Tuesday, June 17, 2014

LUCIO FULCI: An Appreciation of the Italian Grandfather of Gore

Lucio Fulci would have turned 87 today. And while most gorehounds discovered his work thanks to his Golden Age of Gore that features such classics as ZOMBIE, THE GATES OF HELL and THE BEYOND, his lengthy career in Italian cinema stretches far beyond the genre in which he's frequently pigeonholed. A slightly different version of this appreciation of Fulci appeared in issue #24 of the late, lamented music/wrestling/smut/movie mag Carbon 14. 

Is it sad that I attach more sentiment to my memories of Lucio Fulci – The Italian Grandfather of Gore – than I do to my own ancestors? I suppose it isn't surprising when you consider their respective roles in my upbringing. All my grandparents were dead by the time I was a teenager, right around the time Grampy Lucio took my hand and guided me through his world of grindhouse cinema.

At the drive-in we sat in our lawn chairs, sipped cheap beer and watched GATES OF HELL (aka CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) as John Morghen got a drill through the head for being creepy, slow-witted and trusting. We cut classes at Drexel to venture to the Budco Midtown for something called SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH (aka THE BEYOND) which featured sinister spiders, nasty zombies, and another of Lucio's trademark head-scratcher endings. Good times, good times. And I haven't even mentioned the hours spent watching – and re-watching – flicks like ZOMBIE, HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, MANHATTAN BABY and NEW YORK RIPPER.

But recently, something interesting has happened – I've discovered another side of Grampy Lucio. It's like flipping through your grandparents' photo album and realizing that the loose-looking flapper or the Zoot-suited hoodlum is actually the kindly old soul who bakes pies for holiday dinners or took you to the fishing hole for a lesson in baiting a hook.

Despite a filmography that's top-heavy with juicy, paint-the-screen-red titles like those mentioned above, Fulci was quite the cinematic chameleon. After toiling as a screenwriter and assistant director on a number of Italian comedies, he began his directorial career with THE THIEVES (1959) a flop that drove him into a succession of musical comedies, a genre that had become a worldwide sensation thanks to Elvis, Frankie and Annette. The influence of the early days of the James Bond series can even be seen in the mid-Sixties spy flick 002 OPERATION MOON, which can be found under numerous alternate titles like MOST SECRET AGENTS, OH! THOSE MOST SECRET AGENTS and WORST SECRET AGENTS.

Sergio Leone's landmark Spaghetti Western A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) may have been responsible for MASSCARE TIME (1966) a Franco Nero vehicle that represented Fulci's first foray into that genre.

As the swinging sixties came to a close, the director tackled one of his most complex and intricate tales, a thriller called ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER (1969, aka PERVERSION STORY). Having been raised on a steady diet of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma, it became apparent – after a ferociously upbeat jazz-scored credit sequence – that this would be a sinister tale of murder and misplaced accusations. It's got it all – the sick wife, the creepy sister-in-law, the two medications that if switched could prove fatal, the glory-hog doctor/anti-hero, and so on.

Once our victim checks out and signs start pointing to the handsome doc, Fulci kicks it into "innocent man wrongly accused" overdrive and we're left to ponder a number of questions as the story unfolds. Who's the hot blonde doppelganger doing the striptease on the motorcycle? Why is that guy shadowing our hero? Am I gonna get some Euro-lesbian action or WHAT?!

ONE ON TOP is actually one of those rare instance where I wish the flick was longer. Things are going along nicely with Fulci delivering an involving thriller despite some wooden acting and convoluted scenes. And then BLAM! It's like there's 45 minutes missing! Suddenly, our good doctor is on death row, it's getting near gas chamber time, the culprits appear to have gotten away with murder and then twists are layered on top of surprises... all delivered by a newsman talking into a microphone! It's like a comedy sketch where they've run out of money and just tell you what happens rather than show it.

Fulci's 1970s output jumped all over the cinematic map, ping-ponging between thrillers (LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN) and Dario Argento-influenced giallos (DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING and the haunting THE PSYCHIC) to westerns (FOUR GUNMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE) and horror comedies in the wake of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (DRACULA IN THE PROVINCES).

The success of 1979's ZOMBIE – which established Fulci as the premier Italian gore film director – was due in large part to the success of George Romero's landmark DAWN OF THE DEAD (1977). Produced in association with the legendary Argento, Romero's flick ignited Italy's Spaghetti Splatter industry and ushered in the grisly gorefests that would keep grindhouse fans and drive-in patrons glued to their seats for years to come.

But that didn't stop Fulci from detouring into strange and unexpected territory. 1980's CONTRABAND pulls back on the gore reins while setting up a tale of naïve smugglers who resist influences to get them involved in the drug trade. Fabio Testi stars as Luka, a family man/smuggler who enjoys a good life while throwing cops off his trail with exploding boats loaded with rubber dummies.

When a shadowy underworld figure known as The Margliese starts applying pressure to the heads of the crime families, Fulci shines and the flick perks up. There's an uncomfortable sequence where a chick gets her head set on fire for trying to pass bad drugs and when the villains kidnap Luka's wife the body count rises, double crosses ensue, surprise revelations are, um, revealed and the master paints the screen red in the gory shootout finale. Occasionally confusing but frequently entertaining, CONTRABAND is an unexpected crime-thriller with enough action and sadistic gore to keep viewers interested.

The period after CONTRABAND represents Fulci's landmark era of horror cinema. CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) would be a "greatest hits" reel for most directors of the time and 1981's THE BEYOND is one of the most haunting (and gory) masterpieces of horror cinema. While HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981) is no match for the genius of THE BEYOND, it's still an effective and creepy take on haunted houses – with a zombie thrown in for old times sake. MANHATTAN BABY and NEW YORK RIPPER (both 1982) veered into the then-popular slasher genre but received limited distribution and lukewarm receptions at the time.

Between 1983 and 1984, Fulci helmed two more out-of-left-field projects: the futuristic actioner THE NEW GLADIATORS and the sword-and-sci-fi "epic" CONQUEST. Though they would represent his last efforts outside the horror genre, both flicks are intriguing and entertaining in their own way.

Pre-dating Governor Schwarzenegger's THE RUNNING MAN by several years, THE NEW GLADIATORS mines the fertile post-apocalypse genre for a tale that mixes equal parts social commentary and barbaric sports flicks like DEATHRACE 2000 and ROLLERBALL. Due to slipping television ratings, the World Broadcasting System has resurrected the idea of gladiators for 'The Battle of the Damned'. In a nutshell, a dozen convicted killers battle it out with the survivor receiving their freedom.

To goose the ratings, Cortez (the guy running the whole shebang) decides that he needs a people's champion. So, they hire Drake (played by Jared Martin, later seen on the syndicated 'War of the Worlds' )... a pasty-faced, sunken-chest ween we're supposed to believe is the world's greatest 'Death Bike' champ. He's in prison for the murder of the guys that offed his young bride. Along for the ride is Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, who (I hope) amassed a small fortune acting in these things.

As expected, 'The Battle of The Damned' is the flick's price-of-admission highlight – competitors get gouged, set on fire, decapitated (in loving Fulci slow-mo) and generally abused. Like THE RUNNING MAN, THE NEW GLADIATORS features a mission to knock out a satellite, a maniacal man in charge, framed competitors, a "people's champion" and more.

While NEW GLADIATORS lets Fulci deliver social commentary with the bloodletting, CONQUEST is nothing but a good-time genre-splicing mish-mash that will either entertain or enrage you. Grafting snippets of the sword-and-sandal genre (think CONAN) with a certain well-known space opera, CONQUEST has it all. If by "all" you mean: a bevy of chimp/wolf creatures that are like the third cousin of Chewbacca, twice removed; female actresses that are either topless, covered in blood, drawn and quartered, or all of the above; cascades of blood; a couple decapitations; and, who can forget the "arrows" that appear to have been created by scratching the negative with a paper clip!

Fulci would direct a baker's dozen of theatrical and TV flicks – give or take – after these final non-horror outings, though none met with the acclaim of THE BEYOND and ZOMBIE. In March of 1996, just weeks before beginning pre-production on THE WAX MASK (eventually helmed by effects guru Sergio Stivaletti), Fulci died as a result of a diabetic attack.

While the very mention of his name conjures up images of flesh-eating zombies, sharp implements to the head and visions of the afterlife, don't let Lucio Fulci's rep as the Grandfather of Italian Gore fool you. Check out the surprising and unique cinematic detours that dot his impressive filmography.

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