I never encountered The City Of The Dead when I was a kid, though I did hear of a movie called Horror Hotel (City’s American title) through Fangoria but a title like that wouldn’t even drawn my interest. Too bland. I became aware of it for the first time back in 2005 when I bought the Destruction Edition of VCI’s Gorgo (1961) DVD and the trailer was included. I happened to have the TV on mute for some reason as I perused the extras, and two things struck me as I watched it: the near overdose of atmosphere, and how young Christopher Lee looked. I’ve seen Peter Cushing young, well, younger than his color Hammer Films, for the earliest movie of his I own is The Abominable Snowman Of The Himalayas (1957), but I don’t think I own anything that early with Chris Lee in it. I don’t know, maybe, it was the black and white photography that makes him appear so young to me. I was never a fan of Hammer’s Drac or Frankenstein movies, so I grew up on being affected by Lee in The Island Of The Burning Doomed (1967, aka Night Of The Big Heat), The Creeping Flesh (1973), The Gorgon (1964), The Devil Rides Out (1968), and Horror Express (1972).
I had plans to buy City Of The Dead but that never happened. I can’t remember why either. But I had to jump at the chance to review this remastered blu-ray and finally see what this flick was all about. City Of The Dead is about Satanism plain and simple. I don’t own a lot of movies where Satanists are the bad guys, Odd Thomas (2013) is the closest. When I think of great horror flicks involving Satanists, though, my mind goes to The Devil’s Rain (1975) and Race With The Devil (1975). I shall now add City Of The Dead to that very short list.
Christopher Lee plays college History professor, and a 268-year-old Satanist, by the name of Allan Driscoll who hails from Whitewood, Massachusetts. Whitewood’s not a place the average person would want to visit. For one thing it’s stuck in the 17th century, seems to be perpetual night there, and fog is rampant, I mean everywhere, and all the time, which makes it kind of cool place for a momentary pass-through, but you don’t want to live there, especially if you’re a young girl. Satanists run this town, actually a village, but certainly not a city, despite some characters mentioning that in the movie. Silly Satanists. And twice a year (Candlemas Eve and the Witch’s Sabbath) they have to sacrifice a young girl to keep their eternal youth that started back in 1692 when a witch by the name of Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) was almost burned at the stake. There were others there who were also in league with the Devil as Selwyn cursed the town. It’s kind of sketchy on whether they’re ghosts or immortal, I had the impression they were immortal after making that pact in the prologue, but one of their numbers can vanish from a car seat like he was never there. I just assumed that pact gave some of these Satanists powers beyond those of average men.
It’s coming around to that time of year again when they need to knife a hot chick to keep on living. Enter Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson). She’s a hot chick in Driscoll’s class and on this particular night talk has come around to Whitewood, the burning of witches and Ol’ Scratch. Nan is inspired and wants to do a paper on Whitewood and their Satanistic ways. What a coincidence, Driscoll mentions he’s from Whitewood and gives her the name of the hotel down there, the Raven’s Inn, where she can stay and do hands on research. Nan has a boyfriend, Bill (Tom Naylor), who thinks all this Satanism talk is bullshit. She also has a brother, Richard (Dennis Lotis), a teacher at the college, who thinks the same way. Both aren’t’ keen on her going either because she’s going to miss this shower they’re all supposed to be at, but she swears she can go to Whitewood and make the party too.
From here on out, for a little while anyway, the movie moves into heavy creep mode that had me thinking along the lines of a dream or a nightmare. It had that vibe. It starts oozing atmosphere like crazy, which I liked. So much fog, man. As she gets close to the town, she picks up a hitchhiker, Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall), who acts just as creepy. He says he’s going to Whitewood and staying at the Raven’s Inn too. Once they get there and she turns away for a second he vanishes right out of the car. This encounter happens again later on with another chick. Running the hotel is a Mrs. Newless. If you’re paying attention, you’ll eventually recognize this Newless and Jethrow from the prologue. Newless is Selwyn, and Jethrow was in the crowd praying for Satan to help her.
What took me by surprise by this whole part of the flick is it eventually concludes with Nan venturing into a magnificently creepy and cobwebbed filled cellar where she’s captured by the Satanists, laid out in a slab and sacrificed! That’s right, Nan is killed off! I wasn’t expecting that. I naturally thought she was the main character we follow through the whole movie.
We now go back to that party she was supposed to attend with her brother and boyfriend and they haven’t heard from her for two weeks. Sounds about right for someone who’s now dead. They decide to go down there themselves to find out what happened. Actually they go separately. Bill wasn’t supposed to go, but he follows in his car when Richard leaves. Bill doesn’t quite make it, yet. Getting close to the town he encounters a vision from the past right there in the middle of the road that forces him into an accident with a tree.
Is he dead?
Unknown at this juncture.
Rich, on the other hand, makes it to the town and meets the local bookstore owner, Patricia Russell (Betta St. John), a hot chick who’s just moved to Whitewood a few weeks earlier. Her grandfather is a Reverend who doesn’t see much turn out, if any, at the church. Strange. I wonder why? He’ll end up dead later. So does some mute chick who’s a maid at the hotel who fucks up one too many times and gets strangled.
Well, it looks like the Witch’s Sabbath is coming up. Hmmm, I wonder where they’ll get the next hot chick to sacrifice? Richard starts to figure things out as they kidnap Patricia and drag her down to that creepy cellar. But this whole thing ends in the fog enshrouded graveyard outside after Rich fucks up their ceremony with a pistol. Apparently, Ol’ Scratch gave them immunity to bullets. Rich shoots Driscoll but he doesn’t go down. At all. Not even a slouch.
Only way to kill these guys is using the shadow of a cross, which is supposed to set them ablaze. And they can’t kill Pat until the clock strikes 13. And, holy shit, is that Bill stumbling about, looking like he was just in a car accident?
It is indeed.
Consider him the cavalry.
So while they’re holding Rich hostage and getting ready to knife Pat on a slab in the graveyard, Bill stumbled to a huge cross and tried to pull it out of the ground. He almost did it when one of them damn dirty Satanist threw a dagger at him. Nailed him right in the back too, but he’s got the power of Christ on his side. I’m assuming. He got his ass up, wrenched that cross from the ground and started setting fuckers on fire right and left with its shadow. Nan’s beau saved the day, but he dies, leaving her brother Rich and Pat alive to tell the tale. They find Selwyn back at the Hotel, dead behind the desk, looking like she was burned at the cross a hundred years ago. That whole ending in the cemetery is staged really well and executed with maximum atmosphere. Loved it!
VCI Entertainment’s blu-ray came out this past March 29th!
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.66:1 high definition widescreen—2.0 LPCM English—English SDH subs only.
The picture is really good, but there as some odd “PAL-ish stutters” when the camera pans about on occasion. All other movement including from the actors looked normal though. It didn’t distract me from the movie. If you really want to see how remastered it is, check out the American version (Horror Hotel) also included on the disc. That version has not been remastered at all and it’s like night and day.
Extras included . . .
- NEW Audio Commentary With Author/Filmmaker Bruce G. Hallenbeck
- Audio Commentary With Actor Christopher Lee
- Audio Commentary/Interview With Director John Moxey
- American Version Horror Hotel (not remastered)
- Interview With Christopher Lee (45:09)
- Interview With Venetia Stevenson (19;31)
- Digital Liner Notes By Reviewer/Film Enthusiast Mike Kenney
- Photo Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer
It appears all the extras from the 2001 DVD have been ported over. For me the icing on this cake is the 2001 interview with Lee and his commentary. I love listening to him talk about his career and movies in general. In his interview he mentions they were getting ready to remake The Devil Rides Out with Director Joe Dante and in Venetia’s interview she mentions she had been contacted recently about a City Of The Dead remake. Of course, we now know neither happened.
If you’re a fan of this flick, avoid the Horror Hotel version and pick up either VCI’s DVD or this new blu! I have spoken.