Lucio Fulci, Italy's Godfather of Gore
Gross...or Awesome? You decide!
Lucio Fulci (1927-1996) spent nearly five decades as a screenwriter, producer and director in the Italian film industry. His extensive filmography includes comedies, musicals and Westerns, but he is best remembered today for his contributions to the horror genre.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Fulci and other Italian filmmakers like Dario Argento, Umberto Lenzi, and Mario Bava began regularly pushing the limits of onscreen violence and gore in vivid mystery/crime thrillers which were commonly referred to as "giallo" films ("giallo" being the Italian word for "yellow," referring to the color of the cheap paper used in pulp crime paperbacks). A scene from Fulci's 1971 giallo A Lizard in a Woman's Skin involving dissected dogs in a laboratory was so realistic that Italian police, under the mistaken impression that real dogs had been killed for the scene, arrested Fulci and charged him with animal cruelty. Fortunately, he was able to convince the authorities that the dead animals shown on screen were created with special effects and puppets.
By the late 1970s, the success of low budget American horror films like George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead inspired Fulci and other Italian directors to move away from "gialli" and begin producing their own extremely graphic horror flicks involving monsters, slashers, vicious cannibals, and hungry zombies. Drive-in audiences, gorehounds and grindhouse fanatics around the world welcomed these European imports with open arms, but their often-shocking content resulted in numerous censorship battles - and in some cases, outright bans - in many countries. When the British government published its first list of so-called "Video Nasties" (movies that were considered too "obscene" for the British home video market) in the early 1980s, three of the titles on the list - Zombie, The Beyond, and House By The Cemetery - were directed by Lucio Fulci.
Revisiting the Horror
I knew Lucio Fulci's name long before I saw any of his films. As a pre-teen in the early 1980s, I used to enjoy freaking myself out by walking down the "horror" aisle of my local video store and gazing at the lurid box cover artwork on the tapes. The sight of the grinning, rotten undead guy with maggots dribbling from his empty eye socket on the front of Fulci's Zombie (and its famous tag line "WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU!") would haunt me for days. Even though I became quite the horror hound in my late teens, it was years before I felt brave enough to attempt watching any of Fulci's movies. Their reputation preceded them!
Recently my cable TV operator gave us a free month of their new movie-streaming program called "Movie Pak" (their attempt at competing with Netflix) as an apology for an extended service interruption. Scanning through the list of titles, I was pleased to see several of Fulci's films among the list of vintage horrors that were available - some of which I'd never seen before, and others that I hadn't seen in many years. During that free month I re-acquainted myself with several of Lucio Fulci's best known works (among many other gory delights) and therefore I am now presenting this four-pack of Lucio's blood soaked goodies for your consideration. Roll'em... if you DARE!!
(also known as: Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters, and Island of the Flesh Eaters, among others)
Known as Zombi 2 in Italy and marketed there as a sequel to George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (whose Italian title was Zombi), Zombie is the flick that catapulted Fulci to international horror stardom and remains his most beloved splatter-work. The story line is simple: a New York journalist (Peter McCullough) travels to a tropical island with a woman (Tisa Farrow, sister of one time Woody Allen paramour Mia Farrow) to help find her missing father. Unfortunately when they they arrive at the island paradise, it's smack in the middle of a zombie outbreak. Don'cha hate when that happens? Needless to say, predictable flesh-eating mayhem quickly ensues. The relatively big-budget (by Italian standards, anyway) Zombie set new standards for splashy onscreen gore and is often cited as one of the greatest stomach-turners ever filmed. Zombie had such a bad-ass rep in my younger days (I was once told that there was NO WAY anyone could get through the entire film without puking!) that I was literally afraid to see it till I was well into my twenties!! Though it may have ranked as a major league lunch loser in 1979, the gore in Zombie honestly seems almost quaint nowadays; you can see just as much (if not more) blood and guts in any random episode of The Walking Dead...aside from the still-tough-to-watch scene where a zombie impales the lovely Olga Karlatos on a splintered piece of wood through her eyeball. I defy anyone to sit through that bit without without squirming. This movie also features a random fight scene between a Zombie and a great white shark, which is worth the price of the DVD all by itself.
"City of the Living Dead" (1980)
(also known as: The Gates of Hell) A Catholic priest has already hung himself in a churchyard cemetery before the opening credits have even finished rolling in City of the Living Dead, so you know things are just gonna get more hardcore from there. The priest's death sets a series of supernatural events into motion that will eventually end up with the Living Dead taking over the earth unless a reporter (American actor Christopher George) and a psychic (Catrina MacColl) can reach the cursed New England town of Dunwich to close the "gates of Hell" in time. What should've been a pretty straight forward horror story ends up with more than its share of WTF moments due to numerous plot holes and the living dead's odd abilities - they can teleport from one place to another, crush puny human skulls in their bare hands, and in one famously icky scene, make their victims vomit up all of their internal organs just by staring intently at them. (Legend has it that actress Daniela Doria actually ingested real sheep intestines and barfed them back up for that scene. Talk about method acting!) City of the Living Dead also features a rain storm of maggots (ewww!) and a random murder-by-drill-press scene that has nothing to do with the story whatsoever. In other words, City of the Living Dead may not be the most coherent flick in Lucio's filmography, but it's certainly never boring!!
"The House By The Cemetery" (1981)
(also known as: Zombie Hell House) Fulci tried to hop on the Amityville Horror haunted-house bandwagon with this disjointed saga, in which a paranormal researcher (Paolo Malco) and his family move into the former home of a colleague who had previously committed several murders before killing himself. As he attempts to uncover what drove "Dr. Freudstein" to such madness he begins to suspect that there is more to the house than meets the eye.
House By The Cemetery features the usual impressive gore effects, but it turned out to be my least favorite of the four Fulci's that I watched. The flick is eventually undone by waaaaaayyy too many plot holes, more-awkward-than-usual dialogue, and things that simply don't make any damn sense. For example, the family discovers a tomb in the living room floor of their new house, but later it's revealed that the house has a cavernous basement beneath it. How do you bury someone in a place where there isn't any ground? Much time is also wasted by casting suspicion onto a seemingly-sinister babysitter (who, at one point, distracts her employer's wife from a huge bloodstain on the floor merely by telling her "I made coffee!") but this subplot simply disappears by the movie's mid point. House By The Cemetery also features the single most annoying child I have ever seen in a movie - the researchers' preteen son "Bob" (Giovanni Frezza) who gets the plot rolling with some Danny Torrance-style "Shining" moments at first but then spends the rest of the movie screaming, whining and snivelling in the most irritating high pitched voice I have ever heard. Seriously, I was hoping that something horrible would happen to this kid fifteen minutes into the movie. Does that make me a bad person?
Despite its many flaws, the film is regarded as a classic by many Fulci fans and it has also inspired songs by at least two heavy metal bands: Wednesday 13 and Mortician.
"The New York Ripper" (1982)
(also known as: Manhattan Ripper and Psycho Ripper)
This one takes the cake, folks. Once billed as "the most controversial horror film ever made," New York Ripper is about a psycho killer who carves up strippers, hookers, and other random women all across the Big Apple, while a burned out NYPD detective (Jack Hedley) trails behind him. The killer habitually calls the detective to mock him after each murder in a Donald Duck style "quacking" voice (an apparent nod to the title of one of Fulci's earliest mystery thrillers, Don't Torture a Duckling)...which is unintentionally funny at first, but then becomes annoying in rather short order. ("You'll never understand me! You're too stupid! Quaaaack quaaack quaaaaack!") The whole thing plays out like an extremely perverted, ultra-violent episode of Law and Order.
Filmed on location in New York City (which was a lot dirtier, sleazier and scarier in the early '80s than it is now), New York Ripper is an incredibly mean spirited, brutal slasher flick. Women serve only two purposes in New York Ripper - to get naked, and then get stabbed, mutilated, and dismembered. Seems like someone's got issues...but then, I watched it, so I guess I have issues too. As usual for Lucio, things like a coherent plot and decent acting take a back seat to totally over-the-top, ultra graphic gore and carnage. You'll feel like you need a shower after you're done watching this movie. It makes the other three films in this article look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I kinda liked it...but by the same token, I don't think I ever want to see it again.
The Lucio Legacy
As the golden age of drive-ins and grindhouse theaters slowly came to an end during the 1980s, Lucio Fulci's career took a downward turn. Typecast by his horror work, he continued working on increasingly-lower budget genre films (including one of the many sequels to his own Zombi) well into the 1990s, but none of his later works caught on with audiences the way his early '80s splatter classics did.
Two months before his death at age 68 from diabetes-related complications in 1996, a frail Fulci made an appearance at Fangoria Magazine's "Weekend of Horrors" convention in New York City. He was surprised and overwhelmed by the number of fans who turned out to meet him, saying that he'd had no idea that his films were so popular outside of his native Italy. It was a fitting tribute to a director who'd spent much of his career being ignored or dismissed as a "hack" by mainstream film critics.
Lucio Fulci may be gone but as long as there are teenage horror nerds looking for good old fashioned gory thrills, his contributions to extreme horror cinema will never be forgotten!!