Monday, June 17, 2024

FTM Rewind: Director Essentials: Lucio Fulci

by Patrick Bromley
Once again celebrating the required films of the Maestro on his birthday!

In the years since I learned to love and embrace Italian Horror, Lucio Fulci has become one of my favorite directors. Possibly a Mt. Rushmore director. Choosing his essential films is not an easy task because I tend to like all of his movies because he made them (a qualification for a Mt. Rushmore director). Because many of Fulci's earlier comedies are difficult to see, I'm choosing to start this list in the early 1970s. That means it's by no means comprehensive and only covers certain acts in his career. There are still enough good to great movies on here to give you not only an overview of who he is as a director, but also a nice jumping off point if you're new to Fulci.

1. A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
Fulci’s first proper giallo (following the warm-up that was One on Top of the Other [aka Perversion Story]) is one of the genre’s funkiest, most original outings. Florinda Bolkan is a politician’s wife who begins having dreams about orgies and murder, then wakes one morning to discover she may have actually acted upon these impulses and killed her neighbor. This is the best of Fulci’s non-supernatural horror films, flirting with the dreamlike vibe of his later work and conjuring up a number of striking, abstract nightmare images like a collection of dogs that are split open (done with puppets) or a pair of hippies whose eyes have gone all blank white, predicting a similar effect in The Beyond. The mystery at the center is pretty good, too, and not entirely easy to predict.

2. Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)
Despite its classification as a giallo, I almost feel like Don’t Torture a Duckling barely counts as horror…except for the three child murders at its center, of course. There’s the requisite amount of Fulci salaciousness, but the film is fairly elegant in its construction and quite restrained, given how sleazy this subject matter could have been. Instead, it’s gorgeously scored (by Riz Ortolani) and photographed, making the most of its location shooting across the Italian countryside. It’s also interesting as a personal statement of Fulci struggling with his own Catholic faith. Many of his films examined the true nature of evil, but rarely did that evil wear so human a face.

3. Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
The Maestro directed a couple of westerns, but movies like Silver Saddle and Massacre Time feel more like programmers made by a director-for-hire than full-blooded Fulci films. That movie would be Four of the Apocalypse, a nasty and mean-spirited western starring Fabio Testi as the leader of a group of escaped criminals (which also includes Michael J. Pollard and a movie-stealing Thomas Milian) heading to Sun City together. This is the best of the Fulci westerns, the one that finds him not just most in command of the cinematic language but also finding his voice within a genre he had worked in somewhat anonymously in the past.

4. The Psychic (1977)
Fans of Lucio Fulci’s splatter movies may have little use for The Psychic, as it’s one of the director’s classiest and most restrained efforts. Jennifer O’Neill plays a woman whose psychic visions lead her to uncover a murder, but there’s much more to the grisly crime than she first realizes. This is Fulci in full-on Hitchcock mode, much more interested in tension and suspense than shock or horror (that wouldn’t come until Zombie two years later). It’s one of his best-constructed efforts; the final third is Pure Cinema, told entirely through visual suspense and with very little dialogue. Those who would contest Fulci’s technical merits as a filmmaker clearly have never seen The Psychic.

5. Zombie (1979)
For a lot of people, this is the only Fulci film that matters. For the rest of us, it's simply where his career turns towards hardcore horror and gore, more or less defining the next 10 years of his filmmaking output (if not the remainder of his working years). Zombie’s best moments, be it the famous scene of Olga Karlatos getting her eyeball impaled on an enormous wooden splinter or the ominous and haunting visual of an army of zombies lurking their way towards New York City, are as good as anything Fulci has ever done. I've grown to really like this movie a lot more than I did on my first few viewings, and even if it still isn't my favorite Fulci it would be impossible to argue against its importance in his development as a filmmaker.

6. Contraband (1980)
Like Four of the Apocalypse and Conquest a little later on this list, I want to call attention to the few times Fulci worked outside the horror genre post-1970s. I might like this one best of all his non-horror efforts -- Fulci's spin on the poliziotteschi genre that exploded in Italy in the 1970s. Fabio Testi plays a smuggler who, along with his brother, ends up at war with gangsters in Naples. The film is mean and violent (including additional violence added via reshoots) and incredibly well directed, with a climax that's dynamite. This one makes me wish Fulci had made more crime films.

7. City of the Living Dead (1980)
City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell) is maybe the best example of Fulci’s talent for creating sustained nightmares – movies that make little to no logical sense but which bombard the viewer with atmosphere and gruesome imagery from which there is little relief. The story here is simple: a priest commits suicide in the opening moments, thereby opening a doorway to Hell. What makes City of the Living Dead so effective is the way the story is told, all soft focus and misty grounds and the threat of violence at any given moment. One of the movie’s most famous sequences, in which a woman vomits up all of her innards in real time, is a the perfect distillation of what makes Fulci – and this movie – great: it’s a nightmare from which the director refuses to look away, from which we cannot wake. It’s a horror movie that really horrifies.

8. The Beyond (1981)
Fulci's best movie and the one that finds him working at the absolute peak of his powers. It’s the one that combines everything that’s great about him and his work: the mounting sense of dread, the shocking explosions of gore, the nightmare logic, the unforgettable visuals, and Fabio Frizzi’s best score. Animals attack, heads explode, faces are melted off, eyeballs pop out, the gateway to Hell is opened. The Beyond has it all.

9. The House by the Cemetery (1981)
The third and final entry in the “Gates of Hell” trilogy is a movie that sneaks higher up my list of favorite Fulci films every time I revisit it. This is prime Fulci, full of creeping dread punctuated by shocking violence. The plot is straightforward: a mad scientist is more or less reanimated in the basement of a house and begins committing murders. Fulci has worked with the trope of “the Bad Place” before and would subsequently, too, but there’s something about limiting himself to the location that energizes him here. A lot of horror fans seem to find Giovanni Frezza’s Bob character irritating, but I’ve always found him and his crazy dubbing just one more oddball element in a movie (and a career) full of them.

10. The New York Ripper (1982)
Easily the sleaziest, most polarizing, and most controversial film Fulci ever made, The New York Ripper plays like the director is doubling down on everything he was ever criticized for doing on screen. It’s a giallo about a killer who is mutilating and murdering women, targeting their bodies in ways that are both ugly and highly sexualized. Oh, and he continually makes phone calls to his potential victims and speaks in a series of duck quacks. I’m not making that up. The movie could be self-parody if it wasn’t so brutally violent and so well made. This one closes out the golden period of Fulci’s career that began with Zombie and ends here.

11. Conquest (1983)
I'm close to calling this one minor Fulci, but the chance to see him work in the sci-fi/fantasy genre that became so popular in the early 1980s -- and with a movie this weird, no less -- makes it simply too strong a curiosity to leave it off the list. It's about a young warrior named Ilius (Andrea Occhipinti) who is given a magical bow and arrow to go kill an evil sorceress who is naked but wears a metal mask, like Destro with boobs. Along the way he teams up with a big barbarian-looking dude named Mace (Jorge Rivero) who can talk to animals. Together, they set off on a quest that includes bipedal wolf men, snake sex, and a dolphin. In the absence of a coherent story, Fulci leans heavily on style -- primarily slow motion and hazy photography that obscures major story points. It may be more novelty than it is essential, but seeing Fulci apply his sensibilities to a wholly different kind of movie makes it necessary viewing in his filmography.

12. The Devil's Honey (1986)
Ever since this was released on Blu-ray by Severin a couple of years ago and became more widely available to be seen, it has become something of a punchline because Fulci has some demented ideas about sex and eroticism. That's fine; I get it. But it also ignores that this story of grief and obsession is one of the Maestro's best movies. Yes, some crazy shit that happens in it -- Fulci gotta Fulci -- but it's also psychological in a way the director hadn't really been since The Psychic and full of memorable imagery and two strong performances by Bianca Marsillach and Brett Halsey. Even if I had to cut this list down to 10 titles, The Devil's Honey would still be on it.

13. A Cat in the Brain (1990)
Fulci goes meta, and the results are a fascinating mess. The director, who, like Hitchcock, nearly always cameos somewhere in his movies, this time takes center stage as the star, playing himself. He’s a director of notoriously violent movies whose work has begun creeping into his daily life, either triggering memories of his own films or causing him to have hallucinations of violence all around him. This is Fulci’s most experimental film – his 8 ½ if you will – and also his most challenging. The use of violent clips from his films, the way its cut together, and Fabio Frizzi’s acid jazz/rock score all combine for a pretty unnerving experience, which is appropriate considering the movie’s depiction of a descent into madness. It’s a movie I like to study more than I enjoy watching, and is really only for advanced students of Fulci’s filmography.

Fulci lives!


  1. Thanks for the excellent overview of Fulci's finest! I would have included Perversion Story on this list, too. But I haven't seen Conquest, maybe it deserves to be here instead. In my opinion's defense, Conquest doesn't have Marisa Mell!

  2. Beatrice Cenci is another strong early Fulci film. Though a historical drama, it has his hallmark brutality on display.