Beyond Terror: A Profile of Lucio Fulci – By William J. Wright

Conventional biographies are seldom of interest to anyone but pure academics, students writing term papers and asshole college professors. Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci was by no means a conventional man or filmmaker and to do a straight bio piece would serve neither his memory nor his legions of admirers. Perhaps more than any other horror director, his reputation is a direct product of a fiercely loyal fanbase. As Massimo Lavagnini pointed out in his obituary of the filmmaker, “Fans are the only people who really loved Lucio Fulci.” I would be remiss to ignore the process that created many of those fans of whose number I proudly include myself.

We might not be here discussing Lucio Fulci were it not for the advent of the VCR– that increasingly irrelevant piece of electronic furniture destined by to be consigned to the scrap pile by a new piece of electronic furniture with an all new set of initials — DVD. By the mid 1980’s, the Videocassette Recorder, once a luxury exclusive to the rich, had become a fixture in the homes of middle-class America. Seemingly overnight, locally owned neighborhood video stores (most of which died soon after with the rise of soulless, evil chain outlets like Blockbuster) sprang up on the corners of nearly every street in every small and midsized town in the United States. Demand for video was at an all-time high. Eager to fill their shelves, the owners of those mom’n’pop video joints were ready to buy anything that would stick to VHS tape. Recognizing the need and anxious to turn a quick profit, distributors like Vestron Video and their ilk turned an eye toward the foreign markets with special attention to those proven moneymakers of sex, exploitation, and horror. The shelves were filled, money was made and the demented, bloody works of Umberto Lenzi, Ruggerio Deodato and Lucio Fulci were yanked from the big city grindhouses and unleashed in the homes and on the fragile psyches of suburban adolescents throughout the States. My first encounter with Eurohorror, hardcore Italian gore and Lucio Fulci took place in one of those quaint, pre-Blockbuster hometown video stores in the summer of 1985 or ‘86. I was a pimply fourteen year-old Fangoria subscriber. The film was The Gates of Hell (aka. City of the Living Dead) and I haven’t been the same since.

Eight years after his death, Lucio Fulci remains one of the most revered and reviled figures in the history of the modern horror film. Hailed as a genius, derided as a hack and virtually ignored by mainstream critics, Fulci’s reputation was, and continues to be, cemented by an ardent and ever-growing fanbase who regard him as far more than merely a “poor man’s Dario Argento.” To the hardcore gore aficionado he is The Maestro.

Lucio Fulci was born in Rome in 1927 and initially intended to pursue a career in medicine. A lover of art and cinema, Fulci abandoned his medical studies to join Experimental Film Studios where he honed his skills as a screenwriter. Ironically, much of Fulci’s output in his formative years was comedy as he spent over a decade working alongside legendary comedic director Steno. Although Fulci intended to make screenwriting his career, adverse financial circumstances drove him to direct his first feature, 1959’s I Ladri (The Thieves) starring Italian comic legend Toto. Despite its starpower and Fulci’s adept direction, I Ladri was an absolute failure. Fulci later blamed the film’s lack of success on his star’s inability to take direction. This friction between Fulci and his cast would foreshadow much of the director’s later work. Throughout his career Fulci would exhibit a confrontational style with his actors many of whom described his onset demeanor as “tyrannical.” Even his admirers have defined him as a technician rather than a performance driven “actor’s director.”

Fulci would toil away in Italian cinema as a skilled director of musicals, comedies and westerns for nine years before directing in the genre that would make him a legend. His first thriller was 1968’s Una Sul’altra (One on Top of the Other). The success of this film garnered Fulci enough clout to put a more personal and controversial project in to production. Fulci’s next film, Beatrice Cenci, was based on a true story and recounts the trial a woman who murdered her sexually abusive father. A scathing indictment of the Catholic Church of which Fulci was a lifelong outspoken critic, Beatrice Cenci nearly cost the young director his career.

Deciding that financial stability was more important than his controversial religious and political leanings, Fulci returned to thrillers in 1971 with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin which, in many ways, was a precursor in tone to his later pure horror/fantasy films with its ultra-violent, hallucinogenic style. But, by 1972 Fulci again found himself in political hot water due to his next film Don’t Torture a Duckling. Rife with violence and child-murdering religious fanatics, Duckling made Fulci a virtual pariah in the Italian film industry.

Resigned to working in television, Fulci’s career in cinema would again take off in 1979 with what many fans consider his best film, Zombie. Zombie, released in Italy as Zombi 2, an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead (Released as Zombi or Zombie throughout Europe) rises far above its producers’ obvious attempt to cash in on Romero’s Living Dead franchise. Atmospheric, incredibly gory and evocative of both the voodoo based horror films of the genre’s golden age such as White Zombie and I Walked With A Zombie as well as Romero’s flesh-eating epics, Zombie was unfortunately dismissed by critics who were unwilling to look past the flimsy connection to Dawn of the Dead. Despite the bad press, Zombie was a huge financial success and changed the landscape of Italian horror cinema throughout the 1980’s. Thanks to Fulci, the living dead and cannibals became veritable Italian cottage industries. Expertly-paced and beautifully lensed, Zombie is an often frightening, audacious and violent film drenched in blood and over-the-top set pieces. It also marked the beginning of Fulci’s most prolific, productive and creative period. Between 1980 and 1982, the Italian auteur embraced his position in extreme terror and would do the bulk of his best loved work including the atmosphere drenched City of the Living Dead (1980), House by the Cemetery (1981), and The New York Ripper (1982). However, Fulci would reach his creative apex with his true masterpiece, 1981’s The Beyond.

Expanding on many of the themes first touched on in City of the Living Dead, The Beyond eschews the formalities of realism and a coherent plot for the schizophrenic logic of a nightmare. Only Don Coscarelli’s original Phantasm approaches The Beyond for sheer hallucinogenic surrealism. Set in a decrepit New Orleans hotel built over one of the seven portals to hell, The Beyond is not so much a film as it is a celluloid gallery of horrors. Demonic possession, ravenous spiders and the unmotivated use of the living dead only scratch the surface of the terrors of The Beyond with each element compounded on the last to evoke nonstop, visceral terror. The Beyond is no “psychological thriller.” It seeks the most primitive emotions and reactions (including the gag reflex thanks to the gruesome FX work of Gianetto DeRossi, Italy’s answer to Tom Savini) and exploits them to outrageous degrees. The Beyond works its way into the viewer’s subconscious as only the best horror films do. That much of it seems overwrought and inexplicable only heightens its fear quotient.

Unfortunately, Fulci would not be able to maintain this level of excellence for the remainder of the decade. Haunted by personal problems and plagued with steadily declining health, much of his work throughout the mid and late 80’s is, at best, mediocre with only flashes of his former genius present making Fulci’s films of this period all the more disappointing. However, 1990 would mark a brief return to form with the release of Cat in the Brain (aka. Nightmare Concert), a semi-biographical horror/fantasy in which Fulci plays a stylized version of himself as an increasingly unhinged horror director fearing for his own sanity and confronting his obsessions with onscreen sex and gore. Although lacking the style and atmosphere of his best work, Cat in the Brain remains one of Fulci’s most fiercely original and sardonic films. It is a gorehound’s answer to Fellini’s 8&1/2.

Fulci, suffering from uncontrolled diabetes, faced worsening health throughout the 1990’s. On March 13th, 1996 Lucio Fulci died suddenly from complications of the disease that had long plagued him. Compounding the tragedy of his untimely death was the fact that he was to begin production on what could have been his biggest film ever, Wax Mask, a remake of the classic Vincent Price film House of Wax. The film was to be produced by his longtime rival Dario Argento.
Nonetheless, Fulci lives on. In 1998, Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures re-released a newly restored and uncut version of The Beyond in a successful limited theatrical run. A special edition DVD release from Anchor Bay soon followed as well as subsequent DVD releases of Fulci’s other films including Zombie and House by the Cemetery.

Death metal rockers Necrophagia write tribute songs to his films. Artist, author and horror connoisseur Chas Balun continues to champion the Fulci legend through both his art and writing (for a more in-depth look at Fulci and his work see Balun’s excellent Lucio Fulci: Beyond the Gates). The infamous Rotten Cotton Graphics t-shirt company has built a horror marketing empire based largely on Fulci designs. And a new generation of horror fans, disillusioned by tepid American genre fare has embraced Fulci as a hardcore alternative to watered down modern fright films. I have seen the evidence of this first hand and it gives me hope for the always tenuous future of our much maligned horror genre. At the recent Horrorfind Weekend Convention in Maryland I found myself in a virtual sea of pimply fourteen year-old boys all wearing Zombie and The Beyond t-shirts. Indeed, The Maestro lives on.