Zombie versus Shark

Now the swimmer and the female shark saved by him confront each other. For minutes they stare fixedly into each other’s eyes. They swim circling, keeping each other in sight, and each thinking: “I was wrong all along. Here is one more evil than I.” Then in unison they glided underwater towards each other, in mutual admiration, the female shark slitting open the waves with her fins, Maldoror’s arms thrashing the water; and they held their breaths, in deepest reverence, each one anxious to gaze for the first time upon his living image. Effortlessly, at only three yards apart, they suddenly fell upon one another like two magnets, in an embrace of dignity and gratitude, clasping each other tenderly as brother and sister. Carnal desire soon followed this display of affection. Like two leeches, a pair of nervous thighs gripped tightly against the monster’s viscous flesh, and arms and fins wrapped around the objects of their desire, surrounding their bodies with love, while their breasts and bellies soon fused into one bluish-green mass reeking of sea-wrack, in the midst of the tempest still raging by the light of lightning; with the foamy waves for a wedding bed, borne on an undersea current as if in a cradle, rolling and rolling down into the bottomless ocean depths, they came together in a long, chaste, and hideous mating! –Comte de Lautreamont, Les Chants de Maldoror, 1868

With Lucio Fulci’s knowledge of art, literature, and critical theory, as well as his obvious keen intelligence, I cannot help but imagine this passage inspired the infamous Zombie Versus Shark scene in Zombi 2. It’s easy to forget–or to never know–that Fulci was not simply a third rate filmmaker. Knowing that he began as a critic and a screenwriter, that he attended Rome’s Experimental Film Center and studied under luminaries such as Visconti and Antionini, his familiarity and interest in Surrealism and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and understanding “pure cinema” adds a critical foundation to comprehending his work as a writer and director. Too often I see his work derided as having “no plot,” or being too “slow,” or not having “good characters.” Or he’s dismissed as being “ridiculous,” “lame,” or “just” a gorehound, a grindhouse/exploitation director, out for a buck (“willing to do anything for a lira”). It makes me mental–though I won’t deny that he was certainly out to make a buck much of the time. Like many of the more familiar Italian directors, Fulci was what you might call a “working director,” meaning he took jobs to support himself–and importantly, his family. Sergio Martino, Sergio Corbucci, Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, Umberto Lenzi: they all had to do it at one time or another, or even for most of their careers, hence the often checkered oeuvres, spanning the popular Italian genres, under these names. It’s worth noting, that of the familiar working directors, only Bava is usually considered an auteur (and have you SEEN Dr Goldfoot and the Girlbombs???). Dario Argento on the other hand, is always reckoned an auteur, and thanks to generous financial support in his early career has been able to pick and choose what projects to be involved with–note the disparity. Martino has gone on record as saying that he never cared too much about what kind of movies he was asked to do: “[He] just tried to leave his mark on whatever project people asked [him] to do and were willing to throw money at.” We can apply that to Fulci, who left his signature on films as diverse as sex comedies (The Eroticist), gialli (A Lizard in a Woman’s SkinDon’t Torture a DucklingOne on Top of the Other, Seven Notes in Black), horror (The BeyondThe House by the CemeteryThe Gates of Hell), Westerns (Massacre TimeFour of the Apocalypse), adventure yarns (White Fang), and many more. (For my money, one of his best works is the too-little seen historical  Beatrice Cenci, an adaptation of Shelley by way of Artaud. It’s one of the most brutal, yet beautiful, films I have ever seen.) But I digress.  I am here not to defend Fulci, but to praise him–and wish him a happy birthday. I only wish he could have many happy returns, but I suspect he is happier now. If anything, Lucio Fulci was an artist when it came to visual stylings–no mere artisan–who sought to transcend conventional cinema and to articulate the horror that surrounds us daily. He drew upon a repertoire of critical and philosophical knowledge, a vast body of art and literature, even modern psychoanalysis, and used a mythic approach to create oneiric images of human misery and despair on celluloid. What others see as plotholes or lapses in judgement are usually just the visible underpinnings of his work. They are often deliberate. The lack of structure, the jettisoning of conventional narrative form are absolutely deliberate. If anything, his great appreciation for the cosmic absurdity of our lives enhanced his films for the astute viewer. However, some find it difficult to appreciate his artistry. Consider this a (very) brief primer, if you will, for approaching Fulci’s work:

NARRATIVE IS MEANINGLESS
FORGET PLOT FORGET LOGIC
PACE IS UNIMPORTANT
EMBRACE AMBIGUITY
SIMPLY EXPERIENCE THE IMAGES
EXPECT INNERVATION, SUFFERING, TORMENT, AND DESPAIR
FILM AS PURE THEME, NOT STORY
EXPECT A BARRAGE OF IMAGES AND SPLANCHNIC SENSATIONS

If you can see your way to accepting such concepts, then appreciating the pure, visceral nature of Fulci’s work may be easier.

For more Maldoror.

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5 thoughts on “Zombie versus Shark

  1. A nice tribute. I stumbled by this blog while looking at Lucio tributes on twitter. I am prepared to defend Fulci however and would pretty much reject your entire primer. I am sure you have seen far more Fulci than the brief flurry of pure-horror in the early 80s and indeed the films that followed in its wake that attempted to capture this former glory. However you have to remember that for at least half his career he was a director of comedy, he made family westerns, historic drama and so on. None would really fit within this primer. I would suggest instead, if I may be so bold, to look at things such as naturalistic lighting, the close up of eyes to convey emotion or ambiguity and the use of hard focus and zooms as more typical Lucio Fulci signatures. Incidentally, while there are themes to which he returned time and again- clerical criticism for example, there are few things that can be pointed to as evidence as auteurship.

    You primer however does, perfectly, capture his 80s collaborations around the early 1980s and as such will cover the films that most are likely to seek out first whereas of course unlikely to be less relevant to those who seek to delve a little deeper.

    I have added you to my blogroll. Always like to promote and give linkage to those who show love for the Italian filone.

    • I probably should have specified (and I may go back and edit accordingly) that the “primer” was largely aimed at horror fans approaching Fulci’s de Angelis collaborations, the pure-horror films, which like you said are usually the first to be sought out. (Because it tends to be on horror forums, or in horror reviews that I see such complaints.) But looking at earlier films from his middle period (Golden period?), from say 1966’s Tempo di Massacro and 1969’s Beatrice Cenci, through his gialli and Sette Notte in Nero, I absolutely see thematic similarities, not just consistent style, and a definite inclination toward pure cinema. And I in no way take your suggestion amiss; I take a totally casual (read: lazy), response-oriented approach to reviews rather than using the usual textual tools for criticism or analysis.

      And thank you so much, for the comment and the linkage–it’s very kind, and of course we will reciprocate.

      • I am really pleased that you describe the mid sixties – seventies as the Fulci golden period! That is a view I certainly share. Lucio certainly was on top of his game. Speaking of thematic connections throughout Lucio’s work in his debut I ladri we get “good” villains, sort of characters who we are led to believe commit crime because they have to- economic circumstances, in this is instance I wondered this theme was borrowed from The Bicycle Thief. But anyhow a lot of the themes of this film were returned to in Fulci’s Contraband and the character of Luca, a film that also has a similar moral stance to I ladri.

        Looking for an overarching theme it seems compulsion figures heavily. Criminals are compelled to behave in the way they do! In How We Robbed The Bank of Italy it seems as though the criminals are making a choice. But here Franco and Ciccio are from a long line of generations of criminals, they may be inept but feel compelled to carry on the family trade- their history and family convention weighing upon them, While the results and reasons may be different we see compulsion of all sorts in New York Ripper, in Touch of Death, in The Eroticist, Don’t Torture the Duckling. Sure there are characters who on first appearances choose crime but we tend to learn enough about these too to conclude they cannot help themselves. Fulci I feel is not here excusing criminals as such. He is not saying that just because Lester Parsons is compelled to behave how he is that somehow he should be free. But with Luca, with the suggestion of the benefits of smuggling to the local economy, he possibly is saying that. This I feel is more of an indictment of the state and enterprise. The poor, abandoned, build an informal economy of which Luca is an active player. Sort of a Robin Hood if Robin Hood had been an adherent of any economic theory that had trickle down economics as it’s basis.

        Then of course there is the more familiar themes of body trauma and death, his take on death an interesting one as in The Beyond he sort of pulls back the curtain to reveal a place of peace which could open up all sorts of questions. It is a death that I have personally considered to be one that provided a template for almost all his subsequent work.

        The themes of corruption and incompetence in high office, in state and church- tons of examples! Most of obvious The Eroticist but it is commonish thread. As is the challenge to authority from the little guy- think Franco and Ciccio in How We Cheated the Army for example, but there are tons more.

        If gone off on tangents here but I think I am getting at there are themes to which he seemed to dip into, leave and return to. Some going right back to the beginning and while not as obvious as say Damiani or Di Leo there is a strong Marxian current there too. Even his depiction of death challenges the Catholic orthodoxy and as such one of the pillars of the Italian state. He was a true subversive and I absolutely adore the work of Fulci.

        Stylistically there is even more consistency, you easily recongnise a Fulci. Some things are hard to put the finger on- certainly the use of lighting, but also the choice of shot, making the familiar seem less so and somewhat askew. I feel it began with a dreamy jazz club sequence in I ladri but developed throughout his career. Whatever it is specifically you know you it when are watching a Fulci!

        I watched Zombie Flesh Eaters again after reading your review, though it never takes much of a prompting for me to watch a Fulci!

        The reciprocated linkage is much appreciated, grazie.

    • Don’t get me wrong–I adore Bava (and Price, but who doesn’t?), but that movie is just terrible.

      “Sort of a Robin Hood if Robin Hood had been an adherent of any economic theory that had trickle down economics as it’s basis.”

      Hahahahahahaha.

      Frankly, I can’t speak with anywhere near the authority you do because, embarrassingly enough, I haven’t seen anything earlier than Massacre Time. And the only comedy I’ve seen was a copy of The Eroticist sans subs n’ dubs, and my Italian vocabulary is pretty much limited to “ripper,” “black,” “fear,” “seven,” and the like. But from what I have seen, I would largely agree with you, though I think House by the Cemetery also explores his vision of death in some depth.

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