaries: 1: Giovanni Lombardo Radice (with Calum Waddell);

2: Catriona MacColl (with Jay Slater)

The amusing Giovanni Lombardo Radice returns for yet more juicy anecdotes and on-set gossip. Things get off to a cracking start  when, over the opening scene in which Father Thomas hangs himself from a tree, Radice casually ruminates upon the subject of suicide, mentioning to a somewhat flustered-sounding Calum Waddell that he thinks about it a lot and that hanging himself might be the best way to go! From this moment on you know you're going to be in for an interesting listen, to say the least. From here on we encounter tales of marmalade-assisted zombie make-up attracting wasps and wild trips while dressed as a zombie and smoking pot with his unruly young co-star Antonella Interlenghi. Calum Waddell provides some amusing moments as well, especially when he happens to mention that he saw Michele Soavi's "Stage Fright" when he was nine and "An American Werewolf in London" when he was four years old! Starting young has clearly resulted in his being able to ask a few pertinent questions though, and helps ensure Radice is able to supply plenty of info and anecdotes about a whole host of subjects, not just related to this film either.

Over on the second commentary, we have Catriona MacColl recorded in 2001, with Jay Slater moderating. MacColl keeps the anecdotes and memories coming although it is clear that, at the time this commentary was recorded, she was slightly less reconciled to her cult status than she has learned to become since. She talks about accepting the role and of how it seemed to her that Fulci was enormously respected by his peers in the Italian film industry at the time and that she attended dinner parties with him where she would met the likes of Fellini, who all thought Lucio was a great talent. The whole Video Nasty label was a great source of embarrassment to her in later years, in the light of this! She hates violence in movies but admits that many respected directors she has worked with since, turn out to be great fans of her films when they realise who she is. It's a chatty and interesting insight into the evolution of a cult star, from her point of view, and moderator Jay Slater makes for a fun, flirty interlocutor for MacColl to bounce off. 

Little more needs to be said. If you've never previously seen this weird little film then you're in for a treat. Everyone else can expect a definitive presentation of a Fulci splatter classic. 

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