Even though it’s just shy of twenty years ago, I can remember — with alarming clarity — the day I saw my first Fulci film: Paura nella città dei morti viventi, (City of the Living Dead, 1980) in the summer of 1997, thanks to an Anchor Bay VHS tape (released under the title of The Gates of Hell) that I randomly bought from Suncoast Video because I was excited about the still on the back of the box depicting a priest hanging himself. My grandmother, who would sportingly watch horror movies with me free of any stereotypically grandmotherly judgment, excused herself from the room within just a few minutes; as a Catholic, I don’t think she was keen on the concept of priestly suicide. About halfway through the film marks a significant turning point in my life, from when I pretty much never looked back: I was foolishly eating leftover spaghetti just as Daniela Doria began bleeding from her eyeballs and vomiting up her intestines, the single time in my life that a movie has actually made me gag.
I’ve heard other people talk about their first loves, and while I can’t say for sure whether or not I’ve actually experienced that myself, the love affair that began with Fulci and with City of the Living Dead led me to discover a number of other, perhaps more beloved, Italian genre directors and to a passion for cult cinema that continues, obsessively. Over the following few years, largely through bootleg tapes and local screenings, I was able to wade through much of Fulci’s filmography and if there’s a single film that managed to supplant City of the Living Dead as my favorite, it’s surely Lo squartatore di New York (New York Ripper, 1982). I can’t say I’ve met many other people who like the film, let alone genuinely love it, but that hasn’t slowed me down.
Admittedly, it is one of Fulci’s most difficult films, thanks in part to the nihilistic tone, graphic violence that has caused some critics to label it misogynistic, and a sort of free-for-all attitude to the plot that makes you sit back and think, “Surely not…” In a lot of ways, Fulci was a direct precursor to my love for more overtly surrealist directors like Jodorowsky, Fellini, and Buñuel, though I realize his obsession with the zoom lens and narrative non-sequiturs make him a bit of an acquired taste. And part of what I love about New York Ripper — aside from its often flagrant nihilism — is the film’s embrace of urban squalor and psychic disorder.
It opens with horribly mutilated female corpses turning up around the city, which stumps the police department (headed by Fulci himself in one of his trademark cameos). Jaded Lieutenant William (Jack Hedley) is in charge of the case and calls for the aid of young psychotherapist, Dr. Davis (Paolo Malco), with the hope that they can at least get a psychological profile. Meanwhile, a woman named Jane (Alexandra Delli Colli) looks for sex wherever she can get it – and records her exploits for her wheelchair-bound husband (Cosimo Cinieri) – but eventually stumbles into the arms of a killer. Fay (Almanta Suska), a local young woman, is targeted by a man with two missing fingers (Howard Ross), but escapes with her life. She also has a disturbing dream that her boyfriend Peter (the divine Andrea Occhipinti) has tried to kill her with a knife, but he arrives to the hospital grateful that she is alive. Lieutenant Williams continues to receive taunting phone calls from the killer, who quacks like a duck.
That is the best I can do with a plot description and yes, the killer uses a Donald Duck voice. If you can’t get past that, I get it, but I also feel sorry that you can’t embrace an array of totally insane surprises within a narrative film. But if you can find your way towards the black, subversive heart of New York Ripper, you’ll find out why it’s Fulci’s most controversial film; it’s arguably his most hateful film, a brutal reimagining of the giallo — and also something of a slasher — set in the heyday of New York sleaze and it’s much more at home alongside New York-set films like Driller Killer (1979), Don’t Go in the House (1980), and Maniac (1980) than it is any of the classic era giallo films from the early ‘70s. It also marks the end of Fulci’s two year golden period, where he made some of his goriest and most notable works, including Zombi 2 (Zombie, 1979), City of the Living Dead, and …E tu vivrai nel terrore! L’aldilà (The Beyond, 1981).
New York Ripper is not for the faint of heart, or the serious-minded. One of the things I’ve always loved most about Fulci is his sense of the surreal, the bizarre, and — dare I say it — the whimsical. While there are elements of this in everything from Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971) to The Beyond, New York Ripper is simply packed full of surreal elements likely to aggravate the casual viewer. In addition to the killer’s maniacal quacking, the dialogue has some real gusto (my favorite line occurs when the medical examiner tells the Lieutenant mid-autopsy that the latest victim had a knife stuck up her “joy trail”), and there’s find everything from a never-ending game of futuristic chess to public toe sex.
The film’s sexual content is its main source of controversy. Many scenes are flat out softcore porn, which shouldn’t phase anyone familiar with Eurohorror, but will likely drive the squeamish American slasher purists running for the hills, and the majority of the film’s characters exist seemingly only to seek out sexual gratification. Jane goes to a live sex show — a scene that inspired me to wander into a French porno theatre when I was sixteen, out of sheer curiousity, though that’s a story for another day — where she masturbates, is later pleasured by a complete stranger’s toes at a café, and makes audio sex tapes for her husband. Even the Lieutenant, who is essentially the film’s moral center, visits a prostitute. From a sliced nipple and eyeball (courtesy of actress Daniela Doria, who Fulci killed imaginatively many times throughout his career) to a broken bottle jammed up an aforementioned joy trail, most of the violence is vividly splayed out across the hyper-sexualized female form by the cartoonish killer.
This is also, by far, Fulci’s goriest film. While there is technically more blood and general fluids of decay in Zombie, City of the Living Dead, or The Beyond, New York Ripper has a no holds barred attitude to violence, particularly sexual violence. It also shares the nihilistic tone of Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972) — where the victims are primarily children on the verge of puberty — with which it has a fair amount in common. Some serious SPOILERS: In that film, the killer is a young, handsome priest (Marc Porel), who murders pre-teen boys to preserve their innocence. New York Ripper’s killer (Andrea Occhipinti, who could be Porel’s brother) is murdering sexually mature and often promiscuous women because his young daughter is riddled with cancer and will die before she matures. In both cases, sexuality is viewed — by the obviously insane killer — as the ultimate corrupting force.
And like Don’t Torture a Duckling, or even A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, there are essentially no likable characters, no warm relationships, and no affection. There are many intimate sexual, romantic, and familial relationships in the film, but none of these exhibit even the faintest signs of genuine love. The characters respectively fixate on control, necessity, and base need. At their core, the characters as a whole are motivated by a selfish, even sociopathic desire for survival. What’s truly unsettling about this film is that instead of reasonably normal characters plagued by an abnormal killer (as in Argento’s Tenebre and any number of giallo films), the killer’s emotional state soaks into the very heart of New York Ripper.
The script from Dardano Sacchetti is delightfully nonsensical, full of some great red herrings and plot twists. All the random subplots and pieces of seemingly useless information typically found in giallo films comes together for the an emotionally icy conclusion, which serves mostly to cement the film’s real message of gut-wrenching despair. If you think you’re a fan of brutal nihilism in cinema, New York Ripper is certainly one of the highlights and, at minimum, it’s a filmic work unlike any other. And, in case you want to know what one of the locations looks like today, here’s a shot of the park near the Brooklyn Bridge from the opening of the film, which I’ve managed to visit a few times over the last couple of years for exclusively New York Ripper-related mania, though I have yet to make the trip wearing a pair of socks with silver toes.