Cult Movie: The City of The Dead

Ralph McLean

The City Of The Dead

RELEASED in 1960, The City Of The Dead is chiefly remembered for one thing: It was the first film from the Amicus production team of Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.

This duo would go on to deliver some of the finest fright flicks in British movie history. During the brief purple patch for cheap and cheerful exploitation efforts that was the mid 60s to early 70s, they provided a genuine challenger to Hammer films on the home-grown horror front.

Films such as Dr Terror's House Of Horrors (1965) or Tales From The Crypt (1971) may be better known and held in higher esteem by those who drink at the fountain of fear than that first attempt at stirring up a few low budget scares – but that doesn't mean The City Of the Dead isn't worth a little long overdue love and critical reappraisal.

A low-key, black and white mood piece from director John Llewellyn Moxey that weaves an intriguing tale of witchcraft in a small New England town, it's a film that has suffered from endless distribution problems down the years.

For decades now, The City Of the Dead has only been available as a faded, public domain property that turns up occasionally on free-to-view cable channels, usually stripped of several minutes footage and hidden away behind it's catchpenny US title Horror Hotel – "Just ring for doom service!", as the gaudy tag line on the poster roared.

That's why it's great to see that Arrow Video have untangled the legal web to unleash the beast on Blu-ray/DVD at last and allow us to see the film the way it was always meant to be seen.

We get a newly restored print, a glut of audio commentary tracks and interviews and a rather natty sleeve that gives the film the look of the minor gothic masterpiece it actually is.

More reminiscent of something like Mario Bava's The Mask Of Satan than anything that British horror cinema was offering in 1960, this is a wonderfully atmospheric little chiller that rattles along very nicely over just 78 minutes, delivering a few genuine thrills and spills as it goes.

Christopher Lee, adding that key element of cult credibility as always, plays an American Professor by the name of Driscoll, whose knowledge of the occult leads him to convince one of this students Nan (Venetia Stevenson) to join him on a trip to his hometown of Whitewood – a small New England enclave that once played host to an infamous witch burning.

Once they arrive in the fog-shrouded streets of the town, it swiftly becomes apparent that witchcraft and devil worshipping are still being practised by the creepy locals.

It almost goes without saying that Lee is the bad guy here – well, you'd expect nothing less, would you? – and he's planning to revive the dead witch in his own diabolical way.

There are plenty of plot twists on offer, even if some are more believable than others.

Plot-holes aside, there is much to enjoy in this beautifully shot little gothic potboiler. Lee is his usual moody self throughout and, as one of the very first portrayals of devil worship in British cinema history, it's a fascinating period piece as well.

Looking crisp and sounding great at last, The City Of The Dead deserves a second stab at cult heaven. With this Arrow re-issue, there is every chance it will get it.

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