The Mondo Esoterica Guide to:

Lucio Fulci

  Lucio Fulci biography:

Born in Rome in 1927, Fulci trained as a medic and worked as a journalist before enrolling at the famous Centro Sperimentale Cinematografica in Rome and making his debut as an assistant director on The Last Days of Pompeii (1950). He worked up the ranks quickly as writer and assistant director on a variety of comedy projects and made his directoral debut with I Ladri (1959) starring the popular Italian comic Totó. Although this first effort was quite poorly received, he went on to direct a variety of comedy films throughout the 1960s with the rather low brow comedy pairing of Franco Franchi and Cicco Ingrassia, in such films as 002 Agent Segretissimi (1964) and Operation St. Peters (1967). Although highly popular domestically, these very Italian films were rarely exported. However, Italian cult-cinema was really booming during the 1960s and becoming popular across Europe and America, and although Fulci missed out on the Pepla that dominated the start of the decade, he did find himself, like most other directors at the time, shooting a Spaghetti Western - the underrated Massacre Time (1966) a classic revenge saga with Franco Nero and George Hilton

1969 was the breakthrough year for Fulci. Beatrice Cenci (1969) is often considered to be the director's best film - a historical drama based on a real-life tale, that crossed brutal torture with an authentic period feel, it also marked the first non-Western role for actor Tomas Milian. Although critically acclaimed, the film did not perform massively well at the box office, and would not be released in the USA for almost a decade. Far more important was Perversion Story (1969), the director's first entry into the giallo genre that had been simmering along in the background of Italian cult cinema since Mario Bava's early successes The Girl Who Knew too Much (1962) and Blood and Black Lace (1964). Fulci's film starred the beautiful Marisa Mell and contained a provocative mix of sex and violence, marking his first film work in America, with location shoots in Nevada and California. Although a rather poor performer at the domestic box office, the film was widely exported and successful enough that he was brought back to direct two more gialli after Dario Argento's massively popular Bird with a Crystal Plumage (1970) made the genre the hot new focus of Italian cinema. Set in Britain, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) took the sex and violence even further, with the main character, a repressed lesbian, taunted by vivid dreams of sex with her libitarian neighbour who soon winds up dead. Mixing surreality with a dense plot and all the music of swinging London, the film was a marked contrast to Fulci's next giallo film, Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) - a grim thriller set in the repressed rural Italy; its comparative lack of sex and violence made the theme of child-murder very hard to stomach and it proved quite controversial on release, but stands not only as one of Fulci's best, but one of the best giallo films ever made. In between these two, Fulci returned to his roots with comedy title The Senator Likes Women (1972), which unlike his earlier slapstick works, was actually very politically charged - taking satirical gibes at the church and state, with much resultant controversy - so afraid of it were the Christian Democrat party, that they attempted to buy out the production at full cost, to bury the film.

In complete contrast to the rest of his filmic output, Fulci's next two films were all-out family friendly. White Fang (1973) was based on the famous story by Jack London, and produced and co-scripted by exploitation mogul Harry Alan Towers, with Franco Nero in the lead role. Widely exported, the film made a huge amount of money at the box office, standing as Fulci's most commercially successful film, and he was soon brought back for an official sequel A Challenge to White Fang (1974), while the film's success spawned a series of unofficial knock-offs over the next few years. For his next project he stayed in the Old West for the much more adult themed Four of the Apocalypse (1975), a grim, late Spaghetti Western starring Fabio Testi and Tomas Milian in a rare villaneous role, with some interesting touches but nothing to recommend it. Fucli's last two all out comedies followed, the tepid Dracula in the Provinces (1975) with John Steiner curiously cast as a homosexual Count Dracula, and the Edwige Fenech sex comedy La Pretora (1976). Seven Notes in Black (1977) with Gianni Garko, was a semi-successful return to the giallo genre which was still retaining its popularity with audiences in Europe and America. Less popular now was the Spaghetti Western, which despite Enzo G. Castellari's successful Keoma (1976), had all but died out after the middle of the decade, so Fulci's third and final genre entry, Sella D'Argento (1978) was met with little interest and was not even exported. This was a real down period for the director, and he found himself filming television documentaries, including A Man to Laugh At, about the comic Franco Franchi.
Fortunately, Fulci's rut was eased the next year. Dario Argento's edit of George Romero's seminal zombie film Dawn of the Dead (1978) was massively successful in Italy and producer Fabrizio de Angelis was quickly preparing an unofficial sequel. Impressed by Fulci's giallo works, the producer signed both him and Dardano Sacchetti, writer of Seven Notes in Black, to work on the film. The end result was Zombi 2 (1979) - despite the rip-off promised by the title, a quite original and very well made production that would become a massive global success, leading to a massive boom in Italian horror films, and securing Fulci in work for the next decade.

His next horror project would be the well crafted zombie film City of the Living Dead (1980), but first he made his only entry into the Poliziesco/Euro-crime genre with Contraband (1980), an often very brutal film about rival gangs of smugglers, with a lead role for Fabio Testi - as well as violence that was strong even for that genre, the film was most distinctive for its lack of police involvement in the storyline, usually a genre staple. Teaming again with writer Dardano Sacchetti, City of the Living Dead contained many of the hallmarks that would distinguish Fulci's output over the next few years, visceral gore mixed with often confusing plots that bordered on possibly unintentional surreality and was the first of three films he shot with the otherwise little known British actress Catriona MacColl, known to most as his Trilogy of Terror. He quickly moved on to The Black Cat (1981), a very loose adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story, filmed in Britain. Leaving the post-production to his crew members he returned to Fabrizio de Angelis' Fulvia Film Company to shoot The Beyond (1981), the second part of his unofficial trilogy, and the ultimate example of his almost plot free, gore centric style, often ranked as his best film. The final chapter was The House by the Cemetery (1982), a twist on the classic Haunted House tales, shot in New England and a big success for Fulci and Fulvia film, although sadly notorious in English speaking countries for the appalling dubbing of child actor Giovanni Frezza. Although Fulci had certainly pushed the boundaries of screen gore, ever since his first entries to the giallo genre over a decade previously, his next film was to be infinitely more controversial than anything that had gone before. New York Ripper (1982) was an Giallo film about a serial killer who targets prostitutes in the eponymous city, featuring some of Fulci's most vicious gore effects - it was made more brutal by the lack of the surreal, fantasy setting of most of his previous works. In Britain the film was banned outright, and famously the prints of the film were escorted out of the country - it is still cut by over 20 seconds on home video. An equally fascinating and repulsing film, it was to be Fulci's last real triumph.

Although rarely prasied by the mainstream critics, Fulci's films were beginning to gain a cult following in the mid-1980s. However, the Italian horror genre was always a very low budget enterprise, and the slew of quick horror films that had followed in the wake of Fulci's Zombi 2 had saturated the market, while the increasing popularity of the American horror fims was providing tough competition for even the dedicated genre audiences. With his budget cut, and cracks developing between the Fulci and his writer Sacchetti, their final partnership would be on Manhatten Baby (1983), which despite all the usual ingedients of surreality and gore, simply did not gel. Fed up of de Angelis, Fucli willingly took an offer from rival producer Gianni di Clemente to work in the newly popular Sword and Sorcery genre, in the wake of Conan the Barbarian (1982). The end result, Conquest (1983) is often considered to be one of Fulci's worst - a very slow paced and unexciting production, in what ranks as the least inspiring of the Italian exploitation genres. Fulci became tired of the production before filming had even ended, and after completing the shooting, he left all of the post-production and editing to his crew, leading to a lawsuit from the producer as Fulci refused to shoot his contracted second film. The dystopia, post-apocalypse films that followed in the wake of Mad Max (1981) were another short lived target for Italian exploitation cinema and Fulci was hired to direct The New Gladiators (1984), an underbudgeted film that does nothing to hide it, and the first real sign of the lazy or simply tired direction that would dog most of Fulci's later works.
The signs of change in the horror/exploitation genre are clearly visible in Fulci's next Giallo title Murder Rock (1984), with a hip young cast and some very up to date music. In contrast, the surprisingly original erotic thriller The Devil's Honey (1986) is generally highly rated - the story of a young woman in a torrid love affair with a musician, that is brutally ended by a motorcycle accident leading her to kidnap and torture the doctor who failed to save him. With his return to supernatural themes in Ænigma (1987) however, Fulci failed to live up to this promise, and instead presented a generic Carrie (1978) and Phenomena (1985) rip-off that simply lacks the uniqueness that made his film's worth watching.

Having lived with diabeties since a young age, Fulci was now growing very unwell, and it was this is often attributed with his sudden departure from the set of his envisaged return to form, Zombie 3 (1988), the follow-up to his most effective horror film. Despite the changes in the market, zombie films had retained their popularity through the 1980s, boosted by George A. Romero's apocalyptic third chapter Day of the Dead (1985) and the entertaining Return of the Living Dead (1985), however the European zombie pictures had gradually descended into all out exploitation by this time, and Zombie 3 was completely unconnected to Fulci's earlier work, instead providing a fast moving non-sensical storyline, with some gratuitous 'messages' tacked on in an attempt to emulate Romero's work. Although affected by his illness, it is believed that Fulci walked off the set after feuding with writer Claudio Fragasso, leading to exploitation maestro Bruno Mattei being brought in to complete filming, and ultimately leaving just a few minutes of Fulci's work in the picture. In spite of his illness, Fulci continued to work at an incredible pace. His self-penned dark comedy Touch of Death (1988) and the horror movie lite The Ghosts of Sodom (1988) were equally unimpressive, despite interesting concepts, and with much of his trademark gore and violence missing. As the way the market was moving, they were designed with televison audiences in mind, and the next year Fulci helmed two parts of the Italian television film House of Doom series (alongside two entries from Umberto Lenzi), namely the feature length House of Clocks (1989) and Sweet House of Horrors (1989).

Despite the poor reception of his most recent projects, Fulci was finding himself the subject of increased attention towards the end of the 1980s as his works were being re-appraised on home video in Europe, America, and particularly in Japan. Italian producers were quick to latch on to this, and Fulci added his name to a small series of horror films released at the end of the decade, including Andrea Bianchi's Massacre (1989) and Gianni Martucci's The Red Monks (1988). He also elected to film a semi-autobiographical film Nightmare Concert (1990), playing himself as a horror movie director tortured by visions of his own grusome movies, who believes he might be committing murders, in a film that again boasts some interesting concepts, but is let down by uninspired storytelling and direction. His three final productions, Demonia (1990) about an archeological group attacked by ghostly and vengeful nuns, Voices from Beyond (1991) about a man coming back from the dead as a spirit to help his daughter investigate his own death and his final production Door into Silence (1992) were met with little success. While Voices From Beyond (1991) is considered a minor highlight in the director's later oeuvre, the other two titles are unwaiveringly presented at the bottom of his achievements, the latter being most indicative of the decline in his later work, with Fulci forced to direct under the psuedonym H. Simon Kittay. He spent the next four years working on a remake of classic American horror films House of Wax (1953) and Mysteries of the Wax Museum (1933) to be produced by his nominal 'rival' and peer Dario Argento, however his ill health left the backers with uncertainty about his ability to direct, and the production was delayed until Argento had completed work on The Stendhal Project (1996) and could supervise the production personally. Ultimately Fulci died just months before filming was to start and the film was eventually helmed by Argento's regular special effects man Sergio Stivaletti and released as the forgettable M.D.C. - Maschera di cera (1997).
Lucio Fulci will doubtless remain one of the most recognisable names in Italian cult cinema. His early 1980s horror films have attracted a myriad of horror fans to his work, particularly thanks to the celebrity fanboy Quentin Tarantino, who brought The Beyond back to US cinemas in the 1990s. However, Fulci's oeuvre extends beyond the horror film, and while his work on films like The Beyond and Zombi 2 is equally proclaimed as genius or appalling, his work in the Giallo genre is rightly acclaimed as some of the best in the genre - particularly the distinctively realistic and disturbing Don't Torture a Duckling. So while most fans will 'discover' Fulci thanks to his horror works, some further exploration will unearth a selection of gems, and it is this that will lead to appreciation of Fucli as a fascinating, if often inconsistent, director, and not just a one-hit wonder.

DVD Reviews: Films directed by Lucio Fulci

Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)
Blue Underground US Region 0 DVD
A very disturbing Giallo film, focusing around the theme of child murders in a small town, directed well, let down by some effects.
Recommended to Giallo fans.
Door into Silence (1991)
Severin Films Region 1 DVD
Fulci's last movie has some interesting ideas but they are wasted behind generic direction and a dull script
Of interest to completists only.
Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
Anchor Bay USA Region 0 DVD
A strange, twisted and viciously violent late era Spaghetti Western with lots of good ideas, but poorly executed.
Of interest to fans, but not recommended.
Massacre Time (1966)
Eagle Pictures Italy Region 2 DVD
Some good direction and lead performance from Franco Nero make up for the cliché plot in this early Lucio Fulci Western.
Partly recommended, for Western or Fucli fans.
New York Ripper (1982)
Shameless Films UK Region 0 DVD
A grim and unrelenting Giallo with one of the director's darkest storyline's. Well written and directed.
Recommended for all Fulci or Giallo fans.
The Senator Likes Women (1972)
Severin Films US Region 0 DVD
A highly enjoyable, and very politically charged comedy that takes swipes at both Church and State.
Recommended for those who want to see the other side of Fulci.
Seven Notes in Black (1977)
Severin Films US Region 1 DVD
One of the best Giallo plots ever written, presented with some good direction and strong acting.
Highly recommended for all Giallo and Fulci fans.


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All text in this site written by Timothy Young - August - December 2007.
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