Happy birthday, Lucio Fulci!
Born on the 17th of June 1927, Lucio Fulci is, to my mind, one of Italy’s greatest filmmakers. This is probably something of a controversial opinion considering that Fulci was notorious as a master of exploitation cinema and a regular feature of the infamous 1980s “video nasty” lists. Often referred to as the “Godfather of Gore,” a monikor he shares with American splatter pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis, Fulci’s films have historically been derided as incoherent, gratuitous and shallow. While Fulci’s work does indeed conform to the visual and thematic archetypes of exploitation and grindhouse cinema – lovingly rendered gore, ubiquitous female nudity, sensationalism in plot and tone – his films have undergone something of a critical reappraisal in the years since his death in 1996. Personally, I’m captivated by Fulci’s unique vision, and while I enjoy his westerns and his gialli, it is his contribution to twentieth-century horror cinema that truly distinguishes him as an artist.
Stills from The Beyond, 1981
There is a grotesque and horrifying beauty to Fulci’s horror films. His narratives generally eschew the familiar structures of conventional storytelling, and the dialogue, which is often poorly dubbed, is rarely realistic or convincing. Yet, these ostensible cinematic shortcomings nevertheless lend Fulci’s films a strange, dreamlike quality: the out-of-sync dubbing evokes notions of ventriloquism and possession while the incoherent narrative structure recalls the somnambulant meanderings of dream logic. Moreover, although the director was often the target of censorship campaigns due to the excessive violence of his work, Fulci’s gore has an artistry to it that elevates his visceral nightmares beyond their initial sensationalism. Rending the human body asunder and horrifically distorting the corporeal form, Fulci seems fundamentally preoccupied with the myriad ways in which the physical body can be violated. As such, his creative and gruesome annihilations of corporeality recall the abject, deformed and violated bodies that proliferated in the visual arts over the course of the twentieth century in response to the horrors of war, totalitarianism and the shock of modernity.
Bottom: Lucio Fulci, The House by the Cemetery, 1981
Bottom: Lucio Fulci, Zombie Flesh Eaters aka Zombi 2, 1979
Fucli’s aestheticisation of death is unsurprising considering his eclectic background: he studied medicine for a time and also worked as an art critic, and this convergence of the anatomical and the artistic is perhaps the defining feature of his work. Certainly, it is Fulci’s richly and intricately detailed rendering of the human body in various states of ossification or evisceration that attracts the majority of critical commentary and controversary. Recently, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Fulci adapts American literary conventions and cultural archetypes, filtering the historical and artistic heritage of the U.S. through the lens of distinctly European cultural sensibilities.
Although Italian cinema, like most national cinemas, has been greatly influenced by Hollywood exports (an influence readily apparent in the frequency with which gialli adapted the conventions of films noir and American crime thrillers), Fulci’s work is particularly creative in how it reappropriates uniquely American cultural ephemera and historical legacies for its own thematic purposes.
Fulci’s appropriative tendencies are perhaps most apparent in his infamous “Gates of Hell” trilogy, which includes City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and The House by the Cemetery (1981). Although a trilogy only in the very loosest sense of the term, the “Gates of Hell” films do share a number of unifying preoccupations. All three films involve the living dead, haunted or sinister locations, the intersection of the mystical and the mundane, and ruminations on the nature of the afterlife. These films are also united by a number of recurring aesthetic motifs, including Victorian houses, perverted religious iconography and an overtly Freudian obsession with eye damage. However, when viewing the trilogy through the lens of adaptation studies, it is also possible to identify another point of comparison linking all three films: each one is set in America and deals rather explicitly with the way in which the American past continues to haunt the present. While the intrusive power of a restless, spectral American history winds its way through all three films in the “Gates of Hell” trilogy, I feel that the first film in the series, City of the Living Dead, is perhaps the most potent example of Fulci’s proclivity for the adaptation and transformation of American historical, literary and cinematic archetypes.
On a paratextual level, the English title of the film, City of the Living Dead, immediately evokes a non-existent connection with George A. Romero’s classic 1968 zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. Likewise, the original Italian title, which translates to the slightly more verbose Fear in the City of the Living Dead, also echoes Romero’s seminal work. Fulci was no stranger to trading on the success of Romero’s films; his notoriously gruesome Zombi 2 (1979) was created as an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead, which was released in Italy as Zombi. However, City of the Living Dead is unique in its conceptualisation of the cinematic zombie. While Night of the Living Dead provides a vague genesis for its flesh-eaters that relies on ambiguous allusions to radiation, Fulci’s zombies are more Lovecraftian in their origin. Indeed, City of the Living Dead takes place in the fictional New England town of Dunwich, a locale invented by H.P. Lovecraft for his 1929 tale “The Dunwich Horror.” Although Fulci’s film is not a direct adaptation of Lovecraft’s story, the texts share a number of thematic similarities: both engage with the liminal space separating our world from the nebulous realm beyond, and both are preoccupied with the violent return of what has been hidden or buried. Lovecraft’s “Dunwich Horror” features an eldritch abomination secreted in a rural barn, while City of the Living Dead depicts reanimated corpses rising from the grave. In Lovecraft’s short story, as in much American horror fiction, the horrible thing residing in the barn recalls how the maintenance of America’s idealistic façade has often been contingent upon repressing both the horrors of history and the darker aspects of contemporary society. Drawing on two canonical examples of American horror, Lovecraft’s “Dunwich Horror” and Romero’s zombie mythos, City of the Living Dead evidences a similar obsession with the uncanny return of a repressed, horrific past. Indeed, as the dead begin to rise in Fulci’s Dunwich, the town’s residents make repeated reference to the New England enclave’s disturbing history as the abode of “Salem witch-burners.” Considering, then, that Fulci explicitly appropriates and adapts uniquely American literary conventions and historical events, can we therefore categorise City of the Living Dead as an adaptation?
According to Linda Hutcheon’s hugely influential study A Theory of Adaptation (2006), an adaptation is “an extended, deliberate, announced revisitation of a particular work of art,” and, as such, when constructing a cohesive theory of adaptation, “Short intertextual allusions to other works of art would not be included” (170). From this perspective, it would seem that Fulci’s filmography would fall short of the criteria necessary to fulfil in order to be considered a true adaptation. Indeed, his work often appears as something of an intertextual meshwork, a web of allusions to and borrowings from other works.
Bottom: Lucio Fulci, The Beyond, 1981
Yet, in the case of the “Gates of Hell” trilogy, and City of the Living Dead in particular, I believe that Fulci moves beyond mere intertextuality and into the realm of adaptation, even if he does not produce an explicit, direct adaptation of a specific text. In A Theory of Adaptation, Hutcheon posits that the idea of fidelity might not, or should not, be the only means of theorising adaptation (7). In fact, as she observes, the word “adapt” does not mean to copy or simulate, but rather “to adjust, to alter, to make suitable” (7). Moreover, Hutcheon makes it clear in her construction of adaptation theory that not only can stories be adapted, but so can themes as well (9). I would argue, therefore, that in the case of City of the Living Dead, it is themes and concerns are adapted rather than story or narrative. Although the product of a primarily Italian creative team, City of the Living Dead appears initially as an archetypal manifestation of the American gothic. Its recurring images of small-town New England, pure and fresh with its white-steepled churches, suddenly beset by the monstrous forces of a buried past reflect, almost too perfectly, the critical description of American gothic horror as defined by an uneasy awareness of the repressed darkness that underpins the bright idealism of New World innocence. At the same time, the zombie, in its modern cinematic incarnation, is a uniquely American horror icon, born out of the nation’s post-war anxieties about radiation, social upheaval and mindless consumption, an icon of U.S. capitalist malaise and deadening conformism.
On a superficial level, City of the Living Dead feels rather like a facsimile of the standard American zombie movie. Many of the film’s images of reanimated corpses rising from the grave, as well as its key narrative beats, will be instantly recognisable to viewers familiar with this particular subgenre of American horror. However, Fulci never simply imitates the American zombie film, but instead he filters the conventions of the subgenre through the lens of uniquely Italian aesthetic and cultural concerns. Writing on the process of transcultural adaptations, Hutcheon argues that “In shifting cultures and therefore sometimes shifting languages, adaptations make alterations that reveal much about the larger contexts of reception and production” (29). While not a direct adaptation of a single text, in City of the Living Dead Fulci adapts the standard iconographic and thematic conventions of American gothic horror: the cinematic zombie, the quaint small-town hiding something monstrous, the darkness of history that underpins American national idealism. In doing so, however, Fulci transforms these American horror tropes so that they speak not only to the darker aspects of American history but also to the cultural concerns of early 1980s Italy.
The possibility that Fulci may be using American literary and historical archetypes to address, and indeed critique, the social and political structures of his native Italy is apparent throughout City of the Living Dead, but one clear indication of Fulci’s true intentions comes in the form of what appears to be an historical inaccuracy that surfaces a number of times throughout the film. At various points, when discussing Dunwich’s past, numerous characters suggest that the town was founded by “Salem witch-burners.” The notion that early Puritan settlers burned witches is a common misconception. However, influenced by British law, inhabitants of the New World generally executed their witches by hanging. In Salem almost all of the “witches” executed were hung. Burning was, however, a popular means of executing witches and heretics in continental Europe. As such, I would argue that this conflation of American and European methods of execution, whether intentional or accidental, represents an attempt to address Europe’s history of religious oppression under the guise of exploring America’s Puritan past. In particular, Fulci’s film transposes a critique of the stifling power of Italian Catholicism onto a set of narrative and iconographic conventions derived from American history and literature. The film’s opening scene, in which the gates of hell are opened by a suicide, appears to have been heavily inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. However, while the setting of this violent act is established through scenes of a quaint New England town and the kind of white-steepled church that one might instinctively associate with American Protestantism, the suicide that open the gates of hell is that of a Catholic priest, a seemingly anomalous presence in the WASPish environs of New England.
Throughout the film, Fulci appears to be interrogating and critiquing the legacy of Catholic domination that defined Italian culture for much of its history, but was, by the latter part of twentieth century, struggling against the forces of secularisation and modernisation. The repeated references to Puritanical repression in City of the Living Dead, therefore, appear to serve a dual purpose. On a literal level, they allude to the restrictive theocracy of New England’s earliest Puritan settlers, but on a more subtextual level, they also describe the oppressive control exerted over Italian culture by the Catholic Church. For instance, at one point we are given a description of a woman who had numerous lovers, bore an illegitimate child and was, consequently, branded a witch by the people of Dunwich. While this woman’s ostracisation may initially evoke the iconic figure of Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, who was humiliated and exiled from her Puritan community for giving birth to a child outside of marriage, the conflation of single motherhood and witchcraft also recalls the social stigma faced by unwed mothers in deeply Catholic countries until well into the late twentieth century. In City of the Living Dead, America’s Puritan past, its history of rigid theocratic oppression and fanatical witch hunts, serves as a metaphorical purpose, allowing Fulci to engage with and condemn the oppressive religiosity of Italian Catholicism. While Fulci himself may have identified as a Catholic, a believer in a God who was, to his mind, a “God of suffering”, City of the Living Dead, like many of Fulci’s films, appears overtly critical of the institution, if not the theology, of Catholicism. After all, Fulci, a director who rose to prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s, was working at a time when the traditional power of the Catholic Church in his native land was being eroded by an increasing social liberalism that witnessed the legalisation of divorce, contraception and abortion. As such, many Italian directors working in the ‘60s and ‘70s (particularly those associated with the giallo genre) displayed a tension in their films, as modern attitudes towards gender and sexuality rubbed uncomfortably up against traditional Catholic morals.
City of the Living Dead is a strange film. It is infused with the pervasive, creeping terror that is emblematic of Fulci’s contributions to horror cinema. The story meanders, takes strange turns and occasionally finds itself seemingly caught in a sort of narrative cul-de-sac. Yet, perhaps the strangest aspect of the film is how it seems to occupy an odd, liminal space between two cultures. Utilising narrative devices and imagery borrowed from such icons of American horror as George A. Romero and H.P. Lovecraft, Fulci adapts the conventions of the American gothic – its preoccupation with horrors of history, the repressive Puritan past and the return of buried darkness – to the unique social and cultural concerns of his native Italy at a time when the nation was struggling with its own legacy of Catholic repression. What Fulci creates in City of the Living Dead may not be a conventional transformation of a pre-existing work, but it is a fascinating example of how themes, iconography and narrative tropes can be transplanted across cultures and adapted to the unique socio-cultural context of a new environment. Fulci reworks, and, yes, even adapts, elements of American literature and history in order to address the darker aspects of his own national identity, and, in doing, so he produces a work that is brutal, uncanny and beautifully surreal.