The Lucio Fulci Appreciation Post

Over the last couple weeks I've revisited Fulci's four most famous films: Zombi 2 (1979) City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and House by the Cemetery (1981). I'd seen them all before, by my late 20's, beginning with a midnight screening of The Beyond when Tarantino distributed it to theaters in '98.

Not so much a narrative as a series of virtually disconnected set pieces, each more shocking and outrageous than the preceding one, I was immediately enraptured.  I thought it was tasteless, scary, and completely absurd all at once, yet with some beautifully composed widescreen compositions and music. In the theater, the crowd was shouting, laughing and applauding at the end of nearly every scene. The response was phenomenal.

It inspired me to rent every Fulci film I could find, and I found another masterpiece with City of the Living Dead. Unlike The Beyond, which keeps changing gears, it establishes a consistent, moody atmosphere of doom and dread throughout. 

There are many H.P. Lovecraft references, but there's also a premature burial sequence that's straight out of Poe, and a graphic murder of an innocent teenage boy by an ordinary guy that is so unnecessary and irrelevant to the plot that it becomes all the more disturbing and indelible.

It's these excruciatingly torturous scenes that Fulci is known for, but I believe they're rooted not so much in the 80's splatter genre as they are in the Surrealist movement. As Wikipedia says, 

Fulci explored metaphysical concepts — in particular, the ways in which the realms of both the living and the dead might bleed into each other, and wanted to pay homage to his idol, the French playwright Antonin Artaud, who envisioned theatre being less about linear plot and more about "cruel" imagery and symbolism that could shock its audience into action.

He's often compared to Herschell Gordon Lewis, but by my estimation, all Lewis did was try to make the audience vomit. I think a more apt comparison would be Cronenberg, or even Buñuel and his show-stopping opening scene from Un Chien Andalou; using corporeal and upsetting imagery to stun the audience into a new frame of existential reference. A standard of surrealism.

His execution is often bafflingly shambolic. In The Beyond, while being chased by zombies, the two heroes run into an elevator. As the doors close, you can easily see one of them putting bullets down the barrel of his prop gun and the other one starting to laugh. Was Fulci even watching when he directed this? Did he not do a second take? Couldn't he at least have cut the shot early in post?  

Another example, from House by the Cemetery: it's morning, and the house's owner walks into the kitchen, where someone was stabbed to death the night before. She looks down at the pool of blood on the floor, being cleaned up by the babysitter, and asks, "what are you doing?" The babysitter says, "I made coffee", then they talk about something else. It's a universe devoid of logic, but that's what makes it work in its own unique way. 

And it's House by the Cemetery that now stands out as my favorite Fulci movie. The plot is simple and straightforward, especially by his standards, and straight from a 1950's comic book: a monster is living in the cellar, and only the kid knows about it. It's violent and sick and mean-spirited and incredibly pessimistic, but it's also very stylish and super-scary.

The camera movements, lighting, musical score and sound design all combine to set us on edge. There's no explanation as to why we hear a crying child on the soundtrack whenever the creature appears, but the effect is undeniably chilling. And that slow, low camera that tracks from outside the house, in through the door, down the cellar stairs, panning across the doctor's lab… holy smokes. It's a very well-realized film. Also, Brother Theodore narrates the trailer:

Zombi 2 is okay. Saw it too many times in high school, maybe. It was the only Fulci film that was a hit in the U.S., and easily available at video rental stores, with an unforgettable cover.

I do like how he did something different from Romero, and moved zombies back to the New World where they came from, allowing for his own social commentary in the process. But it largely exists to be a gore film, and doesn't have the same dreamlike horrific vibe of his Death Trilogy (also called his "Gates of Hell" Trilogy: City, Beyond and House, from 80-81).

City of the Living Dead is currently on youtube. You can find the others if you know where to look.

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