½*/**** Image D+ Sound C
starring Fabio Testi, Marcel Bozzuffi, Ivana Monti, Guido Alberti
screenplay by Ettore Sanzo and Gianni de Chiara
directed by Lucio Fulci
Luca il contrabbandiere
**/**** Image B Sound B
starring Fabio Testi, Marcel Bozzuffi, Ivana Monti, Guido Alberti
screenplay by Ettore Sanzo and Gianni de Chiara
directed by Lucio Fulci
by Walter Chaw There's something decidedly uncinematic about the films of Lucio Fulci (excepting Don't Torture a Duckling and Four of the Apocalypse, which actually sort of rock). If not for his fascination with gore effects and his propensity for casting irritating children in irritating children parts, it'd be hard to find anything to separate his work from the grindhouse ghetto of, say, Jess Franco. As it is, the stilted claims at auteurism (he's known as the master of eye violence, mainly for a few juicy bits from The Beyond and Zombie) do more, perhaps, to relegate his work to a sort of camp gulag: the Siberia of legitimate cinema, where adolescent tools congregate for midnight showings armed with irony and a crippling baggage of disdain and contempt. I liked "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and believed that I liked it because I was sophisticated; in time, you realize that you like it because you're an officious prick who sort of gets off on mocking movies. I think a lot of people would argue that this is the role of the film critic, but I'd offer that a critic--a good one--loves film so much that he or she is offended when a movie is terrible. There's no real joy in defiling altars, particularly when they're your own.
Find in that a rationale for why George Lucas fills me with bile. It's one thing that he's something of an asshole savant who fell backwards into an archetype by the good graces of his talented friends--it's another that he continues to fiddle with his original Star Wars trilogy. The films don't really belong to him anymore once they belong to us, you see, and the lack of respect he's showing to our memories and pleasures is worse than just larceny, it's something as indecent and invasive as emotional rape. If you grew up with those films, you understand; if you didn't, you liked Episode I. So try to remember that as I approach Lucio Fulci's Contraband and Conquest on DVD after having sampled from his supernatural films (led there initially by an admiration of the early films of Dario Argento and George Romero), I'm doing so from the perspective of a half-reformed mocker. I'd like to tear down these bits of dreck, but there's something really ugly going on in them that requires a more serious treatment. I don't think Fulci is John Waters--I think Fulci means what he says. And a zealot with a platform for his convictions is the most dangerous kind.
Fulci is manipulation whittled down to its crudest elements. When Satan births a serpent at the beginning of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, those in the know flashed back to the opening moments of Fulci's Conquest as a serpent rears up--and phallically--next to a bronze-masked fertility goddess. Gibson's (and DP Caleb Deschanel's) motif is of expulsion, Fulci's of violation, but the trick is the same. Blood rites, snakes in the garden, the despoiling of innocence, and the betrayal of civilization. What follows in both Gibson's film and Fulci's is a period fantasy leaking blood and viscera, scored with drama and shot in operatic slow-motion: tales of martyrs and heroes, of battles against the unclean (more suggested in Gibson's film as a steely-eyed, newly-risen saviour gets ready to rock), and, in their different/same ways, reduced to the barest elements of conflict-action-resolution, repeat. One's subtitled, the other's dubbed--both indifferently crib from a multiplicity of source mythologies and translations. There's no fruit in looking at Conquest as a Christ parable, but there's endless fruit in looking at The Passion of the Christ as a big-budget version of an exploitation/snuff film, packed to the rafters with disturbing suggestions about societal order (gays suffer a lot at the hands of Gibson's fantasies--women, mostly, at Fulci's), and flying in under the radar of social acceptability where Fulci's films have been relegated to the fanatic's collection and the last independent movie store in your state. To say that The Passion of the Christ is the most subversive exploitation film to hit American theatres maybe ever is the least that you could say about it.
Conquest on the other hand is all but forgotten, resurrected by Blue Underground in a presentation that should warm the hearts of Fulci completists everywhere. The story is simple--reductive, even--as Neanderthal-browed Mace (Jorge Rivera) teams up with Rick Springfield-haired Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti), with Mace wielding nunchucks and Ilias a badly-composited bow-and-arrow-cum-lightsaber as they quest across the land looking to kill the abovementioned bronze-masked fertility goddess and her legion of sort-of werewolves. Along the way, many women are killed (one torn apart like a stone crab), almost all of them naked at the moment of their destruction, and a lot of mumbo-jumbo about nothing much at all is spewed as the justification for it.
There's no shortage of misogynistic wonks in the movies, just as there's never been a shortage of puerile, exploitative flicks to serve as a conduit to misanthropic flights of fancy, but upon further reflection, Fulci seems to me to be the most parasitic sort of creep. He leeches onto successful genres (the giallo, the Italian supernatural, the American slasher, the spaghetti western, the Golan-Globus sword-and-sorcery fantasy, the gangster flick, and so on) and produces shadow versions of them teeming with his commentary on what he supposes are the audiences for those flicks. He presumes a lack of sophistication, and his films are like cruel caricatures of popular genre work. Fulci doesn't work in any genre, he sneers at every genre--and the foulest blow is that he hasn't the skill to make his disdain sting. He's the idiot you find yourself having an argument with; the fact of the dialogue reduces you. The monologue by David Carradine's Bill in Kill Bill, Vol. 2 wherein he details how Clark Kent is the alien Superman's commentary on the human race could be transplanted onto an analysis of Fulci's career: Fulci's movies are bumbling messes of astonishingly bad camerawork (there are more "dramatic" zooms in his work than in the entire run of "Starsky & Hutch") spiced liberally with his thoughts regarding how women are meant to be pierced in any number of ways to fuel the purpose, good or vengeful, of men. And he poises them right at the cusp of a breaking trend, gaining them notoriety by association, often as the "worst of" or the "most outrageous example of" a specific movement.
Conquest looks like it was shot through a screen door--if there's lighting, it's backlighting, and if there's atmosphere, something must be on fire. There's some good gore in it, something for which Fulci has a deserved reputation, but it's also only enjoyable if you're there to take the piss out of it with a bunch of friends. The danger with that in this instance, though, is that I suspect Fulci welcomes such a response--adding, as it does, to his own feelings about the topic of film as expressed by his contributions to the medium. When you laugh, you're laughing with him. As you're laughing, he's slipping in a lot of imagery of women being tortured to death by rape, intimate dissection, and an invitation to leer at their sexual abuse and suffering at the hands, in this instance, of animals. It all floats in there under the radar, lumped in with the high cheese factor as "forgivable" in the grand scale of its florid incompetence. The only reason that The Passion of the Christ is more subversive is that more people are seeing it and, by extension, worshipping it.
Contraband (known as The Smuggler on bootleg American copies) is technically the superior film. Sprung more from a tradition of blaxploitation than from Coppola's cosa nostra, it has a certain Seventies retro charm to it. It's not saying much to say that it might be Fulci's best-directed picture, reminding for all the world of the video for The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" by Spike Jonze. Luca (Fabio Testi, a cross between George Lazenby and Jeremy Irons) is a cigarette smuggler in the Naples underground, pulled into a turf war with encroaching drug lords who kill his brother, then kidnap/sodomize his wife. To demonstrate their brutality to the audience, the baddies take a blowtorch to the side of a woman's face; to demonstrate Fulci's disdain for his women characters, he doesn't show the penetration in the rape, but he does show in intimate, scatological detail the humiliation, terror, and pain of the victim. There's no other way to portray rape, I'd argue, though if you must portray it after all, do it respect in all its gory detail. Neither is there resolution for the female character afterwards--this thing that has been done to her is essentially an affront to the hero, victim be damned.
The rest of the piece is the typical stuff, tied together more or less coherently by Fulci this time around, as Luca mills around in his bucolic circle before being drawn into a battle not of his choosing by bestial rivals. The incursion of the rival gangs and the summary execution of the offending godfathers follows in bare structure the process of The Godfather, but it's gone through Fulci's filter here, reduced to blank declarations of machismo and the same ridiculous series of assassinations ad nauseum. The only innovations to the formula are the inventive ways that Fulci finds to torture even incidental women characters--but again, that misogyny is clothed in several layers of nostalgic funk. While it's easy to dismiss from a modern perspective, in a film from 1980, there comes a point when patronizing the values of "the past" becomes a dangerously flimsy framework for a defense.
No avatar of feminist causes (remaining a staunch fan of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch), I still think Fulci lacks wit, skill, and, most of all, respect for his betters and the legacy that has made his films possible. He is the worst kind of enfant terrible, armed with a bestial cunning and taste and intent on demonstrating his disdain with an insistently predictable parade of cheap rip-offs that use schlock and celluloid catcalls as camouflage for his ape mentality. Fulci has a message: movies are stupid, while women are scary and need to be punished with phallic weapons and Promethean fire. I'm increasingly of the opinion that Fulci is flipping me the giant bird whenever I sit down to watch his films. To my way of thinking, no one who studies filmmaking under Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni arrives at movies this bad accidentally. So here's one back at you, Lucio.
THE DVDs - CONQUEST + CONTRABAND
Conquest comes to DVD in the best possible video transfer, given the way the film was shot. It looks horrible, in other words, but I can't really blame the telecine operators for that--any movie that makes Gates of Heaven look like it was shot by Greg Toland is among the ugliest films ever made. Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, Conquest, for what it's worth, suffers from no obvious digital artifacting problems, which strikes me as something like a minor miracle. A Dolby Surround soundmix takes Claudio Simonetti's (of Goblin fame) score and squeezes it tinnily through the front mains, but let's face it, Simonetti's work on this stillbirth is really just awful. Garbage in, garbage out. Perhaps sensing that there's not much there, there, Blue Underground provides just the U.S. and international trailers (both clean and in widescreen, the latter with a good deal of nudity and gore), still galleries for posters (5), lobby cards (17), the four-page promo booklet, and four video box covers, and a nice Fulci bio written by Tracy Taylor.
Contraband receives a similar treatment: a 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer that looks a little washed-out, especially in the outdoors scenes. Aside from that and some obvious degradation in a few insert shots, the things that can be controlled in upgrading the original into the digital age were by all appearances controlled. The Dolby 2.0 mono audio mix is excellent as well, as there are no hisses or sparks in the dubbing and Fabi Frizzi's classic porn score comes through righteous and funkadelic. The disc is a little light on extras, blessedly so in my opinion: Mark Wickum of Anchor Bay fame chimes in with his standard mini-biographical masterpiece, a long essay on Fabio Testi; Tracy Taylor's piece on Fulci returns to round out the platter.
DVD - Image A Sound B+
BD - Image A Sound B Extras A
starring Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver
screenplay by Elisa Briganti
directed by Lucio Fulci
by Bill Chambers The Lucio Fulci apologists like to say that gore and general impropriety are the raisons d'être of his work, not storytelling, but there's a built-in fallacy to that implicitly macho challenge: It presumes that his films are light on narrative when in fact it's narrative drive that they lack. Clearly influenced by Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie, Fulci's Zombie--in which cipher heroine Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow, Mia's inexpensive sister) journeys with ace journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to the necromantic island of Matool because her father's boat docked in New York without him--is almost pure tedium, something you can tell just by listening to fanboys rhyme off its so-called virtues. Yes, it's got a cool scene where a zombie grapples with a shark (I still don't know how--or why--that was done), and another where a woman gets a wooden splinter through the eye (Fulci's late-career imprimatur), and another where a maggot-infested corpse suddenly awakens from a lengthy dirt nap; Fulci's a quasi-pornographer in that he steals resonance by being extreme. For a renowned entry in the satire-compatible cinema of the undead, especially one that was promoted in its homeland as a sequel to George Romero's vital Dawn of the Dead, Zombie is egregiously synthetic, with the cruel twist of fate that befalls our heroes in the closing moments traceable to Fulci's well-known antipathy for New York and therefore coming off as more of the same misanthropy that informs the Grand Guignol set-pieces rather than the neo-Serling irony that is the sub-genre's métier.
Blue Underground reissues Zombie on DVD in an apparently definitive 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation; this is one of those transfers that won't be appreciated by newcomers to the film, but anybody who's had previous experience with Zombie on home video will marvel at the clarity of the image. Radiant is the word, despite the occasional scratch and patches of pronounced grain. This is also the first time the film's Italian audio has been made available domestically (in Dolby Digital 5.1 and original mono, no less), though it hardly impacts the performances, which are post-synched no matter the preferred language option. Although both the English and Italian 5.1 remixes show un-Fulci-like restraint, they provide an excellent platform for Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci's trite but fitfully engaging score. Extras include: international and U.S. theatrical trailers for Zombie (surprisingly, the American one is much artier); a pair of TV spots and a quartet of radio spots for the film; a Zombie-centric gallery of lobby cards, soundtrack covers, video covers, publicity stills (sub-divided into three categories), and the contents of the German press book; credits for the DVD (whose worm-eye menus are actually more skin-crawling than much of Zombie); and the biased, if thorough, biography of Fulci by Tracy Taylor that graces Blue Underground's other Fulci titles. Media Blasters has concurrently released a 25th Anniversary Edition of the film under its Italian name (Zombi 2) that claims to contain a longer cut mastered from elements in comparable condition--our knowledge of this 2-disc set is limited to hearsay. Originally published: September 23, 2004.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Walter Chaw Where zombies in American cinema seem to have risen with televangelism and its slow-moving white people promising salvation in the life of a sheep (in that sense, they're really just another iteration of the Body Snatcher archetype), in Italy they transmogrified, following the success of Romero's Dawn of the Dead there, into analogies for romance-gone-sour. There's wisdom in that--in the idea that when you wake to find that a loved one has been swallowed whole by a cannibalistic cult, the action in the ol' bedroom takes a hit. In its way, films like Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and La dolce vita--in which romantic love is inextricably intertwined with irony and death--predict the Italian embrace of the zombie genre. Even the alleged realism in De Sica's neorealist melodramas is meticulously, cruelly designed to do what perhaps only Umberto D did successfully, that is present the dread, the terrible toil, of rising from the apocalypse to discover that the world holds only tragedy and alienation for the freshly-exhumed. The best Italian zombie flick is of a more recent vintage: Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man took me three viewings to love, but held enough fascination to merit the effort. It's about a guy who figures out at some point exactly what the Italians were saying all along in this genre: Fall in love at your own peril, because sooner or later, one of you is going to eat the other.
There's a good argument to be had concerning whether or not Lucio Fulci is a "good" director, and rather than have it again, I'd offer that Zombie, Fulci's infamous quickie-cash-in on Dawn of the Dead, does a couple of things very well and the rest pretty badly. The tropical island setting, lifted from Jacques Tourneur's astonishing I Walked with a Zombie (astonishing mainly because it's an American horror film that understands it's a romance), is appropriately muggy and diseased; the gore effects (particularly a signature eye-pulping and inexplicable shark fight) are creative and protracted. For the rest of it, I defer to Bill's spot-on capsule review, especially the part about Mia Farrow's more affordable sister--playing, appropriately enough, Daisy Buchanan's more plaintive doppelgänger.
Fanboys, rejoice, as Zombie docks on Blu-ray from Blue Underground in a pristine 2.35:1, 1080p presentation that highlights every single maggot in a late-rising pus-bag (and the grace-r of the old VHS box that held me transfixed at the long-gone Movie Merchants, many moons ago) in next-gen definition. The image doesn't expressly pop (the eye, ha), but this is a loving transfer preserving the picture's lo-fi roots whilst pulling a greater variety of colours--and, crucially, skin tones--to the fore. If it doesn't seem at first glance to improve significantly on the company's previously-definitive DVD release, blame some stubbornly soft anamorphic cinematography--and know that a side-by-side comparison shows enough of a boost in clarity to almost justify a re-purchase by itself. At the least, the whole thing, for lack of a more precise word, feels extra sultry. Similarly, the attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA tracks (in English and Italian) present a remix that is, for the most part, hemispheric, with atmospherics relegated to spotty coverage across the surrounds. It's serviceable; it's not gonna ruffle the cuffs.
In addition to Zombie proper, Disc 1 of this "2-Disc Ultimate Edition" includes an amiable, meandering yakker with DIABOLIKeditor Jason Slater and star Ian McCulloch, who admits that he's never actually seen the movie before. A couple of moments of surprise, then, have the effect of drawing us into the conversation as opposed to when a knob like Richard Schickel does it during one of his commentaries. It's charming when the star hasn't seen the film he's commenting on, see, not so much when it's a celebrated movie scholar who has confessed in the recent past to not loving movies and not understanding people who do. McCulloch, among other things, confirms that Fulci was a misogynist who abused women on set, displays a sense of humour about his male-pattern baldness, and talks briefly about the lack of script and fluidity of the mostly-gonzo shoot from day to day. Mr. Slater doesn't contribute much apart from being an enthusiastic foil--I would have loved more preparation, for what it's worth, beyond, "Hey, did Mia ever show up on set?" The first disc wraps with two trailers in HD, two television spots in standard-def, four radio spots, and a poster gallery in HD that runs as an animated slideshow for approximately ten minutes. Dropped from this package is the Tracy Taylor-authored bio of Fulci.
The second platter commences with the fun "Zombie Wasteland" (22 mins., HD), featuring interviews with McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, and stuntman Ottaviano Dell'acqua over footage from the film and from a horror convention. (Notably, none of Zombie's female stars showed up.) Dell'acqua, for the neo-Savinis out there, tells a nice tale of having worms sewn onto his face, while Johnson confesses he didn't get along with many of his peers on the shoot. Cliver, who apparently is suffering from some sort of ailment that makes it difficult for him to speak, incidentally, sounds like John Astin dubbed him in the picture. Cliver is remarkably affable and grateful, Johnson is pompous, and all are very frank about Fulci's insanity. (Johnson tells a good one about Fulci eating dirt so as not to eat one of his cast.) But the overriding feeling of the piece is of real gratitude for having appeared in this cult film that's gathered a lot of steam in the intervening decades. "Flesh-eaters on Film" (10 mins., HD) is an interview with co-producer Fabrizio de Angeli that isolates the movie's best moment of nudity under a subtitled monologue from Angeli on working with Fulci and making people jump. His memory fails him now and again, though he does recall enough about the film's inception to recount the difficulty of its birth. He proudly boasts of having put up with Fulci for four films where most producers lasted one. "Deadtime Stories" (15 mins., HD) is an interview with co-screenwriters Elisa Briganti and Dardan Sacchetti in which it's revealed that the project started with a weird concept (Spaghetti Western + Italian Zombie sounds fabulous); and Briganti clarifies that because Fulci was such a bastard, what she offered was perhaps a humanizing touch.
Onward, "World of the Dead" (17 mins., HD) talks with DP Sergio Salvati and production designer Walter Patriaca and invokes for the first time Dawn of the Dead while speaking at length about the difficulties of realizing an F/X-heavy picture in the time before CGI and digital manipulation. A few production sketches are fun. In "Zombi Italiano" (16 mins., HD), make-up guys Gianetto de Rossi, Gino de Rossi, and Maurizio Trani reflect in detail on the kitchen-sink approach to the production. Clay was applied directly to actors' faces, trial and error was used, and hilarity ensued. Those looking for a conversation about the shark scene, look no farther. "Notes on a Headstone" (7 mins., HD) has composer Fabio Frizzi discussing his synth score in a surface-y kind of way, and "All in the Family" (6 mins., HD) is a chat with Fulci's daughter Antonella, who provides an occasionally sad defense of her asshole dad. She says, essentially, that you had to understand that with her father, when he was cursing you out and sticking shit on your face, it was just how he expressed his love and admiration for your professionalism. She sees in daddy's work a great deal of "irony and play." I see the same in her interview. Finally, "Zombie Lover" (10 mins., HD) has one of my favourite people on the planet, Guillermo del Toro, continuing the introduction he recorded back for Disc 1, saying that after his initial encounter with Zombie, his mind exploded. I love his description of it as, "Here it is, fuck you if you don't get it." He observes the first "fat zombie" in the history of movies, compares the zombie genre to jazz (and zombies to butterflies), and identifies himself as the person Blue Underground should maybe tap for future commentary tracks. Please, for the love of God, Guillermo, make Hellboy III already. Originally published: March 15, 2012.