For fright fans, there is a hierarchy of Italian horror filmmakers. At the top is Dario Argento, the Mediterranean Master of Suspense who often rivals the brazen Golden Age Hollywood heavyweight he’s often compared to. Beneath him is an array of ancillary directors — pupils like Michele Soavi (Dellamorte, Dellamore), and rivals such as Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), and Mario Bava (Black Sunday). Pulling up the rear are the ‘rejects’, the directors who have mastered few of the artform’s tricks, but brought their own slick — and sometimes sickening — sensibility to the medium. They include Bava’s son Lamberto (Demons, Demons 2) and the most infamous of them all, the architect of arterial spray, Lucio Fulci.
Though he dabbled in dozens of genres during his length career, the one time art critic turned gross-out auteur is best known for a series of scary movies in the late ’70s and early ’80s. These efforts literally redefined the use of grue and blood-drenched F/X in dread — specifically a group that began with 1977’s The Psychic, and touched on cruel classics like Zombi, The City of the Living Dead, The Black Cat, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, ending with The New York Ripper. Though he would continue to make films until his death in the mid ’90s, this string of sensational, sometimes surreal splatterfests proved that there was more to the middle-aged maestro than sloppy spaghetti westerns and weak-willed giallo.
Many have called Fulci the “Godfather of Gore”, a title once reserved for the ultimate exploitation chameleon, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and the tag does fit. No one worked in entrails and human offal the way he did, be it in service of a standard police procedural (the demented Ripper) or a bizarre bit of sour Southern Gothic (the undeniably brilliant Beyond). Fulci wallowed in the grotesque, melting flesh and vivisecting torsos in ways only imagined by the sleaziest snuff movie maker. But more than that, he pitted his disgust against a complicated philosophy that mined much of his Catholic upbringing, a bit of Marxist revisionism, a lot of social commentary, and a curious level of mannered moral turpitude. In fact, for all their rot, Fulci’s films remain some of the most principled in all of dread.
Take The Beyond, for example. The main subtext centers on slavery, witchcraft, mob justice — and perhaps the key to almost all Fulci narratives — revenge. Indeed, many of the storylines the filmmaker used, from the early hit Don’t Torture a Duckling to his later films like Touch of Death or Cat in the Brain used the notion of retribution as a means of making amends for some perceived (or planned) wrong. Sometimes, it’s nature that exacted the payback — as in the reanimated corpses of Zombi or the unleashed demons of The City of the Living Dead. In other instances, humans are guiding the reprisal. In something like The New York Ripper, the killer is definitely insane, but uses his madness to make amends for what he (or she) believes is a lifetime of cosmic cruelty aimed at their family.
Many of Fulci’s films follow this Man vs. God dynamic. When a priest hangs himself and opens the Gates of Hell, the dead seem to stalk the fringe element of the small New England town of Dunwich. Even better, an accused pedophile is giving a literal lobotomy by the father of the teenager he supposedly sullied. No one is safe in a Fulci film – not the heroes or the villains, not the guilty or the innocent. Kids are killed with just as much abandon as adults, the claret pouring from their wounds in rivers of retaliatory equilibrium. Almost every plot requires a kind of balance, a resetting between the real and the supernatural before things can seemingly be right — and even then, a city like New York could already be overrun by hundreds of hungry monsters.
Zombi is another excellent example of Fulci’s fascination with evil in the everyday. In this case, the malevolence is magnified in many ways. Our main character is the daughter of a doctor doing research on a tropical island. Turns out, his motives aren’t purely medicinal. To make matters worse, the atoll they are working on is cursed, the living dead frequently rising to frighten…and feed , off the populace. While one can question the goal of all this experimentation, it is clear that the creatures recently released from their graves aren’t considering the possible health benefits. They are out to show humanity that, when you play Creator, you must suffer the consequences of your arrogance.
There are similar motifs moving through much of Fulci’s work. In The House by the Cemetery, a deranged scientist’s desire for immortality has him carving up the citizenry in hopes of collecting blood cells to regenerate. It’s similar to The Black Cat, where a medium’s ability to use a household pet as his supernatural assassin comes back to “bite” him in a big way. While he was highly critical of the Church and had little love for the Vatican and its rules, Fulci does use a standard ethical conceit. In between all the brain crushing and intestine spewing, he sees horror as a battle between the forces of good and the always waiting misery of the miscreant. Sure, the unrelated and the ancillary are sometimes caught up (and coughed out) by the struggle, but in the end, justice/jaundice usually aims at proper party.
Like Argento’s use of dream logic and old school cinematic strategies, like Deodato’s deliberate attack on the media as well as the makers of such scandal, Fulci is definitely a defender of nasty. If he can gouge out an eyeball, he will. Better yet, if he can do so while preaching just a little, he will do that as well. Of course, those immediately turned off by the level of ludicrous, over the top bloodletting that Fulci indulges in may not see the message. But if you look beyond the crusty pizza dough make-up jobs and body mock-up massacres, you will see that there is some earnest — if eccentric — integrity to be found. Lucio Fulci may have died with a reputation for the repulsive, but he was also a very moral man. While such symbolism may be inherent in the horror genre, no one explored it more fully — or foully — than Fulci.