Except among advanced splatter-movie geeks, few in America are familiar with the blood-drenched horror cinema of Lucio Fulci, whose 1981 L'Aldila (The Beyond) (aka 7 Doors of Death) plays midnights at the Coolidge Corner. However, his accolytes regard Fulci as one of Italy's three masters of the supernatural, along with Dario (Suspiria) Argento and Mario (Black Sunday) Bava.
In such films as Zombie, The New York Ripper, and Don't Torture the Duckling, Fulci combined the enterprising low-budget storytelling of Roger Corman with the grisly, gushing-wound acumen of George Romero: Dawn of the Dead, and way beyond. Also, an enthusiastic, obsessive DeSadean cruelty. There are more ways to slit a throat than you can imagine, more ways to gouge an eyeball, and you'll see them all when enmeshed in the oeuvre of Lucio Fulcio.
Not for everybody, this medical student-turned-goremaker, who died of diabetic shock in 1996.
Much of his stuff is available at weirdo video outlets. There's a mini-Fulci section at Pipeline Records near Harvard Square, and I could have spent a jubilant Fulci month with his many movies on tape at Video Oasis Ltd. in Cambridge near Lechmere. Instead, I watched, for background, three recommended ones.
The Gates of Hell (1981). Incomprehensible borrowings from H.P. Lovecraft - the town of Dunwich, the frightening, ancient "Book of Enoch" - uncomfortably grafted onto a New York-set, smart-ass detective mystery. Plus there's an unstuck-in-time priest on a hangrope who pops into the movie whenever, always causing havoc. It's all dumb and incoherent but with two unforgettable nightmare scenes. The first: the priest gives a young woman in a car a hypnotic evil eye, until her own bloodened eyes pop out of their sockets, until she vomits up her intestinal tract. The second: genuinely on a par with Hitchcock, a man standing in a green cemetery on a beautiful day hears, perhaps, some dim, far-away noises. Cut inside a blue-lit grave, where a buried-alive woman is scratching away at her tomb, screaming up into the dirt.
The House By the Cemetery (1982). Roman interiors, Massachusetts exteriors. A professor rents a 19th century house and puts his wife and child there while he does research. Unfortunately, he didn't see the prologue to this movie, in which, in this very same Victorian abode, a nice young lady gets a knife through the back of her head, protruding through her mouth, and it's revealed that a certain Dr. Freudstin once resided there, with "a penchant for illegal experiments."
Nice spooky music, but a rather primitive picture. For much of it, Fulci shows a talent for gruesome knifings, that's about all. The wife hires people she shouldn't, such as a walking-dead babysitter for her boy. There's a fairly chilling ending involving a zombie infested with maggots.
Nightmare Concert (Aka, A Cat in the Brain) (1990). Here's the Fulci movie I'd revive, because it has a resonance beyond its bloodbucket imagery. The director stars as himself, Lucio Fulci, an increasingly deranged horror director becoming totally bonkers in the midst of filmmaking. "It's Eraserhead made by an old man," Fulci once described it. He shows his typical day at Cinecitta, the Roman studio where Fellini also filmed. In the morning, Fulci shoots the saga of a contemporary-day cannibal who makes a steak and hamburger out of a cadaver. Then Fulci breaks for lunch, and almost spits up when the waiter at a stuffy restaurant brings over the special of the day, steak tartare.
In the afternoon's shooting, Fulci really goes crazy. He shows closeups of himself directing a throat slitting. "Kill her! Slap her! Like it! Enjoy it!" he screams out, oozing vicarious homicidal pleasure. It's a courageous, revelatory scene, maybe what would have been exposed if the camera ever spun to let us watch, say, Brian De Palma, or old Alfred himself.
Which brings me finally to The Undead, Fulci's movie actually playing here in 35mm. I congratulate the Coolidge for stretching out to show what many consider Fulci's greatest movie. But next to Nightmare Concert, for instance, I found The Undead mostly dull, awkwardly made, and unoriginal. "Twenty-five years ago..., critics called my art 'shit,'" Fulci wryly observed. "Now critic want to call my shit 'art.'" The Undead is yet another genre tale of an inherited estate (this one a hotel in the Lousiana bayous) with bad vibes from the past. The extraordinarily violent prologue shows all: in 1927, a man is hatcheted, crucified, his face melted away. "You ungodly warlock," shout his murderers, as this hotel sits upon one of the Seven Gates to Hell.
In the 1980s, as the hotel is being restored by its female yuppie owner, the Inferno breaks loose, with various workmen killed in variously hideous ways. Forget characterization or a scary story. The payoffs in The Undead are brief moments of extreme bloodshed: a German shepherd attacking its blind owner, an army of tarantulas eating a human face.
Lucio Fulci is not for everybody.
(Boston Phoenix, June, 1998)