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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

City of the Living Dead (1980)

Paura nella città dei morti viventi.

To say that Lucio Fulci is the most revered Italian Cult icon of the decade is an understatement. His films have grown in popularity from year to year, back before the millennium there was only really one way of seeing his films here in the UK – via Dutch/Swedish company EC Entertainment. They released his most popular films, along with his not so popular later outings, on to the digital format in their widescreen and uncut glory that, at that point, was forbidden on British shores.

If you didn’t have the internet and a credit card then you were destined to endure the heinous Vipco releases that removed all of the glory and featured rather un-flattering Pan&Scan presentations! Now, those of us who grew up with Fulci in the 90’s were no stranger to these horrific bastardisations, as the VHS releases were almost identical, apart from these new versions boasting a unflattering box placed on the front that proclaimed the new DVD releases as the ‘Strong Version’ which meant that the BBFC had let some added gore into ‘em. This didn’t mean dick really.
As luscious as the EC versions were in comparison to the UK releases, better was just around the corner. Anchor Bay (US and UK), THE company for Cult movies in the early 2000’s, was about to unleash their Lucio Fulci collection which featured all the gore and once again gave us those lovely widescreen presentations. Grindhouse Releasing then went and dropped the ‘must have’ release for Fulci fans when they partnered with Anchor Bay to release The Beyond in a lovely tin set that still fetches high prices with collectors. His reputation has gone from strength to strength thanks to these companies' hard work, but there’s still more to be done.

Flash-forward to 2010 and we now have our first taste of Fulci on UK Blu-ray! Uncut with original aspect ratio intact and bursting with supplementary material! Gone is the BBFC tampering! Gone is the Pan&Scan! Gone are those pesky Vipco covers! In comes the hi-definition! What a difference a decade makes.

Now, City of the Living Dead has faired surprisingly well with the BBFC in comparison to other Fulci titles. Upon it’s initial release it was only cut for one scene of head-drilling ultra violence; but more were to come when it came to the video release; luckily, the DPP never targeted the film and it was the first Fulci title to be released uncut here in the UK back in 2001. That doesn’t mean it’s Fulci’s ‘lightest’ film though, for this holds its own in Fulci’s gross-out oeuvre.

The suicide of Father Thomas, in the small town of Dunwich, unlocks one of hell's gates, and supernatural deadites come back to feed on the living. During a séance, a Medium named Mary (Catriona MacColl) appears to drop dead from fright; journalist Peter (Christopher George) is intrigued by the case and visits her gravesite on the day of her burial, only to discover that Mary is still very much alive and already in a whole lot of trouble but is thankfully saved by Peter. According to the Book of Enoch, if the gateway isn’t closed by All Saints Day then it will remain open for eternity and the dead will continue to rise and feed on the living. So Mary and Peter head off in search of Dunwich and attempt to save the world, but Father Thomas and his minions aren’t going to make it easy…

The first of his celebrated trilogy of fright flicks to feature the lovely Catriona MacColl, City of the Living Dead is a true testament to the maestro’s ability to generate cold, claustrophobic atmosphere from simple set-ups. His love for the work of H.P. Lovecraft truly shows here, not with the small town terror (Dunwich!), but with the fog shrouded streets and the decrepit vaults in which humanity fends off the otherworld; the only thing that would make this film more Lovecraftian would be to have the Freudstein residence, from House by the Cemetery, smack in the town’s centre!

The story is threadbare, a valid criticism that can be launched at the majority of Fulci’s output, but we aren’t interested in the film for it’s groundbreaking story arc, what we want is for the dead to rise-up and feed on the living in various graphic displays of grand-guignol bloodshed – and that’s where the film delivers. From the infamous head-drilling scene to the regurgitation of real sheep entrails, there’s something here to upset, or mildly unbalance, the stomach of the most hardened of gorehounds. However, that’s not to say the film is a full throttle splatter-fest, nay, it’s a slow paced little piece that acts very much like the supernatural forces attempting to end humanity: sporadic, grimy, unsettling and at times frightening but ultimately endearing!

After the success of Zombi 2 (Zombie Flesh Easters), Fulci found himself pigeonholed as a director who could churn out a half decent horror flick on time and within a limited budget, the fact that he was able to do it time-after-time during this golden age really does demonstrate the mans genius, he has given Cult cinema numerous films that will remain genre favourites amongst the ever-growing number of fans. It’s only fitting that his catalogue be given such deluxe treatment on the home media format – once branded a hack, the man is slowly starting to be seen for the original talent he was, maverick in his exploits, legendary, or infamous, to all who met him and inspiring to all who appreciates his style of cinema.

The new release from Arrow Video is a thing of beauty; the 1080p presentation is a revelation when compared to previous releases from Vipco, Anchor Bay and Blue Underground. The film has always had a grainy aura about it, which adds to the atmosphere, so it’s great that the presentation still contains an amount for the nostalgic out there, but they have cleaned the print up beautifully and trumps the best DVD release the film received from Another World Entertainment. Then there are the extras…

The set is a strong tribute to Fulci, more so than the film in question, but also to the people who worked with him. The disc is brimmed with interviews with likeable colleagues of Fulci and even a family member. There are interviews with Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo, Luigi Cozzi, Giovanni Lombardo Radici and finally Antonella Fulci; the centre piece being a fifty minute career-spanning interview with Radici that covers the many deaths he’s undergone during his exploitation career! Most enjoyable however was Carlo De Mejo who remains a very passionate and charismatic chap whose love for the film and Fulci really shows.

The interviews are all greatly entertaining and each has a glossy approach, the animated introductions are classic and the little snippets from films that occur through-out add additional humour that will crack a smile in the hardest of fans faces. There’s also a trailer for the film, a booklet written by Calum Waddell, 6 postcards sporting various poster art and a fold-out reversible poster featuring Arrow’s newly commissioned art and a vintage poster on the opposite side. We are also given some ported over extras, first being Catriona MacColl’s commentary from an earlier Vipco release, and a featurette about Fulci from Arrow’s House by the Cemetery DVD entitled ‘Fulci in the House’. That’s not all folks! They’ve gone and commissioned a new audio commentary from Giovanni Lombardo Radici; which amazingly manages to re-frame from covering grounds mentioned in his interview!

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to attend a special Fulci double-bill in Glasgow, City of the Living Dead was the main attraction, after The Beyond got the evening started in great style. What made it all the more special was Catriona MacColl and Giovanni Lombardo Radici being in attendance to offer a Q&A after the film! I managed to get some questions to them, some of which appear on Arrow’s new release, and some which will surface on their upcoming release of The Beyond. The real treat though, and a thousand thanks to Calum Waddell, was to spend some time after the showing with them. Getting drunk, and shooting the shit with the likes of Catriona and David Hess (who was also in town) was quite the experience! They were great people and truly touched by the number of people who came out to see them that evening. The next event is due in October and I can’t stress how much fun they are and urge you all to make an effort to attend!

City of the Living Dead remains a classic in 80’s horror cinema, and has finally been given the release it deserves thanks to Arrow Video’s hard work and the even harder work from the folks at High Rising Productions whom provided all of the extra material. Fan’s of Fulci should treat this as a no brainer and pick this release up ASAP, fans of Cult cinema will equally find the release essential due to the supplementary material brimming with a vast amount of insight from Cult cinema icons regarding genre favourites. In a word: essential.

Purchase the Blu-ray here.
Purchase the DVD here.

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