There’s Something About Fulci…

When I began to flesh out my thoughts and hastily scribbled notes on The Black Cat, I ended up spewing forth a tangent about why I find Lucio Fulci’s film work so utterly repellent, disturbing, depressing and yet morbidly fascinating. Below is said tangent, and the review of The Black Cat (tangent free, sort of) can be found here.

Of the countless tacky, schlocky, trashy, ultra-violent, reprehensible, disposable, exploitation-laden fare this writer has watched over the years - and the plethora of distasteful, disturbing, mind-numbingly deplorable and brain-botheringly wretched imagery I’ve witnessed as a result of watching such fare - one filmmaker and his work stands above all others when it comes to creating genuinely upsetting, avert-your-gaze-from-the-screen-in-disgust moments. Lucio Fulci is a man most fans of horror cinema will be familiar with. Heck, many of them will even own some of his work on DVD or something called VHS. My own experience of watching Fulci’s work is quite limited. I find his films to be crass, crude, disgusting, shoddy, depressing and at the risk of sounding like a Daily Mail reader; a wee bit sickening. The more I think about this though, and the more I consider my reactions when watching his films, the closer I have come to the conclusion that Lucio Fulci is arguably one of the most effective, provocative and interesting directors who ever worked in the horror genre. His work is rare in that, even though I find it unbelievably cheap and trashy, it still, somehow, wields the power to bother and upset me. It actually scuttles under my skin and squirms there for days, squelching forth all that eye-watering imagery I wish I’d never seen, back into my mind’s eye when I least expect; making me cringe and relive those unsettling moments over again. That his work is able to disturb me so much – a hardened horror fanatic – speaks volumes.

Fulci is one of those directors that you can’t rely on. He isn’t safe. Anything can happen in his sickeningly nightmarish and progressively downbeat narratives - and it usually does: to petrified characters who exist solely to die horribly. His feeble characters have lost the ability to think reasonably, or, you know, just move the fuck out of the way of danger. The logic of nightmares comes into play throughout his work, rendering it frustrating, suspenseful and thoroughly perturbing. No matter what his characters do, or don’t do as the case usually is, they still die. Gruesomely. They stand rooted to the spot, petrified, or flail around weakly, usually while on fire, or cornered by the living dead, or with spiders/snails/maggots writhing all over them, in pathetic throes of agony, powerless to fight for their lives. Resistance is futile. These moments are the stuff of nightmares – and when the nightmare always works against you – and you experience that loss of control – you know it’s a powerful one. And yet, even as shoddily drawn as these characters are, their plight still reaches into my gut and writhes there, queasily, limply clawing at my insides. Fulci’s positively misanthropic attitude is one of the most prominent and uneasy characteristics of his horror films.
His work is undeniably powerful, disturbing, deflating and provocative. But it can also be shoddy, incompetent and downright lazy. It’s within this juxtaposing dichotomy of ‘powerful and affecting’ and ‘crass and trashy’, his work lies. There’s just something about it that still has the power to really disturb, despite the sham artifice of it all.

When one thinks about the term ‘Horror’ and what it literally means – according to the definition in the Oxford Dictionary it is ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust’ – the prominent emotions it refers to centre around revulsion and disgust; gut reactions to visceral information. Horror dignitaries such as Boris Karloff and Val Lewton knew this all too well and actually went as far as referring to the films they made as ‘terror’ films, or ‘chillers’, because the desired reaction they sought to illicit from viewers was not to disgust or revolt, but to terrify. Stephen King discusses the difference between ‘horror’ (revulsion, disgust) and ‘terror’ (extreme fear) in his mammoth love letter/appreciation/meditation on the genre, 'Danse Macabre.' Therefore, it safe to say that Fulci’s brand of cinema is firmly rooted in ‘horror’; these are exactly the reactions he wishes to generate.

As stylish as some of his films can be, the violence is depicted unflinchingly, graphically, sadistically. Whether it’s images of a woman vomiting up her own guts; a man-witch being flayed and whipped with chains; a woman having her eye gouged out, slowly, surely, on a large splinter of wood; people having their heads stoved in; vivisected dogs writhing in pain; a babysitter being beheaded in the basement of a house by the cemetery; a man having his face chewed up by large spiders; a woman being consumed alive by glisteningly moist snails (On her face! On her lips! Argh!); a group of people caught in a rain of maggots; a man having his head drilled open by, well, a drill; a young couple foaming at the mouths as they are asphyxiated in a locked room; a blind woman… What? Enough? Yeah, I think I’ll stop. I’m remembering more bizarre and mind-fuckingly gruesome imagery than I care to here (a Google image search for 'Lucio' 'Fulci' was NOT pretty!). My point, and I did have one, is that once you see a Fulci film, you can’t un-see it. Those images will ingrain themselves in your pink-matter forever. In all their preposterous, alarming, silly, shocking, queasy, frustrating and disturbing glory. The sickening atmospheres, pregnant with decay and stinking uneasiness, that pervade Fulci’s movies are unforgettable, regardless of how they are conveyed.

Such moments typify his work. They highlight and exemplify his exploration of what will make his audience look away, to feel repulsed. It is this William Burroughs-esque approach to his material – the refusal to censor the most horrific, sickeningly twisted stuff he can come up with - that makes his work and the horrid images contained therein, so memorable. The images he creates and then allows his camera to gaze at in long, lingering shots are disgusting and primal, yet we cannot tear our eyes from them, we only feel compelled to look at them. Throughout his long and uneven career Fulci delved into our deepest, most basic fears, dredged them up, embalmed them in nightmarishly nihilistic logic, heaped on the decomposing, rotting flesh, all the while ripping open bodies and sloshing the insides across the screen of his uneven, yet genuinely disturbing cinema. And hey, this is why we watch horror movies, to be made to feel uneasy, wary and unsafe in our own skin.

Lucio Fulci, I fucking love/hate you.


A very thougthful and interesting examination of the effects of Fulci's horror films James. I agree with much of what you say. Our only difference is that you're a little more generous to Fulci. The only horror film he made which works for me is ZOMBIE 2. The rest are amateurish and incompetent. Their myriad narrative weaknesses are now used as a defence by some horror fans. Those that see the discontinuity of his horror films as some kind of evidence of an authorial stamp rather the the more likely possibillity; incompetence. However I will always defend the three gialli he made; LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN, DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING and THE PSYCHIC. These should be the films he is remembered for...thanks for the article.
DrunkethWizerd said…

Fuck Slayer. I don't scream Slayer. I scream Fulci! Cuz I'm trv. ;) Heh.
Nigel M said…
I echo what Shaun says regarding the giallo- but would also like to highlight Lucio's comedy work- he began work as a director with I ladri and he had a talent for comedy - hell, he could even make Franco and Ciccio funny! La pretora and The Eroticist are brilliant fun and also touch on the themes that he would return to time and again through is work within different genres.
James Gracey said…
Shaun, I love Lizard In A Woman's Skin - its one of the most mesmerising giallo movies I've ever seen. Sure, it's not perfect, but it has its fair share of moments that come close.

Nigel, I'm not really familiar with any of Fulci's non-horror output to be honest, though I would of course be open to checking it out.

Well said, Drunketh! ;)

Thanks for stopping by, y'all.
Jessica Penot said…
You've put a lot of thought into Fulci. If I stop to much to think about his work, I would probably stop liking it. His characters are flat and his plots unbelievable. I don't stop too much to think about his work, however, so I love him. I love every disgusting, bizarre moment of his films. How can you not love someone who would have a zombie vs shark fight scene?
Mykal said…
James: There is, indeed, someting about Fulci. A friend of mine once said, "Everything from Fulci always stinks of the grave," and that comes as close to nailing it as you can can (except of course for this fine post).

I always get a chill from that opening scene in City of the Living Dead, with that damned priest waling through that graveyard. What a master.
Will Errickson said…
Watching Fulci's movies as a teenage on VHS in the 1980s was an intro to a whole new world. I think I prefer his ZOMBIE 2 to DAWN OF THE DEAD. In fact, I know I do! Wonderful post.
Anonymous said…
I love this post. And I'll tell you why.
I strongly dislike (or hate) Fulci. He is shoddy and lazy at times. Often his films lack plot or fully formed characters. BUT! He manages to get under my skin. "..once you see a Fulci film, you can’t un-see it." BOOM! That's the sound of you dropping truths. Good, bad or indifferent (but mostly bad) he is a filmmaker like no other. And he knows how to push our buttons.
Well said, sir!
Matthew Coniam said…
One of the best things you've done. Very thought-provoking.
I have almost the exact reaction as you to Fulci: I can't say there's anything great about him, but I am always excited when one of his films I've not seen before comes my way. I spent ages dithering over whether or not to get The New York Ripper, as I'd read all my life about how horrid it is - I did - and it was --- and I still keep watching it...
Obviously the fact that so many of his special effects scenes are unconvincing lessens the sense of identification and keeps them this side of unbearable (eg the opening of The Beyond), but as you say, it's the intense misanthropy that really comes across and gets into your hair and clothes.
My favourite is House By The Cemetery.
Great post, James.
James Gracey said…
@Jessica That zombie vs. shark scene is certainly one of the more outlandish moments from his horror movies! It has been years since I watched Zombie Flesh Eaters; maybe it is time I revisit it. Hopefully not during dinner time though. ;)

@Mykal Your friend is so right, and that is such a marvellous way to describe Fulci's horror movies. Love it!

@Will I can only imagine how fucked up I'd be if I happened to watch anything by Fulci as a teenager. I was such a wimp! I was terrified by the likes of Silver Bullet and, erm, Gremlins. I came a little later to Fulci's bloody visions - usually while inebriated as a student... :o/

@Christine 'Un-seeing' some of the things I've seen in Fulci movies is something I'd love to be able to do! Few filmmakers make me feel that way, so as much as I find his work questionable (and at times utterly shit!), I must acknowledge its powerful effect; good or bad.

@Matthew Thanks so much for your kind words! *beams* Yeah, I don’t know what it is-his stuff still excites a morbid curiosity in me. I haven't seen The New York Ripper, but I'd be lying if I said I'm not curious about it... I also find House by the Cemetery to be one of his most perfectly nightmarish works.

It is a VERY rare thing for me to look away from a screen in disgust while watching a film-but there were moments in City of the Living Dead and The Black Cat (discovery of rat infested bodies) I HAD to look way, rather than wish later on that I could un-see something.

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