“The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass” – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life
“A cry against a certain sort of fascism” – Lucio Fulci, explaining a notorious gore scene in City of the Living Dead
Lucio Fulci was born in 1927 and studied medicine – a revealing first career in the light of his famously gore-drenched horror films – before enrolling in film school. Working as a screenwriter and critic on graduation, Fulci made his directorial debut in 1959 with the youth oriented musical Ragazzi del juke box. The film was not a success at the box office and led to a temporary change in career as Fulci became the lyric writer for a number of Italian pop singers of the time.
Encouraged to return to cinema by his mentor Steno, Fulci established himself something of a comedy specialist with a succession of vehicles for Franco and Ciccio such as I due evasi di sing sing (1964) and 002 Operazione luna (1965). This was not ideal for the cineaste seeking to establish himself, however. The stars of the show were the comics themselves and it was almost a given that critics would find nothing good to say about their or the directors' work in any case.
What the filone cinema gave with one hand it thus took away with the other. While work could be found it was hard to imbue it with personal qualities of the sort encouraged auteurism and, more importantly, to have this recognised by the critical tastemakers. If the constant flow of the filone cinema with its short lived cycles of spaghetti westerns one year and Bondian spy thrillers the next afforded the director the opportunity to try their hand at a wide range of genres and styles, it also tended to discourage longer term commitment to any particular genre, as with the likes of Mario Bava and Sergio Martino, or else constrained the filmmaker to work in it long after he had lost interest, as with Leone's later spaghetti westerns and epic struggle to realise Once Upon a Time in America.
At this time, however, this filone gave Fulci the opportunity to try his hand at something different and thereby demonstrate his versatility. 1966's Massacre Time cannot be considered prime Fulci, however, though has its moments and hints at an affinity with and facility for the violent and grotesque.
The first blossoming of Fulci's talents really emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s through the anti-clerical historical drama Beatrice Cenci, which the director often identified as his best film, and a series of hard-hitting thrillers all'taliana. Having written Double Face (1969) for Riccardo Freda, Fulci reworked the same Hitchcockian material for his own debut in the filone, Perversion Story, a hippie-era reworking of Vertigo that saw him make the first of an intermittent series of US excursions. Unfortunately if Perversion Story (1969) shows that Fulci's grasp of filmmaking technique was up to the minute, it also hinted at a certain uncertainty regarding the younger audience and its counter-culture.
This generation gap also helps explain how it was Dario Argento who would really establish this filone with his “animal trilogy” of 1970-72. Being of a younger generation, Argento better understood the new audience, their attitudes and forms of life.
Yet if the sound-alike titles of Fulci's subsequent gialli A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) position them as imitation Argento and their writer-director as an also-ran, the actual style and content of the films again indicates a filmmaker keen to further establish his own identity and reputation. Thus Lizard inverts the structure of Argento's debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and presents ambiguous dream images in lieu of its thesis-cum-model's concrete flashbacks, while Duckling features a rural southern Italian setting instead of a Roman or northern urban one and a strong anti-clerical streak.
Fulci's talent for provocation and distinctive style were again to the fore in another 1972 film, The Eroticist. A comedy about a sexually repressed senator whose political ambitions threaten to be undone by his compulsion to pinch women's bottoms, that the film found many enemies and few friends indicates just how successful its shotgun blasting of church, state, military, left and right alike was and Fulci's talent for provocation in word and deed alike. (“Argento is an artisan who thinks he's an artist”)
If anything the one-two of Duckling and The Eroticist would seem to have worked too well, insofar as Fulci became somewhat persona non grata for the next few years, which saw him work on a children's adaptation of White Fang (1972) and a sequel Challenge to White Fang (1974), along with comedies such as the largely self-explanatory Dracula in the Provinces and an unusual western, Four of the Apocalypse (both 1975).
The importance of Argento to Fulci's career was confirmed by his next films. The Psychic (1977) presented his response to Argento's Deep Red (1975) by way of introducing a supernatural element into the hitherto naturalistic world of his thrillers while simultaneously pursuing a more restrained, less visceral approach curiously at odds with his rival's trajectory at this time through Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Perhaps on account of this The Psychic failed to find an audience, resulting in yet another return to the now all but moribund western filone with Silver Saddle (1978).
Then in 1979 came Dawn of the Dead and Zombie. Released in Italy by Argento, Romero's gory horror comic satire had proven a great success with Italian audiences and, as such, producers saw the prospect of a new and profitable filone to exploit. Fulci was not the first choice to direct Zombie, however, only getting the job after Enzo Castellari passed on it and suggested his name; for perhaps the first and only time in Fulci's career his luck was in.
Astutely described by genre critic Kim Newman as less an imitation Romero than a bloodier return to the B-movies of the thirties and forties, Zombie outdid its part-model in gore and at the international box office whilst providing the defining moment and image of Fulci's career: the once seen, never-forgotten skewering of a woman's eye on a foot-long wooden splinter; hence one side of the Adorno quote with which we introduced this profile.
Directing the underappreciated violent gangster entry The Smuggler (1980) around the same time to further demonstrate his generic breadth and now-established predilection for the visceral, Fulci was rewarded by Zombie producer Fabrizio De Angelis with the opportunity to quickly make three further zombie horror films over the next three years. Often grouped as a loose trilogy on account of their US settings and the constant presence of actress Catriona MacColl, City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981)and The House by the Cemetery (1982) continued Fulci's moment in the spotlight.
While certainly drawing inspiration from Argento in their structure and gore set-pieces, with a rain of maggots in City and the evisceration of its owner by a seeing eye dog in The Beyond obvious lifts from Suspiria (1977), these hallucinatory fever-dreams again foreground Fulci's own style above that of his younger rival. Where Argento favours two or three jump cuts closing in, Fulci will use a zoom; where Argento cuts to a detail, Fulci will rack focus onto it; where Argento make the sweeping operatic camera movement central to his set-pieces, Fulci will fix his camera in place, all the better to see that-which-should-not-be-seen.
The tragedy for Fulci, however, was that in thus continuing to consciously differentiate his approach to horror from Argento's he also laid himself wide open for critics to mistake his stylistic choices for incompetence and a dubious fixation with the abject and unconscionable. Few, except that rare horror enthusiast who could see beyond the gore, cared that he had conceived of The Beyond as an exercise in absolute cinema inspired by Artaud's theories of the Theatre of Cruelty or that the killing of a retarded man with a drill through his head might be justified as “a cry against a certain sort of fascism”.
Rather than being different but equal from Argento, Fulci was merely inferior – just as at the wider level the Italian filone cinema tended to be read as inferior to rather than merely different from its Hollywood genre counterparts.
Nor did Fulci's return to the more naturalistic world of the thriller help matters. Released in the same year as Argento's relentlessly self-reflexive – and thus more safely distanced – Tenebrae, 1982's nihilistically bleak The New York Ripper was fundamentally the wrong film at the wrong time, representing male psychosis and female victimhood in ways that seemed all too real in the context of feminist arguments against the slasher film, moral panics about video nasties and a renascent conservatism across most of the western world.
Famously escorted out of the UK by the police after the BBFC had refused to even consider the film for certification, the film lost money for De Angelis.
This perhaps contributed to a compromised budget and vision for Manhattan Baby (1982), a surprisingly restrained horror that nevertheless forms a recognisable companion piece to the absurdist trilogy preceeding it and, corresponding with the ever more precipitous decline of the Italian popular cinema, the effective end of Fulci's brief but brilliant flowering.
Never one to give up without a fight, Fulci nevertheless continued to attempt to adapt to the flow of the filone and second guess audiences and his erstwhile rival throughout the 1980s with such films as the post-apocalyptic Mad Max styled Conquest (1983); the slash-and-dance Flashdance inspired Murderock (1984); the Nine and a Half weeks-esque erotic drama/thriller The Devil's Honey (1986); and an out-and-out rip off of one of Argento's messiest and least appealing films, Phenomena, entitled Aenigma for extra obviousness (1987).
Though having their moments, films like these remain strictly for the already converted, the kind of texts where much of the pleasure comes from that often dubious game of spotting the auteur's signature touch.
An official sequel to Zombie in 1988 offered Fulci the chance to kick-start his flagging career but was scuppered by the illness that was to dog him for the remainder of his life and career. Remaining keen to keep working till the last, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw few willing to take the chance on Fulci, with the result a series of ultra-low budget horror movies like A Cat in the Brain and Voices from Beyond (both 1990) which could only really be sold to undemanding video gore fans and/or the small but growing cult around the director.
Having spend over 20 years sniping at one another Argento and Fulci then remarkably became reconciled with one another in the mid-1990s with the younger director agreeing to produce and bankroll his former rival's comeback picture, an adaptation of Leroux's oft-filmed tale The Wax Museum.
Unfortunately as the film was in pre-production Fulci died. The circumstances were characteristically ambiguous: a diabetic, he either forgot to or declined to take his medication. We were thus left to wonder what might have been and a distinctive cinematic legacy whose generic diversity and stylistic and thematic consistency have too often gone under-acknowledged through an at times regrettable, if understandable, fixation on one particular gore subset of this whole.
As much as a damaged life – to again return to the Adorno quote with which we introduced this profile – Fulci’s was thus a damaged career, doomed to be misunderstood at the time it mattered, when he was alive.
Yet, like one of his famous zombies, Fulci's cinematic legacy has an undeath through the enthusiasm of high-profile fans like Quentin Tarantino, whose Rollling Thunder imprint re-released The Beyond theatrically in 1998, and lovingly restored by-the-fans-for-the-fans DVD releases exploring the breadth and depth of his filmography, which I would urge everyone reading this to rediscover.
[As part of a writing on film class I'm doing we had to do a profile of a film personality who interests us, so I chose Fulci; I'm not sure if Ragazzi del juke box is really a musical...]