DirectorJohn Llewellyn Moxey
Release Date(s)1960 (March 27, 2018)
Studio(s)Vulcan Films/British Lion Film Corporation/Trans Lux (VCI Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D+
The City of the Dead from 1960 was Max Rosenberg’s and Milton Subtosky’s attempt to rival Hammer Studios prior to their forming of Amicus Productions not long after. Still under the production company name of Vulcan films, they, along with first-time director John Llewellyn Moxey, put together this simple tale of a Satanic coven of witches in a small village, led by the reincarnation of Elizabeth Selwyn, who sacrifice virgin outsiders to Lucifer. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t successful and was later trimmed for a U.S. release in 1962 under the utterly inappropriate title Horror Hotel.
As far as casting is concerned, Christopher Lee was fresh off of his first portrayal of Dracula and was fast becoming a regular for Hammer. His presence in The City of the Dead is clear evidence of Subtosky and Rosenberg looking to not only cash in but best their more popular competitor. The film itself is fairly dry and unexciting, and even confusing in the U.S. version where the references to Lucifer that were removed also explained the plot more clearly. The film also has a similarity to Psycho in that one of the characters doesn’t survive long despite being given an ample amount of screen time. However, pure coincidence played into that connection. While both films were released the same year, The City of the Dead was in production before Psycho.
Over the years, several rock bands, including Rob Zombie and Iron Maiden, have made references to and even used footage from the film for their music videos. It’s been a mainstay as a cult classic in both versions, due mostly to its airings on TV. Yet still, The City of the Dead is not necessarily one that I find myself returning to with any frequency. It just lacks any narrative or atmospheric edge, more or less going by the numbers. It’s also the type of plot that we’ve seen many times before and since. Witches covens, sacrifices, secret reveals, outsider coming to save the day – rinse, wash, repeat.
VCI Entertainment’s new Limited Edition Blu-ray release of the film claims on the back of its packaging to carry a “new 2K film transfer and restoration”. What’s more likely is that it’s the same transfer carried out by the Cohen Film Collection (although that’s only an assumption on my part based upon screen captures that I’ve seen). Regardless, this is one of VCI’s more pleasant presentations. It appears organic and film-like with mostly even grain levels and a high amount of fine detail in both close-ups and wide shots. Grayscale is quite good while blacks are deep and whites are solid and bright. It’s also clean with little to no damage leftover. Overall brightness and contrast levels are also pleasing. As for the framing, the film has been released with different aspect ratios in the past and I am no authority on which one is the correct one. I personally had no qualms with it, but your mileage may vary. The sole audio option is an English 2.0 mono LPCM track with optional subtitles in English. While there’s decent separation for all of the sound elements, it’s a rather flat and uninteresting track. Dialogue is clear and well-resolved, but sound effects and score don’t offer a whole lot of fidelity. That being said, this film has never really sounded all that great the few times that I’ve seen it prior, so I wasn’t expecting much anyway. Extras include an audio commentary with Christopher Lee, moderated by Jay Slater (which is an odd track at times as Lee simply states what’s going on on-screen, often interrupting his moderator attempting to ask questions to do so); the film’s theatrical trailer re-creation in HD; and a 45-minute interview with Christopher Lee by Brad Stevens.
It’s worth discussing that the film has been released a couple of times on Blu-ray before, including a previous release by VCI themselves. Both of those releases contained a substantial amount of bonus material, dwarfing what’s included here. While the transfer on this release is good and is actually one of VCI’s better presentations to date, the lack of extras, including the ones they had access to before, means that you’ll be missing out on some other material. As such, I would classify this as a release for casual buyers, or those who are only interested in good picture quality and not much else. In case you might be wondering, those absent extras include additional audio commentaries and interviews with the director, as well as the aforementioned U.S. version of the film.
The City of the Dead doesn’t offer much in terms of frights or originality, but I suppose for Christopher Lee enthusiasts and completists, it’s a worthy endeavor. It’s just not for me. But for those interested, VCI’s new Limited Edition Blu-ray sports a fine transfer that’s worth the upgrade... if you don’t already own it that is.
- Tim Salmons