The Antonioni of splatter: welcome to the gruesomely elegant world of Lucio Fulci

Be it face-eating spiders, punctured eyeballs or a deadly snail attack, Fulci staked his claim as Godfather of Gore with dreamy languor and plenty of blood

There is more than one candidate for the title Godfather of Gore, but Italian film-maker Lucio Fulci can lay greater claim to it than most. This is a director who seems pathologically incapable of filming someone falling off a cliff without inserting closeups of their face scraping against the rocks on their way down. This is a director who seemingly can’t film an eye without getting the urge to squish, skewer or enucleate it. Welcome to Fulci World.

It was a film called Zombie Flesh Eaters that brought Fulci to international attention. At least, that was its UK title; its Italian studio called it Zombi 2 to cash in on the success of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which had been released in Italy as Zombi. In early 1980s Britain, Zombie Flesh Eaters ended up on the director of public prosecutions’ list of video nasties, mostly due to closeups of an eye punctured by a giant splinter. Other slightly more family-friendly highlights include an underwater tussle between a zombie and a shark, and an astonishing vision of zombies shambling across New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. (Don’t look too closely or you’ll see cars going in both directions in the background; the budget wasn’t big enough to stop the traffic.)

The Beyond.
Obliging victims ... The Beyond. Photograph: Fulvia Film/Kobal/Shutterstock

Fulci had two more films on the DPP’s nasty list – The Beyond and The House By the Cemetery – which for hardcore British horror fans was as good as giving them the seal of approval. These two, plus City of the Living Dead, formed what became known as Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy: characterised by meandering narratives with a vaguely Lovecraftian theme (Dunwich gets name-dropped), set to Fabio Frizzi’s creepy prog-rock scores. The somewhat somnambulant action regularly grinds to a halt for protracted scenes such as a girl vomiting up her intestines, a stab wound disgorging maggots, or a man’s face being eaten by spiders. The man makes no effort to escape; Fulci’s victims tend to stand or lie around obligingly while they’re being slowly decapitated or disembowelled – or even (in 1988’s Aenigma) attacked by snails, which gives you some idea of the speed at which these things happen.

After Zombie Flesh Eaters, Fulci’s name became almost synonymous with the shambling dead, and backers gave him carte blanche so long as his films had zombies in them. They are absent from his bonkers Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Black Cat, which was shot in a sleepy home counties village and starred Patrick Magee at his maddest, but they crop up again in Conquest, Fulci’s lively contribution to the sword and sorcery genre. But after the Gates of Hell trilogy, and despite occasional bright spots such as the eerie Manhattan Baby, his career went south, starting with The New York Ripper (1982), in which the killer’s Donald Duck voice makes the carnage almost as annoying as it is misogynistic.

Prior to Zombie Flesh Eaters, Fulci already had two decades of film-making under his belt, though it wasn’t until the DVD era that fans were able to access the earlier work. Like many of his Italian contemporaries, he hopped from one genre to another, depending on box-office trends. Incredibly, his first 16 features were comedies, many featuring Franco and Ciccio, Italy’s own Abbott and Costello. He also directed sex comedies, a couple of excellent spaghetti westerns and a historical drama, Beatrice Cenci, in 1969. He later made Contraband, a curiously listless example of the violent Italian crime thriller genre called poliziotteschi, where the director only seems to perk up for a scene in which a drug runner gets a blowtorch to the face.

As someone who gorged on Fulci’s gorefests in the 1980s, I now find myself drawn more to his mystery thrillers; the blood is just as red, but the director seems more fully engaged. One on Top of the Other is a 1969 film set in San Francisco, and could almost be a Fulci take on Vertigo, with added strippers in novelty merkins and Marisa Mell instead of Kim Novak. The hallucinatory A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin from 1971 goes the whole hog, with a naked orgy on the London Underground (it’s a dream!) and Florinda Bolkan attacked by bats in Alexandra Palace; Stanley Baker looks on bemused, as well he might. Bolkan also suffers a cruel fate in 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling; she is unjustly accused of murdering children in a village in southern Italy; the film is now viewed as prescient in its condemnation of the Catholic church.

Beatrice Cenci.
Genre hopping ... historical drama Beatrice Cenci. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

Last but not least, The Psychic from 1977 could almost be Fulci’s reworking of Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Jennifer O’Neill plays a new wife bewildered by her fragmentary visions of a corpse, a broken mirror, and a hole in the wall of her husband’s villa, and spends most of the film trying to fit the pieces together. The film’s original title, Sette Note in Nero (Seven Notes in Black) is not only more evocative than the English one, but Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera’s seven note musical theme (borrowed by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill: Volume 1) proves integral to the plot. The Antonioni comparison is not entirely facetious, given that Fulci’s work is also elegantly shot, often dreamlike, and full of longueurs, though Antonioni’s work is notably short on decapitations and dismemberment. But as Fulci once said: “Violence is Italian art.” It’s almost as though he set out to prove it.

• The Psychic is out on UK Blu-ray and digital platforms on 9 August.


Anne Billson

The GuardianTramp

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