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The Boston Phoenix Going "Beyond"

The nightmare cinema of Lucio Fulci.

By Gerald Peary

JUNE 15, 1998:  Apart from advanced splatter-movie geeks, few in America are familiar with the blood-drenched horror cinema of Lucio Fulci, whose 1981 The Beyond (L'aldilà; a/k/a 7 Doors of Death) plays midnight June 12 and 13 at the Coolidge Corner. His acolytes, however, regard Fulci as one of Italy's three masters of the supernatural, along with Dario (Suspiria) Argento and Mario (Black Sunday) Bava.

In such films as Zombie, The New York Ripper, and Don't Torture the Duckling, Fulci combines the enterprising low-budget storytelling of Roger Corman with the grisly, gushing-wound acumen of George Romero -- Dawn of the Dead and way beyond. He also throws in an enthusiastic, obsessive Marquis de Sade cruelty. There are more ways to slit a throat than you can imagine, more ways to gouge an eyeball -- and you'll see them all when enmeshed in the oeuvre of Lucio Fulci. Not for everybody, this medical-student-turned-goremaker, who died of diabetic shock in 1996.

Much of his stuff is available at weirdo video outlets. There's a mini-Fulci section at Harvard Square's Pipeline Records, and I could have spent a jubilant Fulci month with the many movies of his at Video Oasis Ltd. in East Cambridge, near Lechmere. Instead, I watched, for background, three recommended ones.

First up: The Gates of Hell (1981). Incomprehensible borrowings from H.P. Lovecraft -- the town of Dunwich, the frightening, ancient "Book of Enoch" -- uncomfortably grafted onto a New York-set smart-ass detective mystery. Plus there's an unstuck-in-time priest on a hangrope who pops into the movie whenever, always causing havoc. It's all dumb and incoherent, but with two unforgettable nightmare scenes. In the first, the priest gives a young woman in a car a hypnotic evil eye, until her own bloodied eyes pop out of their sockets and she vomits up her intestinal tract. The second is on a par with Hitchcock: a man standing in a green cemetery on a beautiful day hears, perhaps, some dim, faraway noises. Cut to inside a blue-lit grave, where a buried-alive woman is scratching away at her tomb, screaming up into the dirt.

Next, The House by the Cemetery (1982). Roman interiors, Massachusetts exteriors. A professor rents a 19th-century house and puts his wife and child there while he does research. Unfortunately, he didn't see the prologue to this movie, where in this very same Victorian abode a nice young lady gets a knife through the back of her head (it protrudes through her mouth) and it's revealed that a certain Dr. Freudstein once resided there, a man with "a penchant for illegal experiments." The film has nice spooky music, but it's a rather primitive picture, with Fulci showing little more than a talent for gruesome knifings. The wife hires people she shouldn't, like a walking-dead babysitter for her boy. There's a fairly chilling ending involving a zombie infested with maggots.

Finally, Nightmare Concert, a/k/a A Cat in the Brain (1990). Here's the Fulci movie I'd revive, because it has a resonance beyond its bloodbucket imagery. The director stars as himself, Lucio Fulci, an increasingly deranged horror director who's becoming totally bonkers in the midst of filmmaking -- "Eraserhead made by an old man," Fulci once described it. He shows his typical day at Cinecittà, the Roman studio where Fellini also filmed. In the morning, Fulci shoots the saga of a contemporary-day cannibal who makes a steak and hamburger out of a cadaver. Then Fulci breaks for lunch, and he almost throws up when the waiter at a stuffy restaurant brings over the daily special, steak tartare.

During the afternoon's shooting, Fulci really goes crazy. He shows close-ups of himself directing a throat slitting. "Kill her! Slap her! Like it! Enjoy it!" he screams, oozing vicarious homicidal pleasure. It's a courageous, revelatory scene, maybe what would have been exposed if the camera had ever spun to let us watch, say, Brian De Palma, or old Alfred himself.

Which brings me at last to The Beyond. I congratulate the Coolidge for stretching out to show what many consider Fulci's greatest movie. But next to Nightmare Concert, I found The Beyond mostly dull, awkwardly made, and unoriginal. "Twenty-five years ago . . . critics called my art 'shit,' " Fulci wryly observed. "Now critics want to call my shit 'art.' " The Beyond is yet another genre tale of an inherited estate (this one a hotel in the Louisiana bayou) with bad vibes from the past. The extraordinarily violent prologue shows all: in 1927, a man is hatcheted, crucified, his face melted away. "You ungodly warlock," shout his murderers. The hotel, it turns out, sits upon one of the Seven Gates to Hell.

In the 1980s, as the hotel is being restored by its female yuppie owner, the Inferno breaks loose, with various workmen getting killed in variously hideous ways. Forget characterization or a scary story. The payoffs in The Beyond are brief moments of extreme bloodshed: a German shepherd attacking its blind owner, an army of tarantulas eating a human face.

No, Lucio Fulci is not for everybody.

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