‘Zombie’ and Four More Films For Lucio Fulci’s Birthday

Yesterday was Lucio Fulci’s birthday, so I thought I’d look at some of my favorite films from the Godfather of Italian Gore. Though primarily thought of as a horror director, Fulci had a long and successful history with various genres – including musicals, mysteries, comedies and spaghetti westerns. (One of his most successful films was actually an adaptation of Jack London’s White Fang!) It wasn’t until the 1970’s that he really focused on giallo and horror, though, starting with A Lizard in a Women’s Skin in 1971 and Don’t Torture a Duckling in 1972. Despite his long career it’s a short period between 1979 and 1981 that saw most of my favorite Fulci films released.

Zombie (1979)

I love Italian zombie movies. They’re almost all terrible, with incomprehensible plots, incredibly bad dubbing, over-the-top gore that is also really fake looking, and more casual rape/misogyny/nudity than you can shake a stick at. And yet, they tickle me. As I’ve said before, I can almost always find something to enjoy in them – even Burial Ground. (Though what it was I enjoyed in that movie escapes me at the moment…)

Zombie, or Zombi 2 as it was released in Italy (to take advantage of the popularity of Dawn of the Dead, which was released as Zombi in Italy), is the king of them all. It’s the template on which they’re all based and is – in energy, creativity, technical skill and complete over-the-top gonzo-ness – the best of them. Does that mean it’s a good movie? Well, I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. A plot that holds together, realistic characterizations, good acting? You’re out of luck. Inventive makeup effects, shocking thrills, an atmospheric location? Now we’re getting somewhere.

The barest thread of a plot – involving a reporter and young woman (Ian McCulloch and Tisa Farrow) investigating the disappearance of the woman’s father and a mysterious island experiencing a zombie upheaval – is really only there to put people in a position to be attacked by zombies, and attacked they are. There are two standout moments that people remember from Zombie – a woman getting her eye impaled on a shard of wood (still effective after all this time) and a zombie fighting a shark.

You heard me. A zombie fights a real shark.

This was my first Lucio Fulci film, so it holds a special place in my rotting, zombie-loving heart. It introduced me to a series of films that are a little stylish, a lot gory and always over-the-top crazy.

The City of the Living Dead (1980)

As I’ve come to expect from Fulci, the plot isn’t the biggest focus in City – a priest in the city of Dunwich commits suicide, opening the gates of hell; a reporter and a psychic join forces with a psychiatrist to try and close them before All Saints Day – if they fail, then the dead will walk the earth. (They will also teleport, fly and squeeze the brain out of the back of your head.) Mostly, though, it’s about moody shots of fog filled streets and cemeteries and close-ups of horrible, gory things. That ‘squeeze the back of the head so hard you cause the brain to squish out’ effect must have been a favorite of Fulci’s, because we’re treated to it no less than three times. There are a LOT of closeups of people’s eyes – you could probably get fairly drunk with a game that required a drink every time you saw one. This is the first of the “Gates of Hell” trilogy, and the ending is a bit of a WTF moment that makes (a little) more sense when you realize that the heroes didn’t succeed.

The Beyond (1981)

The Beyond is my favorite Fulci movie. The dreamlike pace, the creeping dread, the awesome set pieces. It’s an experience, though you may question whether it’s one you need to have if you’re not a Fulci fan. For me, it encapsulates what I enjoy about his work. It’s this weird mix of surreal ideas and low-budget gore. So on one hand you’ll get things like the scene with the endless bridge where the main character meets the blind girl. The cinematography is just beautiful and the whole scene is suffused with a sense of existential dread.  Then on the other hand you’ll get a grieving widow falling in the morgue and getting her head dissolved by acid in front of her little girl.

The plot, as always, is secondary to the oddness and gore, but it involves the seven doorways to hell, opened by the torture death of an artist in the 1920’s. There’s the Book of Eibon (Fulci’s Necronomicon stand-in). There’s a mysterious tomb in the basement. There are zombies. The morgue seems to be attached to the house via a portal or something. Our two heroes (Catriona MacColl and David Warbek) somehow end up in hell, blinded like the ghost girl, and a voice over intones “And you will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored.” And if you’re like me, the first time you see it you say out loud to the credits “what the hell just happened?”

You just saw Fulci’s best film, that’s what!

The House by the Cemetery (1981)

The last of the “Gates of Hell” trilogy, it’s basically a haunted house story in which the titular edifice is haunted by the zombie of a mad scientist, Dr. Freudstein. There’s also a crazy mannequin babysitter, a girl ghost (or is she a time traveler, or a time travelling ghost?), some of the worst child dubbing you’ll ever hear, and a gravestone embedded in the living room. It’s also pretty restrained for a Fulci movie and has some great eeriness and ambience. There’s something awful in the basement. It has to do with Freudstein. There’s maggots and eyeball closeups, just so you know it’s a Fulci film. Then we get an ending that is completely WTF. Also so you know it’s a Fulci film. This is my least favorite of the Gates trilogy in part because it IS so restrained – I don’t think there’s a single head crush in the entire film – but it’s still full of crazy and gore. Just what you want in a Fulci flick.

A Cat in the Brain (1990)

A Cat in the Brain is a weird little film, which I know sounds redundant when I’m talking about a Lucio Fulci movie. It’s kind of a clip-show – with some of the gorier bits of previous Fulci movies edited in around a framing story about a director that may or may not be going mad. And the director in question is Lucio Fulci – and by that I mean he’s playing himself. A simplified highly stylized version of himself, I’m sure, but it makes everything that goes on so much weirder.

It’s also proto-meta horror movie, a direct precursor to movies like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. A commentary on both horror movies in general and on Fulci horror movies in specific. Of course it could also be described as the lazy ‘greatest hits’ tour of a hack director out of original ideas, if you wanted to ignore the sub-text about art and whether the man who creates monsters must be a monster himself. To be fair, it’s almost throwaway – more sub-subtext.

I happen to think it’s a pretty smart, funny and self-aware horror film that is under-appreciated. It really is a low-budget clip show. But it’s also an interesting and somewhat fun meta-commentary on Fulci’s film career and being a person associated with creating horror. It’s low budget – I mean it’s cheap as hell – but strangely endearing. As with all Fulci, enter at your own risk. But it’s definitely a worth a watch.

So those are some of my favorite films by Lucio Fulci. What about you? What are some of yours?

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.