City of the Living Dead 4K UHD Review
Blu-ray Release: August 15, 2023 (Standard Edition release)
Video: 1.85:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color
Audio: Italian and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 92:52
Director: Lucio Fulci
When a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) hangs himself in a cemetery, he opens the gates of hell in the mysterious New England town of Dunwich. At the same moment, psychic Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) enters a trance and witnesses the cosmic events unfold, causing her to seemingly die of fright. After being buried alive, she is rescued by skeptical reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George), who joins her on the journey toward Dunwich to help close the gates of hell before evil is unleashed upon the world! Will they be able to close the gates in time or will the souls of Dunwich be forever stuck in the twilight void? (From Cauldron’s official synopsis)
For the first two decades of his career, director Lucio Fulci developed a reputation as a A+ craftsman, working across genres and gaining a measure of fame making commedia all'italiana with the Martin & Lewis-alike duo Franco & Ciccio. He also made a quartet of particularly good gialli, but most of these successes were confined to Italy. It wasn’t until he was hired to add his violent flair to a horror film built to cash-in on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) – which had been reedited by co-financier Dario Argento and released to big box office numbers under the alternate title Zombi – that he graduated to international renown. Hitting theaters in 1979, Zombi 2 (released as Zombie in North America and Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK) was, by some accounts, an even bigger hit than Romero’s film, rocketing Fulci to a new level of worldwide cult stardom.
Given that the Italian film industry tended to be built on fads, you’d assume that producers were banging down Fulci’s door for another sequel, but, according to screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, it was actually difficult to get funding for another Fulci horror movie, because the genre’s popularity was somewhat delayed in Italy. Further complications reportedly arose when Fulci refused to work with producer Fabrizio De Angelis. Eventually, production settled on Luciano Martino & Mino Loy, who offered Fulci a chance to revisit horror and the creative space to experiment with the caveat that he not go over budget and to guaranteed the presence of zombies.* His second horror film (assuming you don’t count his gialli) was City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), a far more esoteric film than Zombi 2 that harkened back to classic Gothic cinema, yet was fortified by the high level of gore expected at the grindhouse.
City of the Living Dead’s violence isn’t as wall-to-wall as Zombi 2’s, but what it might lack in bulk, it more than makes up for in nastiness and nihilism. The gore isn’t gratuitous, because it's entwined with Fulci’s themes and philosophies, which take precedence over typical storytelling components, like plot and characters. In regards to City of the Living Dead and its follow-up, The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981)**, Fulci sometimes claimed that he was trying to make “absolute” films – movies with grotesque imagery and set-pieces in place of traditional narrative purpose. He’d also use the term Artaudian in reference to 20th Century French avant-garde dramatist/poet Antonin Artaud and his famed Theater of Cruelty. This generally Nietzschean view of horror is the best way to frame these films, as well as the third film in his so-called Gothic (or zombie) trilogy, House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero, 1981).
Working in concert with Massimo Antonello Geleng’s production design and Sergio Salvati’s cinematography, City of the Living Dead’s gore supports the film’s dominant theme of decomposition. Unlike most zombie movies, where living death and/or cannibalism is infectious, the contagion here is the decay itself. Each of Fulci’s three Gothic films approaches this from a slightly different angle. In The Beyond, for example, decay is represented by mold, waterlogged walls, and the chemical dissolution of the human body, while House by the Cemetery is characterized by rust, splintered wood, and broken concrete. Here, the atrophy is earthy – the village is constantly dust-blown, the climax occurs beneath the muddy ground of a cemetery, and one character is even killed when a handful of worm-ridden dirt is crammed into her mouth, again, as if the decay itself is a contagion. City of the Living Dead sets itself apart by forgoing much of The Beyond and House by the Cemetery’s grim beauty, replacing it with pure revulsion. Every corner of the frame is viscerally repulsive, from inexplicable maggot showers and unrecognizably mangled infant carcases to something as simple as blood slowly dripping into a glass of milk. You can practically smell the rot wafting from the celluloid.
The film’s two showstopping gore scenes are Fulci’s most creatively nasty and its major legacy to horror fans, falling just behind Zombi 2’s splinter-in-the-eye as defining moments in the maestro’s oeuvre. But they’re not only exploitation fodder, because, again, death and putrefaction is the point of the film and Fulci ties significant meaning to the violence. In the first showstopper Fulci’s favorite victim, Daniela Doria, and future Cemetery Man (Italian: Dellamorte Dellamore, 1994) director, Michele Soavi, are necking in a car when the demonic priest, whose blasphemy has opened the gates of Hell, appears before them and stares deeply into Doria’s eyes, causing them to bleed and somehow forcing her to slowly regurgitate her entire intestinal tract. To the casual viewer, this is merely another creepy, disgusting occurrence among many, but Fulci was actually drawing a deep pool of anti-Catholic sentiment that ran through a lot of his work. The girl’s eyes bleed, because the priest is seeing her sins and she barfs up her guts out of shame. I think?
The hypocrisy of moralistic judgment is a consistent, if not ever a fully coherently theme building up to the second showstopper. In this scene, Dunwich’s resident misfit – a sickly loner named Bob, played by Italian horror’s resident misfit Giovanni Lombardo Radice, working under his stage name John Morghan – is caught sharing a joint with a young woman and, in an outrageous overreaction, her father (Fulci fave Venantino Venantini) grabs Bob by the throat and slowly presses his head into the spinning bit of a table drill (a stomach-churningly convincing effect from Gino [not Giannetto] De Rossi). Again, to the casual viewer, this comes out of nowhere and has no real consequences, but an obsessive Fulci fan will notice similarities to his third giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italian: Non si sevizia un paperino, 1972). In that film, a rural village is rocked by a series of child murders. The main suspects include a ‘loose’ socialite, a reporter from the city (both outsiders), and a pagan hermit named Maciara (Florinda Bolkan) that the locals deem a witch. The ‘witch’ confesses, but in error and is released when authorities realize their mistake. Soon after, the townspeople, blinded by righteous fury, beat her to death with chains and two-by-fours. Later, it turns out that the actual culprit is a Catholic priest, who is killing the children to prevent them from growing up into morally corrupt adults.
Maciara and Bob are kindred spirits: tortured misfits who Fulci at first makes appear sinister, only to reveal their innocence moments before their brutal deaths at the hands of insular, superstitious villagers. Throughout the film, we learn that the mysterious town Dunwich is built on the ruins of the original Salem and that the residents are the descendents of witch-burners. Apparently bound by blood to engage in witch-hunting, the Dunwichians blame every one of the priest’s insane murders on Bob, because he’s weird, the son of a promiscuous woman, and an attempted rapist (his later interactions with the girl he supposedly attacked heavily implies that it was a consensual tryst). In the context of the movie, Bob’s murder is a kind of culmination of sin and the townsfolk pay the price when the gates of Hell open and the streets are flooded with zombies. In the context of Fulci’s philosophies, it is, according to the man himself, a “cry I wanted to launch against a certain kind of fascism.” He never really clarified that quote, but, given the crooked morals and repeating themes of his movies, it’s easy enough to assume what he meant.
Critics like to joke that Fulci’s horror movies make no narrative sense, but City of the Living Dead has a pretty straightforward plot. Nonsensical stuff happens, but, once Peter (played by down on his luck American actor Christopher George) and Mary (played by British actress Catriona MacColl, who also starred in The Beyond and House by the Cemetery) meet up, it’s a simple race against time to get to Dunwich and stop the priest. The story draws upon the similarly nightmarish writing of H.P. Lovecraft, such as the Book of Enoch, a nod to the Necronomicon, and the fictional New England town of Dunwich. Strangely, Fulci claimed that he didn’t consider Lovecraft to be an influence. Either this was typical posturing or he honestly didn’t understand the references that co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti was making. It’s hard to know the truth, especially with Sacchetti himself complicating things, stating to Stephen Thrower that City of the Living Dead was his least favorite among the movies he made with Fulci and telling Fangoria that it was actually one of their closest collaborations. Perhaps it didn’t turn out the way he envisioned, so he resented the extra work he put into it.
* City of the Living Dead ended up being Fulci’s only zombie-themed movie not produced with De Angelis, at least until 1988’s Zombi 3.
** The direct follow-up to City of the Living Dead was technically the equally Gothic, but far less violent and zombie-free The Black Cat (Italian: Gatto Nero, 1981).
Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci by Stephen Thrower (Fab Press, 1999)
Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1980-1989 by Roberto Curti (McFarland, 2019)
Eaten Alive: Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies by Jay Slater, et al. (Plexus Publishing, 2002)
Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors As Seen Through the Eyes of Their Protagonists by Luca M. Palmerini, Gaetano Mistretta & Margot Winick (Fantasma Books, 1996)
Fangoria Vol. 1 #141 (O’Quinn Studios, April 1995)
If you want to hear Patrick Ripoll and I speak at length about City of the Living Dead, including an explanation of its cryptic ending (hint: it’s probably not that cryptic), check out this commentary track we recorded for Patrick’s Tracks of the Damned podcast.
City of the Living Dead was released in US theaters as Gates of Hell in 1983 and was one of the few Fulci horror movies readily available uncut on stateside VHS tape. Zombi 2 might be the only other one you could find in most rental stores that wasn’t censored or haphazardly re-edited (seemingly by accident in the case of House by the Cemetery). These included various big box and standard size tapes from Paragon Video beginning in 1985 and a 1996 tape from Creature Features. Oddly, Zombi 2, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery were all officially banned on home video in the UK as part of the Video Nasties moral panic, but City of the Living Dead was not, remaining available with cuts to the head-drilling scene and an X certificate.
In 2000, Anchor Bay put out a widescreen VHS and the first anamorphic DVD under the City of the Living Dead title. Blue Underground released their own version of that same disc in 2007 and the first Blu-ray upgrade in 2010. After that, Code Red took a stab with a completely different HD transfer, which was also used for the Scorpion Releasing limited edition. Overall, the best 1080p transfer came from Arrow Video for their UK, RB disc, so I’ve opted to use that as my baseline. Cauldron Films’ 2160p Ultra HD disc features a new and different yet 4K restoration (it’s not clear what they were working from, but I assume original negatives) with a very important Dolby Vision color grade. I am unable to take 4K caps, so this page features 1080p caps from the included Blu-ray copy. These are, unfortunately, not very illustrative of the 4K image quality, because the HDR enhancement makes so much of a difference. And, because of that, the Blu-ray transfer is on the flat side. So, if you’re not interested in upgrading to 2160 and Dolby Vision, and were for some reason only buying this collection for the Blu-ray copy, I’d recommend hanging on to the Arrow disc.
But this isn’t really a review of the Blu-ray and the 4K transfer is definitely an upgrade. I can aim you toward this caps-a-holic comparison, which gives you an idea of the detail improvements and the finer grain levels, but this also doesn’t illustrate the HDR bump. The key issue in bringing City of the Living Dead to any digital medium is that Sergio Salvati’s cinematography is so very gritty – obscured by dust, smoke, mist (all apparently to cover the inherent beauty of the locations) that chunks-up the grain and wreaks havoc with even the best CRT machine scans.
The higher resolution improves the issue without over-smoothing what was intended or creating a digital noise problem, like what happened with Blue Underground’s older disc or even the particularly snowy Arrow disc. There is still a noise issue here, but they tend to appear more ‘filmic,’ for lack of a better word. Focusing on differences between this and the Arrow transfer, the HDR enhancement helps push bright highlights without blowing out hot spots. Additionally, the Cauldron transfer corrects the Arrow’s overly yellow and warm palette. I may be wrong (I’ve never seen a 35mm print and was three years old when it was released theatrically in the US), but I think City of the Living Dead was meant to appear chilly and autumnal, which fits the spooky tone and makes a better backdrop for the glistening red gore. The equally important sickly greens are all still present, as well.
City of the Living Dead is presented with English and Italian language dubs, both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio mono sound. As per usual, the film was shot without synced on-set sound, so all tracks are dubbed and there is no official language version. That said, I see no reason for English-speaking viewers to not watch the film in English, especially since Christopher George and Catriona MacColl dubbed their own performances. The dubs mostly match in terms of effects and music, which is good, because City of the Living Dead has fantastically abrasive sound design (zombies are represented by growling animals, crying babies, moaning humans, and more). The single channel field should be over-stuffed, but the original layering is well-balanced enough to ensure that there isn’t a lot of distortion. Over the years, pretty much every digital master of the tracks has sounded sharp and clean, and this is no exception. Fabio Frizzi’s nerve-shredding score is boosted pretty high on the track, reminding me a bit of Blue Underground’s 5.1 remix, which I believe utilized separate stereo music tracks, but I’m such a Frizzi fan that it didn’t bother me, personally. At no point does the score overwhelm the dialogue, for the record.
Disc 1 (4K UHD)
Commentary with Samm Deighan – The associate editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast with Kat Ellinger starts things off with the disc’s one exclusive commentary track (only because Cauldron didn’t approach Patrick and I – don’t forget to listen to our track right here!). Deighan is always a great commentator and brings a lot of positive energy to this track, because (like myself) City of the Living Dead was a gateway into Italian horror for her. She analyzes Fulci’s greater career (mostly horror/giallo) and modern reevaluation, the idea of the ‘Gothic/Zombie Trilogy,’ repeating themes, genre contemporaries, and the careers of the cast & crew. A great track all-around that can even teach a long-time fan, like myself, a thing or two.
Commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson – I believe that this is the same track the duo recorded for the Scorpion Releasing LE. Mondo Digital’s Thompson and Howarth, the author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015). Having never owned that disc, this was another first time listen for me. Howarth & Thompson cover similar ground to Deighan, but add plenty of personal stories and tend to focus a little more on screen-specific discussion, especially when they pause to run down the CVs of every actor as they appear, and also include some choice interview quotes (mostly from Thompson’s own book).
Commentary with Catriona MacColl – This is the first of two tracks that premiered with Arrow’s Blu-ray, featuring the lead actress and is moderated by Eaten Alive: Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies author Jay Slater. If you’ve read/seen interviews with MacColl on the subject of Lucio Fulci, you’ve probably heard these stories before, but Slater is still a very good interviewer and draws some new details out of the erudite, sweet, and always classy actress.
Commentary with actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice, moderated by Calum Waddell – The second Arrow track and final commentary features the late cult icon (RIP) and is moderated by Minds of Fear: 30 Cult Classics of the Modern Horror Film (Midnight Marquee Press, 2009) author and director of Eaten Alive! The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film (2015). Radice is such a singular character that Waddell doesn’t really need to say anything, but he still does a fantastic job aiming discussion and filling quiet space with factoids. Rest in peace, Giovanni, you will be missed.
Disc 2 (Blu-ray)
Commentary with Samm Deighan
Commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson
Commentary with Catriona MacColl
Commentary with Giovanni Lombardo Radice
Disc 3 (Blu-ray)
Zombie Kings (45:46, HD) – A 2017 interview with production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, who talks about his career in fine art and film, his inspirations, the many great Italian directors he worked with over the years, preferring to work on B-movies due to the creative freedom it afforded him, meeting Fulci on Beatrice Cenci (aka: The Conspiracy of Torture, 1969) and gaining his trust on Zombi 2 (despite being imposed on the director by producers), leading to more collaborations on City of the Living Dead and The Sweet House of Horrors (Italian: La dolce casa degli orrori, 1989). Geleng also tells a series of behind-the-scenes stories about Fulci, Dario Argento, and Michele Soavi. The interview is set to stills, posters, and original design illustrations from a number of films, including Sergio Martino’s The Island of the Fishmen (Italian: L'isola degli uomini pesce, 1979), Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Soavi’s Cemetery Man.
Requiem for Bob (28:00, HD) – Another 2017 interview, this time with Radice. Again, if you've experienced any of the multitude of retrospective interviews with the man, you know how insightful, honest, and funny he could be. You also might have heard the stories he tells here before, but this is still a really good greatest hits package of his experiences in Italian horror. Again, rest in peace.
The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi (26:34, HD) – The effects maestro breaks down his experiences on Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, House by the Cemetery, Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (Italian: Le notti del terrore, 1981), Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981), and James Cameron & Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Piranha 2: The Spawning (1982), complete with clips, how-to demonstrations, and a look at the props he still houses in his workshop.
Carlo of the Living Dead (18:13, HD) – An archival, English-language interview from Arrow’s UK Blu-ray with actor Carlo De Mejo, who sticks mostly to questions about his three Fulci movies, City of the Living Dead, House by the Cemetery, and Manhattan Baby (Italian: Il malocchio; aka: Eye of the Evil Dead, 1983).
On Stage (46:03, HD) – A 2017 Q&A with actor Venantino Venantini & Ruggero Deodato. The connection here is that Venantini played Mr. Ross, the head-drilling man in City of the Living Dead (which he barely mentions). This is an off the cuff chat where he runs down his biggest roles (I didn’t realize he was in La Cage aux Folles, 1978) and Deodato supplies context for some stories, having worked mostly as an assistant on stuff, like Ben Hur (1959).
Live from the Glasgow Theatre (20:08, HD) – A 2010 Q&A with Catriona MacColl following a screening of The Beyond, moderated by Waddell.
Music for a Flesh Feast (29:25, HD) – Another Glasgow Theater post-screening Q&A, this time recorded in 2012 with composer Fabio Frizzi (in English), again moderated by Waddell.
Catriona MacColl archival video intro (5:14, SD)
A Trip Through Bonaventure Cemetery (4:49, HD) – A 2022 tour of the graveyard locations.
Archival interviews with cast and crew from Mike Baronas & Kit Gavin’s Paura, Lucio Fulci Remembered, Vol. 1 (42:42, SD) – I still remember buying this on DVD in 2008, thinking it would be my only chance to see these interviews, but, man, they’ve showed up on every Fulci-adjacent release since. Good going, Baronas & Gavin.
Trailer reel (6:35, HD) – Gates of Hell US trailer, English and Italian international trailers
The Gates of Hell video tape version (93:10, SD, Easter Egg, left from Image Gallery) – A complete VHS copy of the film in Dolby Digital mono English with chapter stops.
Christopher George: Playgirl's Man for June 1974 slideshow (2:40, HD, Easter Egg, right from Image Gallery)
The images on this page are taken from the included BD (not the 4K UHD) and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.