Giallo di Fulci

Ah, Lucio Fulci. He’s the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve covered a couple of his films previously, House By the Cemetery and his epic Zombie, but today I’d like to focus on two of his 1980s giallos, the vehemently Italianate murder mystery genre that features a mysterious killer with gloved hands, cops on the case, lots of red herrings and extreme deaths.

Ripping One

1982′s The New York Ripper (aka Lo Squartatore di New York) is hands down Fulci’s filthiest, foulest film. You don’t just want to take a shower after viewing it—you want to be steam-cleaned. Chock full of nasty sex, extreme violence and some of the splatteriest gore he’d ever committed to celluloid, Ripper is completely repellent, one of the most polarizing titles among his hardcore fans.

Never before had he attempted anything as extreme as this film, so I can only guess that he was attempting to cash in on William Lustig’s X-rated Maniac (1980), a sublimely sleazy grease spot of a film that stunned even the most hard-bitten Times Square audiences. Doing the earlier film one better, Fulci amped up the gore and pushed the sexual content to near-pornographic levels. It’s truly a piece only the most hardened sleazehounds can enjoy.

The plot is fairly rudimentary: the brutally butchered bodies of women are turning up all over town, and the lead cop on the case keeps receiving taunting calls from the killer, who speaks in a cartoonish voice and quacks like a duck. The typical giallo “who’s the killer?” story follows.

Taking a page from Argento’s playbook, Fulci lets the anticipation of the violent scenes build slowly, throwing in false leads and tightening the noose until the killer strikes. The first murder takes place on the Staten Island ferry, where a female bicyclist who’s had an argument with a man whose Volkswagen she accidentally ran into and scratched, sneaks into the hold to scrawl an obscenity on the windshield of his unoccupied car. Caught in the act, she tries to make nice with her surprise visitor (whose face we never see, of course). He begins to quack, the switchblade comes out, and the slicing commences.

In another scene straight out of DePalma’s Dressed To Kill (Angie Dickinson’s surprise elevator murder), a woman who’s been indulging in a little S&M in a sleazy hotel room begins to suspect her sexual partner is the killer the police have been looking for. She frantically releases herself from her bonds and runs into the hall, only to be confronted by the Quacker, who slices her stem-to-stern in savage fashion.

The murders are excruciatingly drawn out. You see every cut in graphic detail. The climactic killing—the most notorious in the film—features Fulci’s trademark eye-gouging and slashing of particular body parts in loving close-up. Still, fans of pre-Disneyfied Times Square will love the exterior shots of the long-gone grindhouses, sleazy bars and sex clubs, and the subway back when the cars were still filthy and covered with graffiti. Interiors are equally sleazy, with a real feel for down-at-its-heels Manhattan.

The film is well-made, with some of the most realistic effects seen in a Fulci work, as well as truly sleazy and embarrassing-to-watch sex scenes. There’s not a lot of unintentional humor to leaven the tension, which certainly enhances its repulsive atmosphere. I can only imagine what an experience it would have been to watch Ripper in a theater with strangers back in the day…and wonder if they were enjoying it.

Unfortunately, Ripper initiated the final phase in Fulci’s career in which he would produce some of his weakest films, seemingly turning his back on his fans by refusing to deliver the extreme gore they demanded.

Slash Dance

The above title is a pun, but it’s also one of the alternates for Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984), a cross between the giallo, Fame (1980) and Flashdance (1983). Get ready for leotards and leggings, folks. It’s a Lucio Fulci musical!

Well, not really, but it’s the closest he ever came. Like Ripper, it’s also ostensibly set in Manhattan (Lucio just loves those harbor shots), but it’s pure Eurotrash all the way. A killer is stalking students at New York’s Arts for Living Center, headed by Candice Norman (Olga Karlatos, Zombie‘s original eye-gouging victim), and cops arrive on the scene to investigate.

Candice is a former dancer whose own career was cut short by a motorcycle accident. Apparently she’s getting her revenge by forcing her students to perform some of the most spastic, super-aerobic dance moves I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the mystery portion of the movie isn’t really that mysterious and it’s pretty slow going, but these numbers, along with some of the casting, give Murder Rock some watchability.

It’s almost a who’s-who of Italian horror actors of the ’70s and ’80s. Along with Karlatos, there’s Ray Lovelock (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), Christian Borromeo (Argento’s Tenebre) and, in uncredited roles, Al Cliver (Zombie) and Silvia Collatina (House By the Cemetery). Fulci, of course, provides his usual cameo.

The killings are committed with a hatpin to the breast, so there’s no gore. The story attempts to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, but it’s mostly just blurry, since so much of it is set in darkness—with strobe lights. And it’s too damn slick, missing the beloved Fulci trademarks. Gone are the smash zooms and extreme close-ups of characters’ eyes and noses. The English dubbing isn’t as hilariously dodgy as the director’s earlier supernatural horrors, which is a shame, because the characters talk a lot. Sample exchange (on the telephone):

Candice: Bob—what happened?

Bob: Something terrible…Susan.

Candice: What?

Bob: At the school. The police are here.

Candice: What are you saying?

Bob: She was…

Candice: What do you mean she was…she’s dead?

Much of the dialogue goes on in the same fashion, but unfortunately it never reaches the dizzying heights of—say—Karlatos in Zombie: “You won’t be happy until I meet one of your zombies!”

I suppose the dance numbers are well-shot and edited, but they’re so goofy they defy measurement. With music by Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Keith Emerson, they provide whatever fun the film has to offer. What the hell kind of school is the Arts for Living Center anyhow? The Institute of the Pelvic Thrust?

I want a performance space or nightclub in New York to do a show featuring detailed re-stagings of all the dance numbers from Murder Rock—without a trace of irony. It’d be a huge hit.

After New York Ripper, Fulci’s career seemed to go into decline. He made The New Gladiators (1983), a post-apocalyptic action film in the style that was popular at the time, but Murder Rock really signaled the beginning of the end. An attempted sequel to Zombi 2 was taken over by Bruno Mattei due to his illness. He made a couple of TV movies considered too violent to air even on Italian television. I’ve seen one of them on DVD, but it was pretty nondescript.

One of the last films Fulci made was Cat in the Brain, in which he plays himself, a director so tormented by nightmares of his own creations that he consults a psychiatrist. It’s really no more than a clip show, with newly-shot wraparounds “introducing” scenes from earlier horrors.

Still, for a filmmaker whose career spanned more than 40 years and included almost every genre (westerns, a couple of White Fang movies, even a comedy with Barbara Steele!), to be remembered for a notable handful of thrillers isn’t a bad record at all. Here’s my list:

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
Zombie (1980)
City of the Living Dead (1980)
The Beyond (1981)
House By the Cemetery (1981)
The New York Ripper (1982)

Come On, Dario

Dario Argento’s “Giallo” is scheduled to hit American shores soon, whether via limited theatrical release or DVD. It’s played some dates in Europe, but the U.S. market is maintaining a stony silence, despite the potential drawing power of Academy Award-winner Adrian Brody in the lead.

Of course, Argento has always had trouble getting U.S. theatrical play. His most famous work, “Suspiria,” stands alone as the film with the heaviest theatrical distribution, courtesy of 20th Century-Fox’s long-gone International Classics division. I saw it at Chicago’s (also now long-gone) State-Lake Theatre in 1976, where I became aware of Dolby stereo for the first time, thanks to Goblin’s incredible score. Being an American teenager, I hadn’t been exposed to any of his other films (“Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” “Cat O’ Nine Tails,” “Profondo Rosso,” “Tenebrae”), although I’m sure one or two must’ve played some drive-ins at some point. I just that knew my mind was expanded by this crazy, colorful, haunting fairytale, even with most of the extreme gore excised. Still, you got to see a woman falling into a room full of razor wire, maggots raining from the ceiling… And the stentorian Alida Valli snapping, “Dance, girls! Dance!” All the acting was so strange, even from veteran Joan Bennett, and some of the dialogue was bizarre, but it all fit perfectly in the otherworldly framework. And Luciano Tovoli shot it in the old three-strip Technicolor process to get that extreme saturation.

A fond memory: I ran the film program for a couple of semesters in college and played “Suspiria” to a captive audience of students who’d probably never heard of it before. We didn’t have a scope lens so I had to run it “squished”—and nobody left!

When the home video revolution arrived, some of those movies saw the light of day on VHS in the States, although in severely truncated and ludicrously retitled versions (“Tenebrae” became “Unsane” and “Phenomena” became “Creepers”), but there was still enough Argento magic in them to make me long for another classic. I was thrilled to discover a copy of “Inferno” at the video store, inviting like-minded friends over to watch the sequel to “Suspiria,” only to have the evening fall flat on its face because 20th Century Fox’s cuts included all the agonizing, drawn-out death scenes Argento specializes in (and we root for) as well as large chunks of continuity.

DVD changed all that. With the format’s emphasis on quality, companies like Anchor Bay made obscure and/or censored European horror films available for the first time they way they were meant to be seen—uncut, restored, remastered and in their correct aspect ratio. I finally was able to see films like “Profondo Rosso,” “Phenomena” and “Inferno” as the Maestro intended. And they were all vastly improved. Sadly, seeing them complete for the first time reminded me how self-referential a filmmaker he has become and how slack the scripts are, relying more and more on Argento-esque flourishes instead of solid storytelling. Even in one of his most interesting later works, “Non ho Sonno,” he’s falling back on old plot devices from his ’70s hits. Now, I know we all demand the same things from Argento in every film—elaborate murders and weird characters—but can we please get on with the story? I don’t understand how someone who made the superbly plotted “Tenebrae” would look at a lame project like “The Card Player” and say, “That’s what the fans want! An Argento police procedural without any gore!”

There have been some bright spots. “Non ho Sonno” has the wonderful Max Von Sydow as a weary detective coming out of retirement to pursue a serial killer who has begun his murderous ways again after a 17-year hiatus, and its playful nursery rhyme motif is reminiscent of “Profondo Rosso.” I know a lot of people hated “The Stendhal Syndrome,” but it’s actually grown on me even though it’s almost too complicated. His “Black Cat” segment of “Two Evil Eyes” was very well done, and I even liked his TV movie, “Do You You Like Hitchcock?” with its nods to the master of suspense.


His most recent picture, “Mother of Tears,” which was heavily promoted as the highly-anticipated conclusion of the “three mothers” trilogy (“Suspiria” and “Inferno” being the other two parts), played a limited engagement at the Nuart here in Los Angeles. Of course, I rushed to see it, and was disappointed by a real mess that made absolutely no sense, was ridiculously overstyled and played more like a horror remake of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” It desperately screamed, “Look! I’m a Dario Argento film! Aren’t I fun?” But—crime of crimes—it was boring! Come on, now. Ludicrous, yes; incomprehensible, fine; but boring? Even the wretched “Phantom of the Opera” deserves to have many adjectives flung at it, but boring isn’t one of them.

His Masters of Horror segments are okay, with “Pelts”coming off better than “Jenifer,” in my opinion. Word on the street is that “Giallo” is no barn-burner, either, but fansites report that it may be due to Brody’s “input” during the filmmaking process. And he’s using screenwriters, as he did with “Mother of Tears,” instead of writing it himself or with one of his old collaborators, which I don’t think is a great idea. Can you imagine John Waters using a screenwriter on one of his films?

I’ll see it, of course, but I’m still waiting for the next truly great Argento film. And I’m not talking about the “Suspiria” remake (for which he only receives character credit).

By the way, what’s up with the still at the top of this post? Is Brody interviewing a corpse? Is he saying, “Now that you’re dead, how do you feel?”

The Glory Days of Video

It’s hard to believe that home video has been with us for over 30 years. I still remember the magic of going into a store where you could “rent” a whole movie given to you on a tape about the size of an eight-track cartridge! Films I wanted to see (or see again) that never aired on cable, like “Zombie,” were available to take home and enjoy. So what if it was a pan-and-scan print, fuzzy and green? I still got my zombie fix.

In Los Angeles there are still many independent video stores with VHS tapes available; they usually charge 99 cents for a week’s rental, but DVD has pretty much pushed analog tape off the face of the earth. I find it pleasant to go into the stores that still carry tape, stroll the horror aisle and take a trip down memory lane as I gaze at the obscure, strange or cheesy packaging from defunct companies like Genesis, Media, Wizard and Magnum, to name just a few. Sometimes I still rent ‘em; there’s something comforting and homey about the fuzzy prints and worn-out video in this day of crystal-clear DVD.

Since the home video revolution came so quickly after my stint at the drive-in theater, it was like a continuation of the experience for me. Not only could I revisit old favorites like “The Silent Scream” with Barbara Steele and Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat,” I could also explore new avenues of entertainment. Each box (usually oversized; it was the independent releasing company’s marketing gimmick), regardless of the quality of the art on the outside, held the promise of something weird and wonderful. There were a lot of disappointments: often the print used for transfer wouldn’t be in the best shape and would sometimes be cut for television. The bloody mayhem promised on the box would either be disappointingly mild or not come at all. Worst of all, the film would be just plain boring. Hate me if you will, but the films of French erotic horror director Jean Rollin are boring, boring, boring.

On the other hand, the pleasant surprises were frequent. For example, “The Devil’s Nightmare,” a bizarre French-Belgian-Swiss-Italian co-production, featured Italian horror hottie Erika Blanc as a vengeful succubus terrorizing visitors at a creepy castle. In one scene, a woman relaxes on a bed after some lesbian action (a requirement in films of this type and vintage). The succubus (who can appear lovely, as seen here) turns into a pasty white, greasy-faced spectre with crazy eyes and supernatural powers. In the yard outside the bedroom, she transforms a stick into a snake (don’t ask) and it crawls through the window to get the lesbian. What makes the scene especially hilarious is the dubbing. The hissing of the snake is just some guy saying “ah-h-h-h-h” into a microphone, and when the woman screams at the sight of the reptile, her voice is about two octaves lower than you’d expect.

And obscure American product like “The Toolbox Murders” (which actually played my drive-in) features Cameron Mitchell at his most over-the-top, kidnapping a young girl (“Charlie Brown” alum Pamelyn Ferdin) and murdering women in his apartment complex with various implements. The film has an overwhelming degree of sleaze that makes for some disturbing viewing. When I met Pamelyn at a collectors’ show a few years back, she had no stills from this film to autograph. I encouraged her to start offering them as there were collectors out there who would really appreciate them. Next time I saw her, there they were! I think she was originally embarrassed by the film, but decided to embrace it in all its greasiness.

For better or for worse, home video was also the only way to experience films off the beaten path or too strong for the drive-in, if you weren’t lucky enough to live near 42nd Street in the 1970s. Italian cannibal films were always a challenge. You knew you were going to see rubber gut munching and staged mayhem, but you also knew the filmmakers were going to throw in scenes of real animal butchery, which were not only hard to watch but were always infuriating.

In 1989 Magnum Video did the world a favor by releasing Dario Argento’s previously unavailable “Suspiria” in multiple versions: R-rated fullscreen and letterboxed and unrated fullscreen and letterbox. I’d only seen 20th Century Fox’s R-rated release at the State-Lake Theatre in Chicago in 1977, so it was a revelation to finally watch it in all of its uncut glory. The film-to-video transfer for the time was truly extraordinary, with the wonderful, saturated three-strip color and that troublesome Technoscope. Great packaging art, too!

In the late 1980s I discovered a wonderful video company, still in operation, called Sinister Cinema. The company had a wide variety of economically-priced videos and it was with its help that my one-sided romance with Barbara Steele began. Quickly I snapped up “Black Sunday,” “The Horror of Dr. Hichcockand “The Ghost.” Sinister even had a series of Drive-In Double Features. For one low price, you got two films (often those that were originally booked together) with a generous selection of drive-in commercials between them. I’ve been buying from Sinister for 20 years now! It’s a great resource for some really obscure product.

Well, the digital revolution has taken over. Soon physical recorded media of any kind will be extinct as on-demand libraries become more readily available on cable and satellite. I sold my Beta on eBay last year after transferring the tapes to DVD. I still have a laserdisc player and some discs, but it’s stored in the garage. And the VHS recorder I keep around for those times I’m strolling through one of those stores with the “big box” obscurities and get in the mood to watch a scratched, beat-up print of one of my favorites.

Fulci’s "Zombie": An Appreciation

About a year after Romero’s shattering “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) blew my mind, another kind of zombie film arrived at the good ol‘ Niles 31 Drive-In. Despite a cast led by Richard Johnson (“The Haunting”) and Mia Farrow’s kinda sorta lookalike sister Tisa (“Anthropophagus“), I could still tell it was Italian in origin and reminded me more of Jorge Grau’s “Don’t Open the Window” (aka “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue”) than its American counterparts. It also delivered the gore galore, featured an underwater zombie attacking a shark, and put a previously unrecognized director (in America) on the road to splatter stardom.

The Italians were always quick to cash in on popular American sci-fi/horror films, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. “Alien” became “Alien Contamination”; “The Exorcist” inspired “Beyond the Door,” “Eerie Midnight Horror Show” (gee, what’s that supposed to remind you of?), and my favorite, “The Tempter” aka “The Antichrist.” “Zombie” is actually known as “Zombi II” in Italy, because “Dawn of the Dead” was called “Zombi” and was specially recut for Italian audiences by Dario Argento.

Lucio Fulci was a workaday director who helmed films in all kinds of genres from the 50s to the 70s: spy movies, spaghetti westerns, giallos. He even made a comedy called “The Maniacs” with Barbara Steele! Some of his early pics have violent scenes (like a cruel sequence with a character falling off a cliff, featuring a close-up of his face being torn away by rocks again and again and again, repeated in two of his films) that would become more prevalent in his post-”Zombie” work.

Some of his notable earlier work: “Don’t Torture the Duckling” (1972) tells the story of a small village torn apart by a rash of child murders (I think it’s actually his best, most virulently anti-religion and—most personal,—film) ; “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) is a giallo made to cash in Argento’s”Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1969) whose most notable aspect is a graphic scene of vivisected dogs that was deemed so realistic that Fulci and his special effects director, Carlo Rambaldi (“E.T.”), had to go to court to prove that they were fake. Then he was hired to do a cannibal zombie film to cash in on the success of “Dawn of the Dead,” and the rest is history.

“Zombie” hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure, “Dawn” was graphic and extreme, but the zombies were obviously reg’lar people with purple makeup and there was something pink and artificial about the entrails on display. “Zombie,” on the other hand, projected a disturbing sense of disease and decay that even hilarious dubbing can’t completely eliminate. One character pronounces the word Conquistadore as “Con-quee-sta-dor-ay” numerous times, but when one of them rises up out of the ground with worms dangling from his eye socket and rips out a girl’s throat, the laughs kind of stop.

Man—these zombies are decayed! Shuffling, taking their time, they seem to be oozing an infectious putrescence. And, boy, does Fulci (and his SE guy, Gianetto DeRossi, who he would keep for the rest of his career) emphasize the rot! The first zombie, found by unlucky patrolmen on a boat in the harbor of New York, bursts out of a hold filled with decayed food, decayed bodies and worms playing “Chopsticks” on the piano (yes, there’s piano on the boat; it’s not the QEII either, just a regular four-person yacht). As the obese zom goes for a patrolman’s throat, he defensively rips at its face, only to pull away a handful of wormy goo.

Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) arrives on the scene, as the boat had belonged to her father, who’d been missing at sea for months. Reporter Peter West (Ian Mcullough) pops up and together they hit the briny to retrace her father’s route. It leads to an island called Matul. Yes, pronounced like “My tool.” I showed the Media Blasters unedited DVD to friends last Halloween, encouraging them to “MST3K” the film and work the name of the island into their comments as frequently and as obscenely as possible. Elise won.

Anyhow, Matul, which is larger than expected (HA!) is infected by a plague. All the recently dead have been popping up and running (well, shuffling) around town. The locals think it’s voodoo, but the veddy English Dr. Menard, who’s been using the island as his own personal concentration camp, complete with freaky experiments, knows better.

Now, the aforementioned Richard Johnson, who was the priest in “Beyond the Door” (link!), plays Dr. Menard in all of his sweat-popping glory. He knows the only way to stop the living dead is to shoot them in the head, which brings me to my only complaint about the gore effects. In his disgustingly filthy hospital (nicely realized), when the sheeted dead begin to rise, he plugs them in the head. Unfortunately, it looks like intestines come bouncing out of the bullet wounds.

Anne and Peter, meanwhile, hitch a ride with two nautical free spirits, Brian and Susan, on their yacht to the island. You can tell they’re free spirits because Susan whips off her top and goes skin diving while Brian eats beef jerky and pays no attention. Peter leers and you can tell he is thinking about “Matul,” or his tool. Anne has decided that Peter is now her boyfriend (why?) and looks on angrily. Everything takes a turn for the worse when Susan comes up out of the water and shiveringly declares that there’s “a man down there.” Now that’s pretty cool. This leads to an underwater attack by the living dead and Sushi with a shark!

I gotta say, even with the hilarious dubbing, Susan still manages to engender sympathy. When the aforementioned “con-quee-sta-dor-ay” rises up and rips out her throat, you feel bad. Plus the actress portraying her (Auretta Gay) does a really good job of doing the “so scared you can’t move” expression. Sweating, sloe-eyed, she can only watch with a chilled passiveness as the huge creature rises up out of the ground and rips out her throat. Later, when she’s reanimated as a zom, she looks more sad than hungry as she lunges at Brian and tears into his esophagus. Of course, she must be killed again, and you feel really desolate.

Fabio Frizzi’s score (which grows in stature each year IMO) perfectly plays up the emotion. The “thump thump thump” march that Frizzi devised perfectly encapsulates the inexorable finality of what’s happening on the island. It’s great. By the way, for those familiar with the score, Frizzi did the “thump thump thump” sound by tapping on a microphone with his finger. So much for high tech.

Menard’s wife, Paola, played by the extremely exotic Olga Karlatos (who can be seen in such wildly varied films as “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Purple Rain”) has the best line. I encourage you to recreate it. Say the following as if you’ve got laryngitis but are being punched in the stomach every other word:

“You WON’T be HAPPY until I MEET one of your ZOMBIES!”

Congratulations. You read it just right. She ends up with one of her eyes (what color are they anyhow?!?) impaled on a shard of wood in the most famous scene of the film, and later her abdomen is laid open for a zombie buffet. When Anne, Peter and grief-stricken Brian arrive at Menard’s house, they find a group of room-temperature types chowing down on Paola. The camera pans from face to disgusted face. Hilariously, they all look like they’re going to barf. But they don’t move. I mean, its sickening, but wouldn’t the sight of the reanimated dead instill the “fight or flight” instinct in you, rather than a leisurely “I ate at Arby’s” reaction?

Of course, they all end up trapped in the nasty hospital to fight off the onslaught of active corpses. And, of course, the circular ending: Anne, Peter and Brian manage to escape back to New York, which is now overrun with the living dead: zombies are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (doesn’t that happen everyday?).

Oh, yeah. I moved to Los Angeles from South Bend, Indiana, about six months later, with all my possessions in a Chevrolet Chevette with no floorboard, and was welcomed by the sight of hundreds of “We Are Going To Eat You!” posters all over Wilshire Boulevard featuring ol’ Wormy. I knew I was where I belonged. God bless you, Jerry Gross.

I need to do another Fulci post to finish the story. This one’s plenty long. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope you had fun reading it.

Fulci's "Zombie": An Appreciation

About a year after Romero’s shattering “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) blew my mind, another kind of zombie film arrived at the good ol‘ Niles 31 Drive-In. Despite a cast led by Richard Johnson (“The Haunting”) and Mia Farrow’s kinda sorta lookalike sister Tisa (“Anthropophagus“), I could still tell it was Italian in origin and reminded me more of Jorge Grau’s “Don’t Open the Window” (aka “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue”) than its American counterparts. It also delivered the gore galore, featured an underwater zombie attacking a shark, and put a previously unrecognized director (in America) on the road to splatter stardom.

The Italians were always quick to cash in on popular American sci-fi/horror films, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. “Alien” became “Alien Contamination”; “The Exorcist” inspired “Beyond the Door,” “Eerie Midnight Horror Show” (gee, what’s that supposed to remind you of?), and my favorite, “The Tempter” aka “The Antichrist.” “Zombie” is actually known as “Zombi II” in Italy, because “Dawn of the Dead” was called “Zombi” and was specially recut for Italian audiences by Dario Argento.

Lucio Fulci was a workaday director who helmed films in all kinds of genres from the 50s to the 70s: spy movies, spaghetti westerns, giallos. He even made a comedy called “The Maniacs” with Barbara Steele! Some of his early pics have violent scenes (like a cruel sequence with a character falling off a cliff, featuring a close-up of his face being torn away by rocks again and again and again, repeated in two of his films) that would become more prevalent in his post-”Zombie” work.

Some of his notable earlier work: “Don’t Torture the Duckling” (1972) tells the story of a small village torn apart by a rash of child murders (I think it’s actually his best, most virulently anti-religion and—most personal,—film) ; “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) is a giallo made to cash in Argento’s”Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1969) whose most notable aspect is a graphic scene of vivisected dogs that was deemed so realistic that Fulci and his special effects director, Carlo Rambaldi (“E.T.”), had to go to court to prove that they were fake. Then he was hired to do a cannibal zombie film to cash in on the success of “Dawn of the Dead,” and the rest is history.

“Zombie” hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure, “Dawn” was graphic and extreme, but the zombies were obviously reg’lar people with purple makeup and there was something pink and artificial about the entrails on display. “Zombie,” on the other hand, projected a disturbing sense of disease and decay that even hilarious dubbing can’t completely eliminate. One character pronounces the word Conquistadore as “Con-quee-sta-dor-ay” numerous times, but when one of them rises up out of the ground with worms dangling from his eye socket and rips out a girl’s throat, the laughs kind of stop.

Man—these zombies are decayed! Shuffling, taking their time, they seem to be oozing an infectious putrescence. And, boy, does Fulci (and his SE guy, Gianetto DeRossi, who he would keep for the rest of his career) emphasize the rot! The first zombie, found by unlucky patrolmen on a boat in the harbor of New York, bursts out of a hold filled with decayed food, decayed bodies and worms playing “Chopsticks” on the piano (yes, there’s piano on the boat; it’s not the QEII either, just a regular four-person yacht). As the obese zom goes for a patrolman’s throat, he defensively rips at its face, only to pull away a handful of wormy goo.

Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) arrives on the scene, as the boat had belonged to her father, who’d been missing at sea for months. Reporter Peter West (Ian Mcullough) pops up and together they hit the briny to retrace her father’s route. It leads to an island called Matul. Yes, pronounced like “My tool.” I showed the Media Blasters unedited DVD to friends last Halloween, encouraging them to “MST3K” the film and work the name of the island into their comments as frequently and as obscenely as possible. Elise won.

Anyhow, Matul, which is larger than expected (HA!) is infected by a plague. All the recently dead have been popping up and running (well, shuffling) around town. The locals think it’s voodoo, but the veddy English Dr. Menard, who’s been using the island as his own personal concentration camp, complete with freaky experiments, knows better.

Now, the aforementioned Richard Johnson, who was the priest in “Beyond the Door” (link!), plays Dr. Menard in all of his sweat-popping glory. He knows the only way to stop the living dead is to shoot them in the head, which brings me to my only complaint about the gore effects. In his disgustingly filthy hospital (nicely realized), when the sheeted dead begin to rise, he plugs them in the head. Unfortunately, it looks like intestines come bouncing out of the bullet wounds.

Anne and Peter, meanwhile, hitch a ride with two nautical free spirits, Brian and Susan, on their yacht to the island. You can tell they’re free spirits because Susan whips off her top and goes skin diving while Brian eats beef jerky and pays no attention. Peter leers and you can tell he is thinking about “Matul,” or his tool. Anne has decided that Peter is now her boyfriend (why?) and looks on angrily. Everything takes a turn for the worse when Susan comes up out of the water and shiveringly declares that there’s “a man down there.” Now that’s pretty cool. This leads to an underwater attack by the living dead and Sushi with a shark!

I gotta say, even with the hilarious dubbing, Susan still manages to engender sympathy. When the aforementioned “con-sta-dor-ay” rises up and rips out her throat, you feel bad. Plus the actress portraying her (Auretta Gay) does a really good job of doing the “so scared you can’t move” expression. Sweating, sloe-eyed, she can only watch with a chilled passiveness as the huge creature rises up out of the ground and rips out her throat. Later, when she’s reanimated as a zom, she looks more sad than hungry as she lunges at Brian and tears into his esophagus. Of course, she must be killed again, and you feel really desolate.

Fabio Frizzi’s score (which grows in stature each year IMO) perfectly plays up the emotion. The “thump thump thump” march that Frizzi devised perfectly encapsulates the inexorable finality of what’s happening on the island. It’s great. By the way, for those familiar with the score, Frizzi did the “thump thump thump” sound by tapping on a microphone with his finger. So much for high tech.

Menard’s wife, Paola, played by the extremely exotic Olga Karlatos (who can be seen in such wildly varied films as “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Purple Rain”) has the best line. I encourage you to recreate it. Say the following as if you’ve got laryngitis but are being punched in the stomach every other word:

“You WON’T be HAPPY until I MEET one of your ZOMBIES!”

Congratulations. You read it just right. She ends up with one of her eyes (what color are they anyhow?!?) impaled on a shard of wood in the most famous scene of the film, and later her abdomen is laid open for a zombie buffet. When Anne, Peter and grief-stricken Brian arrive at Menard’s house, they find a group of room-temperature types chowing down on Paola. The camera pans from face to disgusted face. Hilariously, they all look like they’re going to barf. But they don’t move. I mean, its sickening, but wouldn’t the sight of the reanimated dead instill the “fight or flight” instinct in you, rather than a leisurely “I ate at Arby’s” reaction?

Of course, they all end up trapped in the nasty hospital to fight off the onslaught of active corpses. And, of course, the circular ending: Anne, Peter and Brian manage to escape back to New York, which is now overrun with the living dead: zombies are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (doesn’t that happen everyday?).

Oh, yeah. I moved to Los Angeles from South Bend, Indiana, about six months later, with all my possessions in a Chevrolet Chevette with no floorboard, and was welcomed by the sight of hundreds of “We Are Going To Eat You!” posters all over Wilshire Boulevard featuring ol’ Wormy. I knew I was where I belonged. God bless you, Jerry Gross.

I need to do another Fulci post to finish the story. This one’s plenty long. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope you had fun reading it.

Enough with the Remakes Already

Yesterday as I was leaving the theater, having just watched the remake of “Last House on the Left,” I saw a poster for a film called “House,” and I was relieved to see that it wasn’t a remake of the 1986 film with William Katt and George Wendt but actually a new story. In these days of remake-a-mania, it came as something of a surprise. Is it at last an indication that we’re starting to move on? Horror remakes as a rule have a pretty low batting average of success or of bringing something new to the table. Remember the TV remakes of “Salem’s Lot,” “Carrie” and “The Shining”? Yecchh. Each of the original films grows in stature with every passing year and remain just as enjoyable as when they were first released, but the remakes are just execrable.

An important thing to remember is that many of the originals serve as valuable time capsules for the sociopolitical environments that existed when they were released and inspired their creation. This is an element that cannot be updated or looked back on with fond nostalgia. Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead,” for example, was a raw, uncompromising attack on the Vietnam war, racism and an ineffective government. Tom Savini’s 1990 remake wisely skirted these issues and concentrated on presenting a nihilistic depiction of civilization being consumed by itself.

The original “Last House on the Left” was made when America was being truly torn apart by the political and cultural environment. In 1972, when the film was released, the country was still bogged down in the war in Vietnam and the Summer of Love had soured into a bitter, jaded, drug-induced nightmare. The “free spirits” depicted here were morally bankrupt drifters out for far more extreme kicks than wearing flowers in their hair.

The nightmare begins when their world merges with that of the two young female protagonists who are out for an evening of fun in the city. What follows is an uncompromising descent into torture, rape, murder and revenge. Certainly, the film is rough in spots and has some inappropriate scenes of comic relief, but it succeeds mightily in its intent — to show the destruction of youth and innocence. A key scene arrives when the killers, having gotten their “kicks,” come to the realization that they can’t take back what they’ve done, just as the audience is experiencing the same dreadful sensation. It’s a film you can’t wash off after you’ve seen it.

The remake, in contrast, takes essentially the same story, but it has nothing on its mind but setting up sadistic setpieces. It’s merely a stalk and kill operation, completely predictable throughout its entire 109 minutes (which is far longer than the original). It’s adequately made, but it’s just not necessary.

The worst remake so far this year ( a depressing thought) is “Friday the 13th.” Granted, the original is by no means an untouchable masterpiece, but it was good cheesy fun to watch at the drive-in. The remake, on the other hand, runs on at an interminable length and is technically a re-do of one of the sequels, since the adult Jason doesn’t appear in the series until “Part II.” At least the original had Betsy Palmer’s hilarious scenery-chewing performance as Mrs. Voorhees, a very young Kevin Bacon getting a spear through the throat and hilarious 1980s clothing and hairstyles. The remake limply offers up the usual cast of equal opportunity douchebags and kittenish bimbos consuming mass quantities of drugs and alcohol until it’s time for them to be bumped off.

Instead of a malformed, murderous spectre, Jason has been transformed into a somewhat intelligent, resourceful (but mortal) backwoods survivalist/murderer. It makes his motivation for killing even more unclear. And speaking of killings, the film doesn’t even get that right. In these days of “torture porn” and movies so graphically violent it’s amazing they get “R” ratings (i.e., the lousy, overpraised “Hostel” series), the filmmakers are amazingly conservative when it comes to bloodletting. Director Marcus Nispel is no stranger to remakes — he helmed the new “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” a few years back, and it wasn’t too bad, but this one sinks straight to the bottom of Camp Crystal Lake.

Zack Snyder’s 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” was a worthwhile remake, but it was really a “revisualization” of the original. Again, unable to pick up on the blistering satire of 1970s consumerism that drove the first film, it concentrated instead on intense action and violence — and succeeded very well. “My Bloody Valentine 3D” was such a hoot to watch in the RealD process I can’t compare it to the original, but I suspect in 2D it would be fairly routine. I didn’t bother with the 3D remake of “Night of the Living Dead” because it gave me the stinker vibe right out of the gate.

What is allegedly coming down the pipeline is truly worrisome. “Suspiria“? “Rosemary’s Baby”? Again, the original “Baby” is such a perfect time capsule of 1960s Manhattan any kind of remake is ridiculous. Hey, guys — remember “The Omen” remake? Gus Van Sant’s ungodly “Psycho”? And how could you possibly remake “Suspiria“? Argento can’t even do it. Last year’s highly anticipated conclusion to the “Three Mothers” trilogy, “Mother of Tears,” was absurd in the extreme.

What worries me most about remake-a-mania is that the new generation of horror lovers won’t even be aware that the originals exist and will accept the remakes as the only versions available. They’re missing out on some valuable cultural history — and some fun scares, too!