The Evolution of a Cult Classic: Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead
As a horror film buff, I've seen plenty of things over the years. I've watched plenty of timeless classics, competently made yet forgettable films, and godawful turkeys. I've heard other fans talk about various horror film titles from all sorts of critical perspectives. Yet of these many experiences, one that fascinates me more than others is to watch a film grow from being an obscurity into a cult classic. Such is the case of the film I'll be talking about in this post: Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead, which was initially released in Italy in 1980 and arrived in the United States in 1983.
Even though I just picked up a region-free copy of Arrow Video's deluxe Blu-ray release of COTLD, I first learned about this movie back in 1985 under one of its alternate titles, The Gates of Hell. While the film itself has mostly remained the same since it first appeared, perspectives about it have undergone significant changes between the '80s and now. Read on for my retrospective of this Fulci fright flick, as well as some thoughts as to how such low-budget films like this one keep popping up in the horror film fan community when so many popular mainstream films fall into obscurity in the years after their theatrical release.
Honestly, I had no idea who Lucio Fulci was for years, even though his films were readily available at the local mom-and-pop video rental store. Gates of Hell was already on the store's shelves when it opened in our town, and the movie's poster was hung near the store's entrance to pique customer curiosity. Other Fulci titles in the store's inventory included Zombie and Seven Doors of Death (a.k.a. The Beyond). I remember Gates of Hell and Seven Doors vividly, both because of their lurid artwork and that they were "big box" video releases. As defined on VHSCollector.com:
"We began seeing the large display box or "big box" in the early eighties as the video rental industry boomed. At this time, the market for the VHS or Beta wasn’t necessarily aimed at the home market (due to the ridiculous costs for a single cassette) but rather video rental stores. The display box served to be just that; a large display presenting images meant to entice the shopper to rent the film, regardless of how truthful or misleading those images would be. ... Since the larger Hollywood distributors were distributing recognized films like Star Wars or Friday the 13th with the assistance of TV commercials and other promotions, large display boxes weren’t needed. Lesser known independent and foreign films on the other hand, relied on the large displays to stop those renters in their tracks. For someone looking to rent something they haven’t heard of, large colorful boxes screaming “look at me!” grabbed their attention. The goal of these boxes was to spark some sort of curiosity for the shopper. Often times, this spark was false, but resulted in some of the most memorable artwork of the video age. ... With the prices of VHS declining, so did the rule of the video rental store. Videos could now be purchased to keep for twenty dollars or less. This reduced the demand for the large boxes, as most films were now being released in slipcases."
As per the above description, all of the big box rental titles in our local store (at least the ones that were not in the adults only section) were some kind of exploitation film, and most of them were in the horror genre. As time went on, these boxes remained on the shelves but they collected dust due to the low interest in them. There may have been some die-hard horror fans where I lived who knew who Fulci was and rented these films, but weren't very many of them (if any at all) in the rural, conservative community where I lived. I didn't rent these films because I never heard of them before, but I frequently gawked at the cover artwork of these boxes anyway because they didn't look like anything else in the store.
The front and back covers of The Gates of Hell VHS box (pictures courtesy of VHSCollector.com).
Fast-forward to the rise of DVDs in the late '90s and the new forms of video distribution that came with it. In the horror fan pages and group discussions that I went to online, I noticed many recommendations of titles and filmmakers that have been around for years but didn't get much publicity in the previous formats of cinema and VHS. Fulci's name kept popping up and upon further research, I realized that the big box dust collectors from my adolescent VHS years and Fulci's most notorious films were the same.
The extras on the Arrow Video Blu-ray of COTLD put things into perspective about the kind of history this film has had, along with other titles in Fulci's oeuvre. One extra is a video of two COTLD cast members in a Q/A session at a 2010 screening in Glasgow Theatre in Scotland; another extra is Fulci in the House, a short documentary about Fulci's career. This documentary really doesn't cover much of his total output as a filmmaker, but its most noteworthy feature are the details it provides about Fulci's participation at a Fangoria convention in New York City in 1996. Up until that point in his career, he had no idea that a handful of horror films that he made in the late '70s and early '80s had such a sizable cult following in the U.S. He even needed a translator to talk to fans because he couldn't speak English. Given the number of times that COTLD has been released and re-released on various video formats (click here for a list), I'm sure that Fulci's following continues to grow to this day.
I've always heard good things about how Arrow Video handles its Blu-ray releases, and I'm just amazed by how well the Arrow Video Blu-ray of COTLD is. Not only are there a lot of extras in this set, but they also provide hints to film's long history. The transfer of the film is pristine: it looks and sounds great on my high-definition TV set, which is pretty remarkable considering this film's bumpy distribution record. Furthermore, this is just one of two high-definition Blu-ray releases of COTLD, the other one by Blue Underground. There are many other films out that have not been released on Blu-ray at all, films that earned much more money at the box office, received much greater critical acclaim, and more closely adhered to what the general consensus says a good film should be like in terms of acting, scripting and direction; yet on the other hand is COTLD, the ‘80s Italian gorefest that gets two high-definition releases for home video.
So what is it about COTLD and other Fulci horror films that keep them circulating among horror cinephiles? I couldn't tell you. I love his work enough to say that I'm a Fulci fan, but I don't like all of his movies; I think the quality of his work went downhill significantly after 1982, most likely due to his deteriorating health. Thus, I can tell you why some people don't like his style and why others do, but that doesn't answer why his film stay in circulation while other more popular and critically-acclaimed films do not.
I think that this question can be answered by the very nature of the horror film fandom itself. Among the fans I have spoken to over the years, many are familiar with a large number of horror films--both past and present, popular and obscure, foreign and domestic. They are familiar with the work of specific actors, screenwriters and directors, and can readily cite the films that feature the talents of these entertainers. When I was a child, my initial exposure to horror films was largely through books and many of them listed titles, plots and monsters from numerous horror films--from the silent era all the way up to whenever the books were published--as a way of showing a deep appreciation of the genre. Thus, with such voluminous knowledge at their disposal, it would only stand to reason that fans would develop tastes in particular cinematic styles that would baffle anyone who isn't a fan of horror movies (or isn't a fan of movies at all). Heck, I don't expect other horror film fans to understand all of my horror film preferences, and I don't expect to completely understand other fans' preferences either. However, these preferences aren't made on a whim; they're usually made after watching countless hours of horror movies and reading endless amounts of information about the movies.
In a recent interview with AV Club, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy spoke about why they're using the cult classic horror film Carnival of Souls for their upcoming RiffTrax Halloween show. During the interview, Murphy says, "In the instance of Carnival of Souls, part of our fun is to show this movie to people who haven't seen it in a while, and think that it's actually a classic film worthy of respect and praise. We force them to watch it again, and see if they really have that same reaction with our feedback involved. I'll say that they can't. This thing will not hold up." I think that this quote reflects how much most people don't understand horror films and why their fans stick by films that don't conform to more mainstream tastes. Fans who love a cult classic, whether it's Carnival of Souls or City of the Living Dead or something else, are fans who have seen many other films in the horror genre and select their favorites because those preferred titles provide something unique to the fans that other films (yes, even films that are considered to be flawless masterpieces by the majority) cannot provide. It's a purely subjective choice but art by its very nature is subjective, so why not?
Watching a film like Fulci’s City of the Living Dead rise from an obscure VHS title to an exquisite Blu-ray release is one of the many joys I get from being a horror film buff. I wouldn't have it any other way.