People often ask me in person what would be a good Italian movie to get started on or what giallo they should watch or recommend the movies of a certain director. I’m not an absolute film expert. I do, however, get asked a lot of questions.
I’ve decided to start posting a few of these primers on a certain director or style every few weeks here on our site. My hope is that if you’ve never watched of the films of Fulci or always wanted to, this is a decent start.
If you have seen all his films and — like me — you have a Fulci Lives! patch or shirt, then congrats. Perhaps you’ll go back and explore his catalog as a result. Or maybe you hate his movies. Whatever floats your boat. This is by no means a top ten list. It’s more…an exploration.
What follows is a bio and career overview. If you already know all of this stuff and just want to skip down to the movies, I won’t be sad.
While Fulci is now known as the “Godfather of Gore,” his first true gore movie, 1979’s Zombi came twenty years after he directed his first film, I Ladri, in 1959. Until then, Fulci had been a journeyman working across genres, creating everything from westerns, science fiction and adventure movies to erotica and giallo. He also wrote and/or directed eighteen comedies, many of them starring the famous team of Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia.
The first Fulci film to make it to U.S. shores was 1965’s Oh! Those Most Secret Agents, a movie that was part of the mid-60’s spy craze featuring Franco and Ciccio as two goofy guys mistaken for KGB agents. The films The Brute and the Beast (released as Massacre Time in Italy), The Man Who Killed Billy the Kid, One on Top of the Other and Conspiracy of Torture (otherwise known as Beatrice Cenci) all came out here throughout the rest of that decade.
As Fulci moved into the ’70s, he started to embrace the violence and darkness that he would one day become famous for. This may be because Fulci’s real life was as brutal as any of his films. After learning that she had inoperable cancer, his wife Marine killed herself with an oven. There are also conflicting stories that he had a daughter who either died or was paralyzed in a car accident soon after. Whatever the reason — it could have been as simple as commercialism — Fulci’s films began showing a real mean streak.
For example, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin‘s mutilated dogs were so realistic that Fulci was charged with animal cruelty. Keep in mind this is in Italy, the country where Cannibal Holocaust originated! The director had to bring the props that Carlo Rambaldi created to court to prove his innocence.
Fulci has been branded as a director only concerned with gore. I disagree, as many of his movies really feel like him coming to grips with his Catholic upbringing. The fact that Don’t Torture a Duckling emerged from Italy in the early ’70s is a tribute to his willingness to provoke and speak up against the church while somehow remaining staunchly Catholic.
His true glory years are from 1979 to 1983, four years that saw a blast of horror craziness from Fulci and the pen of screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti. While the U.S. and the UK releases cut their extreme gore (several films have even been so edited down that reels were edited out of sequence), they still created a fan following for Fulci outside of his native country.
After the dissolution of his friendship with Sacchetti and numerous health issues, Fulci’s output suffered. There are still some glimpses of style in his final films, but it’s nowhere near the bravura manic intensity of those four magical years. And it’s hard to watch the movies where he lent his name but not his full talents.
The end of Fulci’s life is not happy. While he was hopefully going to direct Wax Mask, a film to be produced by Dario Argento, he had lost his house and was living in a small apartment. His diabetes had grown worse and several feel that he just let it take its toll before he died in his sleep on March 13, 1996.
There was one glimmer of hope. He made one more trip to the United States in January of 1996 for the Fangoria Horror Convention. In the middle of a blizzard, scores of his fans showed up to greet the man who claimed he had no idea his films were so popular elsewhere in the world.
Whew! That was a lot of info when you came here for a listicle. But I’m certainly devoted to the films of Fulci. Without me droning on any longer, here are ten films to give you an overview of his directing style.
1. Perversion Story (1969): Made one year before Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage created a giallo craze, this crime drama has all the elements that others would soon attribute to that genre. This pop art influenced film screams late 60’s and doesn’t look like anything else Fulci created before or since. Mondo Macabro just released what they’re calling the longest, most complete form of the movie ever released. It’s worth checking out.
2. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971): Released after the giallo rush began, this movie takes a cue from the animal themed naming convention originated by Argento. However, this is Fulci at the helm, not copying or doing anything like anyone else. A woman loses the ability to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Did she have a lesbian affair? Is she a murderess? Does any of this make any sense? I have no answers for those, but I can answer that it’s an interesting work of art.
3. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972): Fulci’s indictment of small-town thinking and the evils of Catholicism was so controversial, it led to this movie having a limited run in Europe and being unreleased in the US until 2000. That’s a shame because it’s one of his best films. Child murders, potential witchcraft, drug bust drama and the beyond gorgeous Barbara Bouchet — this one has it all.
4. The Four of the Apocalypse (1975): Fulci was no stranger to the Western. However, this deconstruction of the form and story of the end of the Wild West is filled with darkness and terror. This film is influenced by Easy Rider, so you should never get comfortable. As soon as something good happens, people are about to be skinned alive.
5. Seven Notes in Black (1977): This giallo/female gothic is the next to last film that Fulci would direct before embracing full-on gore. Here, Jennifer O’Neill plays a woman whose psychic visions implicate her husband in a series of murders. Filled with zooms, POV shots and frenetic camera work, this movie was released in the U.S. as The Psychic and has recently been re-released by on blu ray by Scorpion Releasing.
6. Zombie (1979): We’ve covered this movie not once, but twice. What Romero’s Dawn of the Dead/Zombi started, this film takes forward and goes absolutely bonkers with. In any other film, a woman’s eye would not be pierced like it is here. With any other director, the camera would pull away sooner from zombies devouring the living. Nope. Not here. Not now. This is where Fulci’s full bore gore gonzo finds full flower. Drink it in. Eat it up. Try not to puke. To get the best possible viewing of this film, we recommend grabbing the new Blue Underground blu ray. You can also watch this on Shudder. And don’t forget to check out the Fulci comics at Eibon Press, which are continuing the stories started here! PS – it’s where the art posted above is from!
7. The Gates of Hell trilogy of City of the Living Dead / The Beyond / The House by the Cemetery (1980/1981/1981): This is where Fulci goes completely insane behind the camera. Throughout these three films, we go from some semblance of reality to finally the movies not making any sense at all, pausing to allow graphic depictions of carnage to last for long stretches of time. By the end of The Beyond, not even time and space have any meaning any longer. These are Fulci’s biggest contributions to horror in many eyes and they’re wild spectacles that demand to be experienced. You can watch all three films on Shudder.
8. The New York Ripper (1982): Imagine watching Law and Order SVU and the camera never cutting away from the depravity, but instead wallowing in it. That gives only the slightest hint at just how upsetting this movie is. Fulci is let loose in New York City and unafraid to show off just how bad humanity has become by the end of the 20th century. I’m always obsessed with the fact that this is the second Fulci film where Donald Duck directly is involved with a series of horrific murders. Seriously: if any of the above movies grossed you out, you are not ready for this one.
9. Conquest (1983): We’ve watched over twenty-five sword and sorcery movies this year. No really, check out this list. Or our Letterboxd list. After all that, I can honestly tell you that not a single one of them approaches the lunacy of this movie, which is shot inside fog, has a villainess who is nude for the entire film, kills off its hero way before the end and starts with werewolves ripping someone in half. It’s also the film that destroyed the Fulci/Sacchetti team, but part of me wonders if it was worth it to capture this…whatever this movie is.
It’s really hard to pick the tenth movie, to be honest. Do I pick a Fulci sex comedy that is hard for people to find? How about another western? Or perhaps his last kinda sorta giallo, Murder Rock? I really don’t want to put you through Touch of Death or Voices from Beyond. And I might be the only person on Earth who loves Manhattan Baby and, to a lesser extent, Aenigma. Choices, people. Choices.
10. The Devil’s Honey (1986): Fulci’s comeback after being sick for a year with hepatitis, this movie is…well, it’s as strange as you would hope it would be. Fulci shows up as a jewelry salesman in a movie that I can’t even categorize. I can tell you that it has a tragic sex scene on a motorcycle, as well as a scene where a man uses red nail polish sexually on his mistress and another where a man uses a saxophone in a carnal way that I don’t believe is possible. If you read all that and said, “I need to see this,” I want to be your friend. And as friends, I will point you to the fine people of Severin who released an uncut version of this last year.
Want to read even more about Fulci? We’ve linked several of the other articles we’ve written throughout this article. You can also read our Letterboxd list of Fulci films!