An Acquired Taste
I think it’s fair to say that, even within the horror community, Fulci is fairly niche; Fulci fans constitute a relatively small, though very ardent subculture of sorts. As far as outside of the horror community, he is virtually unknown; and to the extent he is known at all, he is largely reviled (even among horror fans, he has his share of haters). Though he began making films in the ’50s, Fulci’s unique place in the pantheon of horror filmmakers rests largely on his output during a brief period of time between the late ’70s and early ’80s. While he did direct some notable, horror-adjacent giallo films earlier in the ’70s, it was his run of films beginning with Zombi 2 in 1979 and culminating with The New York Ripper in 1982 that not only inextricably linked him with the genre but which also properly introduced viewers to a style of filmmaking that can only be called…Fulci-esque.
And what does Fulci-esque mean, exactly? One could say—if one wanted to put it in unflattering and reductionist terms—that it means gore, sleaze, and an almost pathological aversion to things like logic and plot structure. More generously, one might say that it means…well, still all of those things. Fulci’s horror films are unfailingly gory (everything in this ’79-’82 run), frequently sleazy (Zombi 2 and The New York Ripper), and sometimes almost narratively incoherent (City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery).* Of course, on the surface none of this distinguishes Fulci from any number of other directors making low-budget exploitation horror films during this same period, of which there were many. Not even the extreme degree to which Fulci’s films were gory, sleazy, and/or borderline incomprehensible would necessarily make them stand out from the schlocky pack, or at least not as much as they do.
*I should note that I’m still not certain whether the muddled storytelling in these films is intentional or not; I suspect that it may be somewhere in between. To the extent, if any, that it is intentional, it makes a certain kind of sense if we accept that Fulci’s primary goal in some of these films is to present an almost purely visual, highly visceral depiction of Hell on Earth; to the extent, if any, it’s merely the product of sloppy screenwriting, I am mostly willing to overlook it based on the films’ other strengths.
Never Mind the Speck in Your Brother’s Eye, You’ve Got a Plank in Yours!
Of course, the gore—even more than the sleaze and the jumbled, dream logic narratives—is the single element most associated with Fulci-style horror, and with good reason. Even in his more cohesive narratives, it would be fair to say that Fulci’s films are less concerned with story and more concerned with spectacle and mood; it would not be unfair to say that they are, in a way, essentially a series of setpieces strung together into something approximating traditional narrative films. And many of his most notable set pieces revolve around gore—lots and lots of gore. Two of the most (in)famous are the protracted, close-up penetration of a woman’s wide-open eyeball by a long, jagged splinter (Zombi 2) and a woman who starts bleeding from the eyes before proceeding to slowly and continuously vomit out most—if not all—of her internal organs (City of the Living Dead). And if you were wondering, it is a bit odd to actually type out those descriptions.
However one feels about these scenes—even if you haven’t seen them, you probably had some reaction just reading the descriptions—there is no question that they are memorable. For the record, of the two, I’m partial to the splinter in the eye scene; I just think it looks better and is more effective because it could actually happen. Granted, it’s not entirely realistic, considering the woman doesn’t even blink—she quite literally doesn’t bat an eye. But, then, that’s Fulci for you; he’s never going for full realism. This scene is perhaps the epitome of the Fulci ethos of extreme, surreal gore as a form of art; it’s like his take on the eye slitting from Buñuel’s Le Chien Andalou (1929), except instead of an artsy match cut to a cloud crossing the moon, Fulci shows you the ocular carnage in loving close-up—a motif he would return to in both The Beyond and The New York Ripper, with their scenes of graphic eye violence.
Trust Him, He Knows What He’s Doing
And it is this element of artfulness that makes Fulci’s films arguably the (curdled) cream of the low-budget, exploitation horror crop. Even at their most bizarre, their most tasteless, and, yes, even their most stupid, they show signs of a filmmaker who not only knew what he was doing from a technical standpoint but perhaps even had something akin to an auteurist “vision” (gasp!). And if you watch
some many of the other ostensibly comparable films being cranked out at this time, you will see that this is an important distinction. Indeed, there is a world of difference between a filmmaker whose choices can make you question what they were thinking versus one whose choices make you question if they knew what they were doing.
Fulci’s horror films can often elicit the first of these responses, usually when he is showing you something particularly weird or disgusting; of course, that’s precisely why he’s showing it to you. The thinking is “I’m going to make you look at this because it’s so weird and disgusting.” However, these films rarely prompt the latter reaction; even with budgetary constraints, producer interference, and the usual bugbears of low-budget exploitation filmmaking, there is simply too much evidence of Fulci’s technical proficiency to believe he was incompetent.
This is not to say these films don’t have moments where they look a bit dodgy, and this includes some of the heralded gore scenes. Low budgets paired with a commitment to lingering for a really long time on shots, especially the really gross ones, guaranteed that the limitations of the practical effects would be evident from time to time. But, this isn’t a matter of incompetent filmmaking. Of course, one could argue that lingering to the point that the practical effects become unconvincing does constitute incompetence; however, I would argue that Fulci was willing to take these risks because he was so singularly committed to producing moments of discomfiting spectacle. No doubt, such a commitment is idiosyncratic—odd, even—but in a strange way it’s also kind of…admirable?
Mood: It’s “Doom” Backwards!
Despite being most well known for their gore effects, the moments in Fulci films I find most compelling are seldom centered on gore. In fact, I think that focusing almost exclusively on this one, albeit admittedly significant aspect of Fulci’s horror films—whether out of appreciation or contempt—can distract from some of these films’ other qualities. As I noted earlier, Fulci was chiefly interested in the creation of spectacle and mood. While the gore in Fulci’s films certainly counts as spectacle, it cannot account for the consistently unique mood of his films. No doubt, mood—in film, in writing, in music, and in art, generally, is something that can be difficult to nail down. Certainly, when it comes to film, the mood is a more elusive concept than spectacle; it’s much harder to pinpoint, to define, even to describe.
In the case of Fulci’s horror films, the prevailing mood might best be described as one of dread and surreality, a world in which everything is at least slightly off and where things will continue to get increasingly worse as they progress inevitably toward some unknown and terrible outcome. Many elements, of course, contribute to the mood of a film, including the visuals (lighting, color, composition, framing, camera angles, etc.), as well as the music, the acting, and the editing. While a film’s director is certainly not solely responsible for the mood of a film, ideally they have a lot to do with it. And I would argue that Fulci was as adept at creating pure mood as he was at creating a pure spectacle.
Perhaps the moodiest of Fulci’s films were the three that form the centerpiece of his horror output: 1980’s City of the Living Dead and 1981’s The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery. Though these three films have been unofficially dubbed (hey, that means they were “dubbed” twice!) “the Gates of Hell trilogy,” they are a trilogy only in a very loose sense. Their links are stylistic and thematic rather than narrative, which is appropriate given how fast and loose all three play with the very concept of narrative. Indeed, it is on the basis of these films that narrative looseness is considered a Fulci-ism; other films, like Zombi 2 and The New York Ripper are far more linear and less convoluted.
Fulci Goes Full Fulci
The Gates of Hell trilogy represents Fulci at his most Fulci-esque, as they combine staggering amounts of gore with equally staggering levels of narrative confusion. Interestingly, they are almost entirely free of sleaze, with the exception of a brief scene of a topless woman at the beginning of House by the Cemetery, there is no nudity in the films. They are also Fulci’s most visually impressive films, appropriately enough as they are his most purely visual ones; indeed, they are probably among the most purely visual films one could find outside of non-narrative art and experimental films. While the scores and sound designs of these films are not to be discounted (in which case, we might more accurately call them purely sensory films), these are films that largely live and die—with an emphasis on the dying, of course—by the strength of their visuals.
Fulci was a filmmaker with an especially keen eye (wink wink) for the uniquely captivating image, a talent often seen among the very best filmmakers working in horror—that most cinematic of film genres. Indeed, horror has a long tradition of directors with a knack for creating images that thanks to their sheer singularity, inventiveness, elegance, or some other intangible quality not only work within the larger context of the films in which they appear but very much stand as iconic images in their own right. In or at least adjacent to the horror genre, filmmakers with a special talent for producing such striking and memorable images include Hitchcock, De Palma, Argento, Bava, Del Toro, Lynch, and Kubrick.
While these directors represent a variety of styles, one quality they share is a very photographic or even painterly approach to filmmaking; their films often feature carefully composed tableau shots, often using the entirety of the frame to present a wealth of visual details (or, conversely, at times a dearth of visual details) that imbue the spaces they present with a richness of texture and depth. In this way, regardless of whether the spaces they show you are beautiful, strange, or frightening, they are always interesting.
At his best, Fulci deserves to be mentioned alongside these filmmakers, though he rarely is. Despite his obvious talent, Fulci rarely receives the same attention or accolades as these other filmmakers, including other giants of Italian horror cinema like Dario Argento and Mario Bava. The reason may be that his films tend to fall into a strange in-between space—too artsy for some viewers, too grindhouse for others. Fulci’s horror films, particularly the Gates of Hell trilogy, are disconcerting and disorienting in a way that Bava’s never were; even Argento’s films at their most violent and convoluted aren’t quite as off-putting as Fulci’s. Simply put, Fulci’s horror films are uniquely gross and unpleasant. Fulci’s films also tend to be less overtly artistic and stylish than either Bava’s or Argento’s, both of which often exude a certain sense of class and elegance. At the same time, they are often artful to a degree rarely seen in the work of cult and exploitation contemporaries like Joe D’Amato and Umberto Lenzi.
Beyond the Pale
If we were to single out any one Fulci film as an example of his unique ability to capture transcendent images in celluloid, it would be The Beyond, the middle entry of the Gates of Hell trilogy. The Beyond is perhaps the ultimate distillation of everything that makes Fulci, Fulci. In terms of conventional narrative, The Beyond makes little to no sense (though arguably it is slightly more straightforward in its storytelling than either of the other Gates of Hell entries). In typical Fulci fashion, what little narrative there is seems almost a pretext for Fulci to present a series of images both hellish and oddly compelling. With regard to imagery, The Beyond sets the bar high from the very opening of the film, only to raise it even higher with its ending; in between, the film rarely, if ever, lets up, with fantastic and nightmarish images coming at a feverish clip.
The film’s opening, a flashback to the 1920s that serves as a prologue to the events that follow, is shot in arresting sepia tones. The use of light, particularly the reflection of the mob’s torches on the surface of the dark water as they approach the hotel by boat, is spectacular (notably, Fulci will use the visual of light reflected in dark water again later in the film). In fact, until things turn decidedly ugly as the mob flogs, crucified, and disintegrates the artist’s body in graphic fashion, the opening sequence is actually quite beautiful. Interestingly, even once violence and bodily destruction ensue, they retain an element of perverse beauty. The opening of The Beyond is undoubtedly one of the very best examples of Fulci’s skill in juxtaposing the aesthetically pleasing and the repulsive.
As good as its opening is, The Beyond is arguably most famous for its ending, which is one of the best in the history of horror cinema. It is bleak, nightmarish, surreal, even strangely beautiful; it is everything that great horror should aspire to be. I would also point out that, of the three Gates of Hell films, it is the only ending that manages to be effectively shocking while also not feeling completely out of left field. The film neither telegraphs its ending nor provides anything as straightforward as an explanation, though it does offer something like a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of visual cues threaded throughout the film. Some are explicit—though only after you know the ending, in the moment they’re as abstruse as anything else in the film—while others are more subtle.
A Bridge Too Far
Between its bravura opening and ending, The Beyond is a film rife with unforgettable scenes. One scene in particular, in which Liza first meets the mysterious blind woman Emily, subtly prefigures the uncanny, otherworldly quality of the film’s ending. Despite being, on the surface, very different from the film’s ending, the initial encounter between Liza and Emily brilliantly manages to convey a similarly eerie feeling. On the basis of visuals alone, it may be the best scene in the film and possibly the best in the entire Gates of Hell trilogy. A large part of what makes the scene so effective is how beautifully, deceptively simple it is. Through a keen understanding of physical space, the visual field, and how to position objects within the frame, Fulci crafts a scene of exceptional visual potency using only a few basic ingredients: a woman driving a car; another woman standing still, her dog beside her; and a bridge.
The choice of the setting—the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, a nearly 24-mile long bridge spanning Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain—is inspired. In the scene, the bridge seems to stretch endlessly in either direction, while around it we see only water and sky with no trace of land. The unnatural emptiness of the bridge, emphasized by Liza’s being the only car in sight, and the accompanying lack of any additional visual information that might help to orient us in space, to give us a clue as to just where we are, give the scene a strangely alien quality.
And this is before the strange, sudden appearance of Emily and her dog in the middle of the road, a tableau of stillness in the middle of the frame appearing, at first, small against the vastness of the surrounding space. Here, space is created in three directions—laterally and vertically by the expanses of water and sky in the periphery, and focally through the depth of the shot. The latter emphasizes both the space between the camera (our/Liza’s POV) and the mysterious figures in the road, as well as the distance of the space beyond them as water, sky, and bridge seemingly become one as they extend off into what appears as an infinitely distant horizon. Only as the car comes closer, its continuous forward movement further emphasizing the preternatural stillness of the figures in the road does the tableau shift from being dwarfed by the surroundings to dominating the frame, with the frame becoming the windshield of Liza’s car, strengthening our association with Liza’s POV in the scene.
Lucio Fulci: A Man of Subtlety and Taste
Importantly, nothing overtly frightening happens in this scene; it takes place in full daylight and Emily poses no threat, immediate or otherwise. And yet it is unsettling precisely because it is not only strange and unnatural, it is something that simply cannot be. A woman (a blind woman, no less) and her dog could not just appear in the middle of this bridge as they do here—it is a physical impossibility. Furthermore, no one, blind or not, would stand unmoving in the middle of the said bridge…and yet she does. She stands, not seeing but perhaps sensing the oncoming car, sensing Liza’s presence, waiting for her to stop, which of course she does. As viewers, we know that while we too would stop, we know also that we would be thoroughly freaked the f*ck out. And that is effective horror; and all without shadows, loud noises, or a drop of blood. Especially for a filmmaker so well known for spectacle, this scene is a stunning example of subtle horror.
It is in the scene’s uncanny evocation of space—limitless, foreboding, and yet oddly beautiful (perhaps even sublime?)—that it subtly anticipates the striking visuals of the film’s ending. Fulci’s depiction of the titular “Beyond” is a wasteland of ostensibly infinite space, barren and desolate, extending in all directions into obscuring darkness. Whichever way our protagonists turn, they face the same prospect—infinite nothingness. The earlier meeting between Liza and Emily on the strangely deserted bridge, while not as outwardly terrifying, is similarly disconcerting and even more elegantly effective in the way it decontextualizes space, rendering it unfamiliar, inexplicable, and intimidating. Not bad for a hack director of exploitation splatter flicks.