City of the Living Dead [Blu-ray 4K]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Cauldron
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (18th October 2023).
The Film

When Father Thomas (Love by Appointment's Fabrizio Javone) hangs himself, the sacrilegious act causes the gates of hell to open beneath the Dunwich cemetery. Psychic Mary (Saint Ange's Catriona MacColl) witnesses this event during a mediumistic trance at a sιance in New York and apparently dies of shock but wakes up to find herself entombed in a buried coffin. Fortunately, meddling reporter Peter Bell (Pieces' Christopher George) comes to her rescue, nearly killing her in the process, and the pair hit the road in search of Dunwich to shut the gates of hell before All Saints' Day when the dead will walk the earth.

Strange things are already beginning to happen in Dunwich – built over the ruins of the original Salem and whose residents are descendants of witch-burners – since Father Thomas killed himself. Two necking teenagers (future Italian horror director Michele Soavi and Fulci's favorite victim Daniela Doria) have disappeared – well, we know they didn't really disappear since we are shown their fates in graphic detail – and slow-witted Bob (The House on the Edge of the Park's Giovanni Lombardo Radice) is the likely suspect since local psychiatrist Gerry's (The Other Hell's Carlo De Mejo, son of Alida Valli') social worker girlfriend Emily (The New York Ripper's Antonella Interleghi) has also turned up dead from shock after visiting Bob; and the bigoted and frightened townsfolk (among them Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye's Venantino Venantini and Re-Animator's Robert Sampson as the local sheriff) are looking for a scapegoat. Emily's little brother John-John (Exterminators of the Year 3000's Luca Venantini) is seeing ghoulish, brain-squishing apparitions of his sister, and painter Sandra (Eaten Alive!'s Janet Agren) is being terrorized by the corpse of an elderly woman that keeps popping up in odd places in her house. Peter and Mary hook up with Gerry and Sandra and compare notes under a shower of maggots and determine that the dead seem to have risen a little early but the best option still seems to be checking out the cemetery (or under it) as the likely location for the gates of hell.

Lucio Fulci's follow-up to his hugely successful unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead titled Zombi 2 (or "Zombie" to American viewers and "Zombie Flesh Eaters" to the Brits), and the first of a loose Gothic trilogy with The Beyond and House by the Cemetery, City of the Living Dead – released stateside as "The Gates of Hell" – was not as successful but has developed a following since and has come to be regarded by some as the better film. Produced on a lower budget largely on location in Savannah, Georgia – which also hosted Antonio Margheriti's Cannibal Apocalypse – the film feels more episodic, taking a leisurely approach to its race against time story with gory and suspenseful asides that are nonetheless effective thanks to the production design of Massimo Antonello Geleng (Soavi's The Church), show-stopping gore including a woman mesmerized into vomiting up her intestines and a power drill through the head seen spinning on both sides, some gore-geous photography by Sergio Salvati (Catacombs) who makes use of lavender and blue gels in the style of Dario Argento's Inferno, and a gritty hybrid orchestral/Mellotron score by Fabio Frizzi (The Scorpion with Two Tails) that may – along with the partial mausoleum setting and spectral Father Thomas – have been influenced by the look and feel of Phantasm.

Although slumming in one of a handful of American and European horror films before his early death, George is most engaging here and seems the least hindered by the banally-scripted dialogue while MacColl (in the first of three collaborations with Fulci) gets put through her paces in true scream-queen fashion. Secondary protagonists De Mejo and Agren are not as well-developed but are given center stage in a couple suspenseful set-pieces before meeting up with the other two. The zombies are a very different kind of beast from those of Zombie, more reproachful specters teleporting to terrify and kill (sometimes for revenge), and there is something especially frightening about the way human characters are compelled after initial frights to look in certain directions where the zombies will then pop up again and move in for the kill. The cast also includes a quick appearance by Luciano Rossi (So Sweet, So Dead's necrophilic mortician's assistant), James Sampson (who summoned up a supernatural zombie menace in Claudio Fragasso's later After Death), Martin Sorrentino (Manhattan Baby's unfortunate building super), and a pair of gravediggers played by adult film actor Michael Gaunt (Intrusion) and Cannibal Holocaust's Perry Pirkanen.


Motion Picture Marketing planned to release City of the Living Dead as "Twilight of the Living Dead" until they received a cease-and-desist order; whereupon they repurposed their "The Gates of Hell" ad campaign designed for Ulli Lommel's The Devonsville Terror for the Fulci film (Lommel had pulled the film from the distributor after being unhappy with their campaign for Brainwaves). "The Gates of Hell" went out theatrically unrated and then on a cropped big box VHS from Paragon, a bootleg of the British Iver Services tape that made its way to the states via Canada (letterboxed but censored), and a later letterboxed sell-through tape from Creature Features. Laserdisc aficianados could have gone for a Japanese two-disc set featuring the English version on one disc, the Italian version on a second, and a filmstrip from a 35mm print.

City of the Living Dead received a more respectable treatment from Anchor Bay in 2000 with an anamorphic widescreen transfer and a nice 5.1 remix. The image was a little dark, but that proved to be a better choice than when Arrow Video followed up Vipco's 2003 DVD – which was non-anamorphic but featured a commentary by MacColl – with a DVD and Blu-ray in 2010 using an HD master prepared in 2004 for the Italian DVD. While that master already suffered from scanner noise and too much DNR, the Arrow release compounded things by brightening the image, sapping not only some of the shadow detail but also some of the color saturation in the gel lighting. Blue Underground utilized the same master for their 2010 Blu-ray, and the superior black levels and slightly richer colors made it the better choice until a new transfer came along. Arrow Video made up for the earlier release last year with a new Blu-ray from a 4K scan of the original camera negative that garnered generally favorable reviews. In 2020, Code Red released a "Grindhouse" Blu-ray featuring a scan from an American 35mm print in a double bill with Psycho from Texas while Scorpion Releasing utilized the 4K scan for their own Ronin Flix-exclusive limited ediiton with their own color grading.

Arrow's grading had a bit of a yellow cast while Scorpion's grading looked a bit more naturalistic, brighter (sometimes at the cost of highlights and detail in the foggy daytime scenes), and "bluer" in the night scenes. The grading on Cauldron Film's 2160p24 HEVC 1.85:1 widescreen 4K UltraHD disc and 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray is more in line with the Arrow without the yellow tinge; as such, actual blue gels are retained in the background of shots – and no longer in Mary's coffin – but Father Thomas now looks like a gray corpse rather than a chalk-white foundation-caked, blue-lit specter (apart from his scene terrorizing Interleghi which is lit with blue and purple gels) and the zombies now look more putrescent and less like they are smeared with oil paint and melted crayons. The daytime skies are no longer blown-out, giving the New York scenes an overcast look that suits some of the drizzly exteriors and makes Dunwich look more foggy than dusty. There are a couple of instances like a sustained close-up of De Mejo which seems to pulse between neutral and a yellow tint. Perhaps it was always evident to some, but this is the first presentation in which it was evident to this viewer that the zombie that managed to squeeze Sandra's brains out on her doorstep from beneath the steps is Doria rather than Interleghi who appears moments later to terrorize John-John.

The film was shot in Techniscope, which produced a 2.35:1 frame without anamorphic lenses by exposing only two perforations per frame as opposed to four with anamorphic squeezing. Although films released in Techniscope would be squeezed and blown-up to four-perf to be compatible with Cinemascope projection lenses, this film instead extracted a 1.85:1 frame from the center of the image - presumably Dania Film which was already moving into television production in the eighties had the small frame as well as a greater number of theaters that did not have anamorphic projection lenses - and the fact that DolbyVision HDR has more to tease out of the shadows and colors here than the recent 4K treatment of Zombie Holocaust is likely a testament to the greater care that went into the work of Fulci and Salvati on a similarly smaller budget than his surrounding films for Fabrizio de Angelis.


Cauldron forgo the 5.1 remixes prepared for the Anchor Bay and NoShame Italian editions – the latter of which was included on the Scorpion release while Blue Underground rechanneled it into a 7.1 track for their edition – in favor of English and Italian original mono tracks in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The main menu play option uses branching to present the film either in English or Italian with the appropriate title sequences – as well as one insert of the tombstone reading "The soul that pines for eternity shall outspan death. You dweller of the twilight void, come Dunwich" which had Italian subtitles on Italian prints – and while the surround track was effective in conveying the exaggerated sound design, the up-front mono track makes the various irrational sounds seem "theatrical" rather than artificial. Optional English and English SDH subtitles are available for the film.


Cauldron Films accompany the feature with four commentary tracks, although only one of them is new. First up is an audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan who discusses Fulci's career from comedies to horror as well as the underlying nihilism evident in his work, noting that the use of the priest as a villian is not so much anti-Catholic as anti-authoritarian – as well as posing the question as to whether Father Thomas deliberately committed suicide to open the gates of hell or if he had other reasons for committing what would be to him a mortal sin – as illustrated in the depiction of the town elders and their "use" of outcast Bob as a sacrificial lamb to purge the sins of the community, tying the depiction of the small New England town not only with Lovecraft but also folk horror conventions of ancestral guilt, cursed land, and witchcraft (with Bob's mother branded a witch by the townspeople for simply being "loose").

From the Scorpion release is an audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth and Mondo Digital's Nathaniel Thompson who offer up both production anecdotes/factoids and analysis, noting Fulci's preference for the early musical and Toto/Franco & Ciccio comedies, and that his late turn as a horror specialist was intended to be a means of riding out the rest of his career after the unexpected hit with Zombi 2. They reveal that adult film star Robert Kerman (Cannibal Ferox) was originally up for a role – although I'm not sure I believe the claim that his Cannibal Holocaust co-star Pirkanen is the same person as porn star Jesse Adams (Fantasm Comes Again) – as well as noting that the plot contrivance of burying Mary right away without embalming may be explained by a bit of set decoration suggesting that she is Jewish (and the revelation that the cemetery location is the Mount Zion Cemetery).

Ported from the aforementioned Vipco release is the audio commentary by actress Catriona MacColl, moderated by Jay Slater who reveals that she dubbed several of other actresses' screams in the film – it is hers that is heard before the title card – and got involved with Fulci through her Italian agent Giuseppe Perrone. British actress MacColl had already been working in France, so she was used to Euro-pudding productions with actors speaking different languages on set, but she was not prepared for being put through her paces in the scenes involving the coffin or maggots or being branded the "Video Nasty girl" and still turns away from the gore scenes. She also compare working with George versus The Beyond's David Warbeck as well as mentioning the involvement of Savannah's mayor in the shoot. Slater does erroneously cite Fabrizio de Angelis as the film's producer as he was producer of Fulci's other films from this period, but the producers were actually Dania Films' Luciano Martino and Mino Loy.

Ported from the Arrow edition is the audio commentary by actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice, moderated by Calum Waddell who recalls the shoot in Savannah, not meating MacColl until the convention circuit years later, and mainly hanging around the set with Jovine, party girl Ingterleghi, and Soavi who had been up for the role of Bob as well as Ricky in The House on the Edge of the Park but was more interested in working behind the scenes (Soavi later cast Radice in his first three films), and also credits Salvati with teaching him how to act for the camera.

The 4K UltraHD and first Blu-ray feature the film and commentaries while a second Blu-ray features the film's video extras starting with "Zombie Kings" (45:46), an interview with production designer Geleng who discusses working under Danilo Donati for Federico Fellini and feeling that B-movies allowed him to be more expressive and creative, first working for producer Luciano Martino on his brother Sergio Martino's films which was how he was imposed on City of the Living Dead in place of Fulci's regular production designer Massimo Lentini. He also discusses Soavi serving as unofficial second assistant director on the film and later working on Soavi's directorial efforts for Dario Argento as well as working on Fulci's TV film Sweet House of Horrors and Wax Mask which was prepped by Fulci who died before production and was replaced in the director's chair by make-up and visual effects designer Sergio Stivaletti.

"Requiem for Bob" (28:00) is an interview with Radice who recalls impressing Fulci as a theater actor by asking not to wear a hunchback appliance and demonstrating his character's movements, witnessing Fulci's fury on the set (but also speaking disparagingly of the actresses who were his target), him and Soavi vying for the same roles a few times, his castmates, as well as his reputation as Italian horror cinema's "whipping boy."

"The Meat Munching Movies of Gino De Rossi" (26:34) is an interview with special effects artist Gino de Rossi who designed the film's mechanical effects – the film's make-up effects were not the work of Fulci regular Giannetto de Rossi (High Tension) but of Franco Ruffini (Blastfighter) – who discusses the casting Radice's head for the drill scene, the intestinal vomit scene, as well as his other Fulci works and Andrea Bianchi's Burial Ground which he charitably describes as a "Fulci hommage."

"Carlo of the Living Dead" (18:13) is an is an interview with actor De Mejo from the original Arrow edition in which he recalls meeting Fulci at De Paolis Studios and getting his mother's opinion of the director, his memories of the cast (particularly George), as well as shooting the maggot shower scene.

The disc also includes cast and crew interview extracts from the documentary "Paura, Lucio Fulci Remembered Vol. 1" (42:42) pertaining solely to the film – including among others Jovine reflecting on Fulci's "cruel wit," Interleghi recalling that temperamental Fulci was surprisingly the only one behind the camera who did not throw a fit when she was late to set back from a weekend trip to New York, and Soavi describing his unofficial duties in the crew – a "On Stage Q&A with actor Venantino Venantini and director Ruggero Deodato (46:03) from 2017, a 2010 Catriona MacColl Q&A from The Glasgow Theater (20:08), "Music for a Flesh Feast" (29:25), a 2012 Q&A with composer Frizzi, MacColl's archival video intro (5:14) from the Vipco DVD, "A Trip Through Bonaventure Cemetery" (4:49) looking at the Dunwich cemetery location, as well as an image gallery (8:41) and a trio of trailers (6:35) for the U.S. "Gates of Hell" release, the international trailer, and the Italian theatrical trailer.

The disc also includes a pair of Easter Eggs in a VHS transfer of "The Gates of Hell" (93:10) which does not appear to be the Paragon transfer since it lacks the Motion Picture Marketing logo and the title card is not cropped – although it does have the blue tinting to the opening credits that was added to the American opening credits – as well as Christopher George's 1974 "Man for June" Playgirl magazine spread.


The standard edition lacks the CD soundtrack and paper extras included in the sold out 3000-copy limited edition.


City of the Living Dead, the first of Lucio Fulci's "Gothic zombie trilogy," looks more skin-crawling and bile-spewing than ever in 4K.


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