Saturday, 9 June 2012

Icon Of The Month: Lucio Fulci

That's right, this month the Godfather of Gore, Lucio Fulci is my icon of the month.

Fulci was born in Rome on 17 June 1927. After studying medicine in college and being employed for a time as an art critic, Fulci opted for a film career first as a screenwriter, then later as a director, working initially in the comedy field. In the early to mid-1960s, Fulci directed around 18 Italian comedies, many starring the famous Italian comedy team Franco and Ciccio. Most of these early films were not distributed well (if at all) in the USA.

In 1969, he moved into the thriller arena, directing giallos (such as "Lizard in a Woman's Skin" and "Sette note in nero") and action films (such as "White Fang" and "Four of the Apocalypse") that were both commercially successful and controversial in their depiction of violence and religion. Some of the special effects in "Lizard" involving mutilated dogs in a vivisection room were so realistic, Fulci was dragged into court and charged with animal cruelty, until he showed the artificial canine puppets (created by Spfx maestro Carlo Rambaldi) to the judge and explained that they weren't real animals.

The first film to gain him actual notoriety in his native country, "Don't Torture A Duckling", combined scathing social commentary with the director's soon-to-be-trademark graphic violence. Fulci had a Catholic upbringing and referred to himself as a Catholic. Despite this, some of his movies (such as his "Beatrice Cenci" and "Don't Torture A Duckling") have been viewed as severely anti-Catholic. In one of his films, a priest is depicted as a homicidal child killer, and in another, a priest commits suicide by hanging himself in a cemetery and is reincarnated as a murderous demon.

In 1979, he achieved his international breakthrough with "Zombie", a violent zombie film that was marketed in European territories as a sequel to George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" (1978). He quickly followed it up with several other tales of horror and the supernatural, many also featuring shambling, maggot-infested zombies which were all the rage at the time. His features released during the 1979 to 1983 period (most of them scripted by famed Italian screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti) were described by some critics as being among the most violent and gory films ever made. "City of the Living Dead" (1980), "The Beyond" (1981), "House by the Cemetery" (1981), "The Black Cat" (1981), and "The New York Ripper" (1982) were among his biggest hits, all of which featured extreme levels of on-screen blood and cruelty.

Several of Fulci's movies released in America were censored by the film distributor to ensure an R rating (such as The Beyond, which was originally released on video in edited form as "Seven Doors of Death") or were released Unrated in order to avoid an X-rating (as with "Zombie" and "House by the Cemetery") which would have greatly restricted the films' target audiences to adults. The unrated films often played worldwide in drive-ins and grindhouses to hordes of delighted teenagers and horror fanatics. Many of Fulci's horror films tend to contain "injury to the eye" sequences, in which a character's eyeball is either pierced or pulled out of its socket, usually in lingering, close-up detail.

Several of Fulci's movies were banned in Europe or were released in heavily cut versions. Of the original 72 films on the infamous Video Nasty list in the United Kingdom, three belonged to Fulci: "Zombie" (1979), "The Beyond" (1981), and "House by the Cemetery" (1981). After viewing Fulci's "New York Ripper", not only did the British Board of Film Classification refuse the film a certificate, but every single print in the country was taken to an airport and returned to Italy by order of James Ferman; it wasn't until later that VIPCO had the courage to release the film, initially outsourcing production to a foreign source under police supervision before releasing a home-grown VHS in 2002 and a DVD in 2007.

After collaborating with screenwriter Sacchetti for six years, Fulci went off on his own in 1983 to direct the movie "Conquest" (a Conan-like barbarian fantasy) in Mexico, failing to involve Sacchetti in the deal. The film actually wound up doing quite poorly upon its release, and afterwards, Fulci had trouble jump-starting his working relationship with Sacchetti, who by this time had gone his own way.

Fulci became deathly ill from hepatitis in 1984 (right after he finished directing "Murder Rock in New York City") and had to be hospitalized for many months, eventually getting well enough to be released. Fulci spent most of 1984 hospitalized with cirrhosis, and much of 1985 recuperating at home. After 1986, with his diabetes plaguing him and the departure of screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti from Fulci's circle of friends, Fulci was far less successful in his endeavors. Most of Fulci's films after 1984 were badly written and cheaply produced, with the possible exception of his Aenigma (1987) and Voices From Beyond (1991).

In 1988, he directed only 65% of "Zombie 3" in the Philippines and had to return abruptly to Italy due to a life-threatening illness, and the film was finished by an uncredited Bruno Mattei. Fulci hated the finished product and tried unsuccessfully to get his name removed from the credits. Mattei has said in interviews that the film was Fulci's, and that he (Mattei) just added a few extra scenes to pad out the running time.

In 1989, Fulci was hired to direct a pair of made-for-Italian-TV horror movies, neither of which aired in Italy due to the high amount of gore and violence (they were however later released on DVD outside of Italy). Fulci's intended comeback films "Demonia" and "Cat in the Brain" (both produced and released in 1990) were big disappointments to his fans in terms of overall quality, and almost didn't get released. His final project, the 1991 psychological thriller "Door To Silence" received terrible reviews and pretty much terminated his career.

For the last decade of his life, Fulci suffered from emotional and health problems, reflected by a marked decline in the quality of his work. His wife's suicide back in 1969 and a daughter's fatal car accident several years later always weighed heavily on him, and his hyper-violent films such as "The New York Ripper" caused him to be branded a misogynist by the critics, although he always claimed that he loved women. Fulci suffered from severe problems with his feet during the 1980s which was caused by diabetes, but tried to hide the severity of his illness from his friends and associates so that he wouldn't be deemed unemployable.

During this time, from 1987 to 1990, Fulci began lending his name to the credits of some very low-budget horror films that he hadn't even directed, simply to make the films more distributable outside of Italy. Although he did appear to have supervised the gore effects in both "The Curse" and "The Murder Secret", he was hardly involved with some of the other projects that nonetheless bore the Lucio Fulci Presents banner on their advertising material. Fulci tried unsuccessfully to have his name removed from the credits of one film in particular (Gianni Martucci's "Red Monks"), since he swore he had had absolutely no involvement with making that film. The following year, in reciprocation for the use of his name, Fulci was permitted to use gore footage culled from these films to make his notorious "Cat in the Brain", in which he played himself.

Some of Fulci's fans have retroactively argued that at his peak, Fulci's fame and popularity were on a par with that of Dario Argento, another famous Italian horror film director with whom Fulci had avoided working and whom Fulci had openly badmouthed from time to time. Fulci was most likely resentful of Argento, since Argento had always received critical acclaim and recognition in (and outside of) Italy, and Fulci had been regarded there as something of a "horror film hack". (Fulci told friends that when he died, he predicted that the Italian newspapers would all misspell his name, if they even mentioned him at all).

Fulci and Argento met in 1995 and agreed to collaborate on a horror film called "Wax Mask" (a remake of the 1953 Vincent Price horror classic "House of Wax", based on a story by Gaston Leroux). Argento claimed he had heard about Fulci's miserable circumstances at the time and wanted to offer him a chance for a comeback. Fulci wrote a plot synopsis and a screenplay for Argento and thought that he was slated to direct the film as well, but he died before filming could begin (due to a series of delays caused by Argento's involvement with his own film "Stendhal Syndrome" at the time). Being in poor health, Fulci was furious that the filming was delayed so many times, as he knew he was running out of time and wanted desperately to make one last, big-budget film before he died. The film was eventually directed by former special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti. Reportedly the screenplay was entirely reworked by screenwriter Daniele Stroppa after Fulci's death, so the finished film sadly bears little resemblance to Fulci's original screenplay. (Stroppa had co-written two of Fulci's earlier films, "House of Clocks" and "Voices From Beyond".)

Fulci died alone at his home in Rome on the afternoon of 13 March 1996 of complications from diabetes at age 68. There was some controversy regarding his death since Fulci had been so sickly and despondent in his later years, it was thought perhaps that he had intentionally allowed himself to die by not taking his medications, but no one really knows as he was alone at the time of his death.

Fulci's films remained generally ignored or dismissed by the mainstream critical establishment, who regarded his work as pure exploitation. However, genre fans appreciated his films as being stylish exercises in extreme gore, and at least one of his splatter films, "The Beyond", has amassed a large and dedicated following. In 1998, Fulci's "The Beyond" was re-released to theaters by Quentin Tarantino, who has often cited the film, and Fulci himself, as a major source of inspiration. His earlier, lesser-known giallo "Don't Torture a Duckling" (1972) received some critical acclaim. Fulci himself highly regarded two of his films, "Don't Torture A Duckling" and "Beatrice Cenci" as his best work (the latter which he said his wife had liked the best of all his films), and he had to have considered both "Zombie" and "The Beyond" as the two films that forever catapulted him to cult film stardom.

Fulci was feted like royalty at the January 1996 Fangoria Horror Convention in New York City, just two months before his death. He told attendees that he had had no idea his films were so popular outside of his native Italy, as literally thousands of starstruck fans braved blizzard conditions all that weekend to meet him.

"Cinema is everything to me. I live and breathe films -- I even eat them!" - Lucio Fulci

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