Friday, March 21, 2008

Fulci's Trilogy - Shatter The Imagination

When we last left our hero he had made a clumsy film that people loved. Zombie was almost as popular as it's American father-in-law. What did we learn last time? That when something is popular it begets a sequel. Yes, even half-sibling knock-offs get sequels in Italy, folks. It wasn't until about six years later that Zombie 3 was put into production, but in the meantime Fulci was given free range in the zombie field as he had mined gold there once already. I'd like to point out the biggest difference between Fulci's zombie films and Romero's zombie films. When Romero made his zombie films it was made as purely as a film could have ever been made. A kid from Pittsburgh found himself with money, cameras and a crew and decided that this was the film he was going to make. An original script and concept were born that would inspire filmmakers for generations. There was everything I could have asked for: the perfect locked-in-the-house plot, reasonably frightening zombies, decent gore effects, minimalist music, naturalistic performances, decent, believable dialogue, even a racial-empowerment element (I won't bother arguing about his intentions here). With one film Romero reinvented the zombie genre and made a real life-blood film for independents and horror movie makers. It was inspirational and remains so. When Fulci made his zombie film there was nothing original or commendable about it. It was an unofficial, nominal sequel, a cash-in on someone else's second-hand success. Not only that, the plot was essentially a composite of a dozen different voodoo pictures from the 40s and 50s. Romero was playing God with his genre, Fulci was rehashing a rehasher's rehash. Perhaps with that in mind, he made another zombie movie, a zany, illogical, catholic type Zombie film. If Fulci was good at anything it was upsetting large groups of people through political or religious mockery and he added a little of that tragic mishigas to his next film. Though the same can't be said about his make-up effects, Fulci was out to prove that he wasn't a one-trick pony.

City of the Living Dead
by Lucio Fulci

A woman conducts a seance. Somewhere a priest hangs himself. Beneath his feet something rises from its grave. More of that lucid magic. The woman conducting the seance dies. A mirror shatters, a wall cracks open, a man tries screwing a sex doll in a decrepit shack. What does it all MEAN?!? Later we discover the woman from the seance is not actually dead but in fact was buried alive. A reporter happens by in time to hear her screams and pick-axe her out of her grave (then we have the near-miss with the pick-axe in the eyes set-piece). After digging her up, she and a reporter (Reporter by the way is Italian for "Unemployed snarky twit who does and says whatever he or she pleases in the name of a non-story and gets away with proclaiming the dumbest shit as frequently and matter-of-factly as possible.") head down to the sight of the hanging to see what all the spiritual fuss is about. They will get there in time to solve the mystery of the opening of the Gates Of Hell (the film's alternate title) but not in time to save anybody from being killed by it.

We see all kinds of gross wierdness from every corner of Dunwich. Some girl is hanging out with the crazy guy with the sex doll when the hanged priest shows up and kills her. Later, he imposes himself on a couple making out in a car. The girl bleeds from the eyes, pukes up her insides and squeezes her boy-toys brains out. Anyone who knows this movie will probably know it because of that harrowing montage. The brain thing happens a few more times before curtains fall. If I Drink Your Blood and Grapes of Death taught me anything it's that when an artless director spends money on an effect (Severed Head, exploding guts, what have you) you bet your ass you're gonna see it more than once. In some cases that effect or prop is going to be thrown in your face many more times than is believable because they're so very proud of the money they spent. Then there's more grossness involving a drill and Giovanni Lombardi Radice's head (another reason this film gets remembered. Incidentally someone powerful in Italy must have really hated Giovanni Lombardi Radice, the man spent most of his time playing men who are supposed to be mentally retarded and who often get brutally murdered. It could have been someone's job dreaming up inventive ways to kill Giovanni Lombardi Radice because he met his maker more ways than I can count). A bar full of people is finally attacked by zombies and the film's only gut munching takes place. Then the only two surviving adults break into the hanged priests tomb, encounter some blind-dead type zombies and deliver the bluntest death-blow in Italian cinema. One of Seance girl's friend mentions that the Gates of Hell stuff in Dunwich is enough to "Shatter your imagination". I think Fulci tries to do just that with his ending, but I don't think even he's quite sure.
Fulci might have been inept, but he had finally found something that fit him like a glove with these zombie films. They allowed him to steep the world in a thick coating of filth without alienating people with his crazed leftists critiques that not even Pasolini could have stomached. Take the ending of his film Don't Torture A Duckling where a priest falls off a cliff and has his face caved in by a rock. Subtlety is not Fulci's strong suit; Brains coming out of a promiscuous teenagers head is. He clearly blames religion for something; this is obvious. A priest tries to open the gates of hell and then becomes possessed by an evil spirit causing all kinds of nasty shit to happen. Sounds to me like someone's harboring a grudge against the big guy, or at least the men who claim to speak for him. The thing that I think probably excited Lucio most was the prospect of fitting in his anti-religious sentiments into these new zombie films because people didn't know what the hell any of it meant. How could they complain if they didn't know what to complain about? Romero and Argento had given him a way to be both artistically and commercially successful.
This is a rare phenomenon outside of Italy (I have to guess it happened there all the time because nobody changed their style a lick in all the years they made exploitation pictures and someone must have been watching them). Anyway, Fulci quickly established a profitable style (one that unfortunately for his fans, only lasted until The Beyond, when that was done he went back to writing his own films to no end resembling that of his living dead chamber films.) He had a good thing going I'd say because these are the films that people remember him for. The studios liked them so much they increased his budget each time. You'll notice the changes in the places being terrorized and just how gross the zombies look. In Zombie they were good because they were the opposite of the kind Romero had done thus far and until that point they were all anyone cared about (that blue corpse make-up would make the rounds of b-studios well into the mid-80s). In fact the only one who outdid Fulci in grotesque realism was Romero when he made Day of the Dead, effectively tipping his hat to Fulci and putting the likes of Bianchi, Mattei, Jean Rollin, Jesús Franco, Frank Agrama, Claudio Fragrasso, John Landis and Lamberto Bava back in their place. Fulci utilized a good amount of his stock players. Catriona MacColl, Radice, Antonella Interlenghi, Carlo De Mayo all served Fulci well in the 80s. MacColl, de Mayo and Interlenghi would all work with him again and would all receive the same atrocious dubbing. The dialogue, to say nothing of the plot, makes no sense and the dubbing just makes it sound all the more stubbornly illogical.
The problem with success is that it means that all the mistakes you make just melt away. Everything wrong with this picture, and there's quite a bit wrong with it, would become something Fulci associated with success. So, instead of fixing his mistakes and making a more concentrated effort at story-telling, his stories just got more cryptic and the gore just got worse. Backwards: that's how Italy works. Someone makes the most disgusting film of his career and how does the world respond? More Money!

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