City of the Living Dead
directed by Lucio Fulci
starring Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Michele Soavi
Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) is one of the great examples of surreal European horror. Drawing inspiration from the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and 1970s midnight movies, like El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970), Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) and Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), Fulci’s film stubbornly refuses to capitulate to reason in favor of a waking nightmare. This abandonment of narrative cohesion over atmosphere (that at one time was dismissed as ineptitude) has become celebrated as a daring and bold choice made by a master filmmaker.
City of the Living Dead has been in circulation on nearly every home video format since 1980, both as City of the Living Dead and the original U.S. release title The Gates of Hell, and even had a truncated 8MM film release in Germany. Somehow this film missed the cut as a UK “Video Nasty,” but unsurprisingly has been a target for censors around the globe. Cauldron Films has unleashed a stunning 4K UHD that not only makes the film look better than it has ever looked — including its theatrical run, which was undoubtedly hampered by substandard projectors and apathetic projectionists during the film’s tour of drive-ins and grindhouses in 1980 — but also supplies an entire Blu-ray of extras and four audio commentaries, including a new track from film historian Samm Deighan.
In the sleepy New England hamlet of Dunwich, the town priest Father Thomas commits suicide by hanging in the church’s cemetery. This ultimate act of sacrilege is the key to unlocking one of the gates to hell. The psychic energy of the event reaches medium Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) during a seance in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The powerful evil that Mary contacts kills her in front of her terrified clients. Mary, however, is not dead and is nearly buried alive in one of the film’s most terrifying scenes. Mary awakens in her casket and begins screaming and clawing at the lid. Only the keen ears and quick thinking of reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) save Mary from a tortuous death. Although a bit skeptical, Peter accompanies Mary to search for the town of Dunwich for her vision to try to bring order back to the world that has been undone by Father Thomas’ suicide.
At the same time in Dunwich, locals Gerry and Sandra are doing their own investigation, trying to make sense of the supernatural events consuming the town, including bleeding walls, a tsunami of maggots, and skull-crushing zombie attacks from an ever-growing population of the undead. Mary and Peter and Gerry and Sandra’s paths cross in the Dunwich cemetery, where they compare notes and realize they don’t have much time to put things right and the only way to do that is to kill the reanimated Father Thomas and put an end to his ever growing zombie horde.
The plot of the film is barely coherent as Lucio Fulci and co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti have little need of narrative unity. The events in Manhattan follow normal narrative flow, but everything happening in Dunwich follows dream logic as the supernatural seemingly controls time and space. It is no accident that a film set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft would celebrate atmosphere and dread over narrative drive. Even the geography of Dunwich lacks clarity and keeps the viewer in a constant state of unease. A cynic might dismiss the film as a collection of gore shots, barely held with razor-thin plot strands that never connect, but the stultifying putrification of the world being ravaged by pure evil is potent throughout the film and cannot be easily dismissed. The constant sense of the uncanny is also enhanced by the music score by Fabio Frizzi, and the entire package is cunningly calculated for maximum disquiet.
Cauldron Films delivers the good on City of the Living Dead in a 3-disc set with a stunning 4K transfer that delivers so much more clarity to film. Little touches like the inscriptions on gravestones that were un-readable in earlier editions are crystal clear and are fun easter eggs for long-time fans. The set boasts four audio commentaries, including three legacy tracks ported from previous releases of the film, rendering the earlier editions obsolete. There is also an entire Blu-ray disc of interviews and other supplements to help seal the deal on an upgrade.