With the zombie flick currently being resurrected not only in the indie arena, but also within expensive Hollywood productions, one cannot help but take a quick glance back at the history of this subgenre. Such introspectiion reveals that the maggot-ridden works of one of the most controversial personalities in the culture of horror is just screaming to be re-evaluated.
Celebrated and beloved by fans all over the world, Italian director Lucio Fulci (1927-1996) is famous for his gore-laden, gross-out films. Arguably, Fulci’s undisputed masterwork is his “zombie tetralogy”, which consists of Zombi 2 (Zombie, 1979), Paura nella citta dei morti viventi (City of the Living Dead, 1980), E tu vivrai nel terrore: L’aldila (The Beyond, 1981) and Quella villa accanto al cimitero (The House by the Cemetery, 1981). But unfortunately, in spite of their following, their undeniable influence on the aesthetics of worldwide horror cinema, and their substantial impact on the Italian film industry, these movies have failed to generate the critical and academic interest they deserve.
A director practically unknown outside horror circles, Fulci was born in Rome and attended medical school (one could argue that such vocational training explains his clinical eye and artistic concern for images of bodily disintegration and mutilation, elements that would become a staple of his movies). However, it was not long before Fulci moved on to study filmmaking under the tutelage of eminent Italian directors like Luciano Visconti, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni. One of the most prolific filmmakers of his era, Fulci directed 56 films during an uneven career that spanned 35 years. He made movies in genres as diverse as comedy, thriller, giallo, erotica, adventure, science fiction, westerns, and even sword and sandal. But his name will forever be attached to terror.
Fulci’s big break in the genre came with Zombie, a movie overtly inspired by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Jorge Grau’s Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti (Let Sleeping Corpses Die, 1974). In Zombie, a group of individuals travel to a small Caribbean island in search of a missing scientist. There they find the manic Dr Menard (Richard Johnson), who is struggling to understand the biochemical bases of voodoo and the zombie phenomena, something that has been responsible for the death of most of the inhabitants of the island.
The original title of this film, Zombi 2, reflects how the producers intended to shamelessly capitalize on the success of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979), which in Italy was distributed as Zombi. Regrettably, such a profit-motivated decision had dire consequences for the reputation of the film. Even though both were made at around the same time, and released within a few weeks of each other, Zombie ended up with the wrongly attributed reputation of being a blatant rip off of Dawn.
Truth be told, Zombie borrows freely from a variety of sources: the menacing voodoo ceremonies that haunt Victor Halpering’s White Zombie (1932), the ethnographic creatures of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the bodily horrors found in Romero’s Night, the ghastly experiments from H.G. Well’s Island of Dr. Moreau, the biological justification for the undead in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and even the exoticism of third world locales that characterized the infamous ‘Mondo’ films. However, Fulci managed to create a rather original horror film. Similar to the way Sergio Leone deconstructed the Old West mythologies in his Spaghetti Westerns, Fulci adapted his sources of inspiration to fit his own artistic and cultural sensibilities.
For instance, Fulci detaches Zombie from the cultural baggage of its American inspirations and avoids the social commentary that characterizes Romero’s work. While Romero uses his undead army as a metaphor for the many ills that haunt modern day America, Fulci’s zombies reflect existential horrors and the psychological dynamics of fear. Such a contrast is made visual when comparing Romero’s pale living dead dressed in pristine civilian clothes, with the rotten and ashen creatures wearing moldy garments in Zombie. In the later, the undead are made-up with earth tones that suggest their recent ascension from the grave. It exploits more dramatically our fears of improper burial rituals and hinting at a hellish afterlife underground. Indeed, both of these anxieties have more to do with religious beliefs than social dilemmas.
In a similar way, Zombie avoids the struggle for realism that characterizes its American counterparts, challenging its own verisimilitude, and at times even bordering on surrealism. Such is the case in the closing scene where the zombies cross the Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan, impassive to the traffic of cars on both sides of the road. Even more telling is the underwater sequence where a zombie attacks, bites, and maims a shark.
Nonetheless, Zombie remains the most coherent entry in Fulci’s tetralogy. In City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, the death of a man opens a door to hell and the dead come back to life. And in The House by the Cemetery, the demented Dr. Freudstein has been using the fresh organs of his victims to stay ‘undead’ for over a century. By the time Fulci made these three films however, he was fully aware of the potentials of the horror narrative, and he purposefully circumvented the traditional cinematic portrayal of reality.
These films are characterized by their temporal and spatial disorientation, which grants them an oneiric quality that renders the law of cause and effect meaningless. In The Beyond and City of the Living Dead, the corpses of the undead appear and disappear with no apparent reason or internal logic. And in The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, characters pass through a doorframe, only to find themselves miles away at a different location. As a result, these films are rich in metaphysical subtexts that question our perception of time and space, destabilizing our concept of reality, and offering the possibility of an alternate universe populated by hellish horrors.
This unusual structure also indicates that Fulci’s sense of aesthetics was more concerned with the raw power of the cinematic image than with the coherence of the narrative. One could argue as well that it was Fulci who spearheaded the use of elaborate choreographies exclusively conceived for the graphic display of violence and mutilation, without concern for the progress of the story. Similar to the song and dance numbers in a musical or the extended showdown sequences in Leone’s westerns, these scenes bring the plot development to a dead stop, and have to be enjoyed by their spectacle value only.
The most famous of these choreographies is found in Zombie. A member of the undead breaks inside the house of Dr Mennard, whose wife has taken refuge in the bathroom. Punching his rotten arm through the door to grab her by the hair, the zombie slowly pulls her head toward a three-inch splinter. It eventually punctures her eye in a deliciously unnerving close-up. Similarly, a girl regurgitates her own intestines in City of the Living Dead, and hungry spiders in The Beyond devour the face of a man. All three sequences depict the demise of a minor character, yet take nearly 10 minutes of screen time each.
This visual and narrative structure was completely different from most 1970s American horror movies, which were character based and driven by the plot, relying on blood only as a means to support the development of the story. However, Fulci popularized the use of gore as a visual spectacle, and in doing so, created a movement that characterized the genre during the following decades. At the same time, Fulci’s zombie tetralogy was responsible for the development of new standards in special make-up effects in Italy and abroad, and reinvigorated the Italian film industry. In the years after Zombie, dozens of imitations would surface, giving rise to the infamous “Italian zombie” subgenre.
However, only a few horror directors have been able to capture the sense of fear that Fulci infused in his zombie films. In spite of their incoherent plots, Fulci’s movies are atmospheric, claustrophobic, unnerving and gritty. Repudiating narrative closure and lacking the black humor usually found in other examples of the genre, Fulci’s tetralogy is inexorable in its nihilism.
At the same time, it is worth considering the possibility that the strength of these four zombie films resides in Fulci’s interest for the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft. Featuring metaphysical subtexts, subversive portrayals of science, ancient creatures resurrected from the bowels of the earth, forbidden books with apocalyptic revelations, and the suggestion of a terrifying universe with unspeakable horrors that coexists alongside our reality, Fulci’s zombie films rightfully belong to Lovecraft’s lore.
All things considered, perhaps the analysis of Fulci’s zombie films within social or cultural frameworks will always prove to be a futile exercise. These films work on more primal levels, sacrificing coherence for visual impact. Thus, one should not be concerned with the possible internal meanings of Fulci’s films, but with the definite effects they have on the viewer. Similar to the stargate trip in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), the ballroom dancing in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and the daring crossing of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), the ‘splinter in the eye’ sequence from Zombie speaks to the everlasting power of cinema.