The Cathode Ray Mission: Lucio Fulci and Unknown Pleasures
Around the time that Psycho was opening the borders of American genre filmmaking, a similarly seismic event was occurring in Italy. Mario Bava, the godfather of Italian horror and himself more than worthy of an article here, was establishing the giallo genre, a precursor to the slasher, characterized by its confluence of sex and violence and expressive mise-en-scene. Fast-forward the next two decades, and Italian exploitation cinema has become a well-established mainstay of grindhouses and censor’s offices worldwide, perhaps embodied most notoriously by Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. One figure to emerge from this period that has since risen above the exclusive appreciation of lowbrow connoisseurs is Lucio Fulci, commonly lumped among Bava and Dario Argento as one of the masters of Italian horror.
Fulci, contrary to Bava and Argento, is not typically associated with giallo, but rather a different avenue of exploitation horror, the splatter movie. After dabbling in gialli and spaghetti westerns through the first decades of his career, the 1979 release of Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombi 2 aka Zombie) signals the foray into splatter that would come to form his lasting legacy, and with it, the dramatic aesthetic approach he developed in his work. For the purposes of focus, the period I’m going to primarily discuss is Fulci’s major horror output from ‘79–’82, beginning with Zombie Flesh Eaters and ending with The New York Ripper.
The first thing to discuss with regard to Fulci’s style is his usage of extreme gore effects, the trademark he’s most known for. Across all of his films, not exclusively horror, there is a preoccupation with destroying the human body in severely graphic fashion, but it’s in horror that creative heights are achieved. A woman bleeds from her eyes and pukes up all her organs in City of the Living Dead, a man’s head is eaten by tarantulas in The Beyond, a woman’s eye and nipple are sliced in half in The New York Ripper, the list goes on. The extremity of these images put Fulci in the censor’s doghouse more than once, with many of his films showing up on the UK’s infamous “video nasties” list, banning their distribution on video.
What these effects come to indicate is a morbid fascination with the limits of the body and its form in the face of oblivion. In many horror films, gore is used as a shock tactic, a sudden burst of immensely graphic violence, but it’s rarely lingered on, the shock effect is more or less the purpose. Fulci is different however; for him, the process is the point, watching the rapid destruction of flesh take place is as much the goal as the moneyshot of heads exploding or whatever (though there is plenty of that). The journey to these moneyshots is excruciating, the price of seeing a man get a power drill through his brain is a solid minute of struggle and screaming and slowly being led towards the inevitable (the aforementioned tarantula scene in The Beyond is the prime example of this, what feels like an eternity of spiders tearing apart a wax head constitutes 4–5 minutes of screen time). There is something to this drawn-out approach, though, beyond simple sadistic indulgence. Death in many horror films, by virtue in part of its frequently sudden nature, feels abstract, reduced to weightless spectacle except in rare cases. Death still comes unexpectedly and is still a spectacle in a Fulci film, but it is presented as a deeply horrible, painful process. It’s emotional, not in typically narrative ways of character investment, but in an almost purely visceral, sensory way, we are made to feel and hear and smell what it feels like to die in a Fulci movie, and it never comes nicely. Fulci’s control of sensation is unmatched, every moment bound up just as much in the visual component as the tactile, auditory, or even olfactory component.
I haven’t mentioned anything about the plots of Fulci’s films yet, and for good reason, as they are far down the list of priorities in a Fulci movie. Zombie Flesh Eaters is probably the sturdiest plot of this group of films, due in large part to it being a fairly basic throwback to the original zombie films of voodoo and island mysticism. City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery constitute a trilogy of sorts, the “Gates of Hell” trilogy, as they all concern themselves with portals between the living and dead opening up and zombies and other weirdos causing gruesome havoc on the living. The Black Cat is a Poe riff, and The New York Ripper is about the hunt for a misogynistic serial killer that talks like a duck(?). The characters of these movies are often indiscernible from one another, they’re badly dubbed in English, the plots themselves are usually incomprehensible, and there’s very little by way of thematic depth. But these films are not concerned with being narrative art, they are more akin in Fulci’s approach to paintings or poems than stories, concerned less with logic and ideas than images, sensations, atmospheres, in some way the lowbrow complement to Michelangelo Antonioni, as completely incongruent as that comparison may be. They are pure cinema, and for as much as Fulci himself seems to have cited the avant-garde artist Antonin Artaud as an influence, you could never mistake Fulci’s work for being theatrical.
Zombie Flesh Eaters is perhaps the best articulation of this quality. There are many aspects of it that are extraordinary—one of the great cold opens in movies, one of the great animal stunts in movies, some of the greatest makeup in movies, one of the great eye-gouges in movies. But chief among its alluring elements is its spellbinding mood. It differs from most zombie films by being set almost entirely in the bright daylight, coasting along easily on picturesque, wide-format cinematography, tropical vibes, and slowly-mounting dread until its apocalyptic climax swallows it up. Its skeletal plot allows for many evocative detours, including most famously an underwater fight between a zombie and a real shark that I find difficult to believe really happened despite seeing it twice. It’s a movie that resists a more typical intellectualized, analytical approach; fighting against Fulci’s tide is fruitless, it’s a film and a formal style that can only really be appreciated experientially, letting the sweat, sand, and stench of death wash over you completely, before the bursts of violence jolt you back to reality.
On that note, I would be remiss not to mention one of Fulci’s signature moves, the eye gouge. No director has hated the human eyeball as much as Lucio Fulci, and he makes that hatred known in appalling detail on a frequent basis. Eyeballs are sliced in half, popped out of their skulls, and of course punctured with pointy objects. It’s a long list of ocular violence, the king of which being Zombie Flesh Eaters’ long struggle between a woman and a zombie pulling her face onto a broken wooden slat. There is a particularly visceral quality to eyeball destruction in films that makes it hard to watch, for natural reasons. We are viewing the film through our eyes, and seeing the onscreen destruction of eyes feels far more like a direct assault on the viewer than other forms of violence, a far more literal approach to Hitchcock’s theory of making the audience feel attacked in Psycho.
So why is Fulci someone people want to watch? If his movies are revoltingly gory, and there’s little by way of narrative coherence, then why is his work sought out? There is absolutely a certain market towards which gruesomeness sells, an audience that wants to see the gnarliest kills and gore imaginable, and Fulci is a welcome name in those corners. There’s the formal aspects of his films that draws the otherwise “serious” critics to them (I mean “serious” here in quotes not as a dig at those critics, but as a shorthand for the kind of criticism they engage in, often not indulging in genre/exploitation fare). Beyond that, though, there is a perverse kind of beauty in the extravagant horror that Fulci conceives of, an image of human destruction beyond the scope of the respectable imagination. There are ideas contained within the images of Fulci’s films that are entirely distinct within horror and within film history writ large, and that kind of grotesque beauty is itself something to be celebrated, as unseemly as it may be.