How do Lucio Fulci fans catalogue their favorites? Do they organize by number of atrocious set pieces? Or do they simply weigh the entrails and move from there? Fulci’s career is by no means limited to his gruesome peak in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but it’s sure difficult to find many who hold his ‘60s spy knockoffs and westerns in as high regard as violent stoners do the likes of Zombie, The New York Ripper, and City of the Living Dead (also known as The Gates of Hell, also known as Six Characters in Search of a Brain). While there’s no denying the effectiveness of the cheapjack surrealism underpinning his 1981 main-sterpiece The Beyond, most of his other gore touchstones are notable only for the extreme lengths they’re willing to go, not how far they’re capable of burrowing beyond viewers’ gag reflexes.
Take City of the Living Dead, the first of what would be a string of flicks about hell encroaching on the margins of otherwise idyllic hamlets. In the film, a priest’s unexplained, seemingly unpremeditated suicide becomes the clarion call to zombies and demons to rise from the incredibly shallow depths of a community whose residents are constantly denying their town used to be called Salem—presumably the same Salem that witches were slaughtered in, the same Salem that is still standing in Massachusetts, relatively unsullied by the presence of Satan’s bitch squad. The malfeasance is presaged by a psychic who vacillates peskily between life and death and, at one point, ends up buried sort of alive until rescued by a big-city reporter who’s as overzealous with his pickaxe as he is with his steno pad.
Working in heteronormative diads, the psychic, the reporter, and other young and stupid adults try to figure out exactly what’s going on and how to stop it, though it has to be noted that glass bleeds more in this film than actual human victims do. The psychic somewhat self-defeatingly notes that the strange events are all part of a prophecy written in one of those hidden books of something resembling the Bible, and that the only way to prevent zombies from bilocating and tearing brains from citizens’ skulls to, um, kill the priest again? With characters neither quite alive nor dead, audiences might waver in and out of REM.
That is, of course, excepting the two uncommonly brutal sidebars into the cinematic abattoir. The first, in which the priest’s reanimated shell stares down a couple making out in their car until the chick bleeds from the eyes and pukes out her own GI tract, is just ill-defined enough to achieve nightmarish force. The second, in which the town outcast’s skull is drilled clean through by a jealous father, is utterly gratuitous, though it’s worth noting that the most violent act in the entirety of the film is not at the hands of maggot-faced, dead-eyed zombies, but of someone taking the law into his own hands and eliminating what he views as an infectious human presence in his community. Much like those witches in Salem (the one in Massachusetts).
Blue Underground's commitment to Blu-ray continues to fascinate me, since many of their tent-pole acquisitions would seem more appropriately presented in a cobbled-together 16mm print with competing soundtracks, jump cuts, and alternate titles. That said, you probably couldn't do much better than the print they used for this transfer. It's mostly clean, has powerfully dark black levels, and deals with tricky sequences (such as the typhoon of maggots) without too much in the way of artifacts. However, the grain is almost overpowering in many sequences, and sometimes results in an over-digitized sensation. There are three separate English-language options. The differences between the 7.1 DTS-HD and the 5.1 Dolby surround are negligible to my ears, but the mono is for purists only.
Without a commentary track to tie everything together, Blue Underground did the next best thing, which is to try and piece together interview comments from nearly everyone who worked on the film. Between the two interview montages (totaling roughly an hour total) and two separate interviews with actors, you learn probably more about Lucio Fulci's on-set antics than any commentary with the late director ever could've mustered. The interviewees' attitudes run the gamut of B-movie clichés. You've got your pretentious starlets who pledge their undying devotion to the maestro who pelted them with bugs, you've got soft-spoken graying Italo-studs who somehow always managed to escape the dictator's wrath, and you've got the workhorse crew members who apparently lost one of their eyes on the set of some other film but hold no grudge. Rounding out the package are stills galleries, theatrical trailers, and radio spots.
Lucio Fulci's zombies have a nasty habit of disappearing right when you sort of wish they'd stay a while.