Sunday, April 19, 2020

Things that Will Shatter Your Imagination: The Accidental Genius of Lucio Fulci 1979/1982.

Supernatural disgust! No one approaches without revealing to me, despite himself, the stage of his putrefaction, the livid destiny which awaits him. Every sensation is sepulchral, every delight a dirge.
E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist. 

5 September, Rome: - We saw Zombi 2 – science fiction horror film. Ghastly, repulsive trash.
Andrei Tarkovsky, from his diary.

In the golden age of Italian film-making, there were three distinct tiers of directors. At the apex, at least in terms of cultural prominence, art house giants like Fellini and Antonioni commanded international respect and considerable artistic freedom. Next, genre auteurs and specialists like Sergio Leone and Dario Argento carved out niches in specific popular genres. Critical respect would come more slowly to these directors, but they enjoyed a kind of prominence and budgetary license within the Italian film industry. Finally, at the lowest rung in terms in budgets and critical appreciation, great journeyman directors like Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi produced movies, quickly and cheaply, in whatever genre producers happened to be churning out at the time. Only more recently have these directors come to be appreciated as auteurs in their own right. 

 A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (Fulci, 1971).

If you don't count Mario Bava in this category, Lucio Fulci was perhaps the greatest of these journeyman directors. It is a peculiarity of Fulci's legacy that the bulk of his cult notoriety rests on a sequence of ultra-gory and increasingly surreal horrors which he directed between 1979 and 1982. The iconography of these movies – gouged eyeballs, spewing entrails, deliquescent faces – defines Fulci as an auteur and icon of horror cinema. Yet Fulci had been making movies for decades in 1979, and only really stumbled into the horror genre because he was broke, and the success of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) put zombies firmly on the radar of Italy's magpie-like producers. The artistic peak of Fulci's career was in the early to mid-70s, when he produced the historical masterpiece Beatrice Cenci, and three of the greatest of all the giallos in A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Don't Torture a Duckling and The Psychic.

Yet Fulci's output in '79 to '82, if not his highest achievement, is nevertheless a unhinged treasure trove of cult/midnight movie madness. The peculiar appeal of these movies has to be understood in the context of how they were made. Champions of Fulci's gore movies often present them as highly deliberate, authorial works of surrealism and pure cinema. This is at least partially true, but it ignores the difficulty of untangling intention and accident in the strange aesthetics of movies like The Beyond and House by the Cemetery

 Inferno (Argento, 1980).

These films were made subject to breakneck schedules, fluctuating budgets and frequent production interference. Fulci himself described The Beyond (as well as Argento's Inferno) as examples of “absolute film”: “a film of images, which must be received without any reflection.” Inferno provided a template for the kind of irrational, almost non-narrative horror that Fulci would pursue in the 80s, yet it was itself partially a product of accidental circumstances. Suitably enough for such a fever dream of a movie, Inferno was plagued by illnesses. Argento himself was laid up with hepatitis, and frequently had to direct lying down or via notes from his hospital bed. Star Irene Miracle had recently recovered from a fever, and her hair began falling out, prompting Argento to kill her off early in the film, effectively re-writing the story on the hoof. While there is no doubt that Argento was more preoccupied by dream logic and cinematic formalism than narrative clarity to begin with, Inferno was a picture that became more abstract and non-linear in the telling. Similarly, screen-writer Dardano Sacchetti claimed that The Beyond acquired it's “non-grammatical” nature by virtue of the depletion of its budget.

This is not to detract from Fulci's achievement in these movies, but only to suggest that it could only have occurred within the constraints of a particular production milieu. Italian popular cinema had always been highly derivative of what was happening in the international market. Nevertheless, in the 1960s and 70s, the Italians developed versions of US genres – the spaghetti western and the giallo – which were uniquely Italian enough to constitute original indigenous inventions. By the 1980s, the great creative energy of the post-war art-house boom was waning, and the Italian popular film industry embraced the ethos of rip-off cinema with an increasingly blatant abandon, creating a near infinite number of low-budget hybrids of Mad Max, Escape from New York and The Warriors. Filtered through the feverish Italian cinematic imagination, however, these movies were largely failures as copies, but frequently come to life as cinematic Frankenstein's monsters, lumbering undead creatures made up of other movies incongruously stitched together.


Although only House by the Cemetery and Manhattan Baby fully conform to this idea of Italian rip-off cinema, Fulci's 80s gore period has to be understood properly in the context of this wonky, off-kilter production milieu. Rather than seeing them as the work of an artist in full control of his medium, Fulci's 80s horror is perhaps best envisioned as the work of a great cinematic crafsman set adrift in a declining film industry, whose imagination paradoxically rises to an almost fatalistic pitch of morbid creativity in the hothouse atmosphere of these chaotic and rushed productions. 


Whereas Bava and Argento had always tended to aestheticize and eroticize horror, Fulci went straight for the uncensored amygdala of the genre, becoming a poet of charnal house decay and putrescence. In Fulci's horror cinema, bodies and buildings are always subject to decay and dissolution; the extreme vulnerability of the physical frame, exemplified by the eye, is constantly imperilled by abrupt, nightmarish assault; the frailty and gory plasticity of the corporeal hangs over these films like a stench. Lacking the opulent colours and architectures of Bava and Argento, beauty appears in Fulci only in eerie and unnerving forms; in, for example, the sudden appearance of blind seeress Emily and her guide-dog in the middle of an empty stretch of road in The Beyond, or the emergence of Bob from a kind of birth canal into a world of listless ghosts at the end of The House by the Cemetery.

To achieve these effects, Fulci was fortunate in the amount of highly gifted collaborators which he worked with throughout this period, most notably the cinematographer Sergio Salvati and composer Fabio Frizzi. Frizzi's work is particularly crucial in establishing the aesthetic of these Fulci movies. Typically for Italian horror scores of the time, Frizzi's prog-influenced cues are alternatively hypnotic and bombastic, possessing a kind of wild and unapologetic incongruity which makes the movies oddly mesmerising. His typical zombie theme begins with a low, sepulchral intro, perfect for the slow rise of the zombie, but then segues into a bizarrely anthemic and up-beat chorus. His beautiful main theme for The Beyond suggests a slowly unfolding religious epiphany:

Zombi (Zombie Flesh Eaters), 1979. 

Though it was sold in many territories as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters has nothing in common with Romero's film, aside from the basic premise of the ravenous and perambulatory dead. Eschewing the Swiftian satirical undercurrents of Romero, Fulci sought to return the zombie to its roots in the voodoo lore and exoticism of Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie. Zombie Flesh Eaters, then, is a pure pulp film with no subtext, and not a great deal of subtlety; nevertheless, it is executed with considerable gusto, energy and skill. If you wanted a pure pizza and beer movie which still has some claim to artistic merit, this fits the bill perfectly – it's probably the best non-Romero entry into the modern zombie movie cycle.

Trashy and all as it is, Fulci builds the pace slowly, and develops an over-powering mood of decay and hopelessness. Whereas Romero's zombies were always comically quotidian, Fulci's are nightmarishly rancid creations, infested with wriggling worms and mottled with bloody sores. Viewed today, Zombie Flesh Eaters is a masterclass in make-up and practical effects, and feels like a paean to the glories of pre-CGI cinema. In the climatic sequence, squibs explode, real flames engulf the set, living and undead bodies are assaulted with dizzyingly inventive abandon. The dare-devil ingenuity and remarkable craftsmanship of the practical effects work in this film is really something to behold.

Zombie Flesh Eaters has also gained considerable notoriety for a underwater sequence in which a zombie fights an actual shark. It is, to say the least, a somewhat jaw-dropping scene, whose enjoyment is leveraged to some degree on the obvious legal and moral issues raised by filming such a thing. This speaks to my main point about the accidental qualities of these movies, however; the sequence had nothing to do with Fulci, who neither wanted it in the film nor directed it. You can read the full story in this piece on Little White Lies.

Zombie Flesh Eaters stars the Scottish actor Ian McCulloch, who also appears in another unalloyed joy of Italian rip-off cinema, Luigi Cozzi's Aliens/Invasion of the Body Snatchers/James Bond mash-up Contamination. He gives a pretty good performance, despite a fairly palpable sense of contempt for the material. I always get a huge laugh out of the cosmically dishevelled state of of his comb over at the end of the picture. It feels like a metaphor for the humiliation of his serious thespian ambitions.

City of the Living Dead (1980). 

Fulci really began to develop his own style of horror movie with City of the Living Dead. It is the first in what would later be categorized as the “Gates of Hell Trilogy.” It is worth noting that these films were not originally intended as a trilogy, and that the third entry in the cycle (The House by the Cemetery) doesn't actually feature a gateway to hell. (There is a better case to be made, I think, for Manhattan Baby as a thematic follow-up to City and The Beyond.) City and The Beyond are difficult films to categorize. They both feature zombies, but neither can really be described as zombie movies. After completing Zombi, Fulci apparently devoured the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and these movies are in a sense low-budget Lovecraftian apocalypses. However, whereas Lovecraft remained a supreme rationalist, even while consigning human reason to insignificance in a vast indifferent cosmos, Fulci's appropriation of Lovecraft veers in the direction of the irrational. Whether by accident or design, Fulci arrived at a type of horror which lacks a conventional centre of gravity, and expresses itself as a series of increasingly inexplicable and terrifying events, “things”, in the words of the medium in City of the Living Dead, “that will shatter your imagination.” On a narrative level, these nightmare tableaus are held together by the loose convention of opening a gateway to hell.

In the fictional, quasi-Lovecraftian town of Dunwich, a priest (about whom we learn virtually nothing), commits suicide, thus opening a gateway to hell (in a manner never actually elucidated). On this simple premise, Fulci develops a plot which rarely makes a lick of sense on a literal level, but it doesn't matter. City moves and flows seamlessly in the sheer, all-enveloping mood conjured up by Fulci and Salvati's images of eerie, dust-blown streets and putrescent viscera, and their arrangement to Frizzi's mesmerizing score. Like Phantasm (1979), the most Italian of American horror pictures, City is a dream obsessively haunted by the spectre of mortality, by mortuaries, corpses and cemeteries. It is a nonsensical Gothic whose aesthetic falls somewhere between EC Comics and Francis Bacon. The iconic gore sequences in City have been amply discussed, but perhaps not enough attention is paid to the early section in which Mary (Catriona MacColl) wakes up in a coffin, and is rescued (albeit while being almost axed in the head in the process) by Christopher George. This set-piece (later homaged by Tarantino in Kill Bill) is a stunning piece of pure cinema worthy of Hitchcock, and a standout in Fulci's entire filmography.

The Black Cat (1981). 

Between the sustained insanities of City and The Beyond, Fulci took a left-field detour to the cosiness of the British countryside for this (somewhat) loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. An American photographer (Mimsy Farmer) and Scotland yard detective (David Warbeck) become involved in a series of murders and mysterious goings on in a quiet English village, all of which seem to involve a black cat belonging to the rheumy-eyed local magus (Patrick Magee). Though beautifully shot (again by Salvati) and stylishly executed, I think The Black Cat is the weakest in this cycle of films. Fulci apparently wasn't particularly interested in making it, and this translates into a feeling of lethargy pervading the project. Lacing the feverish intensity of his other films of this period, the plot iself fails to provide much in the way of dramatic impetuous. Nevertheless, with diminished expectations, The Black Cat is not without considerable bucolic and soporific charms of its own. Farmer, somewhat of a cult cinema icon, hasn't much to do with her character, but remains a striking and watchable presence. Magee is fantastic fun as the loathsome but hypnotic antagonist, and David Warbeck exhibits the unfussy charm which made him the most fondly remembered Fulci lead. The effect of The Black Cat is akin to watching an old episode of Midsomer Murder or Bergerac while under the influence of a potent, time-dilating sedative.

The Beyond (1981). 

Our setting moves to the Seven Doors Hotel in Louisiana, where once again the gate of hell is opened, this time by the crucifixion of aesthete and warlock Schweick in 1927 – or by the unweary excavations of Joe the Plumber in the film's contemporary setting - I'm not exactly sure which. The Beyond is regarded almost universally as Fulci's horror masterpiece, and while I've developed a considerable fondness for this crazy picture over the years, I still feel like it's perhaps too erratic and uneven to be quite a masterpiece. It is certainly a midnight movie barnstormer, and a grand compendium of everything that is both sublime and ridiculous about Italian horror as it was moving into the decline of its golden period. In terms of the ridiculous, The Beyond's eccentric goofs are legendary:
- The fact that the plumber is called “Joe the Plumber.” In fairness, the comedic value here isn't entirely Fulci's fault, but it doesn't help that the “Joe the Plumber” sign on his van looks like it was pasted on immediately before the cameras rolled.
- The “Do Not Entry” sign on the door of the morgue.
- The English dialogue track. Typically, the Italian dialogue track is far better acted and more atmospheric, but the English language track contains probably all of the best unintentionally funny lines in the entire Italian horror cannon. Most of them belong to Catriona MacColl's Liza: “I said you had carte blanche, not a blank cheque.” “I've lived in New York all my life, and if there's one thing I've learned not to believe in – it's ghosts.”
- The Death by Flesh-Eating Tarantulas in the Library Sequence. Even within the demented purview of The Beyond, Michele Mirabella's death is utterly random and bizarre, and it's main function I suspect was to allow Fulci to emulate the similarly random death by rats (and possessed fast food vendor) scene in Argento's Inferno. However, while Fulci's execution of the death by unexpected betrayal of guide-dog scene is arguably technically better than Argento's in Suspiria, here the grand ambition of the spider sequence is not well served by its execution. Sadly, neither the pipe cleaner-like spiders or the mould of Mirabella's face are particularly convincing, and the whole thing resembles a rather alarming contribution to an arts and crafts class at times. Still, the sound design is spectacular, and the sequence is nothing if not memorable.

On the side of sublimity, The Beyond is another stunning collaboration between Fulci, Salvati and Frizzi. The Seven Doors Hotel, with its dusty and dilapidated rooms and cavernous, terrifying basement, is a painterly triumph of production design and lighting. Cinzia Monreale's Emily is probably the most iconic minor character in horror film history, and in its best passages, The Beyond captures the morbid, decadent and dreamlike poetry which makes Italian horror so distinctive. If not quite a masterpiece, the discordance between its portentous metaphysics and campy and careless eccentricities certainly makes it unique.

The House by the Cemetery (1981). 

It is apt that House invokes the Frankenstein myth, since this outing finds Fulci and co. firmly in Italian rip-off cinema territory. House by the Cemetery takes elements of The Shining, Rosemary's Baby, The Amityville Horror, The Turning of the Screw, even a dash of The Evil Dead, throws them all in a blender, and then dips its fingers in the ensuing chaotic stew to deliver the chief's kiss. 

One issue needs to be addressed right out of the gate, and that is the performance of child actor Giovanni Frezza as Bob Doyle. Frezza was a kind of grotesquely cute child Klaus Kinski, and his Bob Doyle has frequently been labeled the most annoying child performance in the history of horror film, or indeed of film in its entirety. I would like to partially rehabilitate Frezza here. The primary problem with the performance lies in the fact that, on the English dub, Frezza is voiced by what appears to be a high-pitched woman in her forties. Watched in Italian, about 80% of the annoyance of Bob vanishes, and the film is improved immeasurably overall.

The House by the Cemetery is the real sleeper and slow-burner in the Gates Trilogy. I wasn't a fan originally, but it gets better every time I watch it. The stark, wintery meloncholy of the New England location is magnificently evoked by Salvati, and feels like the central character of the film. Various sub-plots and suggestions are established in the script, and left completely hanging. While I assume that this is an unintentional by-product of a rushed production, these structural definincies only add to the movie's mysterious and dreamlike tone. The ending is particularly striking. Having exercised a degree of restraint throughout, Fulci finally unleashes perhaps his most complete and almost unbearable evocation of nightmare in the Fruedstein basement. Basements have always maintained a peculiar significance in all of these movies, going back to Irene Miracle's dive into the flooded basement in Inferno. In Jungian psychology, such motifs would represent a descent into, and confrontation with, the unconscious. Bob finally escapes from the nightmare of Freudstein's basement by crawling through a narrow crack in the ceiling, a image which clearly evokes a birth trauma. In Jungian terms, Bob should now be a full, individuated adult, having endured the cathartic ordeal of encounter with the unconscious, and been reborn. However, in the movie, he emerges into a dead world in which he will be a child for eternity, swallowed up by the timeless and brooding New England landscape. This refers perhaps to the gloomy metaphysics screen-writer Dardano Sacchetti had developed for The Beyond, the sense of “being born condemned to die....of being born to be erased.”

Manhattan Baby (1982). 

I've lost all critical perspective.”
Dr Fruedstein, The House by the Cemetery.

Manhattan Baby marks the end of the era covered in this essay, essentially the relationship between Fulci and producer Fabrizio De Angelis which began with Zombi 2 in '79. The movie has been disowned by its screen-writer, Fulci himself, and a great many people who have seen it. I would have to go against the grain and say it's a wild masterpiece, and possibly my favourite picture in the sequence. The chasm between what it was clearly intended to be, and what it actually ends up as, is part of what makes Manhattan Baby so fascinating. Once again in crazy quilt rip-off territory, the intention of Manhattan Baby was to embrace the new optical effect/family friendly horror style of Poltergeist, and marry it with elements of The Exorcist, Indiana Jones, and the Egyptomania of the Bram Stoker novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars (filmed brilliantly by Hammer as Blood from the Mummy's Tomb in 1971, and blandly as The Awakening in 1980 with Charlton Heston.) The conception of the film is so muddled that nobody really knows why it's actually called Manhattan Baby, the most plausible suggestion being an attempt to evoke memories of Rosemary's Baby.

However diffuse the concept, the film was clearly intended to be the most commercial endeavour the partnership had produced to date; yet Fulci winds up directing something far more surreal and non-linear than The Beyond, and far more experimental in its compositions and mosaic-like editing. Virtually every scene is a hypnotic play of facial and eye close-ups, shifting focus and aural weirdness, yielding a truly bizarre dreamscape which feels far more like David Lynch and Kenneth Anger than the Tobe Hooper neutered by Steven Spielberg vibe the production seemed to have intended. It is in some respect the culmination of what I have been discussing throughout this essay: a masterpiece emerging alchemically, and accidentally, from the brilliance of Fulci and the comic disarray of his production milieu.

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