Lucio Fulci: A Cat In The Brain – Part 1
Lucio Fulci tends to not even reach the level of a footnote in the myriad of world cinema publications today. However, his stylistic filmic devices, as well as his dated yet unflinching scenes of violence, makes him as unique a voice in Italian cinema as his other horror counterparts.
Fulci has been long regarded as The Godfather of Gore, a term so apt it could easily have been a title of one of the man’s films. Between 1971 and 1982, Fulci cultivated this moniker through a series of films that simultaneously questioned and pushed the boundaries of acceptability. One need not look far into Fulci’s back catalogue before encountering the notorious New York Ripper (1982), a film so delightfully depraved and unflinchingly grotesque it could have come from the quill of the Marquis De Sade. Likewise, his other films (Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971), The Beyond (1980), Manhattan Baby (1982), Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972), The House By The Cemetery (1981), The Black Cat (1981)) may, on the surface, appear scattershot, unplanned, messy and occasionally unfinished; however, they all act as one incoherent whole. And though Fulci may lack the showmanship of Argento or the expert atmospherics of Mario Bava, he still remains a powerful voice in subversive Italian filmmaking.
Fulci began his filmmaking career directing a number of Italian comedies and musicals: I Ladri (1959), Regazzi Del Jukebox (1959), etc. Before moving on to direct some equally low budget spaghetti westerns (Massacre Time (1966)), thrillers (Double Face (1967)) and even more comedies (Operation San Pietro (1969)), before moving on to the infamous giallo genre that Argento was about to capitulate into infamy with Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1969). Giallo, so named for the Italian pulp novels on which they were based, were ultra-violent crime thrillers and a genre in which Fulci and his newly found taste for blood would feel right at home.
Although his earlier work gave no indication for what his later films would come to define, Fulci has been regarded by many as little more than a hack or filmmaker who simply managed to sample each ‘flavour of the month’ before he could retire comfortably. Italian exploitation maestros, particularly those of the 1970s, were often rather liberal with their ‘adaptations’ of American films, most notably Night Train Murders (1973) (or Late Night Trains), which was simply a relocation of Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left (1972). Fulci often fell into this category of Italian plagiarisers for reasons of simplicity rather than learned filmic taxonomy.
There is no denying the impact of Fulci’s Zombi, a contrived and oddly elegant piece of horror filmmaking.
His first foray into his use of ultra-violent gore effects, that would later come to define his work, came with Don’t Torture A Duckling in 1972. The film depicts the inner destruction of a town’s inhabitants following the murder of three young boys. Beneath the superficial elements of gore, mystery and intrigue lies a scathing social commentary of traditional Catholicism and home grown values – ideals and themes that would be lacking in Fulci’s later films. Despite its uncharacteristic depth in terms of his oeuvre, Duckling is still, at heart, a Fulci film, especially during the whipping scene in which Barbara Bouchet is set upon by three burly men armed with chains and bike locks. What is typical of Fulci is the unflinching way in which he deals with the violence depicted on screen. Whereas traditionally a cut away would allow its audience breathing space, Fulci cuts from the men to the wounds they inflict. The violence is real, determined and feral. It is depicted in a way that is almost true. Violence should be ugly, it should be horrific – and in scenes like this, Fulci’s work flourishes.
Fulci’s flair for ultra violence appeared abated until his 1979 zombie masterpiece Zombie Flesh Eaters. Initially sold in Italy as Zombi 2, an unofficial sequel to Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (advertised in Italy as Zombi), Zombie Flesh Eaters can, at times, appear ponderous, but, as a whole, it is nothing short of stunning. There are a number of scenes that linger in your mind long after the film finishes, such as the eye gouging scene in which an oddly determined zombie drags a woman’s head to a protruding splinter and a fantastically mad underwater fight between a zombie and a shark! The scene that stands out most is where a zombie awakens from his underground tomb to wreak havoc upon the living. The scene is chilling and haunting and brings to mind the work of Romero and Savini in a single heartbeat. It could be argued, in this sense, that Fulci is a post modernist filmmaker before the term became popular, or some could argue that Fulci’s Zombi is simple plagiarism, no more. Whatever your conclusion, there is no denying the impact of Fulci’s Zombi, a contrived and oddly elegant piece of horror filmmaking.
He returned to the zombie genre in 1980 with City Of The Living Dead, a piece of filmmaking that simultaneously conjures up Romero and Hitchcock with a Fulci twist. There are moments in City Of The Living Dead that are so tense they could even make Hitchcock’s palms sweat – specific attention being drawn to the scene in a coffin where having realised that a young woman has been buried alive, a detective hacks away at the grave with a pick axe narrowly missing her eyes and skull with each determined swing. Although not quite as accomplished a zombie film as Zombie Flesh Eaters, City Of The Living Dead succeeds in its traditional filmmaking qualities as opposed to its depiction of its flesh eating antagonists.
In a few years time, Fulci would direct New York Ripper and find new fame for his grotesque masterpieces, but until then, he toiled away in the underground filmmaking scene where he was to direct The Black Cat, The Beyond and House By The Cemetery.
Keep checking back for part 2 of Lucio Fulci: A Cat In The Brain, which is coming very soon!
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