Blue Underground not only champion these jaded gems, but they do their damnedest to give them a proper transfer too ... usually. Recent releases such as The New York Ripper and Manchester Morgue have looked very good indeed, although I will admit they have dropped the ball with Django (terrible noise and artefacts), which arrived with me the same day as this, Fulci's City Of The Living Dead, and I will be covering Sergio Corbucci's Spaghetti Western in due course.
Filmed with Techniscope cameras on 2-perf 35 mm, as opposed to the 16mm print that people have been assuming was the source, City translates pretty well to the format, but with a couple of unmistakable issues.
Unusually for a Techniscope movie, the film is actually framed at 1.85:1 (confirmed by BU's Bill Lustig, folks) and then probably matted either side by Fulci. This now means that it has been blown up even more than is common to fill the 16:9 image. And this, in turn, finds the film now looking grainier and a touch softer than you might have expected as, really, this isn't a comfortable format to be working in. Although no substantial facts about why Fulci and Salvati opted for this have actually surfaced, various theories have been put forward from the money saving angle in shooting and processing only half the footage, to the discovery that they only had Techniscope cameras to work with but still wanted to achieve the 1.85:1 image, so matted accordingly. Whatever the reason, City does look different to the films that Fulci made around it and, if anything, the hi-def transfer only accentuates this.
Now, although this blown-up image does enhance the appearance of grain, that is no excuse for the frozen patterns of noise that stipple the frame from time to time. This is the same sort of silver-sharpened digital grain effect that plagues Django, only to an agreeably lesser extent here. Several occasions suffer from this, but for example just check out the arrival of the coroner (Fulci, himself) at the scene of Emily's murder - the glinting grain is frozen into a honeycomb frieze in the dust squall outside the building. Next shot, of the victim's terror-glazed face, completely free of all but the traditional film-grain. Most of the daytime exterior shots exhibit this unsightly mosaic, I'm afraid, but the darker interiors and night-time shots are largely unmolested.
Black levels aren't disappointing. There is a lot more depth to the shadows right across the board. The lengthy sequence down in the catacombs definitely benefits from this, with the surreal blue cast to the image blending in much better with the blacker elements to produce good contrast and an amplified atmosphere. Colour reproduction looks fine to me, all things considered. We have a brighter, more vivid image and even if it is never going to scrub up to retina-scorching Avatar standards of brilliance, this is far better saturated than I have seen it before. The primaries are stronger, the close-up shades of clothing, blood, furniture - especially that hideous design on the settee in the Enoch-disciple's apartment - more finely struck. Blood is suitably thick and nasty-looking, at times very dark, at others - the tears of gore down MacColl's face for example, or the livid scarlet brains dribbling out of the back of crushed skulls - much lighter, but always well handled. Skin-tones look a touch healthier than I've seen them before, though this wouldn't take much. Some shots - most notably of the demonic priest's implacable Christopher Lee-style “mesma-stare” and of his wide-eyed female victims - look fantastic compared to how mushy they have seemed before.
Print-wise, there is hardly any damage, although there is a wild little squiggle on the lens seen against MacColl's forehead during one close-up down in the catacombs. Scratches, nicks and tears have been reduced or removed altogether. Some people have complained about smearing being left behind, but I encountered no problems myself.
So, whilst the noise that has been energised is undeniably bothersome and ugly, City still looks robust and solid and much clearer than on any previous home video edition that I've seen. By and large I'm happy that the image appears strong and detailed in all the appropriate places but, realistically, you can't give this more than a 6 out of 10.
Blue Underground work overtime on supplying a trio of separate sound-mixes for City. We get a DD EX 5.1 and a DTS-MA HD 7.1 lossless makeover. And, for the purists, they very nicely provide the film's original mono track, as well. I sampled the mono - and it sounded good - but I actually stuck with the 7.1 track.
Now, this is a film that quite obviously never warranted a 7.1 mix in the first place, but you know that you can't resist going with the lossless track provided it doesn't make any mistakes or add anything utterly bogus - and this one doesn't do anything untoward. But what it does do, however, is enable the film to come alive with more depth and breadth than ever before and, with the clarity that it possesses and the lack of overtly fake surround effects, it genuinely feels more involving.
Dialogue, as you no doubt already know, is dubbed, and quite often atrociously out of synch with the speaker's lips. Which, of course, only adds to the unique flavour of Italian horror. But there is never a problem with the balance of the dialogue in the mix. Frizzi's pounding, insistent score has a fair bit of strength to it, filling the frontal array and sounding quite crisp and weighty, with the infamous “zombie march” - a partial reprise from Flesheaters - coming over well.
Effects are thrown out around you. That bloody lost Amazonian parakeet caws around the rear speakers. Wind whistles, some of the more jarring “stingers” ripple out past your ears. One moment, especially, benefits from the extended channel coverage when our heroes wander through the cemetery on the final night and a raucous belch of animalistic ambience whisks around the set-up. The score is occasionally picked up and bolstered back there too. But this is not a track that will consistently wow you with its steerage or its dynamics. It does, though, add a fair bit of punch and aggression to the madcap scenes of Fulci lunacy and it will enhance the mood of the deranged story quite vigorously. Otherwise, City is an experience that plays out mainly across the front.
I was quite impressed with this lossless revamp, even it doesn't require a 7.1 configuration at all. So, for keeping the mono track and for adding some atmosphere with the new audio, I'm awarding City a lucky 7 out of 10.
At the time of writing, my review copy of Arrow's UK edition of City has still not turned up - and it has been out on the shelves for ages - but whilst I can't comment on its transfer, I know that it has substantially more extras than this US release from Blue Underground. Most notably, it carries a couple of commentaries that are not in evidence here, more featurettes, a mini-poster and fabulous packaging artwork. This would seem to make it the obvious choice if you can play Region B discs.
But, pressing on, let's see what BU have supplied for Fulci's first foray into the realm of the zombie-supernatural crossover.
First and foremost, we get a terrific half-hour documentary “The Making of The City Of The Living Dead”. Newly produced, this boasts interviews with Catriona MacColl - the English actress still looking quite tasty - co-star and filmmaker Michele Soavi (who played a zombie as well as the unlucky recipient of a brain-removal in the film), Production Designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, Cinematographer Sergio Salvati and a fair chunk of input from makeup FX man Gino de Rossi. This is all good stuff actually, and covers a fair bit of ground from the technical aspects of the film and the shoot itself, to the actors' reminiscences of certain scenes and of working with Fulci, himself.
Our appreciation of the film is augmented further with two separate interview features with Catriona MacColl in Acting Among The Living Dead (10.34 mins) and Giovanni Lombardo Radice (John Morgan) in Entering The Gates Of Hell (9.49 mins). Of the two, I preferred the honesty and passion of Radice about his time served with Fulci and with various other Italian grunge-directors.
Memories of the Maestro (21.09 mins) supplies a wealth of anecdotes and insight into the workings of Fulci, as demonstrated by those that knew, worked with and admired him, although it really only scratches the surface of this unusual and decidedly maverick filmmaker.
A neat Poster and Stills Gallery round things out in Marketing of the Living Dead (13.14 mins), and as well as English and Italian trailers for the film, we get a couple of radio spots to add to the publicity campaign.
Now, this selection isn't at all bad, as things go, but the completist would be better off with the Arrow disc, which just packs in so much more. Thus, because we know there is more out there, Blue Underground's City only gets a 6.
Not Fulci's best, City Of The Living Dead is usually the one that fans put in final place out of his infamous zombie quartet, but there is no denying that once you get into it, this delivers some excellent chills, a couple of stand-out set-pieces and all that nonsensical plotting irreverence that Fulci's movies are renowned and, ironically, loved for. Gino De Rossi's gore is not as good as Giannetto De Rossi's, but together with Fulci's insistence to just go for broke, he still comes up with some unforgettable carnage. Far-fetched it may be, but this is Grand Guignol blended with the fantastique and, as such, is an intrinsic part of the Fulci fabric that smothered the genre during that volatile and highly creative, no-holds-barred period in the early 80's - a time that many horror-fans hold dear.
The transfer has some issues, make no mistake, but there is nothing here that a fan couldn't easily live with. There is more detail on show and a much stronger, better defined image in which to house it all. The lossless audio mix actually aids the film and supplies some surround use that is neither sacrilegious nor falsely intrusive. And you've got the original mono track as an option, as well. So City now looks and sounds more aggressive and vibrant than ever before on home video. The extras are a good selection, too, although we know that they are lacking when compared to what the UK disc offers. In fact, if the Arrow version didn't exist, Blue Underground's packaging assertion that this is the “definitive” edition of City Of The Living Dead would be true. As it stands, the Arrow release looks like the one to hold that coveted title. But this US edition is certainly no slouch.
The Gates of Hell are open ... and now in hi-definition. Nab yourself a copy before All Saints Day comes around ... and the dead walk!
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