Lucio Fulci, born in Rome in 1927, remains as controversial in death as he was in life. A gifted craftsman with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of dark humor, Fulci achieved some measure of notoriety for his gore epics of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but respect was long in coming.
Abandoning his early career as a med student, Fulci entered the film industry as a screenwriter and assistant director, working alongside such directors as Steno and Riccardo Freda. Granted his debut feature in 1959, with a seldom seen comedy called I ladri (1959) (The Thieves), Fulci quickly established himself as a prolific craftsman adept at musicals, comedies and westerns.
In 1968, Fulci made his first mystery thriller, Una sull’altra (1969), and its success was sufficient to garner the backing for his pet project The Conspiracy of Torture (1969). Based on a true story, the film details the trial of a young woman accused of murdering her sexually abusive father amid fear and superstition in 16th Century Italy. A scathing commentary on church and state, the film was the first to give voice to its director’s passionate hatred of the Catholic Church. Predictably, the film was misunderstood, and Fulci’s career was thrown into jeopardy. Deciding it would be best to leave his political feelings on the back burner, Fulci pressed on with a series of slickly commercial ventures.
In 1971 and 1972, Fulci re-established himself in the thriller arena, directing two excellent giallos: the haunting A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and the disturbing Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). The former, with its vivid hallucinations involving murderous hippies and vivisected canines, and the latter, with its psychotic religious zealots and brutal child killings, were — to say the least — controversial. In particular, Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), despite a huge box-office success, painted too graphic a portrait of perverted Catholicism, and Fulci’s career was derailed… some would say, permanently. Blacklisted (albeit briefly) and despised in his homeland, Fulci at least found work in television and with the adventure genre with two financially successful Jack London ‘White Fang’ adventure movies in 1973 and 1974 which were Zanna Bianca, and Il ritorno di Zanna Bianca. Also during the mid and late 1970s, Fulci also directed two ‘Spaghetti Westerns’; The Four of the Apocalypse… (1975) and Sella d’argento (1978), (Silver Saddle) and another ‘giallo’; The Psychic (1977), as well as a few sex-comedies which include the political spoof Nonostante le apparenze… e purchè la nazione non lo sappia… all’onorevole piacciono le donne (1972) (aka: The Eroticist), and the vampire spoof Dracula in the Provinces (1975) (aka: Young Dracula), and the violent Mafia crime-drama Contraband (1980).
In 1979, Fulci’s film making career hit another high point with him breaking into the international market with Zombie (1979), an in-name-only sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), which had been released in Italy as ‘Zombi’. With its flamboyant imagery, graphic gore and moody atmospherics, the film established Fulci as a gore director par excellence. It was a role he accepted, but with some reservations.
Over the next three years, Fulci plied his trade with finesse and flair, rivaling even the popularity of his “opponent” Dario Argento, with such sanguine classics as City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981). Frequently derided as sheer sensationalism, these films, as well as the reviled The New York Ripper (1982) are actually intelligently crafted, with sound commentaries on everything from American life to religion. High on vivid imagery and pure cinematic style, Fulci’s films from this period of the early 1980s represent some of his most popular work in America and abroad, even if they do pale in comparison to his 1972 masterpiece and personal favorite Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) (an impossible act to follow, as it happens).
In the mid-1980s, at the peak of his most prolific period, Fulci became beset with personal problems and worsening health. Much of his work from the mid-1980s onward is disappointing, to say the least, but flashes of his brilliance can be seen in works like Murder-Rock: Dancing Death (1984) and Il miele del diavolo (1986). A Cat in the Brain (1990), one of Fulci’s last works, remains one of his most original. Though strapped by budgetary restraints and marred by mediocre photography, the film is wickedly subversive and comical. With Fulci playing the lead role (as more or less himself, no less — a harried horror director who fears that his obsession with sex and violence is a sign of mental disease), Fulci also proves to be an endearing and competent actor (he also has cameos in many of his films, frequently as a detective or doctor figure).
By the 1990s, Fulci went on a hiatus with film making for further health and personal reasons as the Italian cinema market went into a further decline. While in pre-production for the Dario Argento-produced The Wax Mask (1997), Lucio Fulci passed away at his home on March 13, 1996 at the age of 68. A serious diabetic most of his adult life, he inexplicably forgot to take his insulin before retiring to bed; some consider his death a suicide, others consider it an accident, but his many fans all consider it to be a tragedy. Whether one considers him to be a hack or a genius, there’s no denying that he was unique.
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