Lucio Fulci: The Cinema Of Cruelty

Written by Martyn Conterio Sunday, 08 May 2011

Feature Articles

Italian director Lucio Fulci (1927 – 1996) was labelled many things throughout his career. Heralded and lambasted in equal measure fans called him, with great affection, ‘the Godfather of Gore’, whilst others dismissed him as a misogynist and undeserving of distinction.


Fulci, for added notoriety, held the dubious honour of having three films on the famous Director of Public Prosecutions List, drawn up during the height of the Video Nasties scare in the UK.

He’s a filmmaker with a reputation as a peddler of grotty exploitation titles, but that fails to acknowledge the larger picture. Since his death in 1996 his films have continually been discovered in the UK and some territories. largely on home entertainment formats and before that (in the 1980s and 1990s), on pirated videos. Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), particularly, is a rite of passage for many horror enthusiasts.

It’s fair to say Fulci does retain and receive admiration, especially from the gorehounds, but there’s been very little critical exploration to re-assess the films themselves. There appears a strong vein of surrealism in Fulci’s oeuvre, which goes beyond an empty stylistic device. It’s not an attempt to mark him out as a practitioner of high art either, far from it.

Fulci was inspired by French writer and actor Antonin Artaud, progenitor and executor of ‘the Theatre of Cruelty’ maxim. Are Artaud’s theories evident or traceable throughout Fulci’s films? Perhaps not in a deliberate artistic statement, but Fulci’s attack on the supposed reality of film, or its unreality, is striking.

Both artists appear to be interested in delivering ideas, however unpalatable. With Fulci being Italian it is easy to mistake these notions as the preoccupations of a Catholic brain (now there’s an unused horror movie title).

In 1969, the direct influence of Artaud was clearly pronounced when Fulci directed a screen version of Beatrice Cenci with a fragmented time frame heavily influenced by Artaud’s famous play, which ran for a mere fourteen shows back in 1935. This little seen film is available on YouTube, in original Italian, and well worth checking out as an example of the director’s openly experimental side in a non-horror setting.

Fulci began his film career in comedy working with the iconic Toto in a flop called The Thieves (1959). Although starting out initially as a screenwriter he veered into directing and made features in a variety of genres. Horror and giallo pictures claimed him for posterity and etched his name in the pantheon of genre masters, but also made four spaghetti westerns, one with Franco Nero. This side is all but forgotten now yet Massacre Time and Four of the Apocalypse are worth viewing.

He studied at the Experimental Film Centre in Rome and was taught by world cinema masters Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti. According to an interview he gave to French magazine, L'Ecran Fantastique, Fulci was admitted to the school after borderline insulting Visconti over his classic Ossessione (1943).

As he climbed the career ladder he concentrated on the burgeoning and popular giallo movie with the occasional horror, thriller and spaghetti western thrown into the mix. This genre hopping puts critics off the trail somewhat.

In 1972, he directed one of his most praised titles, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. It garnered notices and a legal inquiry due to Carlo Rambaldi’s gruesome special effects work during a scene that featured disembowelled dogs.

Although a rightly praised classic scene, it demonstrates Fulci’s use of a surrealist aesthetic too. The scene is inexplicable, violent and unforgettable. Yet apparently he wasn’t best pleased with the effects and said Mario Bava would have designed the scene much better.

Nevertheless it is a grand statement and such displays of naked horror would grow until we reach the apotheosis in the Gates of Hell trilogy: those splatter classics of such seeming incoherence many dismiss them as bad filmmaking instead of the exciting vision it proposes.

Fulci will always prove problematic given the sheer volume of work and its varying quality in the eyes of critics and some fans. He once barked at a journalist in Draculina magazine: “I'm bored with all the critics who talk of a "Trilogy". I think my real golden time was in the early seventies, with Perversion Story, Don’t Torture A Duckling... But yes, of course, the beginning of the eighties brought me much fame.”

It’s very true Fulci’s inconsistence doesn’t help a retrospective of his work and has led critics to be selective, ignoring those titles which do not fit into their personal criteria. One day there should be a full retrospective study of his 1960s features, the action films and occasional fantasy or sci-fi flick such as Conquest (1983) and The New Gladiators (1984).

Some movies are better than others, but each to their own. Over time, fresh eyes and considerations rescue forgotten films from the doldrums. Is there any point in searching for stolen moments of greatness if there aren’t any to be gleaned? The answer is yes.

What is often called Fulci’s ‘golden age’ began with scriptwriter Dardano Sachetti. This provided the leap into infamy and allowed for plenty of invention and experiments in dream logic. It was no symbiotic relationship between writer and director. The films often had up to four contributors. Fulci and Sacchetti’s creative partnership ended in acrimony.

The steadying application and use of surreal-like techniques and strange narrative structures became more pronounced. Fulci explained his vision for horror movies in an interview with L'Ecran Fantastique.  “I wanted to make a nightmare film where horror is ubiquitous, even in apparently innocuous forms.”

The Beyond (1981) is one of the best horror pictures ever made. Fulci’s sublime work is loaded with a Lovecraftian fear factor and truly pushes our acceptance of what movies can be while retaining the gloss of a genre picture.

The popular consensus notes a decline in quality after his split with Dardano Sachetti in the early 1980s. Did Fulci peak with the Gates of Hell trilogy? Those three films taken out of context or in context represent a startling vision of cinema and confirm Fulci as a filmmaker experimenting – either deliberately or by sheer accident – and coming up with a new type of horror movie.

Nevertheless it is fair to say Fulci made some absolute stinkers and the anecdote goes the quality depended on material mixed with how desperate he was for money. Lucio was fond of the gee-gees, apparently.

The partnership with Sachetti (despite ending bitterly with later accusations of ‘idea theft’), yielded some landmark gialli and horror pictures. Then there’s the contribution of Sergio Stivaleti, the special effects legend, and cinematographers such as Sergio Salvati and musician Fabio Frizzi. These craftsmen would be employed many times and more than helped lend a hand to proceedings, they were part architects in building Fulci’s mad world. How collaborative this team were needs to be defined. Did they share distinct goals or were they simply making the best movies they could with the budget and constraints?

Sachetti and Fulci’s first collaboration was Seven Notes in Black (1977). It is an unusual giallo which incorporated a smart narrative device in which a psychic believes she’s witnessed a murder from the past without realising it’s actually a premonition – her own death! Although sluggishly paced, Seven Notes in Black’s atmosphere is another example of where Fulci and Sachetti, as writers, were headed.

The giallo gained prominence in Italy during the 1960s. A subgenre of the crime thriller, it takes its name from the Mondadori publishing outfit started in 1929, which published novels with a highly distinct yellow background.

Mass genre cinema was still churned out for wide theatrical release. Italy made use of tax breaks and incentives to offer enticing prospects to international production companies. The giallo may have been ‘made in Italy’ but its appeal and outlook were international. The protagonists were largely rich professionals who enjoyed freedom to travel, lived exotic jet-setting lifestyles and made their homes in palazzos and villas. Italian culture is replaced with international bourgeois living. The threat to this existence is usually a psychologically disturbed individual – not a supernatural being.

Fulci’s gialli brought with them a more supernatural, spiritual angle. He stamped his own authority by producing generic works yet ones invested in trying something a bit different. Not always successful, sure, but he tried.

Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) provided a template on which to build this modern mystery crime genre. Fulci once said, rather famously, “Violence is an Italian art.” We can see such statements put to the test throughout his career. But does this cinema of excess portray more than gratuitous violence? Is it, perhaps, the rendering of a belief or ideal on screen?

We know from his work in horror he would earn the sobriquet ‘the Godfather of Gore’, but it detracts from his other attributes. Most of all, it detracts from his skills as a filmmaker by reducing the films to pictorial displays of grotesquery. Atmosphere in Fulci’s work is also heavily predominant. Providing the stage on which bloodletting and horror occurs. He needs to make us uneasy and frightened before the corporeal and spiritual mutilation of characters.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which Fulci wrote himself, is the story of a woman haunted by a next door neighbour’s murder. Do they share some kind of Sapphic bond? The mystery (and the twist in the tale) involves somebody remembering and picking apart mental clues. Will they like what they find?

Films such as Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Seven Notes in Black offer variations on the giallo and explore psychological states with a dream logic framing. It is tempting to acknowledge how Fulci’s work cuts to the heart of the matter of how we view cinema itself. We are always aware we are watching a fantasy and make believe. There’s no attempt to ground it in any other reality other than a cinematic one. Genre films guide an audience but it can also lead them astray into dark avenues and kingdoms.

In both films, the viewer knows as much as the lead protagonists, played by Florinda Bolkan and Jennifer O’Neill. The mysteries are the propulsion of their demise. Each clue brings them closer and closer. The grim finales, ever so downbeat, are another of Fulci’s signature styles. There’s no such thing as a happy ending.

The foray into gore and the zombie genre with Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) helped Fulci gain international fame and become firmly fixed as a master of horror. Marketed in Italy as a sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Zombi 2 sets its narrative against Caribbean links to voodoo. It returns the zombie to its potent historic milieu.

Opening with a gun pointed at the audience (Scorsese is praised for his use of this set up that Fulci ignored), and after the usual international co-production opener set on New York City’s waterfront (taking in all the cultural landmarks), the story moves to a Caribbean island where death and its fetid stench are evident all around. Again the sickly atmosphere conjured marks Fulci’s technical skill. It may have been promoted as a cheap exploitative Romero knock-off to pull in the audience but Zombie Flesh Eaters is a masterwork of the macabre.

Two scenes wowed audiences. The first features a stuntman dressed as a zombie attacking a shark. Again, like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’s dog scene, it’s a true ‘is that what we’re really seeing?’ moment.

The eyeball piercing is iconic and as demented as it is dated in its special effects – yet still manages to cause revulsion. The scene provided a major reason for it to be banned in the UK, too. Fulci’s majestic display of ocular mutilation is a great reminder of the director’s playing with surrealist ideas. And don’t the best horror movies attack our senses as well as our sensibilities?

Fulci here positions himself as an agent provocateur. Cinema is more than passive entertainment for the masses. It is not theatre or literature transposed on screen, either. It’s a proposition, for those willing to acknowledge the message.

The slowing down of the inevitable moment is Fulci in full attack mode. The audience’s fear and discomfort is the true effect – not what is happening on screen. Yes, the effect is theatrical in a sense, but its large-ness and extreme closeness is cinematical. A giant eye and a giant splinter of wood meeting - cuts to enhance the tension.

After Zombie Flesh Eaters, Fulci’s Gate of Hell trilogy baffled critics and audiences alike, they were relegated to the dungeons of the cult enthusiast for ever more. Yet this unholy trinity of mad horror further demonstrates the surrealist-leaning director within. The City of the Living Dead, The House by the Cemetery and The Beyond all feature actress Catriona McColl in various roles. Taken as standard horror fare they’ll likely confound and look silly.

Fulci was no idiot. He battled budgetary and creative restrictions – even his own personal issues. Do the movies work in spite of their low budget and generic nature? Isn’t this how genre cinema throws up interesting titles?

As stated previously, The Beyond is a masterpiece of cinema (not just horror). The ending, in which two protagonists become trapped in a barren, otherworldly landscape, is a supreme vision. In the mad finale, two characters – Liza and John – travel from a hospital via the basement of a house into a smoky tunnel and straight into another world or reality. There’s absolutely no logic. Time and space have collapsed and folded. This playfulness is rather run of the mill today. Recall how Michel Gondry used it towards the end of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Yet Fulci’s clever set up is never really commented upon. A major reason is the lack of insight some critics have into horror and genre cinema. To call Fulci an artist back then might have been an absurdity too far. It might be today, too. Fulci himself explained The Beyond as: “It's a plotless film: a house, people, and dead men coming from The Beyond. There's no logic to it, just a succession of images.”

Explicit gore is a high point and not a distraction. It would appear like the famous Grand Guignol Fulci’s obsession with mutilation and suffering is perhaps less Catholic and more surrealist. The major obsession is with the eye. And after all didn’t Georges Bataille write The Story of the Eye to discuss its merits as a surrealist trope? And didn’t Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí announce their intentions to the film world with the slashing of an eye by a razorblade in Un Chien Andalou?

In The Beyond we get a scene in which an eye is pierced, gouged and mutilated. It is not simply a moment of grotesquery for horror thrills. One imagines if Buñuel and Dalí ever saw Zombie Flesh Eaters or The Beyond they would have approved.

Fulci’s post-Sachetti films, although the preserve of the connoisseur, are worth checking out. Dismissed at the time, the increase in derangement, sexual violence and gore is noteworthy. There are admirers who champion this later period.

Fulci directed around sixty percent of Zombi 3 (Zombie Flesh Eaters 2) in the Philippines. Apart from one sequence in a desolate hotel, it is forgettable stuff. The Door to Silence, released in 1991, would be Fulci’s last time behind the camera.

Endlessly fascinating, Lucio Fulci’s vision of cinema is highly complex in places and understands the true power of dreams and nightmares. Fulci may not have set out with a grand plan or film theory, but surrealist influences seeped into his work through various channels. It is more than a stylistic pose. He understood the dreamlike aspects of cinema and set about investing them into genre pictures.

He was bound to no group of artists or school and at heart a mainstream filmmaker. Yet he was certainly much cleverer and interesting than simply being tagged a gore merchant and exploitation director.

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+1 #7 Systemshocks 2011-05-17 14:50
Sorry about the stairs, Jim. Yes, have checked and it is definitely issue 48. I was close though! Not bad considering it was 29 years ago!
0 #6 jim 2011-05-17 14:09
Quoting Systemshocks:
Jim, have just checked and it was Issue 48 - August 1982.

Dammit man, the stairs down to the vault are not to be messed with, this is going to finish me off is this, 48, you SURE now?
0 #5 Systemshocks 2011-05-17 12:34
Jim, have just checked and it was Issue 48 - August 1982.
0 #4 jim 2011-05-17 10:11
Quoting Systemshocks:
It's the Zombie Special issue. It also has an interview with Romero, a long feature on the history of Zombie cinema + photo from House by the Cemetery on the front cover. I'm going from memory but I think it's issue 47 or thereabouts!

I'll put on the Starburst velvet gloves then and carefully remove issue 47 from it's air conditioned, walnut case in our secret underground vault.
May the restoration begin!
0 #3 Systemshocks 2011-05-17 09:58
It's the Zombie Special issue. It also has an interview with Romero, a long feature on the history of Zombie cinema + photo from House by the Cemetery on the front cover. I'm going from memory but I think it's issue 47 or thereabouts!
0 #2 jim 2011-05-17 09:42
Issue 47 you say?
I'll try and make that the first issue that I digitally re master and make available for download then!
0 #1 Systemshocks 2011-05-17 09:19
Great article. I remember a fantastic Starburst interview with Fulci way back in 1983. Issue 47 I think it was!

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