Thursday, July 16, 2015

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Italian Horror

by Patrick Bromley
Mi sbagliavo horror italiano e mi dispiace e bello!

During Junesploitation, F-head Daniel Epler suggested that I write a piece reflecting on my turnaround on Italian horror, which I was once vocal about not "getting" and have since come to not just tolerate but genuinely love, all during my tenure here at F This Movie!. Well it's your LUCKY DAY, Daniel Epler. Here goes.

My own relationship to the Italian horror films -- primarily of the '70s and '80s -- has been well documented on this site. I've written about it before, I've had several thoughtful discussions with you guys about what you like/don't like about it. I've been mocked by Doug for including it my own movie marathons despite not being totally on board with it. I've thrown up my hands in confusion on the Music Box Massacre podcasts and even gone back and tried reassessing Lucio Fulci's Zombie a few years ago. I just determined that there was something about it that I didn't get. It wasn't for me.

Until the first 24-hour Music Box Massacre horror movie marathon for which I stayed all the way through, I hadn't encountered much Italian horror -- a few Argento movies (Suspiria, which Doug and I ruined for each other by doing terrible Dario Argento impressions the whole way through and ending every sentence with " the BALLET!") and Phenomena, which I saw in high school as Creepers and really only sought out because I had a Jennifer Connelly thing. In my defense, this was when she was still alive. This means that one of my first experiences with the genre was seeing a battered 35mm print of House by the Cemetery at 4am after already sitting through 9 or 10 other movies. I know what you're thinking -- those are PERECT conditions in which to see a Fulci movie. These days I'm inclined to agree. At that time, though, I was completely unprepared for what it was and had no idea what to make of it. The experience was repeated a year later; same tired me, same ridiculously late hour, now a battered 35mm print of City of the Living Dead (having turned the corner in a big way on Fulci, I would now kill to see a 35mm print of ANY of his movies and want to kick myself in the dick for not being able to appreciate what I had when I had it). I continued to be dismissive.
I stuck with it, though, giving it every possible chance and trying to find a way "in" to enjoying it. There were just too many horror fans who love it and too many Italian horror filmmakers considered to be great by people I respect for me to dismiss it. So I kept seeking out new films, hoping one would be the movie to grab me. I programmed Italian Horror days every Junesploitation, much to the chagrin of at least half of you boys and girls who participate. I was not willing to let it die.

There's not a single moment or film I can point to as being the one that cracked Italian horror wide open for me. There was no badly-dubbed, blood-soaked epiphany. To be honest, I can't even recall the first moment I realized that I had turned around and become a fan of it. The change was gradual, I guess, happening over time as movie after movie wore down my resistance. I don't think it's a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe it's just the phenomenon of exposure, the way you need to taste certain foods a certain number of times before you become a fan. Maybe it was a function of my finally being able to understand what to expect; no longer uncertain of just what the fuck I was watching, I could begin to appreciate the things that these movies did without holding them to the standards of more traditional horror films. I'm not so sure about this last one, though, becuase there's no such thing as ever really getting comfortable or knowing what to expect with Italian horror. Just when I settle in and think I know what these movies are all about, I'll see something like Burial Ground: Nights of Terror in which a little person playing a completely unconvincing child tries to suck his mom's boob BEFORE he becomes a zombie and bites it off and I'll remember that no, there's no predicting these movies.
Not pictured: an actual child
At a certain point, I had to acknowledge that my willingness-turned-desire to keep watching these movies -- even in the interest of "giving it another chance" -- meant that I liked something about it. It was similar to my realization that I like Waterworld a few years ago; there came a time at which I had to interpret the fact that I wanted to watch it once a year as evidence that I'm a fan of the film. The acceptance of this fact as it applied to Italian horror was liberating, not because I was in denial about liking Italian horror because I think there's something wrong with liking it but because it requires me to admit to myself that I was wrong. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Even that's not fair. I wasn't wrong. I was just in a different place. We sometimes have a habit of talking about our opinions on movies in absolutes, categorizing them by "movies I like," "movies I don't like," "good," "bad." The reality is often so much more in the middle, as there are moments we might like in movies we don't and problems we know exist in movies we love but are able to overlook. We change over time -- the movie's don't, but we do. We have to remain open to our own shifting tastes and our own changing perceptions. We're closing ourselves off to too much if we don't. I'm not suggesting that we go back and rewatch every single movie that did nothing for us (or worse that we actively disliked) the first time around, but at least consider the possibility that a movie won't look the same at 35 as it did at 15. Your opinions on any piece of art can never be completely solidified until you've stopped changing and evolving as a human being. And hopefully you never do that.

I don't know if this kind of reassessment was what happened with me and Italian horror. The shift from exposure to rejection to embracing to enjoying took place in under five years, during which time I don't think I've become a significantly different person. I had another kid. I aged about 15-20 years (thank you very much, F This Movie!). I've changed jobs a couple of times. But I'm still me -- and, yet, I can recognize that my tastes have shifted during this period. I've dug way deeper into genre and cult films in recent years; while I've always been a fan of these kinds of movies above all others, the last three years or so have seen me double down on my love of this stuff (a fact which has not gone unnoticed by my wife, who has teased me that we are no longer interested in the same movies because I only watch weird shit). That might be because of Junesploitation. It might be because I've forced myself to see so many more movies for F This Movie! and because I like to write about a certain kind of film. More than anything, I think it has to do with reaching a certain point in my life at which I've just seen so much of what's out there that I have to dig deeper and challenge myself. And crazy Italian horror is just the way to do it. At the ballet!
So I've gone all in on Italian horror. I can't quite identify what it is that I respond to in it, just the same way I couldn't identify what it was that other people were responding to when I remained outside of it. I'm still a sucker for story and character above all else -- there's a reason my favorite movie of all time is Back to the Future -- but I've become drawn to these movies that throw a lot of that stuff out the window in an attempt to elicit a visceral emotional response. I love its unpredictability. I love the way it recreates the mental and emotional state of having a bad dream; when I rewatch the scene in City of the Living Dead in which a girl vomits up all her internal organs now, I find myself less repulsed by the over the top gore and more appreciative of just how long and crazy Fulci makes the moment. It's a nightmare from which we cannot wake. I recognize that many of these Italian horror directors are stylists above all else, but I'm not complaining. After all, Brian De Palma is one of my favorite filmmakers.

I won't claim to have done more than scratch the surface on Italian horror. I've immersed myself in Argento and Fulci and D'Amato and Lenzi and Deodato and Soavi and Bava (Lamberto; Mario remains something of a blind spot, which is especially ironic since he's really the godfather of it all) and even Bruno Mattei, who was and is the worst. My favorite of the directors whose filmographies I have dug into deeply is, much to my surprise, Lucio Fulci because he's truly a madman. I'm still not the biggest fan of Zombie (it's got a bunch of good stuff in it, but I think it's just ok overall), but he's got 8 or 10 other films I've genuinely grown to love. Sometimes he seems to stumble into greatness by accident -- his crudity and sleaziness give way to a kind of pure cinema. Other times, like in the entirety of The Beyond, he's working at peak form and with total intent. Again, I can't say that I know everything about his work because there are still a handful of his films I have yet to see (Lizard in a Woman's Skin, The Psychic, Massacre Time, all of his early comedies), but I'm anxious to seek out his films more than anyone else's. Like Waterworld, it turns out I'm a fan.

"Lucio Fulci = Waterworld" - Patrick Bromley, F This Movie!
I still don't get this
So where to from here? There remain tons of movies for me to track down and see, from classics (which brings us back to Bava) to the totally obscure. It's no longer a chore or something I force myself to do, but instead a passion I look forward to following. I'm enjoying the process of educating myself and of making connections between the films and the filmmakers. I know several of you are fans of this subgenre; perhaps you'd care to articulate what it is that draws you to it. Those of you who still aren't on board with it, what is it that's holding you back? I'm now in a position where I can clearly understand each side of the conversation. I've lived them both.

I'll end with this quote from my boy Lucio Fulci, for even if you question his talents as a filmmaker (as I was once guilty of doing), you cannot deny his love of the form and his ability to cut through all but our subconscious:

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

In that case, pass the spoon.


  1. I blind bought a Mario Bava box set a few years ago not knowing anything about him or his movies and it was my first introduction to Italian horror. I randomly started watching them and fell in love with how different they were from anything I had seen before. The great thing about starting with Bava is I think his movies are a little more accessible than some of the other Italian horror filmakers and he actually dabbled into a few different genres so I watched a few widely different movies from him. I think he's a great place to start for anyone who's trying to get into this crazy genre. I still haven't seen a lot of his work but I noticed there's some of his stuff on Netflix instant that I need to check out. I feel the same way about Italian horror that I do about David Lynch, you just have to give yourself over to these movies and let them do their thing even of it doesn't make a lot of sense it's just like watching a crazy fever dream. Someone on killer pov said it's all about the moments with these movies, that you don't necessarily remember the plots or the whole picture but the moments will just blow you away. The music, the images, the crazy violence, the bad dubbing, it's all part of a piece. I'm just discovering Fulci myself and there's a lot that I haven't seen but i just love the way these movies make me feel. It's almost unexplainable but there's really nothing like them. They just go for it and they don't care and I love that pure viewing experience of handing yourself over to a crazy film and filmmaker.

    1. David Lynch is a great comparison and goes through my mind a lot as I think about this stuff. For whatever reason, I was on board with Lynch immediately but took time to come around on Italian horror. I wonder what the difference is?

    2. I'm still on the fence about Lynch. I have Lost Highway coming on Netflix(it's really hard to get that movie). I haven't seen Blue Velvet in awhile and Mulholland Drive didn't appeal to me. Dune is on the brink of being so crazy I like it but I it's too boring.

  2. This has certainly become my favorite out of all of the pieces you've written thus far, sir. I have a saved selection of favorite quotes on my computer; things filmmakers, authors, screenwriters, and critics have said that I consider important and inspirational in my continuing study of cinema. I'm adding the eighth paragraph of this piece to it. It is an astute observation on subjective analysis, one that I respect very, very much, and I'm going to hold onto it. Thank you.

    1. I agree with Mike G - awesome piece, Patrick!

    2. Thanks, guys! That's very nice of you to say.

    3. Fulci Lives!

  3. As a kid who would rent any and all Horror films, as I grew older and started paying attention to directors and film in general I realized that I had rented many of these Italian Horror films simply based on their cover art without even realizing they were Italian nor realizing what I had seen. "Gates of Hell" is the first one that comes to mind which is actually Fulci's "City of the Living Dead". I must of rented that movie on VHS when I was like 10 or something?* When I started working at video stores around 17 years old, I really started paying attention and realized that I had seen a bunch of Argento, Fulci, Bava and Lenzi without even knowing it. I connect mostly with the style and music and I love the nonsensical aspects which adds to the dreamlike quality of the movies. I also love how they pushed the gore with creative death scenes (they love their eyeballs don't they?!)

    *I have mentioned before that I have a very cool Mom who would let me rent any Horror movie starting at a young age. No other rated R films, only Horror. I asked her about this not too long ago and if she realized what she was letting me see. She said she just assumed it was gross stuff that kids like; Zombies, Monsters, Blood and Guts and that it was all so fake that it was cartoonish. In my opinion, she is pretty dead on! (minus the amount of boobies and language that must have slipped her mind!)

  4. I have to admit I am very new to Italian horror. I think the first time I ever knew it was a thing was listening to one of the Massacre podcasts. The first one I saw was Zombie. I was watching it going "geez, this is pretty terrible". Then...a zombie fought a shark. I had never seen anything like it. The movie just got crazier after that. Some of the music they use is amazing. The parts where the zombies raise up is my ringtone(no one I know knows what the hell it is). I just watched NY Ripper for my marathon and, at parts, didn't know what the hell was going on. But that's okay. You don't always need to know what's happening to enjoy the movie. The Killerpov guys are right, it's about moments. You truly don't know what's going to happen next...except someone's probably getting their eye sliced open.

  5. Wow, it IS my lucky day! Thank you man! Very interesting article. I love the contemplation here on what makes us respond to things. It's not the art so much as it's ourselves. I find this in myself especially with music. If I find a style of music that's very different for me, I never like it right away. It takes me a long time to warm up to it and eventually I may find myself loving it. A good example of this is cheesy '80s pop that I once HATED but now absolutely adore. I just have to dip my feet in the water a few times. It seems it was the same for you and Italian horror.

    If you've barely scratched the surface on Italian Horror, then I suppose I'm still working on getting to the surface. I've seen a few, but I always find them fascinating. When it comes to horror in particular, I find myself especially attracted to style above anything else. My favorite Italian horror I've yet seen is Suspiria (typical I know). I adored the music, cinematography and atmosphere so much that nothing else really mattered. It was like a living nightmare and I never wanted to wake up. And thanks to you and Juneploitation for helping me see it!

    Well done man.

  6. I saw Lucio Fulci's A Cat in the Brain for the first time during Junesploitation and never got around to commenting on it. Fulci plays the lead, and plays himself. It's pretty abstract. The effect of creating all of those horrific films is making Fulci hallucinate. He sees a psychiatrist for help, but the psychiatrist takes advantage of the director's condition in the most brutal way possible. In the liner notes, Eli Roth explains how Fulci thinks Wes Craven rippled off Cat in the Brain for his own New Nightmare, but I think this film had the biggest influence on Clive Barker and the Decker character in Nightbreed. Cat in the Brain is a fascinating film.

    1. I watched it on the Grindhouse Releasing dvd. It includes Fulci's Fangoria Weekend of Horrors Q & A panel in New York, and culminates with a few minutes of him at his table signing autographs for fans, enjoying all the love and admiration he's receiving from his American fans.

  7. From the late seventies to the mid-eighties I watched a ton of those Italian horror movies, lots of them even in theaters, buying tickets for a movie rated 12 or 16 and smuggling myself in the preferred auditorium where the blood dripped off the screen.
    Back then it was an must for horror fans, when a new Fulci, D`Amato or Argento was released on the big screen. Later they were relegated to come out on video.
    I was never the biggest fan but I still have a soft spot for them and I was always fascinated by the insane amount of gore many of them showed.
    Until today I´m burned on everything regarding spiky things and eyeballs.

    From time to time I rewatch a few of them, still fascinated what makes me like them.

    Patrick, the "So I've gone all in on Italian horror." paragraph sums up, what I like in those films, even if I don´t love them nearly as much as you do.
    Great article.

  8. I used to HATE Italian Horror too. They would make me physically feel bad. I started to appreciate them more when I saw a clear copy of the full version of "Deep Red", not a mangled DVD of "The Hatchet Murders". Seeing good copies of the movies makes a real difference since the colors are more saturated, giving them an other worldly atmosphere.

    I also started to appreciate these movies after I saw more of the thriller/Giallo type Italian movies, than the straight-up gory movies. "Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key" was another turning point since it is just so weird and over the top, plus it stars Edwige Fenech.

    Another factor was starting to learn more about European BDs/comics. The Italian horror movies are a lot like comics, but not American comics. Not that they're necessarily better, but they have a different aesthetic. Not only does it take some time to adjust to an Italian or European style, but you usually also have to adjust to a 60's/70's/80's foreign style. That can be a lot of hurdles to get over.

  9. I love that column, I can see how you came around from start to beginning, very eloquently worded, for me it was a case of I had a friend who I watched horror movies with weekly, we used to try to get more and more obscure with our movies after watching all the obvious ones, we went to film fairs and hunted down the world cinema and we was drawn to the Italian movies, we used to love movies that we're different and would enjoy the feel of seeing movies not easily available, now you can see anything but in 83 ish noone else knew who Fulci was in the UK, Italian movies have a hard to describe Dream logic that we enjoyed being in a world where anything can happen and usually does,
    To speak of changing, we all have holes in our movie watching, mine is Eraserhead! years ago I tried to watch it and ran out of patience and turned if off, errrr what a load of nonesense? one day now as an adult 20 years later im gonna see it and see how it plays, was it me or the film?
    Cheers Patrick, a column I should have read at the 2pm slot

  10. The Editor (2014) is my favorite Italian horror movie.

    I have a long way to go ...