Conquering Fulci's City Of the Living Dead

Having covered so many of Lucio Fulci's great 80s horror classics, City Of the Living Dead's absence has probably stood out like a bit of a sore thumb.  Well, I'd been planning on doing it, but then, in the beginning of February last year, Code Red announced a new edition with a fresh 2k scan of the OCN.  Given the troubled state of the previous CotLD blus (more on that below), I decided to wait.  Eventually, it was announced that Scorpion would be handling it instead of Code Red, and then radio silence.  Meanwhile, Arrow announced a fresh 4k scan from the OCN.  And, well, here it is October 2018, and I don't know what's happening with Code Red/ Scorpion, but they're gonna have a hard time topping this!

Update 8/26/19: Another new version! And it's... deliberately worse than the preceding release?  Yes, it's Code Red/ Dark Force's curious Retro Drive-In Double Feature of The Gates Of Hell (a.k.a. City Of the Living Dead, of course) and Psycho From Texas, not to be confused with Code Red/ Scorpion's disc, which is apparently still forthcoming.

Update 6/13/20: "Forthcoming" shmorthcoming; it's here!  Did they wind up topping the Arrow after all?
City Of the Living Dead, a.k.a. The Gates Of Hell, is either the first or second in Fulci's loose trilogy of end of the world, undead horror.  City and The Beyond are a definite pair, but then it's more of a looser fit to try and tack on Zombie, House By the Cemetery, or maybe even Manhattan Baby.  But certainly, as with any of those others, Fulci's assembled his A-Team here: writer, Dardano Sacchetti, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, composer Fabio Frizzi, effects by Gino de Rossi and Cathriona MacColl in the lead.  And he's assembled a pretty great cast, including Christopher George, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Janet Agren and Michele Soavi.  There was no way this wasn't going to be somewhere in his upper echelon.
I'm also partial to the horror free for all style of story being told here.  You've already got Sacchetti's love for blending genres mixed with a healthy dose of Lovecraft's undeniable influence.  And yet it's still got a little more thematic unity to it than The Beyond, where each scene could practically be from a different movie.  Here, anything can still happen - dead people appearing and disappearing at will, bleeding walls, an air raid of maggots - but it all sort of feels like it fits within the premise.  There are certainly... flaws in the characterizations.  MacColl is alternatively dogmatically determined to prevent the apocalypse she saw in her visions or willing to forget the whole thing and go get a coffee instead.  Bob's tryst with his self-inflating sex doll is completely out of place.  But coherence isn't really a highly regarded commodity in 80s Italian horror in the first place, and combined with the utterly mad plot-line, it's hard to define anything as out of place or ill-fitting here.  Anything can happen when the gates of Hell are open.
Now, City of the Living Dead is hardly debuting on disc here. It was first released in 1998 by a cool cult label called EC Entertainment.  Then Anchor Bay gave it a wider release in 2000, which was later repressed by Blue Underground in 2007.  In 2010, Arrow and Blue Underground released blu-ray editions for the UK and US markets, respectively.  I wound up getting the BU blu because it had marginally better picture quality, but I still copped the DVD version (in fact a 2-disc set) of the Arrow disc for all the unique special features.  But despite having the superior transfer of the two, BU's disc was still plagued with scanner noise that a lot of Italian films had baked into their scans around that period.  So I'd been anxiously awaiting this new, 4k scan from Arrow's re-release in October 2018; it was the City of the Living Dead we'd all been waiting for.

But the story hasn't ended there.  In 2019, there was this random BD from Code Red and Dark Forces, which didn't have much to offer but could at least be considered an amusing diversion.  But now there's a serious new contender, Scorpion's long-awaited 2020 BD, which rivals, if doesn't dethrone, Arrow's.
1) 1998 EC DVD, 2) 2000 AB DVD, 3) 2007 BU DVD, 4) 2010 Arrow DVD,
5) 2010 BU BD, 6) 2018 Arrow BD, 7) 2019 DF BD; 8) 2020 Scorpion BD.
So EC's a pretty collectible little label, and I've read that some of their DVDs were actually better quality than many later reissues.  That's not the case here.  Their Deluxe Collector's Edition is non-anamorphic, interlaced and a generally pixelated affair, slightly mis-framed at 1.75:1.  The Anchor Bay DVD may not be pretty, but it corrected all of that: anamorphic, non-interlaced, 1.84:1 and more filmic.  And the BU DVD is the exact same transfer, no differences.  Pretty straight-forward so far.

Then the fine folks at BU (and Arrow) come back with their blu, finessing the framing to a perfect 1.85:1, clearing up the image and bringing us into the world of HD.  Unfortunately, they've got that scanner noise.  Now, I don't have Arrow's 2010 blu, just their DVD, but my understanding is that Arrow did some additional tampering with the image in an attempt to undo the noise (certainly their DVD has a weirdly smoothed look to it), and BU left it alone, hence the latter being the preferable option.  But of course, neither one is too hot, which brings us to Arrow's new addition.
2010 BU BD left; 2018 Arrow BD right.
This movie was always a pretty rough looking feature, so fans hoping for a wealth of new, fine detail from this 4k scan might initially be a little disappointed.  It's still framed at 1.85:1, but restores all the original film grain and thankfully, yes, is free of the noise.  If you're not clear on what scanner noise is, or how to spot it, check out this enlargement.  See how all the grain looks very blocky and pixelated?  That's not actually grain, but noise on top of the image.  It's artificial detail, nothing to do with what was actually being photographed.  See how it makes all the lines (of his face, the bookcase behind him, etc) all jagged and oversharpened?  Arrow's blu may actually look a bit softer by comparison, but that's the actual, natural image.  And since the noise is random, not part of the core image like film grain is, it looks even worse in motion, like you're watching the film through a jittery window screen.  So Arrow's new blu may first appear a little underwhelming, but it's a very welcome upgrade.

And Dark Force's disc?  Well, it's what Code Red likes to describe as a "grindhouse" version, which is to say that it's an HD scan, but taken from a very beat up source, in this case an old film print.  So it's got lots of vertical, green chemical lines, dirt, flecks, spots and cigarette burns at the reel changes.  The idea of this sort of presentation is that it's a throwback, enhanced by the fact that this BD is a double-feature, and in between there's about fifteen minutes of vintage commercials and trailers.  I don't know if the slight novelty value that provides really sells me on the notion of purposefully collecting lower condition films, but if that's your bag, now you have the option.  And it is still a decent HD scan of 35mm, matted to 1.85:1, and preferable to the older DVD releases... arguably even Blue Underground's disc with its scanner noise issue.  Well, maybe not; but at least it looks like film.  The framing is more zoomed in than any of the other blus, losing some info along the sides and bringing it back to where the DVDs were, and the coloring leans excessively blue.  But it's not really missing much detail.
2018 Arrow BD left; 2020 Scorpion BD right.
The big question now is between Arrow's transfer and Scorpion's.  It's not just the same transfer ported over to a region A release.  The case itself describes it as a "NEW 2020 4K color grading and restoration of the film from a 4K scan of the original camera negative."  So it's not the same.  But note that it's a new "color grading and restoration," not another new scan.  They're using the same scan as Arrow... so is it just slightly tweaked colors?  "Color timing" is pretty clear, but what do they mean by a new "restoration" if it's not a new scan?  Well, I guess only Scorpion knows for sure, but I can say that it's more than just tweaked colors.  Although, to be clear, that has happened, too.  Look at the second set of shots; Scorpion's frame is a lot cooler than the distinctly warmer one from Arrow.  They've taken a fresh stab at the colors, and they might actually be genuinely better.  It's definitely a subjective call, and my opinion goes back and forth depending on the particular shot.  But in general, I think I do lean towards Scorpion...

But it's not just the colors, and it's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is - better contrast and dark levels or what?  But you can definitely make out detail better on the Scorpion blu than Arrow's (or any that came before).  Numbers on a clock that were far from the camera and blended into clock face around it are now visibly distinct.  Or let's keep it to the shots we've been comparing all along, right?  Compare that weird illustration framed in the center of that office in the second set of shots (and by the way, what is going on there?  It's like a magic monster from a black and white Dr. Strange comic book or something).  Compared to Scorpion, Arrow almost looks out of focus.  It's like that through the whole movie, and that's what's really impressive about this 2020 edition, moving it to the top of the list.
Another sweet thing about Arrow's release, meanwhile, was that it included both the Italian and English audio tracks.  All the previous editions only had the English.  EC had the mono with optional English and Dutch subs, while AB and BU (2007) had stereo and 5.1 mixes, but no subs.  Same goes for the old Arrow, except their blu also had a 7.1 mix in DTS-HD.  BU's blu also had that 7.1, plus the 5.1 and mono, as well as English, French and Spanish subs.  The  new Arrow has the English 5.1, stereo and mono, all in DTS-HD, plus the Italian mono in DTS-HD, with two optional English subtitles tracks (one for the Italian and one to go with the English audio).

Predictably, Dark Force only includes the English dub with no subtitle options.  But Scorpion, thankfully, lives up to the standards Arrow set, including all three English tracks in DTS-HD, the Italian mono (again in DTS-HD) and both sets of English subtitles.  As with the 4k scan, I think Scorpion's just using the same stuff as Arrow, this time without any 2020 adjustments.  Audio and subtitle-wise, they're the same
Major things have been happening in the special features department, too.  In short, the new Arrow handily trumps all that came before it.  Their new interviews are longer, better edited and in higher quality video than any of the previous editions.  Plus, they have the old audio commentaries, which are okay, but completely redundant if you watch the interviews, which are better paced.  So the old Arrow, the BU blu, and the new Arrow blu all talk to a bunch of the same people, and they all tell the same anecdotes the same way every time.  So, while I understand (believe me, I do!) the collector's impulse to say I need all these discs because they all have unique extras, you truly honestly don't.  Specifically, here's what the new Arrow has:

*The old audio commentary with Catriona MacColl and journalist Jay Slater. I know he's a bit infamous and had one of his commentaries pulled from a Shriek Show disc and all, but he's perfectly charming here.
*The old audio commentary with Giovanni Lombardo Radice and writer Calum Waddell
*On-camera interview with Dardano Sacchetti, who's surprisingly negative towards the film
*On-camera interview with Catriona MacColl
*On-camera interview with cameraman Roberto Forges Davanzati
*On-camera new interview with production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng
*On-camera interview with Sergio Salvati
*On-camera interview with Giovanni Lombardo Radice (again, with these improved interviews, Arrow could've tossed the old commentaries, but I appreciate them erring on the side of inclusion)
*On-camera interview with Gino De Rossi
*On-camera interview with Venantino and Luca Venantini, played the boy and his father (yes, they're also father and son in real life)
*On-camera interview with Fabio Frizzi
*On-camera interview with Carlo De Mejo (this one's from the old Arrow release, and has an annoying editing style that's difficult to watch, but it's the best we're going to get since he's passed)
*On-camera interview with expert Stephen Thrower, who starts out repeating some pretty basic info, but gets pretty interesting as he gets deeper into things.  I wish he'd gone even deeper into how this film is an anti-fascist piece from Fulci, because other aspects, like the cops abusing the bohemians in NY and the fact that everyone is being punished for being Salem witch burners really play into that message, too.  But that's not a criticism, because Thrower has a lot of great stuff to say, which just inspired me to think about it and add my two cents here.
*On-camera interview with Andy Nyman, director of the recent film Ghost Stories
*A video essay by Kat Ellinger (who did a better job on Mondo Macabro's Who Can Kill a Child?, but here feels a bit lost) about Fulci's input in the zombie genre, which spends a lot of time just listing names and titles of classic zombie films, before eventually coming around to making a point
*Perhaps this disc's biggest gem: behind-the-scenes 8mm footage of this film's USA shoots with audio commentary by Davanzati, who shot it all
*Alternate Gates of Hell opening credits
*Two trailers, a TV spot and a couple radio spots
*Four image galleries
...And, this set comes packaged in a nice hard slipbox with reversible artwork for the inner case.  Also inside is a double-sided poster, six lobby cards and a 60-page booklet by Travis Crawford and Roberto Curti, plus Arrow's usual card for another film in their catalog (I got Don't Torture a Duckling).
So, the Anchor Bay and old BU discs are barebones, with just a trailer and slideshow.  You can forget them anyway.  The EC DVD actually has a unique extra: MacColl and David Warbeck speaking at Eurofest '96.  A portion of this did wind up on Grindhouse's Beyond blu-ray, but this EC version includes about six or seven additional minutes of them on stage.  Small potatoes, but like I said, I understand the collector's impulse.  ūüėČ

Blue Underground had some good stuff, it's just basically all been rendered redundant.  On camera interviews with MacColl and Radice perfectly mirror their other interviews and commentaries, and their half hour 'making of' carefully goes over each of the film's infamous set pieces, which again are all covered as well or better on Arrow's new blu.  Their "Memories of the Maestro" featurette is more unique, interviewing various cast and crew about their memories of Fulci, but it's all 100% taken from Paura vol. 1, meaning it's the exact same footage; so if you have that either by itself or as packaged with 88's blu of Zombie 3, you've already got that content.

You might be a little more tempted to hang onto the 2010 Arrow blu (or DVD set).  Again some of it, including the commentaries and Carlo De Mejo interview, have been ported over.  But there's a lot that hasn't.  Most of it, though, is older interviews with the same people saying the same things in lower quality.  This includes on-camera interviews with Radice and MacColll, of course, plus a shorter talk with Sacchetti and a brief introduction to the film by De Mejo.  But it has a couple unique features, including an interview with Fulci's daughter, Antonella, and one with Luigi Cozzi which feels like they just threw it on there because they had recorded it a while ago and had no better release to stick it on.  Most compelling is probably a silly featurette called Fulci in the house, which is more of an overview of Fulci's career and pretty disposable except it interviews a few interesting people like Joe Dante and Lloyd Kaufman.  It also includes a booklet by Waddell, a poster, lobby cards, one of Arrow's old window sleeves and reversible artwork.
Dark Force's disc doesn't really have any CotLD-related extras, but of course it has the entire other film, Psycho From Texas, which gets its own coverage here.  It also has the aforementioned 15 minutes worth of drive-in ads and trailers, and comes in a very cool, glow-in-the-dark slipcover.

Scorpion basically has everything the new Arrow has, with a few exceptions.  It's missing two featurettes: the Carlo De Mejo interview and more disappointingly, the 8mm behind-the-scenes footage.  They've also replaced the two audio commentaries with two different ones.  They've recorded a new expert commentary with Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson, which is up to their usual standards, though I'm not sure fans will learn anything new from them at this point.  And they've included the commentary by Salvati and Davanzati from the old Italian DVD No Shame put out in 2004.  That commentary has never been in English before (Scorpion has subtitled), so it's essentially brand new for all of us English speakers.  So I'd say, overall, it's a step backwards in the featurettes but a step forwards in commentaries, essentially making it a tie.  Scorpion doesn't have all the swag of Arrow's limited edition, but it does come in a slipcover and includes reversible cover art, using The Gates Of Hell title (I have to say, I get a little kick now out of having The Gates Of Heaven and The Gates Of Hell now right next to each other on my shelf).
So, final tally: PQ goes to Scorpion, AQ is a tie, extras are a tie except for the swag, which goes to Arrow.  PQ outweighs swag if you have any kind of cinephile integrity, so I'd say Scorpion is the one to own.  That said, if you already have the Arrow, the differences aren't extreme enough that I'd rush out to replace it.  For most viewers, this probably boils down to a simple case of Arrow filling the region B market and Scorpion filling the A.  But if you've only got an older edition, i.e. Blue Underground's scanner noise-ridden disc, then yes, you should upgrade with one of the new 4k editions.  And if you want to go nuts and collect every edition with unique extras, go ahead, but I wouldn't bother.  The wealth of features on the latest Arrow or Scorpion discs cover practically everything and should be enough for anyone.

3 comments:

  1. Great review as always! However I was tempted to sell my 2010 Arrow steelbook blu but it has a 50 min segment called The Many Lives (and Deaths) of Giovanni Lombard Radice. Because of this I'm not gonna sell it.

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  2. Great review, I'm very glad I just discovered your website, it looks like a treasure trove of many of my favorite films.

    Quick question, there's a short video on Youtube of a slightly longer ending to the film taken from an old VHS:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NkgaFHO-ak

    One of the commenters says she has a DVD with this ending. Can you tell me if any DVD or Blu-Ray edition has this ending that you know of?

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    Replies
    1. Innnnnteresting. Hmm. Well, I can say for sure that ending isn't on any of the editions I covered in this post. I wonder if the VHS label actually tacked that on from somewhere else? Sort of like how Terror On Tape cut in a quick shot from Nightmare City into Cathy's Curse to make a scene gorier... Because it's weird how it fades to black (like it has on every copy) and then shows that. And that clip is SO dark, it could be footage of almost anything and we wouldn't be able to tell. I don't know, just a thought. Definitely a curious find I'd love to learn more about myself!

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