Every time I catch a screening of Lucio Fulci's 1980 opus City of the Living Dead, I get the feeling I'm trapped in the gravitational tide of a dying star. Unlike say, Zombie Flesh Eaters or The Beyond, bona fida classics of Italian Horror, City of the Living Dead is best described as a sort of halfway house of different elements, which rise, converge and break apart leaving behind a strange ramshackle sort of a film which despite its shortcomings remains compulsive viewing. The plot concerns some business about a priest who commits suicide thereby opening the gates of hell. Or something like that. The international title of City of the Living Dead would suggest a close affinity to George Romero's archetypal zombie film, but Fulci and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti seem a little unsure of what the film is actually supposed to be. Generally, the film is spoken in the same breath as Fulci's other zombie movies, but there's something of an occult bent to the film - with its teleporting zombies, and the haunted spectre of the hanged priest, who literally drops in at the end of a rope throughout the film. Watching the film you get a taste of The Exorcist or a flavour of The Amityville Horror, and one sequence even riffs on Suspiria. And there is of course, the tip of the hat to the weird mindwarp horror of HP Lovecraft, with the naming of the cursed "city" Dunwich.
I first saw the film in the early 90's in a heavily cut UK VHS edition put out by Elephant Video who always pre-cut any contentious material to ensure a smooth ride past the BBFC. I always wondered what kind of mega-gore I was being cheated out of, but when I finally caught up with an uncut print, the answer was not much really. Unlike Zombie Flesh Eaters, City of the Living Dead is not so much gory, but disgusting, gleefully so. A famous scene in the film where Michele Soavi's girlfriend vomits up up her intestinal tract seems like a early prototype LP sleeve design for death metal band Cannibal Corpse, and there are numerous queasy moments when various cast members cry tears of blood. The living dead themselves are festering, diseased looking pus coloured creatures, and for no apparent reason one sequence has the lead actors caught in a blizzard of live maggots (with heavily amplified squirming sounds on the soundtrack for added effect). Two brilliant sequences in particular are now legendary in the annals of Italian Horror - Catriona MacColl trapped alive in a coffin, (homaged in Kill Bill Vol. 2) and Giovanni Lombard Radice's head being drilled in spectacular style (earning a place on the cover of Fangoria's September 1983 issue). Worth mentioning also the sound design of the film with its electronically treated jungle sounds gives the mise-en-scène a strange disorientating effect (the film was lensed in Georgia, USA)
My copy of City of the Living Dead is the old Dutch EC DVD, which I imagine is comparable to their earlier laserdisc edition. The transfer varies from scene to scene, in parts it appears like it was struck from a washed out, tired print, and other times it looks pretty good. I haven't seen the Anchor Bay DVD, but all previous editions should be put aside with Blue Undergound's Blu-Ray coming in May. Following on from their very fine high def edition of The New York Ripper, Fulci's reluctant masterpiece should look nothing short of stellar. Blue Underground are wisely using the artwork that graced the old Intervision tape (and the Danish tape above), rather than the dumb Gates of Hell design. A UK Blu-Ray release is also promised in May, courtesy of Arrow.