The Eyes Have It

Nick Pinkerton on “The Genre Terrorist: Lucio Fulci”

Lucio Fulci, ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà (The Beyond), 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.

THE GENRE DIRECTOR LUCIO FULCI, though a deity for the average Chiller Theatre conventioneer, is probably best known to the wider world for directing the underwater struggle between a zombie and a shark that was used in a commercial for Windows 7, extracted from his 1979 Zombi 2—not actually a sequel, but an attempt to cash in on the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), released in Italy as Zombi.

While Romero and even Fulci’s fellow Italian Dario Argento have, in the main, achieved and maintained a degree of critical legitimacy, Fulci was strictly a cult object for the splatter crowd at the time of his death in 1996, aged sixty-eight. His last film of note was 1990’s Cat in the Brain, certainly an address to his base—in it, he plays a film director named “Dr. Fulci” who, after a lifetime of visualizing ultraviolent fantasies, can’t look at a steak tartare without seeing visions of viscera swimming in blood. But now, twenty years after his death, Fulci is getting his day at the temple of Jonas Mekas, Anthology Film Archives, which is hosting the eleven-day retrospective “Lucio Fulci: Genre Terrorist.” This is the work of the “Malastrana Film Series,” a group who have previously wrangled together prints for AFA retros dedicated to the poliziotteschi and giallo genres, the latter which screened Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and The Psychic (1977).

“Genre Terrorist” is Malastrana’s first series dedicated to a single auteur—hopefully Umberto Lenzi isn’t far off!—and in addition to the run of “gore” films like Zombi 2 for which Fulci is best known, they have pulled in instances of his work in comedy (A Strange Type [1962]), spaghetti western (Massacre Time aka The Brute and the Beast [1966]), family film (White Fang [1974]), sword-and-sandals adventure (Conquest [1983]), and even a historical drama, Beatrice Cenci (1969), which Fulci considered his own best work. But it is the giallo and horror-fantasy films that define his self-portrait in Cat in the Brain, and so it is into that squelchy muck that we will search for the quintessence of his art.

Lucio Fulci, Quella villa accanto al cimitero (The House by the Cemetery), 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 86 minutes.

Fulci was an artist, but the “bad” aspects of his works are manifold, and ignoring them won’t make the case any stronger. His mapping out of screen space is often disorienting in the extreme, though his supernatural thrillers often seem to be having a gas dispensing with all narrative and spatial logic—in an interview in the book Spaghetti Nightmares he discusses an interest in making “Artaudian” films that go “beyond time and space,” making his avant-gardism more purposeful than that of the recently deceased Herschel Gordon Lewis, with whom he shared the sobriquet “Godfather of Gore.” I am less certain as to how to explain away his reliance on highly unconvincing animal puppets in splatter scenes, such as the sashaying pipe-cleaner tarantulas that we watch masticate a man’s face in The Beyond (1981). Like so many of Fulci’s victims, this unfortunate soul goes to his fate transfixed, placid, like a willing sacrifice—Fulci’s characters are less psychologically developed well-rounded humans than meat-puppet cyphers lining up for the chopping block. Worst of all: Twice, in The House by the Cemetery (1981) and Manhattan Baby (1982), Fulci employed the services of horse-mouthed blonde moppet Giovanni Frezza, perhaps the most off-putting child actor who ever lived. Several of his movies, including those two titles, were largely set in and shot in the United States, but his attempts to establish anything like plausible regional setting are laughable—this is one of the aspects that makes Don’t Torture a Duckling, which concerns a killer priest terrorizing rural southern Italy, among his most fully realized and satisfying works.

Duckling showcases Fulci’s passion for the infinite variations with which the human body can be destroyed, containing a fatal chain whipping and a show-stopping finale in which the culprit goes headlong after a cliff, the rocks seen shearing off chunks of his face as he plunges in slow-motion, this intercut with images of children at prayer and play, and everything overlaid with the curiously idyllic strains of composer Riz Ortolani’s score. As was standard practice in Italian movies, the dialogue in Fulci’s films was dubbed in postproduction, but it seems like Fulci gave most of his attention to his scores, by such giants as Ortolani and repeat-collaborator Fabio Frizzi, and foley effects. The latter point is most noticeable in his tireless search for the most repellent possible to accompany slithering viscera and mutilated flesh, though I can never think of the sound of fingernails grating on the lid of a closed casket in the buried alive sequence of City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell, 1980) without a shudder.

Fulci’s tendency to fill the entire screen with a performer’s eyes and the bridge of their nose—what many of us think of as the Sergio Leone extreme close-up—isn’t just a way to distract from synch issues, but one instance of an ocular fetish that manifests itself in myriad ways in his films. Fulci is obsessed with eyes—with moments where the eye encounters an unutterable horror that strikes the viewer dumb, and with scenes that climax with bursts of blood and optic fluid, found in both Zombi 2 and The Beyond, a film that also prominently boasts the milky pupils of a blind soothsayer. That image of blank eyes recurs in Manhattan Baby, which also has some truly coo-coo pieces of subjective camerawork: the POV of a poisonous snake, or of a man being assailed by a trio of reanimated taxidermied birds. Actual tears of blood are shed in City of the Living Dead, a movie that has often been grouped with The Beyond and House by the Cemetery in an unofficial trilogy which, along with John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” represents the most successful attempt to (unofficially) adapt the themes and mythos of H.P. Lovecraft to the cinema.

Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Mrs. Menard (Olga Karlatos).

Like composer-director Carpenter, whose contributions to the art of film scoring equal or exceed his importance as a filmmaker, Fulci gives soundtrack place of pride—for a time in the mid-1960s he’d even worked as a songwriter, and in the first decade of his career was best known for sprightly musical comedies after the style of his mentor, Steno (the screen name of Stefano Vanzina). Perhaps Fulci’s most important working relationship was with Frizzi, with whom he first worked on the western Four for the Apocalypse… (1975). A synthesizer innovator of the vanguard Carpenter/Morodor/Vangelis generation, Frizzi created earworm scores with then state-of-the-art equipment like the Prophet 5, Jupiter 8, and Yamaha CS80, which produces the sizzling chik-chik-chik tssss of Zombi 2’s triumphal march theme. Frizzi’s insidious rhythms are matched to an ornate visual style that is defined by a singular overreliance on the rack focus, sometimes yo-yoing repeatedly between foreground and background in a single shot—yet again, we see Fulci’s preoccupation with the function of the eye in these effects, which make the surface of the screen seem fairly to writhe. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati was, consequently, a key element of Fulci’s late-’70s/early-’80s run—unlike Argento with his phantasmagorical theatrical gels, Fulci preferred to keep things dark, gooey, and loamy—along with Frizzi, co-scenarist Dardano Sacchetti, producer Fabrizio De Angelis, cameraman Franco Bruni, and production designer Massimo Lentini, responsible for such touches as the catacombs of City of the Living Dead and the gray, purgatorial afterworld that concludes The Beyond.

After Manhattan Baby and The New York Ripper (1982), the latter featuring a Donald Duck–voiced serial killer at large in Manhattan, Fulci’s output and his health went into sharp decline. Cat in the Brain was mounted as a “comeback,” though what is most disturbing in this clunky metafilm is its portrayal of middle-aged Fulci’s solitary and melancholy life in a large, empty, tackily decorated Roman home. His wife had committed suicide in 1969, and his daughter, Camilla, died in a car crash shortly thereafter, and it seems like no great leap to say that Fulci’s growing interest in vivisection and putrefaction in the years ahead was something more than purely professional. After several stomach-turning moments and a few belly laughs—Fulci, after a long day at Cinecitta, muttering “Sadism, Nazism… Is there any point anymore?”—the film concludes with the image of the Maestro bidding goodbye to his crew to sail away in a boat named Perversion. I think I had something in my eye.

“The Genre Terrorist: Lucio Fulci” runs October 21 through October 31 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.