In this rare deviation from contemplation of the printed word, I wish to consider the spooky films of Lucio Fulci, reputedly one of the grand masters of the Italian horror movie. My direct knowledge of that genre remains slight to this day-- of course I enjoy Black Sabbath by Bava, am familiar with a scattering of Argento's, have cherry-picked a few more-- for my frightening cinematic tastes tend to run in different directions. I'm more at home with the classic Universal films, and the colorful period productions of Hammer; but I derive sneaking pleasure from Romero's big three zombie-fests as well, which leads us back to Lucio Fulci, Italian gore-hound. I've been told that life lacks completeness without indulgence in his wild works, especially the awesome foursome made in short order back in the late '70s, early '80s, which apparently constitute the pinnacle of his artistic achievements. They are Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery. Well, I have acquired these movies, in splendid Blu-ray editions put out by Blue Underground and Arrow Video, discs stuffed with incredible masses of assistive special features in addition to the shows themselves. After several bouts of private screenings I think I've absorbed as many intellectual insights and emotional responses as I'm going to do, so now I present my views.
The following sections present capsule summaries of the movies, a discussion of the director's form as revealed by these, finishing with critical reviews of each and an exposition on the high regard in which some hold the films. Tread warily if fearful of spoilers. I don't kid myself that die-hard fans will learn much from this, but those no more in the know than I was recently may gain useful enlightenment.
Zombie, starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson
An apparently abandoned sailboat drifts in hazardous fashion into New York harbor. Two officers investigate, detect evidence of grotesque squalor, fiendish slaughter... and a murderous undead maniac who messily bites one officer to death. The authorities discover that the boat belongs to a research doctor who vanished in the Caribbean. His daughter wants to know what happened to him, as does a newspaper reporter. They join forces, team up with a vacationing pair to locate the doctor's island and find out what is happening.
So begins Zombie, most of which transpires on this mysterious island where voodoo reigns and the dead walk, driven by carnivorous instincts. We are introduced to the obsessive doctor and his long-suffering wife, and a few other supporting characters, but the stars of the show are the zombies, hideously corroded animated corpses with a taste for living human flesh. The movie resolves itself into a series of monstrous set-pieces involving pseudo-cannibalistic mayhem. Hero and heroine barely escape, only to find upon their return to civilization that the vile plague is spreading.
City of the Living Dead, starring Katherine MacColl, Christopher George
A beautiful young woman dies during a seance during which she suffers a terrible vision of horrid events in Dunwich, Massachusetts. Fortunately she isn't really dead, although no one realizes this until a prying reporter discovers that she has been buried alive. Meanwhile we learn about doings in Dunwich, where an evil priest commits suicide after setting in motion the opening of the gates of Hell.
While pretty girl and skeptical reporter go forth to stop the coming catastrophe, all hell breaks loose in Dunwich. The ghost of the priest appears to kill his victims in sordid ways, while the rotting victims rise to prey on family and neighbors. Before long practically everybody is dead, many of them still walking. Meanwhile hero, heroine, plus another handsome couple begin to penetrate to the heart of the grisly mystery. Horrors culminate in loathsome catacombs beneath the cemetery, where good, though taking casualties, battles evil to a bloody finish. It appears that the menace has been defeated, but it's hard to be sure.
The Beyond, starring Katherine MacColl, David Warbeck
In 1927 an artist dabbling in the occult locates one of the seven doors to Hell underneath a New Orleans hotel, which proves his undoing as the fearful townsfolk execute him, vigilante style, for a warlock. A weird young woman reads from an ancient book of evil until she is swallowed by flames. Jump to the present: another young beauty has inherited the hotel, means to reopen it. The deaths commence, increasingly nasty ones. The pretty girl from 1927 reappears, now blind, warning of unspeakable menace. A handsome doctor gets involved, and together he and the fetching hotel owner try to figure out just what kind of danger it is that's spiraling out of control. They shouldn't have bothered: the freakish atrocities soon spread beyond the hotel as the dead rise up in their legions to butcher the living. The strivings of hero and heroine pass them from one hair-raising adventure to another, eventually leading them to the place where they least want to go.
The House by the Cemetery, starring Katherine MacColl, Paolo Malco
A nice couple and their son move into an eerie old house with a long history of murder. A pretty little girl keeps appearing, in the strangest ways, to the son and no one else. A lovely but creepy babysitter arrives, clearly intent on mischief. The husband investigates his colleague Peterson, dead of a horrendous murder-suicide. Peterson had been investigating turn of the century Dr. Freudstein, instigator of bizarre medical experiments. Hideous deaths ensue. Down in the scary basement the babysitter... good Lord, I can't go on with this one. Time for a break.
Among the swarm of impresarios of cinematic horror, why write of Lucio Fulci? Well, the quartet of fright shows discussed here do provide evidence for a personal mode of story-telling expression. I enumerate four characteristic facets, in the order they immediately occur to me, as follows:
1) Extreme gore. When it comes to blood this guy matches George Romero drop for drop and throws in a bonus bucket of guts. To the uninitiated I say "beware." Certain scenes in these films can induce the debilitating syndrome known as "gore shock." Fulci is fond of poked out eyes, maggots, rotten flesh, and scattered human debris. Any one of his choice moments may be challenged by competitors, but Fulci really pours it on, rarely letting up.
2) Scary atmosphere. Fulci knows how to generate fear. His sets make the case for terror, whether they be shunned old houses, burial grounds, or gloomy subterranean chambers. Some of the set design is masterful, indicative of high production values. Fulci at his best contrives a dreamy, or nightmarish, feel to his scenes which can be quite effective.
3) Adequate direction. Fulci does a fairly good job of managing camera work and composition, presenting his images in such a manner that his movies don't look cheap or slap-dash. This aspect of his direction can be first class. His handling of actors and their dialogue isn't so successful (the result of language barriers?), resulting in what appears to be unintended awkward behavior and clumsy exchanges. I'm amused by what I think of as a most Italian employment of close-ups, especially about the eyes, a hallmark too of the "spaghetti western."
4) Style over substance. This issue constitutes the most problematic point of the Fulci method, one I find more critical than the artistic merits of his splatter displays. Detractors may well accuse Fulci of not knowing how to tell a story. He offers individual scenes of great power, often immersed in weakly plotted narratives, the whole being less than the sum of its parts. It can be hard to figure out just what he's demanding of his script writer, or what he's logically trying to accomplish with the film.
Let's get back to his big four, analyzing them within the framework of the above factors, now in the order of perceived importance.
This simplest of the stories hangs together the best, perhaps because it is simple and there's less to go wrong. The narrative flows in a straightforward fashion, one well composed scene leading with reasonable logic to the next. I do note that Fulci never develops the intriguing voodoo angle, the murky native practices supposedly underlying the horror remaining beyond the vision of camera and characters. Nor do we learn what exactly the doctor is doing on the island, whatever it is causing his wife to hate and fear him. Instead of these important elements Fulci throws in some gratuitous (if delicious) nudity and a silly fight scene with a shark.
Fulci's island is a frightening place all right. The decaying native village, its living population horribly dwindling, the isolated locales where the characters confront agony and death, are worthy contributions to the cinema of fear. Fulci manufactures grand gore, of course, especially those scenes involving the doctor's wife-- two of them, eye-ball piercing and dismemberment-- and the slaughter of a young woman by the awakened denizen of an ancient, forgotten graveyard.
Poor acting regularly mars this one. Richard Johnson consistently shines, Ian McCulloch often, the others only when it suits them. In this Zombie is the least of the four.
Possibly the most accessible of the bunch, I also find it the most derivative (via Romero, obviously) and lacking in imagination. The next three seem to shoot for more ambitious goals.
City of the Living Dead
This is an extremely complicated story, with numerous sub-plots, some of them not dove-tailing (if ever) until nearly the end of the movie. A great deal remains unexplained or poorly expressed; the narrative doesn't always narrate. Just what is that priest all about? Why does he do the things he does, before and after death? How do heroes and heroines (maybe) know how to deal with the situation? Instead of logical coherency we get stunning visual impacts, one after another, some of them quite nastily artistic. Meaning seems to lie within scenes rather than spanning them.
Fulci's Dunwich, while bearing no relation to Lovecraft's other than name, proves a citadel of terror, full of scary corners around which hideous death lurks. What I call the "upside down cemetery" where the film climaxes is one of the most horrid places I've ever seen. The Fulci gore factory works over-time in this one, with plenty of quickly rotten zombies and destroyed heads. Stellar moments include the beautiful girl vomiting out her guts and the sicko head drilling scene. The latter, though most impressive, struck me as wholly unnecessary, even within the framework of such a show, as it wasn't the result of supernatural beasties.
Katherine (nee Catriona) MacColl offers her first Fulci performance in this one, which she handles all right, but Christopher George comes across as more amused by the whole production than anything else. One dialogue between the pair, when in the midst of mystery seeking the lovely heroine suddenly remembers it's lunch-time, scans weirdly. Was that supposed to be comic relief? It jars, possibly with intent. Actually the supporting cast impress me more, all of them fostering the realism eschewed by the stars.
The abruptly nonsensical ending, so open to vacuous interpretation, marks the oddest of oddball moments in this one. I've read or listened to all the relevant discussions, and still don't get it. Clip the final thirty seconds from the movie and it automatically rates higher.
As far as the story making sense goes, this outing falls between the previous two. Fulci blesses us with a kind of linear development here, the ugly horrors of yesteryear leading with some casual logic to the nightmare explosion of today. Despite many a sudden out of the blue complication, I usually knew what was going on here, even if not always why. What's the point of bumping off the mysterious blind girl, especially since-- as I understand it-- she's already been dead once before? I guess I discern the magnitude of the mounting menace. Am I right that it means the end of the world? There are apocalyptic hints toward the finish, yet if so, what's the point of those sporadic and graphic killings along the way? The beyond belief downbeat climax hits hard, only somehow the story-line doesn't naturally produce it. I confess to an ingrained desire for happy outcomes, yet consider myself flexible on such matters; this conclusion, however, drenched me in dissatisfied dismay.
The old hotel is a wonderful setting for inspired creepiness, and though the film wanders from that locale, all its spaces remain spooky. That awful hospital, for instance, is as scary as any, though it and its stock zombies seem to have been parachuted intact from a Romero movie. There's great gore to be had, with plenty of delightfully conceived slaughters. The initial murder of the artist, the eyeball scenes, and the glorious tarantula attack stand out in my mind... whether I want them to or not! That last one, while pretty pointless, is epic. And what about the finale which brings to "life" the dead (or undead) artist's morbid painting? That's an esthetically clever and evil image.
Acting is strong throughout the show, offering me no cause for complaint. Lovely Katherine really shines in this one, and everybody else pitches in professionally. Fulci's direction serves the production all the way, right down to cunning set-pieces like the eerie encounter on the Pontchartrain bridge. Very well done, that, worthy of study I say.
The House by the Cemetery
Okay, I admit up front that this one ties me in knots. So incoherent is this distorted variant of the mad slasher tale that I could almost reject any claim that Fulci employed a shooting script. I barely piece together a slender thread of plot, something involving this long ago Dr. Freudstein who has unnaturally extended his life through obscene medical practices visited upon his pathetic victims. So far, so good, but there's a bunch of other stuff too, and connecting the dots seems hopeless. Ghosts abound as well, with the putrescent Freudstein occasionally joining their ranks, and there's that business with Peterson which appears a fairly different story-line, and I don't want to run away with myself discussing the creepy babysitter. What on earth is she up to, and if by some ridiculous chance the answer be "nothing," then why not? Style has so completely triumphed over substance in this cinematic tour de force that I defy any viewer to prise from it the explanation. I'm not convinced there is one, other than clumsy story-telling.
No complaints about sets and scares, which all live up to the standards previously established. The gore is most repellent here, with increased emphasis on pain and cruelty; less "wow," more "yuck." The knife in the head stands out as typical Fulci.
Again the acting rises to the occasion, with just about everybody turning in good work, even if the little boy's voice feeds comparisons to fingernails on chalk board. That mysterious little girl is especially convincing. Miss MacColl, in her final Fulci venture, once again pleases. I must say, however, that she and her equally good co-star are thrown away at the end in rather cavalier fashion, one more blurt of strangeness from this piece.
Oh yes, about the time travel (or afterlife?) twist at the end: I surrender. Great stuff, but I can't make hide nor hair of it either.
By now the reader may have reasonably concluded that I'm about to deliver a short, smirking "thumbs down" to these famous creations of Lucio Fulci, with perhaps a few appeasing comments tossed in just to prove that I'm a decent stick. To the contrary, fearsome fans, purge such blasphemies from your minds. I derive much more from these four films. Indeed, they provide me with entirely unexpected food for thought which tantalizes my mental palate, and which I feel the need to share. You see, in certain respects I have relished this kind of repast before.
While watching them I found myself thrilled and exasperated by turns, but in many cases the troublesome aspects sent me into a pleasurable brood. For some the brain-stunning graphics may constitute the big draw, nor do I minimize that fascination, but the elements of shotgun-blast plotting rise to the fore when I dwell on what I've witnessed. Stumbling over peculiar passages, I often progressed from a "Come on, get real" response to a "No, dunk me further in this zany dream." Could it be that the logical tintinnabulations of these movies are "part of the art?" Can inspired craziness or weirdness exalt itself to a plateau of critical quality? Adroitly managed, I believe it can.
Some of my literary interests suggest this. Who stands higher in the ranks of horror fiction than H.P. Lovecraft? Yet several of his classic tales possess goofy facets, stuff that makes me roll my eyes or snort in high-brow disdain. Wilmarth in "The Whisperer in Darkness" is a cretin, but isn't it terrorizing fun to follow along with him as he stupidly blunders into an obvious trap? Think of the explorers in At the Mountains of Madness, so long assuring themselves all is normal despite the mounting evidence of monstrous activity. Lovecraft's people often act foolishly, don't make sense or convince, yet marvelous frightfulness flows from their behavior and the plots built around them. His stories stand the test of time: despite, or partially because of the oddities? Fulci's famous four have stood the test as well. They're still talked about, when much more initially popular, expensive, and successful films have sunk into the dust.
Basil Copper, of whom I've already written much, isn't Hemingway either, but maybe that isn't such a bad thing. We can deduce that isn't the route to morbid acclaim. In previous essays I praise or take seriously his Gothic mystery novels, make a big deal out of his Lovecraftian opus The Great White Space, while taking liberties to carp at all sorts of weak points. Consider the latter book. Copper provides us with a solid story concept, a number of thrilling scenes, a band of generally adequate characters to act them out... and yet the whole doesn't entirely hang together in the fashion one expects from, say, Jane Austen. Certain parts clash with others, interesting constructions bubble up only to burst unresolved, and the long awaited grand finale borders on the unexplainable. You know, this starts to sound familiar. It begins to resemble a movie by Lucio Fulci. It's even got the freaky gore.
Who but Fulci could film such a novel? I do believe I've put my finger on an aspect of weird story-telling that can matter. I must posit an oft important "quirk factor," that can, in unique circumstances, elevate a tale above itself. The dreamy shifting of structural logic, the haphazard dopiness of characters, the carelessness toward "by the numbers" plot resolution achieve in themselves a lofty form of art that, perhaps merely by luck, attain fabulous heights. I postulate "by luck" because I'm not sure, in any specific case, that the wonderfully quirky occurs from deliberation. It would be tough to plan, wouldn't it? I suspect that chance, a union of disparate unrelated bits, plays a major role.
I don't expect all horror devotees to buy this proposition. Lovecraft states that the appreciation of cosmic horror is the domain of a sensitive few. The same may be true for quirkiness. If the quirk factor be a valid tool for analysis, then these four films by Fulci stand tall. Zombie fares well, City of the Living Dead and The Beyond excel. I suppose, then, that means The House by the Cemetery must rank as king of them all. I confess to a lingering resistance to this conclusion. Perhaps I need to watch that wacky thing again.
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