The second of Lucio Fulci’s zombie quartet charts a middle way between the two films either side of it; neither as straightforwardly gory as Zombi 2, nor as surreal and dreamlike as The Beyond, perhaps that’s why it’s not as well known or as well loved as those movies.
The film has reporter Christopher George and psychic Catriona MacColl (in her first of three back to back films for Fulci) journeying to the town of Dunwich to attempt to stop the gates of hell opening on All Saint’s Day, when the dead will rise and eat the flesh of the living… it’s a zombie film, you get the idea, and frankly plot is neither what Fulci was famous for nor what he was most interested in. City of the Living Dead doesn’t so much have a story as it does a framework on which to hang set pieces, and that’s just fine.
When a director had three films on the video nasties list, as Fulci did, it’s a challenge to claim him as a great and even an artistic filmmaker and not get laughed out of the room, but City of the Living Dead definitely makes that argument for Fulci. This is not ‘just’ a gore movie, it’s meticulously designed, has real auteurist traits (the eyes), and is frequently very beautiful to look at. Fulci and DP Sergio Salvati’s use of lighting is particularly striking, whether it’s the almost surreal steel blue tint to the film’s underground climax, the atmospheric use of smoke; creating an otherworldly feel to Dunwich or the meticulous use of shadow in the set piece in which Antonella Interlenghi is killed, every scene feels like it has been constructed for maximum visual impact.
This being a Lucio Fulci film, that impact also comes in the form of some jaw dropping gore, There’s skull ripping, head drilling, zombie stabbing and burning and a maggot storm on display here, but perhaps the single most memorable image is one of the beautiful Antonella Interlenghi crying blood before vomiting up her own internal organs, it’s disgusting, but also strangely compelling thanks to Fulci and Salvati’s images.
That’s not to say that gore is all that City of the Living Dead has going for it, there is a genuinely strange atmosphere about Dunwich, and there are many images that are more interested in chilling or thrilling you than simply making you recoil. Mary’s (MacColl) vision of a Dunwich priest hanging himself, which we see framed through Mary’s pupil in the film’s single most stunning image, recurs throughout as a chilling herald of something horrible about to happen, but that’s really got nothing on the famous coffin set piece. Mary is presumed dead after that vision, but wakes just after her burial. It’s terrifying for me, as that’s pretty much my worst fear, and Fulci realises it with a genuinely unnerving sense of claustrophobia, with Catriona MacColl contributing authentic panic. That the scene manages to build from there is remarkable, but it does, with a heart pounding moment in which Christopher George hears MacColl and uses a pickaxe to rescue her, allowing Fulci to indulge in his love of close ups of eyes.
Like narrative, acting isn’t really the point in coming to a Fulci film but, while they are slightly hamstrung by the dubbing, the performances aren’t bad. It’s easy to see why Fulci wanted to work with Catriona MacColl again (and he asked her several more times after their last film, House by the Cemetery) as she gives a grounded, and grounding, performance as Mary, and makes an appealing final girl. Christopher George has his tongue stuck appropriately in his cheek, but lacks the chemistry with MacColl that she had with David Warbeck in The Beyond, and the Italian cast are largely well served by the dubbing, with Giovanni Lombardo Radice making the strongest impression as retarded neighbourhood kid Bob (he also get a great death scene).
On the whole, City of the Living Dead isn’t Lucio Fulci’s best or his most distinctive film (and it is somewhat hobbled by an incredibly abrupt ending), but it is great entertainment for horror fans, and actually a good introduction to what Fulci was about and why he deserves rather more artistic respect than he gets.
7 out of 10
Arrow Video’s 30th Anniversary release of City of the Living Dead is region free (PAL format), and comes as a 2 Disc special edition on DVD or Blu Ray. I’m reviewing the DVD, from an upscaled viewing on a Blu Ray player.
The picture looks outstanding. The print is clean and free of dirt and scratches, and both colour and detail are strong. Most importantly, while you won’t use this disc to demonstrate your AV setup, it’s a faithful rendering of the film. The grain structure is preserved, giving the appropriate texture to the film, and allowing it still to feel like the movie you remember. This is a key release for Arrow, and they’ve clearly worked hard at it.
Sound is serviceable, but limited by the fact that City of the Living Dead was entirely dubbed. Still, everything comes through clearly.
There is a brief introduction to the film with a somewhat stilted Carlo De Mejo, which is inessential. The first disc also features two commentary tracks, happily one of them is the classic commentary from the Vipco release with Catriona MacColl (whose voice, it has to be said, is just a pleasure to listen to). It’s an entertaining track, packed with stories and reminiscences from a good humoured MacColl, her memory sometimes prodded by journalist Jay Slater. The second commentary, new for this release, features Giovanni Lombardo Radice, who begins with the words “Hi people, I’m a legend”. He and moderator Callum Waddell clearly get on well, and Radice is on good form throughout, telling stories from this and other movies.
The second disc hosts an array of video extras.
Dame of the Dead is an interview with Catriona MacColl, she recalls meeting Fulci, her reluctance to do the film (agent’s advice: “No one will ever see it”) and the shooting itself with her customary mix of humour and slight bafflement at still being talking about this film 30 years on.
Fulci in the House is a featurette which seems to have been left off the Arrow DVD of House by the Cemetery, it’s an interesting feature, with some fun stories about Fulci’s only appearance at a US horror convention, but it’s on the wrong DVD.
Carlo of the Living Dead is an interview with Carlo De Mejo, it’s interesting, and De Mejo has a lot of good stories, but the echoy sound could be better, and subtitles would be welcomed.
Fulci’s Daughter does what it says on the tin, with Antonella Fulci remembering her Dad both as a man and as a filmmaker, it’s nice to hear about his fondness for the deep south of America, for example, because it suggests another side of Fulci that fans don’t know. It’s also nice to hear him discussed with real warmth, as he”s so often spoken about as just a screamer on set.
Penning Some Paura fatures City screenwriter Dardano Sachetti, who speaks in animated Italian (something that might have been a good choice for the other interviews) about working with Fulci. He’s quite candid about Fulci’s ways with actors, and about the challenges of working with him to make a narratively coherent film.
Profondo Luigi has fellow horror director Luigi Cozzi reminiscing about knowing Fulci in his later years, with a focus on Wax Mask, the project Dario Argento helped set up, but which Fulci was never to start, as he died days after financing came through.
Live From the Glasgow Theatre is a 2010 Q and A session with MacColl and Radice, helpfully audience questions are subtitled. They are both entertaining and open, but the audience questions are up to the usual (sub)standard. That said MacColl and Radice make this worth the watch.
Finally, The Many Lives and Deaths of Giovanni Lombardo Radice is a 50 minute feature covering Radice’s exploitation career. I haven’t had time to watch it through, but I’m sure that, as entertaining as Radice is on the rest of this disc, it will be well worth the watch for any fan of exploitation cinema.
Arrow have supplumented a great print and smart extras with a well written booklet by Callum Waddell called Fulci of the Living Dead, six postcards of COTLD art and a reversible sleeve which offers four alternate covers. Honestly, what more could you ask? This package is a Fulci fan’s dream.