Revisiting a classic horror movie you loved as a kid after you've aged a bit can always be a tricky thing to do. It had been at least 20 years since I last cast eyes on The City of the Dead, which I initially discovered via a fuzzy ol' Public Domain VHS copy in the early '90s. Needless to say, when it came time to see the movie again after all that time, I was rather worried that the experience would not be the same. Fortunately, just like the eponymous village itself, time has done very little to age the effectiveness of The City of the Dead. In fact, even in this era of tightly-paced thrillers, this 1960 supernatural chiller starring the irreplaceable Christopher Lee still holds up remarkably well.
Originally released in the U.S. minus two minutes of footage and sporting the ridiculous title of Horror Hotel ‒ complete with an advertising tagline reading "Just ring for doom service!" ‒ The City of the Dead is quite the engaging film. Like Hammer's game-changing Horror of Dracula (also starring Christopher Lee) from two years before, the movie's first act is devoted to a character, who ‒ though relatively minor ‒ opens the door to everything. In this instance, we witness the plight of an innocent college student (Venetia Stevenson) with a keen interest in the dark arts of black magic. Specifically, the subject of witches; a fascination which soon proves fatal.
Advised by her professor, as played by Mr. Lee, the girl heads to the teacher's hometown of Whitewood in Massachusetts. When she arrives, she finds a darkened, fog-shrouded relic of a village inhabited solely by mysterious people who ‒ naturally ‒ turn out to be witches. Leading the pack is the same witch (Patricia Jessel) who had been burned at the stake several hundred years before, wherein she placed a curse upon the area with her final, fiery breath. When the aforementioned college student fails to return from Whitewood, her brother (Dennis Lotis) and boyfriend (Tom Naylor) team up with the granddaughter (Betta St. John) of a local reverend in order to uncover the horrifying truth.
An exciting (and explosive) climax set in a graveyard ‒ which is just as riveting as many contemporary horror movie finales ‒ is perhaps The City of the Dead's best-loved moment. But the film has much more to offer, including a devoted cast who takes the subject matter seriously enough and a delightfully dreadful atmosphere brought effectively to life by cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (The Alphabet Murders, Incense of the Damned) and direction by John Moxey (The Night Stalker). An early effort from future Amicus founders Max J. Rosenberg (uncredited) and Milton Subotsky, the latter's story was adapted for the screen by crime novelist George Baxt.
Much like the shortened, shoddier-titled Horror Hotel's distribution history during those glorious, far-off days of analog videocassettes, this is not the first time the title has been issued on Blu-ray. VCI had previously released The City of the Dead to Blu-ray in 2016, presenting the cult classic with both UK and US cuts of the film and a heap of special features. Alas, as anyone who has ever picked up a VCI Blu-ray (or at least read a review about one) probably knows, they usually get something wrong. And indeed they did with that release, which was marred by a less-than-appreciated transfer via an unwanted, unappreciated, unnecessary VC-1 1080i encode.
Fortunately, VCI has managed to correct most of those problems with this new 2018 release, which presents us with a much better look at this highly enjoyable classic horror flick. This time, we get to see the film via an MPEG-4 AVC 1080p codec, which is advertised by VCI as a new 2K scan. Visually, the quality is quite above-average throughout: crisp, clear, and free of any noticeable distractions. Likewise, the LPCM 2.0 audio comes through beautifully. English (SDH) subtitles are included with this release, which is labeled as a "Limited Edition" version for some reason, despite the fact it offers no new bonus material and is missing most of the extras included on the previous Blu-ray.
Among the recycled extras here are a trailer and a vintage interview with Christopher Lee, which first popped-up on VCI's 2001 DVD. Pointlessly cropped from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1 for the previous Blu-ray release, the analog featurette still sports the same seizure-inducing interlacing issues from before, but is worth a listen (note: I said "listen") because of all the anecdotes the late British horror icon has to share. As for the "trailer" here, we get another phony re-creation of the film's original US trailer, culled from the new HD master and stitched together with awful video-generated titles. It is set to the audio of the classic 1960 trailer, with any and all mention of Horror Hotel edited out!
Apart from the disappointing special features (or lack of them, as it were), VCI's new "Limited Edition" release of The City of the Dead gives classic horror aficionados a reason to rejoice a bit (if even just a little). It was a blast to rediscover the movie again, and it was definitely righteous of VCI to re-issue the title via a better transfer. Even if they didn't seem to get anything else right here, this is still the best the film has looked in High-Definition in the US. It's also a damn good movie on top of that, and comes Highly Recommended for that reason alone.