August 23, 2023

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (4K) and the Yuck Factor

1980 / 93 min
Review by Josey, the Sudden Cat🙀


That histrionic announcement was a major part of City of the Living Dead’s ad campaign when released in the U.S. as The Gates of Hell (a much cooler title, if you ask me). Back in the early '80s, tags like this were a good indication of a movie's 'Yuck Factor.' Lucio Fulci’s previous goopfest, Zombie, boasted a similar ‘warning,’ but for thrillseeking teenagers like myself, it was always more of a dare than a deterrent.

Accepting the challenge, me and a few buddies piled into my VW bug to catch it at the drive-in. Sure enough, The Gates of Hell delivered the gore goods, especially in two scenes that have-since become somewhat legendary in cult circles. The first is a long, lingering sequence of a young woman vomiting all her entrails before crushing the back of her boyfriend’s skull and squeezing his brains between her fingers. The second has an angry dad slowly impaling a vagrant’s head on a drill lathe. 

Even today, both scenes are spectacularly violent and fairly convincing. Like most of Fulci’s exploitation films, the Yuck Factor is high with this one…not just those sequences, but the undead make-up, worm-ridden corpses, disemboweled priests, maggot-covered faces, etc. Sure, there are admirable attempts to create a foreboding atmosphere, but more than any other post-Zombie movie he cranked out, it’s obvious that City of the Living Dead mostly exists just to gross the viewer out. After all, the nasty drill death has absolutely nothing to do with the actual story. 

Oh, yes…there’s a sort of a story, which begins when a sunken-eyed priest hangs himself in a Dunwich cemetery, making it possible for the dead to rise from their graves to engage in a variety of nasty business. Beyond the village’s name, there’s little related to Lovecraft here, just a series of gory set-pieces that, while admittedly well-executed, could be presented in almost any particular order without adversely affecting the narrative. In between those sequences are traumatized medium Mary Woodhouse (Catriona MacColl) and cigar chomping reporter Peter Bell (Christopher George) trying to reach Dunwich before all hell breaks loose on All Saint’s Day.

Like most of Fulci’s horror efforts, the tension doesn’t lie in whether or not a particular character will die, but how badly they will die. As such, the film packs plenty of cheap thrills, enough that I later brought a VHS copy to a college party one weekend, where we challenged each other to see who could bring the sickest movie. I thought The Gates of Hell would be a shoo-in…at least until another guy whipped out his dad’s bootleg tape of Cannibal Holocaust.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL (Oh, wait...yes it is).
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that City of the Living Dead does feature what’s arguably the best sequence Fulci ever shot. While most of the film is exploitative, narratively nonsensical and typically artless, the scene in which Peter realizes Mary is buried alive in a casket and uses a pick-axe to break her free is brilliantly suspenseful, with the tip repeatedly striking dangerously close to her face. Considering the fates of most Fulci characters, I thought for sure we’d see her skull split open.

Whether titled The Gates of Hell or City of the Living Dead, this isn't what I ever considered a ‘good’ movie (nor is it particularly scary). But four decades later, its memorably nauseating death scenes evoke a bit of fond nostalgia, harkening back to the days when slapping a warning on an Italian gore flick made its 'Yuck Factor' too tempting to pass up. 

City of the Living Dead has been released quite a few different times - especially lately - on both 4K and Blu-ray (under both titles). Having not seen the film since the old VHS days, I can’t draw any comparisons regarding the video quality. However, this particular 4K release from Cauldron Films features an outstanding transfer, presenting the film with a stellar overall image (considering how grainy it’s always been). It sounds terrific too, especially Fabio Frizzi’s pulsating score. Additionally, the third Blu-ray disc is loaded with entertaining bonus features, including a few Easter Eggs that are worth looking for (see below). 



ENGLISH & ITALIAN LANGUAGE VERSIONS (as well as a ‘hidden’ VHS version of The Gates of Hell).

4 AUDIO COMMENTARIES - 1) By Samm Deighan (new); 2) By Nathaniel Thompson & Troy Howarth; 3) By actor Catriona MacColl; 4) By actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice.

INTERVIEWS - Lengthy, informative and entertaining individual interviews with production designer Massimo Anttonello Geleng, actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice, special effects artist Gino De Rossi, actor Carlo De Mejo.

3 ON-STAGE Q&A SESSIONS - 1) With actor Venantino Venantini & Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato; 2) With actor Catriona MacColl; 3) With composer Fabio Frizzi.

“PAURA, LUCIO FULCI REMEMBERED, VOL. 1” - Various cast & crew recall working with the director, who was notoriously cantankerous.

VIDEO INTRODUCTION - By actor Catriona MacColl.

A TRIP THROUGH BONAVENTURE CEMETERY - A look at the cemetery in 2022…which is decidedly less creepy.

IMAGE GALLERY - An 8-minute slideshow.

EASTER EGGS - 1) The VHS version of The Gates of Hell; 2) Christopher George’s Playgirl spread (seriously!). After highlighting the Image Gallery,

press left > enter or right > enter.

3 TRAILERS - Including the histrionic The Gates of Hell version.

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