Thoughts on the art of Lucio Fulci

by Kalevi Kolttonen

The topic of this writing is the art of Lucio Fulci. However, I am not interested in repeating the movies' plots or trying to offer comprehensive film analyses here. I also will not write much about Fulci's background as a person. To learn about those things, you can use Internet and you will find some information, more or less accurate. Some of it will be crap, to be sure, so please try to be critical. Lucio was a controversial figure, and certain people would like to forget he ever existed. He did step on many authorities' toes when he was alive and he was not afraid to speak his mouth. With that kind of attitude, you get friends, but also foes.

For those who wish to know Fulci and his movies, I recommend Stephen Thrower's book Beyond terror: The films of Lucio Fulci. I am happy that Thrower had the patience to do all the hard work that is required to put together a quality book. I own the hardcover version, and I do not mean to be too critical about it, but still, to be honest, first a few comments about the book.

I think the author has done very good work, and the shortcomings of the book are easily understandable.

At times, the book resembles a fanzine more than a critical exposition. For instance, a vast number of pages is dedicated to Fulci memorabilia such as posters released in different countries and VHS release covers. But to blame Thrower for that would probably be unfair. In fact, I personally like to see the memorabilia collected there, but if you expect a more traditional, dry exposition style with much more text than pictures, be forewarned that the book is not quite conventional in its form.

Antonella Fulci, Lucio's daughter, honestly says in the opening statements of the book that there was no common thread in Lucio's film career. Like many artisans, he often directed movies just to get food on the table, without any grand unifying vision behind the succession of movies. Therefore, the book's form as a loose collection of phases seems to be a necessity, and to blame Thrower for lacking a common theoretical framework in this book is not justified. The diversity of the movie genres and varied quality of the works must have been a great challenge to Thrower as an author.

In this article I will limit myself to making just a few personal notes on how I feel about Fulci's movies. The most generic statement I have is that his diverse filmography mirrors the phases of life itself.

Everybody, including even the most dedicated Fulci fans, unhesitatingly admits that among the numerous movies Lucio directed, there were complete and utter disappointments. Those are the depressing lows that we just want to forget. They are analogous to the darker times we sometimes go through in our personal lives.

When you live a life, you cannot except to hit a jackpot every single day, but because for most of us our careers are not public, our disappointments and our lows are not visible to the general public. The situation is different for people such as directors or actors whose work is not only public, but is often criticized as well. The professional athletes suffer from the same fate. There is a lot of pressure to succeed, and when the inevitable failures occasionally creep in, there are always people who are willing to count you off, put you down and stab your back.

So much for the disappointments. Lucio also made lots of films that were okay, passable, watchable. Those are the ones that perhaps command no special attention, but serve as pretty good entertainment while they last. Most parts of our lives follow along this line. Our day to day living often goes without suffering from great failures, but we do not usually reach particularly great results either. The two extremes, lows and highs, tend to be few and far between.

I think that even the serious film critics would be forced to agree with me so far. Despite Fulci's controversial reputation caused by films such as The New York Ripper, it is widely recognized that the man had skills as a director. It is true that some people call him weak, even making fun of his skills, but I would say those people are not in the position to offer valid criticism. If all they have seen are the Fulci standards like Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead or The Beyond, the sample data set to judge Fulci's career is simply too small.

My personal history regarding Lucio Fulci's movies is the usual story that happened to many of us in the 1980s. The government in Finland mercilessly censored horror and action movies, and soon the only way for fans to enjoy horror movies was to turn to the black market. This meant paying lots of money for owning bad quality VHS tape copies, often with so terrible video quality that the colours would turn to black and white. I remember that The Beyond and The New York Ripper were particularly hard items to find uncut and with decent video quality.

The first Fulci movie I saw was Zombies 2 in 1987 or 1988. The picture quality was all right for the time, being perhaps a second or third generation copy from the original VHS tape. The release title was a direct translation from the original italian title: Zombi 2 (not Zombie Flesh Eaters like it was called in the UK and maybe other countries). The version I saw had an English soundtrack and Swedish subtitles. I liked the movie quite a lot, and came to appreciate the comic book like qualities of Fulci's films of the same time period.

In my opinion it is not fair to criticize movies like Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond or The House by the Cemetery for lacking depth, serious character development or sophisticated plots. To me those movies evoke the kind of feeling you get from reading good, old, simple comic books such as Tintin or the best Donald Duck stories. The plotlines are intentionally kept simple and the characters are intentionally categorized as bad or good in exaggerated ways.

It makes no sense to compare horror films like these to movies that aim to have a serious message or philophy in them. Doing so makes no more sense than comparing Tintin and Donald Duck to Shakespeare and Dostojevski, or comparing pop music to the Bach classical concertos.

Why compare apples and oranges? The movie domain is a large one, and we should have room for different genres, even if drawing the distinctions is many times very hard. The horror movies Lucio made have a very unique, gothic feel that nobody has since managed to duplicate. I certainly do not want to put those films down, as I love them as much as any other Fulci fan.

In any case, the following Draculina magazine interview excerpt shows how frustrated Fulci got when he was labeled as a horror director:

Interviewer: Your golden time has been that of the famous trilogy started with Gates of Hell (Kalevi's note: this is the US title of City of the Living Dead).

Lucio Fulci: (angry) I'm bored with all the critics who talk of a "Trilogy". I think my real golden time was in the early seventies, with Perversion Story (Kalevi's note: this is the US title of One on Top of the Other),Don't Torture a Duckling... But yes, of course, the beginning of the eighties brought me much fame. One thing I'd like to say is that for my movies I've always chosen actors, not stars. I hate the stars. For L'Aldila(Kalevi's note: The Beyond) we took David Warbeck because he was alike Jack Nicholson. Warbeck, Paolo Malco... there's no difference. They're no Peter Lorre, but they're good just for the horror movies.

First of all, I agree that Lucio's golden period was just when he says it was, but I will get back to that topic later. Let's talk about the early 1980s now.

Lucio was far from a stupid man, but unfortunately some of his so called gore fans are complete asshats. It is not at all uncommon to come across people who have seen the cult horror movies Lucio directed during the 1979 - 1982 period, and all these people keep on raving about is the supposed coolness of the violent scenes.

Those individuals are only capable of seeing that there are some graphical horror scenes that are disgusting to many. There is often absolutely no appreciation for the fact that the cinematography in those movies is superb or for the fact that the soundtracks work great. If you have ever seen any real trash movies directed by pathetic losers like Jess Franco, or by some german zombie movie idiots, you just know in your heart what truly shitty movies are like.

In many respects the real trash movies resemble the absolute worst home videos. The cutting, music, sound effects, pacing, directing, cinematography, everything is of grade Z quality. There is just no way you can call Fulci's 1979 - 1982 movies trash. They certainly are simplistic plot-wise and character development is non-existent, but this is what comic book like horror movies are supposed to be like.

What I am saying is that despite some of the absolute disasters that were trash, Lucio Fulci was a competent director. He was perfectly capable of doing things right, and many of his films prove that. Some people call Fulci "a good artisan", meaning exactly the same thing as I do.

The naive gore fans who seek only blood and guts are the ones who really dishonour Lucio Fulci's director career. In their narrow minds they have formed a certain pre-conceived idea of what "Fulci movies" are supposed to be, and when they come across Fulci films that do not fit to their own formula, they freak out. It could well prove hopeless to try to convince them that there is much more to Fulci films than gore, but I will try nevertheless. The man deserves more respect than he currently gets and something needs to be done about it.

I have to digress a little bit, but not too far. Let me start by telling you that I have always loved Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L'Uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo), Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) and Suspiria. The reasons for my liking them are several. Probably the most important thing is the amazing visual glory in those films. The strange camera angles, colours and the creative cinematography in general, is just fantastic, classic Argento. The soundtracks are also extremely powerful and well-suited to the movies, especially in Deep Red and Suspiria. Many fans consider the Argento/Goblin soundtracks as cult classics, and rightly so.

For a long time, the only Fulci films I had seen were Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery and The New York Ripper. Based on those movies, I too had formed a certain pre-conception of what Fulci's work was like. I was only dimly aware of the fact that he had directed some thrillers or giallos in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, I had a pretty good excuse for my ignorance: the Fulci giallos were super hard to find in Finland in the 1980s, and before the birth of the World Wide Web, there was very little information available.

Digressing again, I really want to take the time here to sincerely thank all the small indepedent movie companies that have worked very hard to bring us the difficult to find early Fulci classics. During the VHS video era, the life of a movie fan was pretty bad. As I said earlier, it was often necessary to settle with illegal, inferior quality copies.

Nowadays, we have the privilege of enjoying professionally restored, great quality widescreen prints that are simply a joy to watch. There is also the additional thrill of knowing that some real fans have gone through great pains in order to find as complete film versions as possible. In some cases they have had to chase down several hard-to-find prints from foreign countries, and using digital techniques, combine them to make new and fresh prints that incorporate all scenes that are known missing from certain versions.

My appreciation for this kind of detective work and true dedication to construct the uncensored, definitive version is huge. I am strongly against censorship and hate the fact that the cut movie prints have been made in the first place, but luckily certain individuals with big hearts have come to the rescue. There is still work to be done, though.

And if you should think that the Fulci fan base is only some esoteric, isolated camp of weirdos with a penchant for strange movies, you are wrong. Perhaps the single most important factor in gaining respect towards Lucio Fulci has come from a rather unexpected source. Quentin Tarantino, one of the few truly talented directors alive, who had earlier come out as a Fulci fan, re-released The Beyond in the US in 1998. I am not aware of how well or badly the re-release fared in the box office, but quite frankly, I do not care either. The financial success and huge popularity is not at all a guarantee that a film has some merit, and conversely, disappointing ticket sales do not imply that a movie is a bad one.

In the interview quoted above, Lucio himself said that he thinks his golden period was with the giallos. I wholeheartedly agree, and indeed am not ashamed to admit that I regard One on Top of the Other(Una Sull' Altra), Lizard in a Woman's Skin(Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna), and Don't Torture a Duckling (Non Si Sevizia un Paperino) as masterpieces in their genre. They are quite simply fantastic thrillers with very interesting and even complicated plots.

It may sound weird, but watching those movies for the first time was a deeply emotional experience for me. I just could not believe it. Despite being a fan for a long time, I had no idea that Lucio was capable of directing movies of the highest quality. My respect for the beauty of Dario Argento's giallos was now matched, and maybe even topped, by the great Fulci giallos. It is quite surprising how amazing they are visually, and the soundtracks by Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani match the visual scenes quite perfectly. All in all, I am really impressed and must congratulate Lucio for making such wonderful, timeless films. I truly hope the films will reach larger audiences, as they deserve to be seen and heard.

The story behind Don't Torture a Duckling is very interesting. For starters, there's the rumour that the original title was Don't Torture Donald Duck, which is Non si Sevizia Paperino in Italian. However, they say that to prevent clashing with the Disney company's moronic lawyers, the movie had to be retitled as Non Si Sevizia un Paperino, removing the reference to Donald Duck. Without giving away too much about the movie's plot, I think the rumour has some credibility.

Second, just like Fulci's earlier great movie Beatrice Cenci, Don't Torture a Duckling can be seen as being strongly anti-catholic. That is fine with me, as I hate practically all organized religions, but if you imagine how much say the catholic church has in Italy, it is hardly surprising that the religious authorities tried to downplay and supress the showing of Non Si Sevizia un Paperino. We should be happy and thankful that the movie is now available on DVD, with an English soundtrack. It is an added bonus that a movie like this pissed off the Pope and other religious fools.

In the end, I will gladly join the enthusiastic crowds that shout "Fulci lives!", but I do want to remind everybody not to fall prey to the lame "Godfather of gore" propaganda.

Respect the man and see the true diversity of his movies with open eyes and open mind.