Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Life is far from peaceful": Beatrice Cenci and Lucio Fulci

Lucio Fulci is sort of in a weird place, canonically. Despite his substantial contributions to both giallo and the zombie film, his filmography is marred by too many bad films, and even many of his good later films suffer from narrative problems. Mario Bava gets retrospectives reviewed in the NY Times and his work appropriated by the Beastie Boys. Dario Argento's newest films are still anxiously awaited by horror fans (no matter how poorly executed), and his daughter's acting and directing career has also kept him in the public eye. 

But Fulci? Other than a Blue Underground/Anchor Bay reissue of Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2), some of his most popular works (The Beyond and City of the Living Dead) are out of print on DVD.  Not to mention that his last films, co-written/co-directed by frequent Bruno Mattei collaborator Claudio Fragasso (also the director of the infamous Troll 2) returned to the zombie well one too many time to incredibly diminished results. No wonder the epitaph that seems to stick to him is Tarkovsky's dismissive comment about Zombi 2: "Ghastly; repulsive trash".

I'd almost say, right now, Ruggero Deodato's received more of a critical re-evaluation than Lucio Fulci.

On the other hand, the qualities that make Fulci amazing are the ones obscured by crappy prints and critical blindspots. He strikes me as a pop culture surrealist in the mode of David Lynch, with the same transgressiveness that launches from a deeply conservative worldview.

His films are filled with an obsession with the ways our bodies betray us (the maggots and rotting flesh which fill his zombie cycle, the torture, drunkenness and lust that fill Beatrice Cenci), the self-serving blindness of bureaucrats (Dr. Menard's single-minded obsession with a scientific explanation in Zombi 2, the incompetent police of City of the Living Dead, the manipulative Dr. Boyle and blasphemous Dr. Freudstein in House by the Cemetery) and, most importantly, lives upturned by irrational, inexplicable events, whether human (Francesco Cenci's violence against his daughter, the murders in his giallo), or supernatural (his zombie films).

Fulci's greatest strength lies in his eye for shot composition and his oft-misunderstood use of pacing (the eyeball scene in Zombi 2, for example). He's not a writer's director or an actor's director, and he's often let down by his screenwriters. But like his contemporary Argento and his successor Michele Soavi, he has an ability to direct films that seem like nightmares, which follow their own grotesque dream logic.

Unfortunately, writers prefer to honor writing or acting, because they are concrete elements you can point to assign credit to (I include myself in this assessment). So someone whose work is poorly translated and poorly acted twists in the wind, whatever their merits.

Next post: actually talking about Beatrice Cenci, religion, and body horror for costume drama.