Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci
Dedicated to the memory of Rick Lopez.
The films of Lucio Fulci, the Italian horror filmmaker, are usually lumped in with those of other ‘gore’ specialists, but it seems to me that this is just one component of Fulci’s work. Running through all his films is a strangely dreamlike, hyper-violent abandonment of narrative, which seeks to disrupt normative social values, perhaps as a result of Fulci’s youthful excursions into Marxist political thought. In such films as The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and other works, Fulci continually works against audience expectations, both in terms of characterization and plot. In The Beyond, for example, a young blind woman’s faithful guide dog turns on her without warning, tearing her throat out; in City of the Living Dead, a young couple are making out in the front seat of a car when the girl’s father discovers them, and drags the young man to a drill press, which he uses to push a huge bolt through his skull.
Zombies roam hospitals, highways lead into the ocean with no end or beginning in sight, protagonists discover themselves trapped inside an oil painting, and there’s no logic to any of this. Fulci usually makes some desultory stab at a framing story, but once a central premise is set forth, the rest of the film is given over to random, unconnected, and seemingly unmotivated sequences that follow with no discernible order or reason. I would argue that the chaotic non-narrative structure of Fulci’s films puts him closer to the work of Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau; he creates a walking dream state from which the sleeper never awakes.
I was introduced to Fulci’s films by the late Rick Lopez, with whom I shared a rundown apartment, along with several other people, in one of the very worst areas of New Brunswick, NJ in the early 1980s. Rick was always an extreme character, who lived life very much on the edge, and cobbled together a living from late night DJ gigs, odd jobs, and hustling whatever cash he could from a variety of other forms of employment. For all of this, Rick was essentially a very sweet and perceptive person, who, though undeniably attracted to the dark side – he once only half-jestingly proposed that we turn the living room of our shared apartment into an improvised funeral parlor to generate some extra income – remained curiously optimistic and positive despite his marginal lifestyle. Rick was also given to extravagant gestures of generosity and outré clothing styles, and thought nothing of drifting from one party to the next, pulling all-nighters five or six days a week, and then sleeping through the day, only to rise at dusk, like a benevolent member of the undead.
My strongest visual memory of Rick came early one morning – about 2 AM or later – when, returning from a party myself, I opened the front door of our apartment to discover Rick passed out on our dilapidated sofa, clad in his usual party clothes, but also wrapped in the folds of an enormous, Oscar Wildeian fur coat with a huge collar, clutching in one hand a huge sheaf of Calla lilies, and in the other, an enormous clock face – at least 4 feet in diameter – which was ticking away thanks to a small battery motor, keeping perfect time. To top it all off, I observed that his right arm had been badly cut from his elbow to the wrist, leaving a huge, jagged scar, as icicles of blood dripped from his sleeve.
Worried that perhaps he might be seriously injured, I quietly crossed the room, and gently shook his shoulder to wake him up. Rick’s voice, which always carried with it an air of bemused surprise – sounding very much like Ptery the Pterodactyl on Pee Wee’s Playhouse – finally emerged with a mumbled “Wheeler?”
“Rick, are you okay?” I responded.
“Yes, of course I am. Ohhh . . . where did I get this coat? It’s all furry.”
“Yes, it is, and what about the lilies and this huge clock here?”
“Ohhh…“ Rick ventured, apparently as astonished as I was by this information. “I don’t know… I honestly have no idea… hmm…“
“And there’s blood dripping down your arm” I ventured.
“Ohhh… that is odd. I wonder how that happened. I guess it must have been when I fell in this huge snowdrift back there. Oh well, guess I should wash it off.” Rising unsteadily to his feet, Rick divested himself of his newly and mysteriously acquired fur coat, as well as the lilies, which he carefully put in a vase, and the clock face, which he propped up on a chair. “There” he laughed. “Now at least we’ll know what time it is, right? I need a beer.”
“Um, I think a hot bath is a better idea, Rick. Here, let me help you into a tub.” And so saying, I led him into the bathroom, drew a tub of hot water, and carefully planted him in the warm, sudsy water. He sighed contentedly.
“Life is so complex sometimes, don’t you think?” he said at length, then suddenly brightened, abruptly changing the topic; the fur coat, the lilies and the enormous clock face would have to wait explanation for another time. “Wheeler, I’ve just seen the most amazing film” he began. “A priest walks into a cemetery, hangs himself, and opens the gates of Hell!”
“Really,” I said. “Sounds intriguing; tell me more.” And so, at about 2:30 in the morning, sitting in the bathtub of our rundown apartment, Rick introduced me to the films of Lucio Fulci with an enthusiastic scene-by-scene recap of City of the Living Dead (also known as The Gates of Hell), rendered in appropriately lurid detail. I’m forever indebted to Rick for this, as he had immaculate taste in films, and the next day I started to track down what I could then find on Fulci’s work.
It wasn’t easy, and even today it’s still a difficult proposition. Born in Rome on June 17, 1927, Fulci studied medicine in college, and then in turn became an art critic, and then a screenwriter, oddly enough breaking in as a specialist in comedy, although, when one considers it, perhaps this isn’t so odd after all. He studied at the famed Centro sperimentale di cinematografia (the Experimental Film Center, or Italian National film school, founded by none other than Benito Mussolini in 1935), and as he later told Robert Schlockoff:
“I studied at the Experimental Film Center in Rome, with teachers like Antonioni and Visconti. Incidentally, when I took the oral exam to be admitted to the Center, Visconti asked me what I thought of his film Ossessione [1943; actually an uncredited film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice; MGM, who had purchased the rights to the book, was not amused, and a flurry of lawsuits ensued. Ossessione was soon withdrawn from circulation, finally resurfacing in the 1980s], which was then regarded as a masterpiece, and, with the unconsciousness of my youth, I pointed out that he had ‘ripped off’ quite a few pictures from Renoir’s films! The rest of the jury looked at me as if I was a monster, but Visconti told me: ‘You are the first person to have told me the truth; you know films and you have a lot of courage – which is what a director needs to have!’ And so they took me in!” (Schlockoff 1982)
After this auspicious beginning, Fulci provided the story for A Day in Court (1953) – I’ll confine myself to the English titles for this essay, in the interest of simplicity – and then scripted an additional ten comedies and/or genre films up until 1958, when he finally got a chance to write and direct The Thieves (1958), which created very little impact, followed by his work as an associate producer on Mario Bonard and Sergio Leone’s scrumptiously over-the-top 1959 version of The Last Days of Pompeii starring Steve Reeves, with Fernando Rey as Arbacès, the high priest, as the villain of the piece.
After this, more routine genre films followed in rapid succession, but Fulci was still, at this point in his career, just another journeyman filmmaker pounding out predictable, money making entertainments, such as Oh! Those Most Secret Agents (1964), How We Robbed the Bank of Italy (1966; one of a series of broad comedies, which also included How We Got the Army in Trouble  and How We Stole the Atomic Bomb ), before finally finding his true métier with the surreal and deliriously violent A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). Fulci was moving in a new direction, inspired by his contemporaries in the horror field; as he told Robert Schlockoff, “at that time, I would do comedies, and rock ‘n’ roll films, [but] I was a great admirer of Tourneur and Corman – I love Corman’s Poe series. After a while I was fed up with comedies and would not do any more.” As one of Fulci’s most perceptive critics, Patricia MacCormack, notes,
“While Fulci contextualized the erotics of male homosociality through comedy and reaffirmation of machismo in the adventure films, he was simultaneously venturing into the horror territory with his gialli. These films adhere to the traditional giallo narrative structure while questioning and doubling standard cinematic concepts […] even though, as in his previous films, Fulci’s mind strained against the parameters of generic convention, through violence and dream sequences, special effects and a fascination with perversion (human rather than specifically sexual) he expressed a vision at once fascinatingly resonant with its horror genealogy and unique in its imaginative vision […] the project of describing the best of Fulci’s films, his gory horrors, is a paradoxical one. Being required to describe these films might expose them as poverty stricken within the constraints of signification of images, narrative and their capacity to be viewed as a readerly text.
In order to evoke the powers of Fulci’s best films the reader must let go of: narrative as a temporalization of viewing pleasure which accumulates the past to contextualize the present and lay out an expected future; images as deferrals to meaning, signs to be read or interpreted; characters as integral to plot, both in film in general and horror in particular as that which must be conceptually characterized in order to be meaningfully killed off or destroyed; narrative as intelligible contextualizer of action; exploitation as gratuitously existing for its own sake or to affirm and intensify traditional axes of oppression in society; gore as demeaning or a lesser focus in the impartation of visual expression; pleasure as pleasurable; repulsion as unpleasurable; violence as inherently aggressive; horror as dealing only with notions of returned repression, infantilism or catharsis. I ask the reader, in the tradition of Lyotard’s economy of libidinal pleasure, to shift their address from why or what the images mean to how they affect [the viewer].” (MacCormack 2004)
Indeed, the bulk of Fulci’s reputation as an authentic visionary of surrealist violence rests primarily on a mere handful of films; City of the Living Dead (1980), The Black Cat (1981), Fulci’s uncontested masterpiece The Beyond (1981), and The House by the Cemetery (1982), perhaps the least interesting and most linear of these four projects. To this list must be added Zombie (1979), aka Zombi 2, although Fulci was really piggy-backing on George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead with Zombie, extending Romero’s images of the flesh eating undead further into the realm of graphic specificity. Shortly after this, however, Fulci directed perhaps his most violent and repellent film, The New York Ripper (1982), which was too over the top even for Fulci’s most hardcore fans. After the 1969 suicide of his wife, the death of his daughter Camilla in a car accident in the early 1970s, and the estrangement from his longtime scenarist Dardano Sacchetti over “credit” issues – precisely who was responsible for what during the creation of Fulci’s most famous films – Fulci’s career went into steep decline.
At his peak, Fulci was compared to such horror experts as Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Jacques Tourneur, and though his current “fan” reputation rests almost entirely on his status as a purveyor of gore effects, Fulci himself viewed his films in a very different light. As he told Schlockoff in 1982:
“Horror is not a goal in itself to me. I am basically interested in the fantastic. As a matter of fact, there are few horror scenes in City of the Living Dead; tension is the important thing in this film. I have given up on horror for horror’s sake, instead I wanted to make a nightmare film where horror is ubiquitous, seen in apparently innocuous forms. Horror only appears in two scenes in a spectacular way, let alone the fact that the drill scene is a warning I wanted to give against a certain type of fascism, the girl’s father killing the young guy in such an abject way just because the young guy is different, a frightened victim who, like the so-called witch in Long Night of Exorcism, does not understand all this hostility towards him. I wanted to show this boy as a dropout whom girls protect because of his kindness, but unfortunately, I was not able to develop the conservatism of some Dunwich inhabitants. City, to me, is a visual rendering of the metaphysical side of bad dreams.
I’d like to point out that the audience usually applauds once a horror scene is over, not while the horror is on the screen. People are wrong when they accuse my films of gratuitous horror; censorship is wrong about my films being an incentive to violence. Far from participating in this violence, the spectator, on the contrary, is rid of it, freed from horrors he holds within himself, the film being the catalyst for this liberation. [With The Beyond] my idea was to make an absolute film, with all the horrors of our world. It’s a plotless film; a house, people, and dead men coming from The Beyond. There’s no logic to it, just a succession of images. The Sea of Darkness, for instance, is an absolute world, an immobile world where every horizon is similar. I think each man chooses his own inner hell, corresponding to his hidden vices. So I am not afraid of Hell, since Hell is already in us.
Curiously enough, I can’t imagine that Paradise exists, though I am a Catholic – but perhaps God has left me? – yet I have often envisaged Hell, since we live in a society where only Hell can be perceived. Finally, I realize that Paradise is indescribable. Imagination is much stronger when it is pressed by the terrors of Hell […]. This may seem strange, but I am happier than somebody like Buñuel who says he is looking for God. I have found Him in the others’ misery, and my torment is greater than Buñuel’s. For I have realized that God is a God of suffering. I envy atheists; they don’t have all these difficulties. It is true that all my films are terribly pessimistic. The main characters in The Beyond, for instance, become blind, as their sight has no raison d’être anymore in this lifeless world. But humor and tragedy always join, anyway. If they emphasize the tragic side of things, it may have a comical effect. Everything considered, having directed so many comedies when I started my film career turns out to be very useful for my true cinema, the cinema of the fantastic.” (Schlockoff 1982)
The Beyond, of all of Fulci’s films, remains the most resonantly mysterious and mesmerizing in its insistent avoidance of logic, consisting of a dreamlike series of set pieces revolving around a decaying New Orleans hotel – shot partially on location, with interiors completed in Rome, a typical Fulci tactic, since his films were always made with the international market in mind, rather than being constructed for native consumption in Italy, where the market for horror films remained surprisingly limited. He also used American stars down on their luck in many of his films, such as Christopher George in City of the Living Dead, to increase a film’s box office appeal, and worked in English and Italian interchangeably on the set. As Chas Balun recounts, in The Beyond:
“after a sepia-tinted prologue set in 1920s era Louisiana, a renegade [Warlock, who is also a painter] is chain-whipped, crucified with railroad spikes and drenched with acid […] [The action then shifts] to the present day [and] the living dead are restless and ravenous […] a curious plumber has one of his [eyes] savagely poked out – [a Fulci trademark] only moments before an equally curious housemaid is trapped by a zombie and forced to forfeit one of her own eyeballs. It’s no coincidence that Fulci’s films are full of eyes, usually seen in extreme close-ups and often sightless and clouded, in addition to being on the receiving end of various sharp implements. [As] Fulci explains, ‘they are the first thing you have to destroy, because they have seen too many bad things’ […]
[As The Beyond continues] lips, tongues and eyes are munched by marauding tarantulas, throats are ripped open by a guide dog gone to the Devil, partially dissected corpses run rampant, and a little pigtailed girl has a hole blown clean through her cranium. All of this seems to support Fulci’s thesis that ‘life is often a really terrible nightmare, [and] our only refuge is to remain in this world, but outside time.’ [The Beyond] ends enigmatically but triumphantly. The two surviving protagonists, [Fulci veterans] David Warbeck and Catriona MacColl are chased into the basement of the hotel and are confronted with an eerie, surreal landscape littered with corpses. The climactic denouement [thus] brings the film full circle – the survivors, eyes now clouded and sightless – have entered the ‘Sea of Darkness’ portrayed in the painting seen on the Warlock’s easel during [the film’s] prologue.” (Balun 1996: 39, 40)
Frozen in space and time, the camera pulls back to show the viewer that Warbeck and MacColl have become part of the painting, entombed forever in darkness, death, and decay. Balun is correct in describing the conclusion of The Beyond as “triumphant,” but it is the triumph of death, evil, violence and mortal immortality that the film ultimately embraces. All of this proceeds with a complete absence of logic or reason, as if no such concepts existed in Fulci’s universe: things happen because they do, and they obey no other order except for chance and circumstance. The Beyond’s framing story of the crucified Warlock is simply the jumping off point for a series of grotesque and disturbing set pieces that have no reason for their existence in the film other than the director’s will to bring them to the screen. There’s really no reason why any of what we see should happen; it’s just the cruel illogic of an uncanny world, in which human ambition, hope and striving are all but superfluous. The triumph of The Beyond is the erasure of causality, the rule of random events and circumstance that are completely beyond our control. Much the same, sadly, might be said of Fulci’s career. After the completion of The Beyond, his finest film, his life was never really the same. In short, almost as soon as Fulci reached the summit of this achievement, his cinematic future ironically began falling away from him, just as it had for his doomed protagonists in The Beyond.
Faced with ever-shrinking budgets, trapped in a cycle of extreme violence as his sole stock in trade with producers and distributors alike, and further incapacitated by poor health and depression, Fulci was reduced in his later years to lending his still-commercial name to a series of undistinguished horror films that he had little or nothing to do with, other than appearing in a cameo role in some of the films (a practice of long standing with Fulci, dating back to his earlier works, films he had actually directed), and allowing the films to be released under the banner “Lucio Fulci Presents.” These productions brought in a little much needed cash, but further undermined Fulci’s reputation, as he was not allowed to publicly disassociate himself from the films, in return for payment for the use of his name. Fulci’s final films, A Cat in the Brain (1990), Voices from Beyond (1991) and Door to Silence (1991), which Fulci actually directed and scripted, opened to scathing reviews, and couldn’t hope to match the power of his earlier films – sadly, they were of such poor quality that one has to agree with contemporary reviewers who found the films almost amateurishly inept. Clearly, Fulci was going downhill, and had lost the energy and vision that had propelled him to genre stardom just a decade earlier.
Fulci’s last major public appearance was as a guest of honor at the Fangoria Horror Convention in New York City in January, 1996; on March 13, 1996, Fulci died in his modest apartment in Rome, predicting that after his passing he would swiftly be forgotten, along with his films. But, if anything, Fulci’s work is now more revered than ever, and Fulci just missed the United States theatrical re-release of The Beyond in its original uncut version by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Films in 1998 (I was lucky enough to attend the midnight premiere at the Angelica Film Center in New York City). The film was warmly received by a discerning, yet deeply enthusiastic crowd. In view of the fact that in his lifetime, Fulci’s films had routinely been recut, retitled, censored, and shuffled off into VHS oblivion – indeed, even his name was omitted on some occasions, with the directorial credit being assigned to a variety of pseudonyms to “Americanize” the films, such as “Louis Fuller” – in 2012 it’s a pleasure to note that a plethora of the director’s films are now readily available on DVD and BluRay, in their original, unedited form, often with the original language (Italian) soundtracks as an option.
For someone who grew up admiring the works of Antonioni and Visconti, who revered Renoir, Marcel L’Herbier and other renowned cineastes, but spent most of his life laboring in the genre trenches, such posthumous acclaim would have to suffice. And indeed, in the years since his passing, no one has come along with a similarly original vision of malevolent incoherence and cosmic indifference in the horror genre, and thus Fulci’s achievement as a director, and a genre game-changer, becomes more evident with each passing year. A monster on the set, possessed of a terrible temper with both actors and crew – “I do not like stars” he told Robert Schlockoff quite frankly in 1982 – Fulci was essentially working for himself, as an artist who seeks to create his films for an audience of one. And even at the end of his life, he never gave up hope of making another film. As he told Schlockoff,
“René Clair, once asked what he intended to do after Le Silence est d’or, simply answered: ‘Another film.’ And for us, film directors, that is the question: to be or not to be able to shoot another film. I ruined my life for [the cinema]. I have no family, no wife, only daughters. All women left me because I never stop thinking of my job. My only two hobbies are my dogs and my sailing boat. Work is very important to me. John Ford once said, ‘I know that in bars they are saying bad things about me. But I am shooting films in the mountains with Indians while they are talking […]’.” (Schlockoff 1982)
And so perhaps, in the final analysis, Fulci’s life of relentless striving and sacrifice was justified by his devotion to his art. Despised in his lifetime, like Poe, and dismissed as a hack by the general public, like Lovecraft, Fulci labored on his own terms to create a forbidding world of unreal reality, which may be the truest “reality” of all. This is a legacy that any director would be proud of, no matter how much she or he had to sacrifice to create it; in the end, to quote Gustave Flaubert, another extravagant personality, if “the man is nothing, the work – all” (“l’homme n’est rien, l’oeuvre – tout”), Fulci brilliantly discharged his debt to the cinema, and to the world of the Gothic.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here. His newest projects include the just completed Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky in May 2013.
Balun, Chas (1996), Lucio Fulci: Beyond the Gates, San Leandro, CA: Blackest Heart Books.
MacCormack, Patricia (2004), “Great Directors: Lucio Fulci”, Senses of Cinema, 31, April 22.
Michel, Jean-Claude (1990), “Directed by Lucio Fulci, Italy’s Gore Master, Fantasy Film Memory, 2, October, pp. 1-36.
Schlockoff, Robert (1982), “Interview with Lucio Fulci”, L’Ecran Fantastique, reprinted in Starburst, 4.12, August, translated by Frederic Levy.
Thrower, Stephen (1999), Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, Guildford, UK: FAB Press.