Conquest (1983)

Lucio Fulci is a divisive figure: either you worship every movie the man ever made or lent his name to — ignoring continuity errors, bad dubbing, dealing with multiple cuts and names of his films, all while explaining away ridiculous moments like a man patiently waiting for spiders to slowly eat his fake face — and mention how much his surrealist approach points to him as more auteur than simple director. Or you think he’s a hack, making the same movie again and again — woman hating paeans to gore, decimated eyeballs, slow motion zombies, gore, glacial plots and oh yes, more gore. I’m not going to change your mind, but I will say that I tend to be more in the “Fulci lives!” t-shirt wearing army that owns multiple versions of his films and can (and will) talk your ear off about how awesome The Beyond is.

This article isn’t about any of that.

Beyond mediations on the witches that really run the world and zombies treating humanity as a never-ending buffet, my love of Italian horror — nay, Italian exploitation film — rests on its ability to shamelessly rip off other films. According to the liner notes of the 2010 DVD reissue of Zombie 2, Italian copyright law allows any film to be marketed as a sequel to another work. Therefore, any major trend in horror or sci-fi will be answered by an insane amount of spaghetti remakes. Most of these films would be a splinter into the eye of a normal person (Olga Karlatos, eat your heart out). But these celluloid copycats are my bread and butter. I blame a childhood of waiting for more Star Wars and being “rewarded” with Star Crash (part of the greatest double drive-in bill I’ve ever seen with Battle Beyond the Stars), a movie that I endlessly daydreamed about when I really should have been paying attention in grade school.

To wit: 1982’s Conan the Barbarian was a huge hit worldwide to the tune of nearly $69 million dollars, leading to a horde of Italian imitators: Joe D’Amoto’s Ator, the Fighting Eagle; Umberto Lenzi’s Iron Master; Antonio Margheriti’s Yor, the Hunter from the Future (you just knew I was going to bring up Yor and his fine meats, right?) and so many more, as well as American cousins such as Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer (starring Lee Horsely of TV’s Matt Houston) and Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster. That’s but a sprinkle of the veritable ocean of barbarian rip-offs out there that you could dip your toe into. But we’re here to talk Fulci’s take on the whole sword and loincloth subgenre.

Conquest comes at a crossroads in Fulci’s life. After six years of working with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti — a collaboration that led to the golden (err, red is a better color to use here) era of his films, like Zombie 2, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, New York Ripper, Manhattan Baby and House by the Cemetery, a murder’s row of, well, movies about murder — Fulci unexpectedly went off on his own to create this film. For some reason, it was believed that this would be a big budget production and Sacchetti felt betrayed (their relationship would worsen with lawsuits and recriminations forever dividing them). The failure of Conquest would hasten not only the decline of Fulci’s career, which would see him lending his name to films that he hadn’t even worked on (the jury is out, but it seems for all intents and purposes he was a bloody version of Dali, wily nily signing his name onto any project that’d float him some cash) and facing worsening health.

Perhaps Fulci was battling the criticism that his films were becoming repetitive. Maybe he saw the film as his chance at the big time, as one of the reasons why this was funded was to push Mexican matinee idol Jorge Rivero to be a bigger star. Perhaps he wanted to try something different.

Keep in mind that while the rest of the world had just woken up to the potential of sword and sorcery films, the Italians had been cooking up these films for years — witness the myriad Hercules films. And even when blatantly ripping off a film, like Dawn of the Dead insta-sequel Zombie 2, Fulci will subvert expectations and make something perhaps even more watchable. And strange. And often, a movie that makes little or no sense if you’re looking for a traditional narrative structure. In an interview with Starburst in 1982, Fulci said of The Beyond, “It’s a plotless film: a house, people, and dead men coming from The Beyond. There’s no logic to it, just a succession of images. People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection. They say it is very difficult to interpret such a film, but it is very easy to interpret a film with threads: any idiot can understand Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles, or even Carpenter’s Escape from New York, while The Beyond or Argento’s Inferno are absolute films.”

Fulci’s films increasingly betrayed a similarity to avant-garde playwright Antonin Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty. An offshoot of the surrealist movement — later taken further by Luis Buñuel and the Panic Movement collective of Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor — this style of theater seeks to assault the audience’s senses, freeing their subconscious to feel emotions that it has left unexpressed. Relatedly, this means that the action on screen doesn’t have to follow any set narrative flow, just be shocking.

Again — depending on your Fulci POV — this can be seen as devotion to higher art or wretched excess making up for lack of talent.

What happens when you pour all of these elements, including a potential big budget reimagining/legally protected sequel to a film (that it is blatantly stealing from) made by a director that constantly challenges not only the genre of film he is making but often the reality that his audience experiences it within — and unleash it onto the screen? Glad you asked.

Conquest is either the worst film you’ve ever watched or a batshit insane descent into mythical archetypes. There can be no middle ground.

We open on a double projection as figures appear from nowhere. Our hero, Ilias, is starting the hero’s journey, which begins with leaving behind the life and family he knows and embracing the unknown. A god, Chronos, gives him a magic bow to announce that Ilias has become a man and the credits kick in.

Your first reminder that this is a true Fulci film arrives abruptly — werewolf-like monsters attack a village and tear a woman in half. In any other film, this would be off camera or in shadow, but here, we see limbs severed, arterial sprays of blood and a torn off head being cut open so that our villain, Ocron, can sip from the brains and have a vision. Have I mentioned that Ocron is nude the entire movie, save for panties and a sexy Destro-style mask?

In her vision, she learns that a man with a magical bow will rise up and destroy her, ala Herod in the Bible being warned of Jesus’ coming or Cronus eating all of his children so that they wouldn’t kill him. Her werewolves attack Ilius, who barely puts up a fight, before being saved by Mace.

Mace is pretty much the most awesome barbarian hero of all time — he has concrete nunchuks, long hair, wears animal skins, can speak to animals like Marc Singer and has the mark of Eibon from The Beyond on his forehead. He takes Ilius along on a quest, which mainly consists of walking, fighting werewolves, walking, shooting old men who are carrying goats, getting laid by cave women who dress like Daryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear three years before that movie came out, getting their asses kicked, more walking and strong, manly handshakes. Oh yeah — there’s also a sexy eating scene that seems really close to Tom Jones, but everyone is either a cave person, a barbarian or dressing like Perseus.

This is that kind of film — like playing with a child who may be insane and doesn’t care that all of the toys that he is playing with are different scales and sizes, so He-Man can be friends with Snake Eyes and they can all pick up and carry Hot Wheels while a train set almost hits everyone. Movie after movie is tossed into the mix — Quest for Fire, Fulci’s zombie oeuvre, Clash of the Titans — until you’re left with a movie that just seems to jump cut from scene to scene, all with another insane idea around the bend.

Arrows that can turn into lightning and blast all around the screen? Check.

Mace battling a duplicate of himself in a fight so strangely edited that even the viewer has no idea who is good and who is evil? Check.

A white wolf who becomes an evil god named Zora who pledges to kill everyone if he gets to have sex and own the soul — in that order — of Ocron? Check.

Crucifying Mace ala Conan, then kicking the cross into the water where he’s saved by friendly dolphins that recalls the director’s earlier bonkers zombie vs. shark battle? Check.

If you don’t want to be shocked by how crazy this film can get and want to experience it for yourself, please stop reading now, because Fulci packed a doozy into this one.

After coming back to save Mace, Ilias gets killed off-screen and beheaded. Yep. The main hero of the movie gets his head chopped off, then burned in a funeral pyre scene that lasts forever, until Mace takes his ashes and covers himself in them, mumbling, “Revenge. Revenge.” This is NOT what Joseph Campbell had in mind on that whole Hero’s Journey, right?

Mace gets that revenge — killing everyone he can with the bow, until using it to blast off Ocron’s mask, revealing that her face looks like a Basil Wolverton drawing. She dies, transforming into a wolf, at which point she meets the Zora wolf and they run off into the Mexican desert. Mace walks away, alone again. Cue the Goblin music — or at least Claudio Simonetti.

I sat on my couch, jaw dropped, at the end of this film. There are parts where you’ll question how Fulci ever learned how to be a director. And moments where his brilliance smashes you in the brain as if a naked witch was about to get high off your frontal lobe. You’ll wonder — is this a remastered DVD or a poor badly dubbed tenth generation VHS tape, because things just keep fading out and I can’t make out what’s on the screen. You’ll ponder just how many smoke machines it took to make a movie like this, one that makes Antonio Bay look like the clearest of all blue skies.

Above all else, you will not ever seen this as a ripoff of Conan the Barbarian. It’s just too out there and too off. For all the narrative purists that pull at the cloak of Fulci, I’ll give advice that none of them will give you: watch this movie with beer and weed close by. It will allow the on-screen fog to penetrate your physical world. Only watch this either very early in the morning, just before the sun rises, or so late that there isn’t another soul awake. And if you have furs or a loincloth, put it on. Embrace Conquest as the ridiculous piece of entertainment that it was meant to be. You can’t make stuff like this up. And they don’t make ‘em like this any more.

Originally written for Drive-In Asylum #9, where I made the typo of calling Joseph Campbell Joseph Conrad. Please buy the print copy of the zine now at https://www.etsy.com/listing/526525656/drive-in-asylum-issue-8-july-2017?ref=shop_home_feat_1

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