Tonight, the folks at Delilah’s are tuning up Lucio Fulci’s 1981 splatterfest The Beyond, one of the horror auteur’s best and nastiest films. Even within the horror niche, Fulci is something of a polarizing figure, a notorious gore hound who favored elaborate, violent, and otherwise inane set pieces over cogent storytelling and conventional narrative. Italian horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but those who can even halfway stomach the genre tend to stop with Mario Bava or Dario Argento, leaving Fulci for the fringe enthusiasts who revel in the director’s unique and decidedly bizarre fixation on blood, guts, and general mayhem.
For the record, I am proudly among those fringe enthusiasts, but I also take Fulci seriously as an artist. He strikes me as a sort of accidental filmmaker, someone who fell into directing but whose instincts belong to a different form—and possibly a different era. In spirit he’s closer to H.P. Lovecraft and Austin Spare, artists less interested in the conventions of their chosen form and more interested in the possibilities (reasonable or otherwise) of the form. This results in a fair amount of failed work (Fulci directed more than 60 films, a sizable chunk of them worthless, which explains why most of them aren’t in the Reader‘s archive), but it also reveals moments of transcendence and true poetry. What many perceive as narrative deficiency in his work strikes me as a sort of antiprose, a deliberately discordant storytelling style that navigate viewers via images and temporal experimentation rather than plot and character development. He was relentless in his pursuits, and I don’t think there’s much more anyone can ask of a filmmaker. These are my five favorite Fulci films.
5. The House by the Cemetery (1981) The conclusion to his “Gates of Hell” trilogy, this claustrophobic chiller is a key transitional work in Fulci’s career. It tells the story of a New England home haunted by a ghoulish murderer. Fulci’s Lovecraftian themes and fixation on the metaphysical take shape in the film’s eerily antitemporal montage and spatial disunity. Also, the ghoulish villain is named Dr. Freudenstein, easily the best horror character name ever. (Who says Fulci couldn’t be funny?)
4. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) Fulcii worked in almost every genre—horror, western, adventure, comedy—but he had a real knack for giallo. Set in southern Italy’s rural provinces, the film offers an insightful look at small-town politics and the seedy personal lives of seemingly innocuous town folk. The predatory priest at the center of the story serves as a blunt but nevertheless stirring symbol of Fulci’s own Catholic guilt; the film, in many ways, is a kind of religious meditation. It’s a very good movie, but not his best giallo—that distinction belongs to . . .
3. Una sull’altra [aka One on Top of the Other] (1969) Set in San Francisco and inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Fulci injected the burgeoning giallo genre with erotic energy. The plot is essentially the same—after the protagonist’s wife mysteriously dies, he encounters and becomes increasingly obsessed with a stripper who looks just like her—but Fulci explores themes of sexual angst and aggression amid the “free love” era, exploiting the hippie mindset with metaphor-heavy imagery and stylized dream sequences. The film features some of the director’s most outlandish flourishes, and it occasionally reads as a cheeky rebuttal to New Hollywood.
2. The Beyond (1981) The second installment of the “Gates of Hell” trilogy centers on a literal gate to hell. As they do in every Fulci film, poor pacing and meandering plotting are sure to frustrate less patient viewers, but these would-be flaws are Fulci’s way of amplifying the dreamlike (or, better yet, nightmarish) nature of the story, whose gradual incoherence takes on a hallucinatory nature as the film grows more allegorical. Fulci’s direction creates a thick, brooding atmosphere, and the denouement, a sort of hauntingly ambivalent view of the afterlife, is among his finest sequences.
1. Zombi 2 [aka Zombie] (1979) The ultimate video nasty, this deliberately derivative, maximal horror romp is the jewel of Fulci’s filmography. Though it was marketed as a “sequel” to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (released in Europe as Zombi), the film is purely Fulci’s, a deranged, frightening, and completely ridiculous exercise in dream logic, narrative anarchy, and grievous bodily harm. Yes, Fulci may have lacked Bava’s lyricism and Argento’s wit, but Zombi 2 is proof that he did at least one thing better than any director who ever lived: stage an underwater fight scene between a zombie and a shark.