Pelican’s Trevor de Brauw on the Horror Films of Lucio Fulci | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Guest Analysis: Pelican’s Trevor de Brauw on the Horror Films of Lucio Fulci

Breaking Down Six of the Horror Master's Films

Oct 31, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


In his four decades of filmmaking, Lucio Fulci created a body of work that established his legacy as one of Italy’s masters of horror. Among euro cult and horror fans, Fulci’s best films are held in the same regard as those of directors Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

Getting his start in the late 1950s with comedies and spaghetti westerns, Fulci eventually moved into the realm of giallos – an Italian horror subgenre that shares elements with the American slasher film – and eventually, the more surreal and supernatural style of horror that became his trademark. Fulci is most famous – or, at least, notorious – for his heavy use of realistic (and disgusting) gore effects, which are on best display in the director’s zombie films of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

We put in a call to Trevor de Brauw, guitarist for the instrumental metal band Pelican and a Lucio Fulci connoisseur, to discuss the late maestro’s work. Over the course of an hour, we looked at six of the director’s better-known films, including Zombi 2, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, House By the Cemetery, A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, and Don’t Torture A Duckling. You can read our discussion below.

[WARNING: There are hyperlinks within the text below that will take you to screencaps and video clips. Some contain nudity, while most contain stomach-churning gore; all should probably be considered NSFW. Any embedded videos should be fine, but click through any links at your own discretion—preferably, not while you’re eating.]

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Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You wrote your college thesis on Lucio Fulci. What was your major?

Trevor de Brauw: My major was communications with a concentration in media studies.

What was the basic gist of your thesis paper?  

It was so long ago now, and I’m so not focused on the world of academia, that I don’t remember exactly what I was trying to get across in my thesis. In some ways, I’m borrowing the core thesis of this book, Cutting Edge. I’m struggling to remember who wrote it. Essentially, it was about the cross section where the aesthetics of high art films and b-grade cult films intersect. I was interested in applying the reading strategies of high art films to Fulci’s films.

When you bring a set of camp sensibilities to a film, you’re kind of trying to complete the failed end of the work for the director. You’re trying to fill in the gaps that were left behind, and see the brilliance that it could have been. I think that totally works for Fulci. He never had the tools to achieve his vision, so it’s really interesting to try to complete his work on your own. 

Fulci really had to get creative with his limited resources.

Right. And if you can complete the work for him with your interpretation, it enriches the work.

Particularly in his “Gothic trilogy” [City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, House By the Cemetery], he left a lot of space for viewer interpretation. Especially when it came to endings; his endings are often very vague. 

Absolutely. It was very deliberate, too. I think a lot of people look at those works alongside other, similar 1980s horror films and they’re like, well, they’re non-congruous, the endings don’t tie us any loose ends. Like other films of those times, those things happened because of script sloppiness and not really following through on things. With Fulci, it was all part of the vision. He really wanted these incongruous horror films because that increased the sense of dread.

Are you just a Lucio Fulci fan, or are you a fan of the whole gamut of giallos and Italian horror?

I would hesitate to say I’m an Italian horror aficionado. I follow Argento’s and Bava’s work, too, but beyond that I’m pretty patchy. 

I’d say the same thing, but I probably know Dario Argento’s larger body of work better than Fulci’s.

I think part of the reason why I find Fulci so interesting touches on what I was saying before. Argento had the resources and tools to make the movies that he’d envisioned, so there you’re seeing a fully finished, fully realized vision, which is great. In his prime he was making genius work. But he had all the tools, and the accolades followed, whereas Fulci is kind of this damaged director with these damaged works. To me, there’s something really interesting about that. It’s kind of like finding a crust-covered demo tape and listening to it and it’s a brilliant band that had problems with recording. At the end of the day, perhaps his work isn’t as brilliant as Argento’s, but it’s all about having to apply yourself more to get something out of it that I find really interesting.

Let’s talk about some of his individual films, moving chronologically.

***

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) a.k.a. Schizoid

This is the first film on our list, chronologically. In the movie, a woman dreams about her neighbor being murdered, and the next day the woman turns up dead. Now, she’s a suspect.

I’m a bit understudied on that one, I’ll admit.

I’ll be honest, while re-watching this movie I started wondering why I picked it for us to go over, just because it’s so hard to follow. Maybe because it’s the earliest Fulci film I’ve seen, but it has some things in common with his later movies, stylistically. Many scenes are pretty surreal.

It’s also some of his first really violent stuff. When he was coming to that, it was his first giallo film. I think he’d used some graphic violence in Beatrice Cenci [The Conspiracy of Torture, 1969] before that, which comes up in interviews as his favorite movie he ever made. I purchased a bootleg VHS back in the day—I think it’s available on DVD now—but when I was doing my research, I really had to track down some of the stuff and found, like, fourth-generation bootlegs.

It’s a boring historical drama about a painter in, I think, 18th Century Italy. I made it about a half hour into the fourth generation VHS. The blurriness mixed with the boringness of the movie made it a little hard for me to process. But I understand there’s some sort of torture sequence in that movie, as well. But his initial run of films were all comedies. He was really branching out into violence with this movie.

The movie is super-stylized and psychedelic, the way he uses splitscreen, superimposed images, and crazy colors. The dream sequences, in particular, almost look like an early Argento film, with the harsh lighting and strange color palettes.

For sure, and the very 1960s soundtrack. [Laughs]

The movie’s probably most famous today for its infamous “dog scene.” Fulci shows a bunch of dogs that have been cut open but are somehow still alive. They’re animatronic, but they look very real. His special effects artist, Carlo Rambaldi, had to go in to court and show a judge how the dogs were made so that Fulci wouldn’t go to prison for harming animals.

It’s a pretty fantastic story, if nothing else.

Rambaldi, the effects guy, went on to design E.T., and built the aliens for Alien. He won an Academy Award.

I didn’t realize that. That’s amazing. This must have been a dark skeleton in his closet.

I think the other real value to a movie like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is that it ostensibly presents itself as a British film. It’s set in England, all the characters have English accents. It’s sort of interesting to see an outsider’s perspective on British culture. Obviously Fulci can give us some insight into Italian culture, based on his experiences and where he’s set. How someone perceives another country is interesting, it’s not something everyone is able to master.

I think all of these films had at least one British actor.

He’s really into international settings, as we’ll see when we get into his later films. A lot are set in the U.S.

***

Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972)

The basic premise of this one is that children in a small country town are being murdered, and there are several colorful suspects, including a witch, a peeping tom, and a beautiful socialite. It’s up to a journalist on assignment from Rome to figure out who’s responsible for these murders. That’s a trend in his films, where newspapermen or reporters are regularly the heroes.

He’s really into the idea of a journalist solving a crime before the police do. I don’t know if he had a background in journalism or not. That would be interesting to know.

This was his first movie that went heavy on the gore effects. There’s a beating scene, where the alleged witch is getting beaten with a chain by an angry mob of villagers -- it just goes on and on. It’s hard to watch.

It’s insanely graphic. In this instance, he’s using the gore to underline the social statement that he’s making about punishing this outcast. While the townspeople think they’re persecuting the killer of the kids, it turns out she’s completely innocent. It’s a condemnation of that mob mentality.

There’s also a strange and very skeevy scene near the beginning, where Barbara Bouchet’s character practically seduces a young boy when he brings her refreshments. She’s just hanging out in the basement, for no apparent reason in the nude.

It’s a really creepy scene. The whole time I was watching these movies, the question would pop up in my mind: why did he come up with this? [Laughs]  It speaks to a very weird, dark sensibility in his personality. Apparently something that’s wrong.

That scene sets a creepy stage. It sets the woman up a very dark character. In one way, Fulci is trying to pull the ground out from under the audience, and make them suspicious of everyone, but then that character goes on to become the protagonist. It’s kind of an interesting trick that he plays.

This one was also pretty controversial in its time. It was difficult to release a film with this sort of religious content in such a heavily Catholic country. It portrays its priest character in a real boogieman-like manner.

It’s interesting to me because the film doesn’t portray itself as a critique of the church. It’s just one crazy guy who perpetrated these crimes. The film is more a condemnation of this sort of repressiveness.

As good as the effects usually were in his films, there’s a scene where they throw one of the fakest-looking dummies over the side of a hill. For some reason, sparks are flying off the dummy’s face!

[Laughs] It looks really silly. Have you seen The Psychic?

No, I haven’t.

The movie essentially opens up with that exact same scene. He loved that special effect so much that he did the same thing in another movie seven years later.

Wow. [Laughs]

The Psychic opens up with a little girl watching her mother commit suicide by jumping off a cliff. It’s not enough that she’s jumped off a cliff, but she’s jumped so close that her face hits the cliff wall over and over again. It’s clearly a dummy. He shows the flesh ripping off.

And were there sparks then, too?

No, I think maybe that was the lesson Fulci learned from Don’t Torture a Duckling: the sparks don’t look very realistic. [Laughs]

He learned that human flesh doesn’t necessarily explode on its own.

***

Zombi 2 (1979) a.k.a. Zombie, a.k.a. Zombie Flesh Eaters

The movie begins with a boat washing up in the New York Harbor, its entire crew missing save for one zombie in the cabin. A journalist goes down to the Caribbean island the boat departed from, where they find the entire island overrun by zombies. This movie was my introduction to Lucio Fulci.

It was mine, too.

The local video store had one of the big-box VHS copies of it, with that unforgettable cover art. “WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU,” written in bright red letters. This movie was released as Zombi 2 in Europe, where George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had been distributed as Zombi. They gave it that name because they wanted to trick audiences into thinking it was a sequel. I’m curious how many people actually fell for it.

What’s interesting about that is that they were well into making the film when that decision was made by producers. It makes me wonder again about Fulci. He was picked for this movie; they wanted him to make a zombie film, because they saw that as an increasing trend in cinema. So this was something that was handed down from upstairs. They re-titled it in a way that might trick audiences into thinking it was a Dawn of the Dead sequel. It speaks to his position in the industry as a sort of workhorse director. He had to take assignments. Even though he’d established himself and had this vision, he was still someone who could be pushed around.

I wonder, if he’d had his way, would they have marketed it differently? Clearly, he wasn’t interested in the type of zombie films George Romero was making. He set it on a vacation island.

He was very interested in taking zombies back to their roots in voodoo.

Right. He really didn’t want there to be a scientific explanation. He wanted it to be rooted in the spirit of traditional voodoo and zombies.

The zombie makeup in this one is incredible. According to legend, Fulci would refer to his zombies as “walking flower pots,” because they looked like something that crawled out of the ground. They had dirt falling off of them, and worms wriggling out of every orifice in their face.

The scene everybody always talks about is the zombie fighting a shark underwater. That is a remarkable scene, but for my money the most brutal scene is where they need to take a break on the island, and they sit down without realizing they’re sitting on the graves of these Spanish conquistadors.

Oh, yeah. They suddenly sit up out of the ground.

Yeah, they just start rising from the grave. Those zombies are so much more decrepit and creepy-looking than the ones that have been walking the island. It’s brutally insane. One takes a bite out of a woman’s throat and there’s just a geyser of blood. It’s horrifying.

This one has a much more linear story than his later trilogy. That makes it a pretty good entry point for Fulci’s work.

Sure. It was his entry point into horror, too. The works immediately preceding it were The Psychic, which was an excellently-executed giallo, and then a western. He was on a run of doing giallos and westerns when he got the zombie film assignment. It really fired up his imagination and creativity and inspired him to do something totally different. He was still used to working in narrative cinema, so he was discovering his talent for making these brutally grotesque horror films. The ideas were just brimming in terms of where he could take that genre next.

The other really famous moment is the eye-piercing scene. Is that the first example of the “eye violence” which keeps coming back throughout his work?

Yeah, but the things he does with close-ups of the eyes was something that started much earlier. He always did these flash close-ups to try to capture expressions. But I think the eye-piercing scene is some sort of commentary on the horror genre. It’s something about the viewer trying to torture their own sensibilities. You see that over and over again in his work from this place forward. His obsession with eyes becomes a dangerous, violent obsession, whereas in previous works he was trying to capture specific expressions.

I read an interview with the film’s makeup artist where he’d said the zombies in this movie were played by local winos. The crew rounded them up and slapped makeup onto them.

[Laughs] They were probably too drunk to walk normally. If you were slowly being approached by a bunch of really drunk winos, that would also be very frightening.

***

City of the Living Dead (1980) a.k.a. The Gates Of Hell

The setup for this film is pretty simple: a priest hangs himself, which opens up the gates of Hell.

Nice and simple!

It’s up to a beautiful psychic and another investigative journalist to close the gates of Hell before the clock strikes midnight. What’s funny is that even though they only have 24 hours stop the apocalypse, the characters are never in much of a hurry. They’re super relaxed. They even stop for a casual lunch at one point.

There’s no rush to save the world. [Laughs]

Yeah, it’s best to wait until 11:55 PM to really start thinking seriously about stopping the apocalypse. This one was the first of his Gothic Trilogy, or Gothic Zombie trilogy. No one seems to agree on an official name for this group of films.

Yeah, they’re very loosely linked. Some people call them the Gates of Hell Trilogy, but there’s no gate to Hell in House by the Cemetery.

I suppose they’re linked more by the ideas behind them. In all three, he presents these dreamy, surreal scenes of horror. There are so many intense, gory scenes, but those scenes rarely feel connected within a single movie. 

Right. He does all sorts of narrative tricks. You’ll think a story is being told from one person’s perspective, and then a scene will happen that has nothing to do with them. I think that’s less so in the City of the Living Dead than the others we’ll get into.

The gore scenes in this one are pretty incredible.

Some of them are too much for me. There’s that scene where the dead priest confronts a young couple in their car, and then the woman starts barfing guts.

Ugh, yeah. She vomits up her entire digestive tract. That may be the most disgusting scene in any of these movies.

It’s enough to watch it and think, ‘oh my god, that’s so disgusting.’ And then you read about it and find out they were using actual sheep guts.

Ughhhh.

To keep them from drying out, they’d have to take them from a dead sheep put them in her mouth between each take.

How was she not vomiting for real while filming that?

As a vegetarian for over 20 years, I have no real interest in watching that scene at all. [Laughs]

Watching that scene makes me want to be a vegetarian. [Laughs] There’s also a famous table drill scene.

The table drill scene almost seems more ridiculous than frightening. It’s almost comedic, in a way. Like it’s a very dark comedy. But it follows along the same theme of the persecution of outsiders that he touched on in Don’t Torture a Duckling. It’s street justice, where this father thinks this outcast kid is responsible for these murders, so he thinks he’s going to take care of it right there by turning on a table drill and putting the kid’s head against it. Which no sane person would do under any circumstances! He could’ve just called the cops.

It’s still the most realistic death in the film. In every other instance, it’s more or less a ghost appears and makes someone cry blood; or, a zombie reaches out from behind a corner and pulls someone’s brains out of their skull.

That happens like, five times in the movie. [Laughs] That’s a really effective tactic, I guess.

I don’t understand the physics of that… They’re squeezing the head in one shot, and then in the next shot they have a handful of brains. It’s like, where did the skull go?

Right!

There’s a lot of discussion around this one’s ending, too. It freeze-frames on a little kid, you hear the sound of screaming, and then there’s this effect where screen appears to shatter. It was either Fulci’s way of leaving the film open-ended, or just a lucky mistake in the editing room – I’ve read it both ways. What do you make of the ending?

He definitely didn’t want it to end with a resolution where that seemed like a happy ending. With Zombi, you obviously see New York being taken over by the zombies. From City Of The Living Dead on, there’s even less sense of a resolution and more mystery. I feel like – whether it was just a trick in editing or not – that it definitely played into a wider theme. The horror doesn’t end just because the obstacles in the film were met or overcome. That doesn’t mean that the horror ends. It’s always present.

***

The Beyond (1981) a.k.a. Seven Doors of Death

The Beyond took a lot of the ideas that were set up in City of the Living Dead even further. Out of his zombie movies, this is probably widely considered to be the most “out there.”

I think most people will say it was his most successful film, which is open for debate, but he definitely get the sense that he came in with a very specific aesthetic vision, and that he came very close to achieving it.

So, the setup for this one: a young woman inherits a run-down hotel in New Orleans, which just so happens to be built on one of the seven gates of Hell…

Harkening back to City of the Living Dead. But in that movie, I don’t think that we knew there were seven gates yet.

No, we didn’t. According to these films, we know there’s one gate to Hell somewhere in New England, and another under a hotel in New Orleans. I wonder where the other five are...?

We may never know, since the maestro is no longer with us.

The horror scenes in The Beyond are even more loosely-connected than in the previous films. The cast of characters are all involved either with renovating this old hotel, or having worked at it at some point. They accidentally open up the gate and free these evil spirits, who proceed to kill off the cast one by one. 

In increasingly fantastic fashion!

Absolutely. The one I always think of first is the scene featuring the jar of acid. This woman is hanging out in this pristinely white morgue, which is a weird visual already. There’s a jar of acid – with no lid on it! – which tips over on a high shelf and melts all the flesh and tissue from her face.

Yeah. It’s a series of cut shots that don’t really lend any perspective on what’s going on. There’s no staff in this hospital. She just walks in and starts dressing her husband’s corpse in the morgue, which I imagine isn’t terribly realistic. I would assume there would have been somebody there. She’s dressing him for the open-casket funeral with her daughter crying outside. Her daughter hears a scream and comes in, and her mother is passed out on the floor and there’s a tipped-over jar of acid. Instead of trying to leave or get adult help, she stands there while her mother disintegrates and an acidic pool of blood spreads across the floor.

She’s too busy trying not to step in it!

Right. It’s like, what universe does this movie take place in? It’s kind of like what I was talking about before: it’s the sort of thing that if somebody else had come up with it, they’d think, “That doesn’t make sense; I can’t put that in the movie.” Fulci was very deliberately trying to make a break with realism, and make a movie that doesn’t make any sense. He was after something he referred to as “pure cinema.” It was this sense that images can enjoy their own space and be disconnected from narrative. It takes you out of yourself and into the terror. It’s more [absorbing] than horror that’s tied to a narrative.

Those characters only have the zaniest connection to the “plot.” [The husband] was somebody who showed up to work on the plumbing in the basement and then dies in a very bizarre fashion. [Laughs] And then that scene in the morgue has no other connection to any of the characters, other than it’s his corpse and that’s his family. It’s very mysterious.

There are so many choices in the film like that one, where it’s something that’s in there only for the sake of over-the-top stylization. There’s also more of Fulci’s trademark eye violence in this one. A woman gets her eye popped out by a nail.

Oh, yeah. I forgot about that one.

There’s also that wonderful tarantula scene, which probably makes even less sense than the scene in the morgue. A man falls off a ladder, and then his flesh is eaten away by tarantulas.

[Laughs] I have an issue with that one, because it’s too ridiculous. Even for me.

Yeah, it’s easy to tell where they’re cutting from the real spiders to the fake ones. The fake ones’ legs don’t move!

The character’s body keeps moving, so you can tell that he’s conscious, but he’s not trying to move away from the tarantulas at all while they’re eating him piece by piece!

While the tarantulas are biting into his tongue and eyeballs… [Laughs] It’s not quite as ridiculous as the dummy in Don’t Torture a Duckling, though.

Yeah, but it’s up there!

The climax of the film, which takes place in the hospital, is quite scary in a traditional sort of zombie movie fashion.

That’s actually another instance where he was messed with by his producers. He did not want zombies in this movie, but following Zombi 2 and City of the Living Dead he was pushed by his producers to add zombies to the film. So, the entire sequence where they’re in the hospital and zombies are chasing them was all tacked on. It’s interesting, because the space that it occupies in the narrative – or, lack thereof – is strange. In the scene, they start in the haunted hotel, but then they descend the stairs and they’re suddenly in the hospital. And then, again, when they escape the hospital through a doorway, they find themselves back in the hotel.

That whole hospital scene, even thought it’s tacked on, it adds to the mystery and the disjointedness in a way.

This is another film that has a very vague ending that’s open to a lot of interpretation. They jump back and forth between these two locations and finally end up in, well… the Beyond, I guess.

In the landscape of a painting that was hanging in the hotel, that was by the painter who originally opened the gates of Hell.

There’s definitely no sense of resolve, in any traditional sense.

***

The House By the Cemetery (1981)

So the premise is: a family moves into an old house that used to belong to a mad doctor named Dr. Freudstein. That’s a pretty incredible name, by the way.

Yeah, it is. [Laughs]

It turns out the doctor is still alive, hiding in the house’s basement. He’s stayed immortal in this weird zombie form by feasting on the flesh and blood of the living.

And somehow evading detection, even though people are murdered or go missing in this house.

Yeah, considering it’s such a tiny basement, too.

It’s another one of those cases where there’s an implausible, almost silly premise, and Fulci goes full force into it. I get the impression that he’s still pursuing this sense of illogic as something that is the driving force in creating a real sense of horror.

An assistant professor forces his family to move to this house out there; but, in their New York apartment, they have a giant photograph of a house which is the house that they move into. You get the sense that he’s pushing his family into something that he’s planned all along, like, pursuing this Dr. Freudstein. Again and again, that suspicion is debunked when people later say, “Oh! You’re back in town.” He has no recollection of ever having been there before.

There’s this curious thing where as an audience, you don’t know whether he’s been to this town before or not. You don’t know whether he’s visited the professor whose research he’s taking over or not. Everybody seems to think so except him, and it’s never really fully resolved.

There’s never any solid explanation of what happens in the film, or why the film is happening.

Right.

You said this was one of your favorites, actually.

Yeah, I think this is my favorite Fulci film. Whereas The Beyond was over the top in its disjointedness, I think House By the Cemetery succeeded in a different way. He’s still after the sense of pure horror and divorcing narrative from the images, but he’s doing it in a way where he’s using the idea of a narrative as a tool. It’s kind of like a springboard in that every so often takes the viewer off track. I think it’s something that you see in the work of David Lynch, in a film like Lost Highway, where you think you’re watching a straight-forward film and something changes, and you’re somewhere else. Later you’re having flashbacks to something that happened, or is about to happen. Things happen in an order where there’s a sense you could watch it and there’d be a linear plot, but not really. I think that was something Lucio Fulci was playing with in this film.

The little boy character was given a really terrible voice in the English dubbing. Do you think that’s a woman? Is it a man doing a terrible kid’s voice? I can’t tell.

I think I read that it was a woman. [Laughs] I never really read too much into it.

It’s just another one of the film’s surreal elements.

Either way, it’s annoying! But not so distracting that I can’t enjoy the movie. 

This one has another ending that’s so open for interpretation. It’s not clear whether the characters are being pulled into some sort of spirit world. Or, maybe they’re time traveling?

It’s deliberately open-ended. And then there’s that bizarre quote about children being monsters that flashes across the screen. I still can’t figure that out. [Laughs]

I know that Fulci talked about this film in interviews, about how it’s supposed to be from the children’s perspective. About the horrors of the adult world, and how children are free of that.

House by the Cemetery has a great score. It’s probably my favorite soundtrack in any of Fulci’s movies.

Yeah, Fulci was actually working quite closely with Fabio Frizzi at this point, and he went with a different composer for this one. I guess he wanted something that was more “haunted house” and Gothic-sounding.

Musically, have Fulci’s film had some creeping influence on any of your own work?

Not particularly. [Laughs]

I couldn’t hear it, but you know I had to ask.

I think in the same sense that Frizzi’s stuff belongs to the same world as Goblin and John Carpenter, some of that rubbed off on me in certain ways in some of the more experimental stuff that Pelican’s done. But I would hesitate to say that it’s anything noticeable.

I do really like the music in Fulci’s films. I feel like to the extent that Fulci is viewed by some people as a lesser Argento, people [view] Frizzi as a lesser Goblin. But when he hits it, it’s really, really good. My personal favorite is the City of the Living Dead soundtrack. I think the main theme in that movie is beautiful. It carries over after the movie is done.  

***

Pelican's latest record is Forever Becoming; find out more about the band at their website. Many of Lucio Fulci's films are currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Blue Underground in the U.S., and from Arrow Video in the U.K. 



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