Known as “The Godfather of Gore” (a title he shares with Herschell Gordon Lewis), Lucio Fulci’s oeuvre is actually far more complex than his sobriquet might suggest.
Fulci’s work, like those of his contemporaries in post-war Italy, ran the gamut from sword and sandal to polizioschetti to gialo to sex farce. Italian filmmakers were working stiffs, not auteurs. The more they cranked out, the more they made. We remember fondly the ones like Fulci who could take a bog standard police-action film and make it something more significant.
Of the “big three” of Italian horror, Fulci is very much the runt of the litter, at least as far as public perception is concerned. Argento is considered the master, Bava the artiste. Fulci? The guy who likes slow eyeball stab shots?
However, Fulci has deeper philosophical sensibilities that are often overlooked. There are certainly spotty entries into his filmography, particularly at the end. But Fulci’s work stands as a compelling statement of the world view of the philosophical pessimist.
What Is Pessimism?
Before continuing, some time must be spent defining terms.
Pessimism is less a philosophical school or movement than it is a mood. The mood is one of decay. Existence is punishment; life begins in pain, continues with increased suffering and ends in pain. The world itself gets worse as time goes on and there is no way to reverse this, only to swim against the tide like the proverbial spawning salmon.
A number of writers going back to Diogenes the Cynic and some of the Stoics can be seen as philosophical pessimists. Closer to the present day, Schopenhauer and his student-cum-critic Nietzsche are almost synonymous with the term. Philosophical pessimism underpins the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert A. Heinlein. Houellebecq is arguably the most popular proponent of this type of pessimism in the world today.
Man’s place in the universe is not as important as he thinks it is. He is surrounded by evil forces, human and otherwise, which conspire to thwart all of his efforts to push himself above the rot and filth of existence. The rot and filth only increase in their acrid oppressiveness with time, making us work harder for less. And in the end, we die, making our efforts mostly futile.
The universe is in a constant state of decay. We live in a fallen world.
For the pessimist, this is perhaps a cause for mourning but not for paralysis. It simply is, just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Much of philosophical pessimism is spent coming to terms with the torturous emptiness and senseless suffering that is human existence — less about describing the horrors than how to deal with them honestly.
The Gialli of Lucio Fulci
It is fitting that Fulci’s filmography begins at the end: The Last Days of Pompeii. It is a largely insignificant affair, but contains two tropes that would run through Fulci’s work: Irrational violence and falling.
Violence is Fulci’s leitmotif, and we should not shy from this. But the violence is deployed with purpose: To show the depravity of the human world. It is not a moral commentary or a finger-wagging, but a simple reporting of the darkness underpinning all existence. We shy away from the primordial forces of darkness, but they lay hidden, not removed. He is a kindred spirit of David Lynch in this regard.
Fulci’s finest works, where he first received domestic attention, are his gialli, the proto-slashers based on popular Italian crime novels, so called because of their yellow (“giallo”) colors. His first entry into the genre was 1969’s One on Top of the Other, the ending of which gets right to the point: everyone dies.In this case, they die because of bureaucratic snafus and vicious conniving. Par for the course of a human life.
Don’t Torture a Duckling is famous for its ending fall, a classic example of Fulci’s penchant for over-the-top blood and gore. But only the philistine views this fall as some kind of comedic Italian excess, schlock brought to the level of camp.
Fall is a theme that runs throughout Fulci’s work. To list the examples of people falling in his films would be voluminous. More subtle than his trademark slow motion eyeball gouge, the Fulci fall should be carefully considered in the context of his broader work: It’s all one big fall for Fulci, with all the Biblical implications that carries.
The New York Ripper and Murder Rock sit on the cusp of giallo and slasher, not quite comfortably either. While Murder Rock is an enjoyable Fulci romp, The New York Ripper is the pinnacle of Fulcian pessimism.
The New York Ripper is also his most controversial film. It centers around graphic violent sexual mutilation of women at the hands of a crazed killer in Koch-era New York. The ending, however, is the most disturbing and tragic part: A sick girl in a hospital bed calling a father she’ll never see again.
Fulci is equally known for his supernatural horror films. Zombi 2, a cheap cash-in attempt made in the wake of Dawn of the Dead (known as “Zombi” in Italy, a country with hilariously weak intellectual property laws), ends with refugees from an island full of zombies flee to an island full of zombies — Manhattan.
The ending shot of zombies crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is perhaps more shocking today than they were at the time. The spectre of marauding bands of urban rioters cannot be ignored, but there is something deeper going on: The zombies are simply that portion of humanity seeking to drag anything noble down into the sewer. And we have no shortage of those today.
Is there any escape? Fulci didn’t seem to think so. Zombi 2 made Fulci an international star, suggesting that millions of others share his skepticism.
The Beyond is a different sort of pessimism, as is the subpar The House by the Cemetery. Both highlight the supernatural implications of pessimism. Death itself, not the means by which one gets there, is the ultimate terror for Fulci. But unlike many pessimists, Fulci does not seem to see death as the end. Rather, the afterlife is a place of unpredictability and dread.
Fulci’s afterlife, which bears some resemblance to limbo and some to hell, is a deeply unpleasant experience, particularly given that it never ends. Consider the come down from a bad acid trip for the rest of eternity and you start to get an idea of what life after death is like for Fulci.
In none of his significant works does Fulci offer denouement. We are presented with the final ghastly reveal and then sent on our merry way.
The Life and Death of Lucio Fulci
While we should refrain from being armchair psychologists, it is worth noting just how many philosophical pessimists have tragic personal stories. Fulci would certainly be considered among these.
Like fellow pessimists William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, Fulci attended, but did not complete, medical school. The horrors of medical school cannot be left out of any recollection of Fulci’s life. He dropped out purely to chase money in the film industry, first working as a critic before getting into the business of making films.
In 1969 his wife committed suicide, Synthia Plath-style, by sticking her head in an oven upon finding out she had terminal, inoperable cancer. He had a daughter who was either killed or paralyzed (details are sketchy) in a car accident not long afterward.
Later in life, Fulci became uncommitted to his work, often effectively handing pictures off to the AD and slapping his name on whatever they came back with. He suffered from emotional and physical ailments, including diabetes. In his final public appearance, Fulci, his foot bandaged and on crutches, claimed that he had no idea his works were popular outside of Italy.
He died alone.
Fulci and the Fall
Fulci considered himself a Catholic until the day he died. He was also very vocally left wing, involved in the Communist Party in his youth and a vocal supporter of radical causes later in life. But Fulci’s work does not fit comfortably either into his Catholic hardware nor its Communist programming.
Fulci’s work is fundamentally non-materialist, in that it does not focus on material social conditions as the driving force of human action. It is also deeply anti-rational, with its lack of denouement a conscious artistic choice: People suffer and die horribly and there’s no explanation or time to process the grief. No grander purpose is served.
Man is beset not by “society,” but by evil, which exists in both a supernatural and imminent sense. Our insulation from horrors incomprehensible is tenuous and paper thin at all times. When we cry out in terror, there is no one to hear our screams but greater monstrosities.
What are we to do about all of this? Merely to suffer it. For Fulci, there is seemingly no exit.
But an obscure Western, Four of the Apocalypse might point the way. The film is often known for a rape scene, but is notable for being one of the few happy endings in the world of Fulci: The rape is avenged with murder and a child, named Lucky, gives a town full of old men a reason to live.
New life. Secured with new brutality. This was the best Fulci could offer us.
— Dan Thrall is an optimistic pessimist