When people think of Italian horror, Dario Argento is the first name that invariably comes to mind. And why wouldn’t it? With some of the most influential films in the horror genre, (Suspiria (1977), Profondo Rosso (1975), and Opera (1987), to name but a few), he brought Italy to our attention with the care and style that few could match.
After Argento we might think of Mario Bava, who brought stylised violence to the screen with Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Black Sabbath (1963), and set Italy going in horror movies, and their closely related counterpart of the giallo, like never before. Slasher films in the 80’s consistently came back to the ’64 movie time and time again for inspiration.
Next on the list, however, is Lucio Fulci, this article’s focus. This is a man who created some of the most astounding visuals, in the pulpiest films you’ll ever see. He crafted a unique oeuvre of gore and gristle, but with a mastery that few have touched.
Born in Rome in the mid nineteen-twenties, Fulci was first set on medicine, and whilst working as an art critic, turned his mind to film. Whilst starting off with comedies in the fifties, as the sixties neared their end he began crafting violent thrillers which, understandably, saw him fall out of favour with the Catholic Church.
Beginning really with Lizard in a woman’s skin in 1971, and Don’t torture a Duckling the following year in 1972, Fulci began to blend the stylish giallo of his contemporary, Argento, with graphic violence, pushing extreme filmmaking to new levels.
He brought out a slew of films in the next few years, a particular favourite of mine being Seven Notes in Black (also known as Seven Black Notes or The Psychic) in 1977, but Fulci really left his mark on cinema starting two years afterward. Zombie Flesh Eaters (or Zombi, or Zombie 2) released in 1979, was Italy’s answer to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Coincidentally, Dario Argento, worked on Romero’s film. Flesh Eaters really brought something a little exotic to the zombie genre, as well as conceiving two of the greatest scenes in horror history, the first being the zombie vs. shark fight. The second, which I’m indulging myself to discuss at length now, is the famous eye piercing scene.
Fulci takes his time to construct this scene, heightening the tension up like stretching an elastic band. He focuses on the shadow of the light from outside in the battle with the zombie to close the door, with no loud noises or music. There are no tricks, just showing an image of two sides struggling for purchase, pure cinema, as Hitchcock would have called it. The door closed, the heroine puts a chest in front of the door, and then, two minutes into the scene, the zombie bursts through and grabs her head. Splinter on the shattered door. And an eye to be pierced.
Fulci is obsessed with eyes and sight, one of his directorial trademarks being a quick zoom into the face for a reaction, almost a crash cut. This time, however, he takes his sweet time. Her head comes closer, and we cut to a POV of the splinter, tracking in. Reaction shot, and in we go a little tighter. Fulci does this as many times as he can get away with, building, building. And then, as with all scenes of suspense, you need a pay-off. If you’re a gore-hound, what a magnificent pay-off it is.
This scene is incredibly Hitchcockian in its construction, that you begin to understand that there’s a great talent behind the camera. Fulci isn’t just about gore; he’s about crafting a memorable scene. So memorable, in fact, that although I’ve no confirmation of it being conscious, I invite you to take a look at the spike eye-gouging scene in Saw 3D (2010). It’s almost exactly the same construction. Over 30 years later and a pulpy little Italian film is referenced in one of the biggest horror franchises of all time.
Fulci might have had his moment in the spotlight here with Zombie Flesh Eaters, were it not for his crowning glory. The triple-header of City of the Living Dead in 1980, and both The Beyond and The House by the Cemetary in 1981, formed his ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy. These three films, and especially The Beyond, are his masterpieces. Fulci doesn’t so much create or direct these films as dream them, surreal images like a collage of nightmares, culminating in a dark, mist-soaked atmosphere of unutterable dread. Buckets of gore thrown in for good measure help to create some of the most beautifully constructed nightmare-fuel ever to emerge of Italy. Fulci knows how to create an image worthy of putting up on your wall, and these three films are his perfect showcase.
I was lucky enough to see Fabio Frizzi, who scored many of Fulci’s films, perform his new composer’s cut for The Beyond, as a live accompaniment, at Abertoir Horror Festival 2016. Sat on the row behind me was Luigi Cozzi, another Italian director of the same period and good friend of Argento and the Bava family. It was the European Premiere of the new music as a live score, and there was something magical in the room that night. I won’t get too romantic, but it was there. Every second of that film and performance dripped with something special, from every zombie killed to each misty alleyway, right to its surrealist final moments in that landscape of beyond, it was like watching a lovechild between Salvador Dali and David Cronenberg, with a perfect prog-rock accompaniment. If Fulci’s ghost was there, I think he would have been proud to see a packed house enjoying his film decades later.
Unfortunately, a few years later, Fulci released Conquest (1983). An epic fantasy trying to cash in on the trend being started by films like Conan the Barbarian (1982), it flopped. This was Fulci’s big break, and it killed him instantly. There wasn’t much more of note ever produced, and I’m inclined to think that Fulci was a little bitter by it all. The House of Clocks (1989) is a very nice supernatural home-invasion style thriller, and A Cat in the Brain in 1990 is good fun, but that’s about it. Succumbing to medical conditions in the mid nineties, he passed away in 1996, in the middle of production for a remake of Vincent Price’s House of Wax with Dario Argento, with whom Fulci had finally agreed to work with after many decades of petty spites.
Fulci’s work is vastly underappreciated, even, I think, within the casual horror scene itself. He was a craftsman that was severely overlooked, and it wasn’t perhaps until Quentin Tarantino used the theme for Seven Notes in Black as a part of his Kill Bill (Kill Bill (Vol. 1), 2003) score, and released a few of his movies in cinemas for limited release, that people really paid attention to him. His writing could be as tightly plotted as any Argento giallo; his love of voyeurism and tension could rival Hitchcock. He used as much gore as Cronenberg, and yet his vivid imagination never really caught the public. His is a volume of work that takes a little digging to get into, but once experienced fully, is never forgotten.
And that’s the point. Fulci’s movies are never forgettable, even some of the later films where his declining health undoubtedly played a part in their quality. A horror hack he might have seemed to the public, but underneath it all was an incredibly talented individual who is only now, decades after his passing, beginning to get the true recognition that he deserved.
Article by Kieran Judge (2018)
A Cat in the Brain. 1990. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Exclusive Cine TV.
Black Sabbath. 1963. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Emmepi.
Blood and Black Lace. 1964. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Emmepi.
City of the Living Dead. 1980. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Dania Film.
Conan The Barbarian. 1982. [Film] Directed by John Milius. USA: Dino De Laurentiis.
Conquest. 1983. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Clemi Cinematgorafica.
Dawn of the Dead. 1978. [Film] Directed by George A Romero. USA: Laurel Group Inc..
Don’t Torture a Duckling. 1972. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Medusa Produzione.
House of Wax. 1953. [Film] Directed by Andre DeToth. USA: Warner Bros..
Kill Bill (Vol. 1). 2003. [Film] Directed by Quentin Tarantino. USA: A Band Apart.
Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. 1971. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: International Apollo Films.
Profondo Rosso. 1975. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacoli.
Saw 3D. 2010. [Film] Directed by Kevin Greutert. USA: Lionsgate.
Seven Notes In Black. 1977. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Rizzoli Film.
Suspiria. 1977. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacolli.
Terror At The Opera. 1987. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: ADC Films.
The Beyond. 1981. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Fulvia Film.
The House by the Cemetary. 1981. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Fulvia Film.
The House of Clocks. 1989. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Dania Film.
Zombie Flesh Eaters. 1979. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy : Variety Film.