The 13th of March marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Italian film maker Lucio Fulci. While Fulci dipped his toes into many genres (including Westerns and Musicals) throughout the years it is his horror films that he is best remembered for. After all, one doesn’t receive a nickname like the ‘The Godfather of Gore’ without having impaled a few eyeballs. Such is the lot of many an artist, however, that they often don’t receive the kudos they are due until after their death. At various times throughout his career Fulci was branded as a misogynist, a peddler of filth, a rip-off merchant and always denied the plaudits given to contemporaries such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava. And when one learns of the circumstances surrounding his death, it brings an extra layer of poignancy to this fact. However, the fact that many of his works have now been reclassified as cult classics is surely a means for celebration, a good time to look back at some of his formidable body of work, and the influence they have had on cinema in the 20 years since he died. (And seeing as Italian horror cinema was basically built on ideas taken from successful American ventures, it would be amiss not to look at Fulci’s influences for his films too). Fulci has a huge cannon of films to choose from, so this piece will focus on a choice few (A choice few that have no bearing on the author’s personal preferences and the fact that she forgot she only owned The Beyond on VHS until it was too late. Ahem).
Zombie (aka Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombies 2, Woodoo) – 1979
Plot: When the police investigate a seemingly abandoned boat that appears in New York they are attacked by a strange looking man with cannibalistic tendencies. The boat belonged to Anne’s (Tisa Farrow) father. She and newspaper reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) decide to head to the Caribbean island where he was last seen, to investigate. They hitch a lift with Brian (Pierluigi Conti) and Susan (Auretta Gay). On arrival finding that despite the best efforts of Dr Menard (Richard Johnson), a voodoo curse has inflicted the local population, causing the deceased to return and feast on the living.
Influences: While often touted as an unofficial sequel to George A. Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead, Zombie was actually written (by Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti) prior to the release of that film in Italy. When Dawn of the Dead (known as Zombi in Italy) became a hit, the producers of Zombi quickly renamed it Zombi 2; filming some book ending scenes in New York in an attempt to tie it to the Romero’s feature. However, Fulci’s influences in making the film were more in the vein of classic black and white zombie films such as I Walked with a Zombie, directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Influenced: Mostly Fulci himself. Fulci never set out to be a horror director, primarily or otherwise. This film set him on the path that would bestow the ‘Godfather of Gore’ title on him, and rescue him from the career doldrums he had found himself in at this point in his life.
Reflections: Zombie remains a visceral viewing experience to this day. Of all of Fulci’s horror fare this one probably has the most straightforward, frills free plot. The frills, in fact, are in all the set pieces; some of which have aged better than others – while the famous zombie V.S shark now looks a little silly (but still amazing, because frankly, it’s a shark fighting a freaking zombie), the splinter to the eye ball scene remains as squirm inducing as ever. The film has atmosphere in spades, and Fulci really captures the dingy, decaying, claustrophobic feeling of the place once the characters are on the cursed isle. Helping out in this regard is the fantastic score, by Fabio Frizzi and the amazingly gruesome special effects by Giannetto De Rossi and Rossario Prestopino; which unlike the (still completely charming) zombies of Dawn of the Dead actually look like (and look like they would smell like) rotting corpses. Zombie was most genre fan’s introduction to Fulci, and what an entrance it made.
The House by the Cemetery (aka Quella Villa Accanto al Cimitero, Zombie Hell House) – 1981
Plot: When Dr Norman Boyle’s (Paolo Malco) colleague commits suicide he heads to his house in Boston to continue his research with his wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) in tow. Once in the house strange things start to happen, Bob starts talking to a girl that only he can see, while Dr Boyle’s research into the house’s former occupant Dr Freudstein takes a very sinister turn. And he may not be so former after all.
Influences: The name of the maniacal Dr Freudstein is obviously a combination of Freud and Frankenstein. There are also echoes of H.P Lovecraft in the New England setting and Stephen King’s The Shining with the focus on a child character with special ‘gifts’. The Amityville Horror had been a massive hit in 1979 so haunted houses with bleeding walls were in vogue. Fulci himself noted Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents as an influence.
Influenced: Ted Geoghgean’s 2015 film We Are Still Here was directly inspired by The House by the Cemetery, with various characters in the film sharing names with characters from Fulci’s film.
Reflections: House by the Cemetery is the last in Fulci’s unofficial ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy, the others being 1980’s City of the Living Dead and 1981’s The Beyond. House by the Cemetery doesn’t have the same ethereal and dreamlike qualities of those two films but is still chock full of the signature Fulci atmosphere (also featuring several of the signature Fulci plot holes and lapses in logic). Fulci once again proves he can ratchet up the tension like no one else when there’s a delicate body part at risk. The scene where the gruesome Dr Freudstein holds’s Bob’s head at the basement door while his unknowing father chops with an axe, on the other side, makes a nice companion set piece to the eye gouging in Zombie or the drill through the head in City of the Living Dead. Speaking of Bob, it’s a shame the English dub for his character is so terrible, proving a distraction from the tone of the whole film. Usually the poor dubbing in Fulci films can be quite charming in a hokey way. In this instance one gets the feeling that a large part of the audience were willing Dr Freudstein and his axe on. With the old imposing house, the mystery of the mad doctor in the basement and the ghosts of children House by the Cemetery is Fulci’s spin on a traditional Gothic horror film. It certainly has none of the subtlety of The Haunting, or even of Hammer Horror’s more lurid efforts, but it works, even if it is on the level of ‘Mad as a Hatter but fully entertaining’.
The New York Ripper (aka Lo Squartatore Di New York, L’eventreur de New York) – 1982
Plot: A maniac with a penchant for impersonating Donald Duck is attacking and butchering women in New York in a series of brutal and horrific murders. Lieutenant Williams (Jack Hedley) is assigned to catch the killer; who then promptly starts taunting him by phone. Williams teams up with psychologist Dr Davis (Paolo Malco) in order to gain an insight into the killer’s deranged mind.
Influences: Fulci stated that he wanted to pay tribute to Hitchcock. “The New York Ripper is in a way a Hitchcock revisited, a fantastic film with a plot, violence, and sexuality,” (Splintered Visions – Lucio Fulci and His Films, Troy Howarth 2015) The piece features shades of Jack the Ripper and it is possible that inspiration was taken from the most notorious of serial killers for this, his most notorious of films.
Influenced: The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) to have an apocalyptic meltdown. BBFC Chairman James Ferman had all prints exported from the country, apparently under police escort. The film was banned for many years in the U.K, and wasn’t released in any form until 2002, when it released on VHS by Vipco, albeit heavily cut. It is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, but a fully uncut version is not yet available in the UK. In the US the film was also cut, but in typical backwards censor fashion, the nudity and sex scenes were trimmed, as opposed to the violence. Carol Topolski, who saw the film while working for the BBFC, had this to say about it; “…it is simply the most damaging film I have ever seen in my whole life. It was simply a relentless catalogue of the eponymous antihero/villain cutting women up. And the film-makers were feasting on what women’s bodies looked like when they were cut up…there was no way that that level of unremitting sadistic attacks on women was ever going to be passed”. (Video Nasties: Draconian Days– Dir. Jake West – 2014).
Reflections: The New York Ripper is without a doubt a grim, grubby, sleazy, violent, nihilistic, bleak affair. The violence and nudity is gratuitous and some scenes are certainly shocking. But that doesn’t make it a bad, or a badly made film. It is a film in which Fulci took the giallo film – and his career up until this point – to its natural conclusion. Fulci’s gory set pieces are always lauded as the highlights, so he made a film that was a constant series of them. The fact that it was set in modern day New York, with no supernatural undertones whatsoever, give it a much more realistic quality than his previous gore soaked films. This is the film that is always referenced when people attempt to prove that Fulci had a deep misogynist streak. It seems a very simplistic stance to take, in assuming a film in which a misogynistic killer murders women, automatically means the creators of the film harbour the same views of a fictional character. Within this line of thinking it is as if viewers can comfort themselves with the thought that while they may be considered ‘sick’ for watching The New York Ripper, as least they aren’t as mentally unhinged as the person who made it. The New York Ripper is tightly directed, making a huge city like New York feel claustrophobic with nowhere to hide isn’t an easy task, but Fulci manages it. The whole thing is garish to look at, while the city has rarely looked so unrelentingly grim. The scenes where the killer stalks his victims build up uneasy tension. You really want these characters to escape, but it is never to be. The camera lingering over the murders feels voyeuristic, and Fulci’s apparent love of eye-ball mutilation continues unabated. But then, if a disturbing film doesn’t disturb you, what’s the point? On that level it’s a film that fulfils its remit masterfully.
A Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert, Un Gatto Nel Cervello) – 1990
Plot: Lucio Fulci is having a tough time of it. He is becoming fatigued by the unremitting cruelty in his own films, and the fictional violence of his work is bleeding into his real life, resulting in disturbing images and erratic behaviour. He starts to visit a psychiatrist, Professor Swharz (David L. Thompson), in order to help understand what is happening to him. Instead of helping his patient, Swharz manipulates the fragile director into carrying out his own murderous desires.
Influences: Surely for the most part Fulci’s own cannon of films, his life and career. And a desperate desire to stage a comeback that would never come to pass.
Influenced: Fulci claimed that Wes Craven took inspiration from A Cat in the Brain for his 1994 film New Nightmare, although this seems unlikely. To this writer’s mind, Berberian Sound Studio (2012) owes something to A Cat in the Brain in the slowly corroding mental state of an unassuming man and the blending of fiction and reality in a nightmarish way whilst working on a horror film. The ‘meta-ness’ of it all is certainly a trope that has become more prolific in recent years; My Name is Bruce (2007), in which Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell plays a washed up version of himself, springs to mind; although, it is likely that particular trope owes more to Craven’s Scream (1996) than A Cat in the Brain. But with most of Fulci’s horror fare being considered cult classics now, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could have been an influence, although admittedly this might be wishful thinking on behalf of this writer.
Reflections: By 1990 Fulci’s health was deteriorating, and had been for some time. He had suffered with hepatitis in the past and diabetes all his adult life. His career at this point had pretty much stalled, with his heyday, in the early 1980’s, well behind him. A Cat in the Brain has often been derided by genre and Fulci fans, in certain respects it’s easy to see why; the directing itself isn’t up to much, the plot is shuffled to the side in favour of a mish-mash of editing in of scenes from other films Fulci was involved in (mostly: A Touch of Death (1988) and The Ghosts of Sodom (1988)), making it come off as half-arsed and unfocused. However, it is in fact a very interesting, under rated film, with a self-reflective and almost melancholy tone. The idea of violent films causing violence in real life had been a hot button topic throughout the 1980’s; for example the Video Nasties debacle of the early 1980s. Fulci himself had several films on the list of 72 films that were seized from video shops and in A Cat in the Brain the director gets the chance to respond to accusations that he and his films caused various nations’ ills. The character of Fulci in the film suffers self-doubt ,due to the violent imagery he made, yet he never would hurt anyone in real life; while the murderous Professor Swharz, who only watches the films as Fulci’s psychiatrist, was already insane enough to murder – the films didn’t make him do anything, becomes one of the messages that Fulci was trying to convey with this film. Sadly by this point in his career, people weren’t very interested in what Fulci had to say, and this not especially well made, directed, acted or edited, but nevertheless, unique and insightful film made barely a ripple at the Italian box office, and wasn’t released on DVD in the UK until 2003 and 2009 in America.
In his native Italy Fulci has remained a controversial and embattled figure, stemming most likely from what was seen as damming condemnations on the Catholic Church with his early giallo films A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling and his sometimes abrasive temperament on set didn’t win him many friends. It is in the West that Fulci’s reputation with horror fans has flourished, even before his death – only two months prior he travelled to New York to appear at a Fangoria “Masters of Horror” Convention and was mobbed by fans; which was hopefully some comfort and vindication to him in his last months. Lucio Fulci died at the age of 68 on March 13th 1996. He died in his sleep due to his ongoing struggle with diabetes. His health struggles had led to lack of work, leading to lack of finances and by all accounts the director was quite a despondent figure by the time of his death; never achieving the big comeback he sought, and never achieving the critical appraisal he thought his work was due. However, one of the benefits of working in a niche field is that fans tend to be voracious and passionate. His films are loved by many all over the world, with such a formidable back catalogue to collect (he directed 56 films all in all) and with companies such as Arrow Films and 88 Films (in the UK), and Grindhouse and Blue Underground (in the USA) working hard to release new and shiny prints of cult classics of yesteryear, it is impossible to believe that Fulci will ever be forgotten. As another sadly departed creative force Sir Terry Pratchett once wrote – “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away”, (Reaper Man, 1991). With every impaled eyeball captured on film, Fulci continues to ripple, and long may he do so.