Though he worked across a number of genres – westerns, comedies, police thrillers, even family films – Lucio Fulci is best remembered for his horror movies. Next to Dario Argento, there may be no bigger name in all of Italian horror cinema. Often referred to as “The Maestro,” Fulci is one of the godfathers of gore, who helped popularize the splatter film with his memorably violent supernatural, zombie, and slasher movies.
Full disclosure: it took me several years to “get” Fulci. I would watch his movies again and again, confounded by their refusal to conform to traditional narratives and unable to see past certain limitations to appreciate the technical mastery on display. One day, though, everything finally clicked, and Fulci has gone on to become one of my favorite filmmakers. In a genre so often characterized by sameness, his films are like no one else’s. Even a mediocre effort – and he certainly has his share of movies that don’t work – has a personality that’s distinctly Fulci.
Ranking his horror films was no easy task. Obviously there’s a huge amount of subjectivity – my favorites may not be anyone else’s favorites – but there’s also a pretty wide gulf between the Fulci films I like and those about which I’m less passionate. The choices for slots 1-10 came quickly; the rest is kind of a crapshoot. No matter what, it was a blast to revisit all of these movies and to be reminded of just what a special, singular director Lucio Fulci was. There will never be another like him.
Without further ado…
1. The Beyond (1981) – Winner and still champion. Though some Fulci fans might bristle at my naming The Beyond as his best movie, it’s the one that combines everything that’s great about him and his work: the mounting sense of dread, the shocking explosions of gore, the nightmare logic, the unforgettable visuals, and Fabio Frizzi’s best score. Animals attack, heads explode, faces are melted off, eyeballs pop out, the gateway to Hell is opened. The Beyond has it all. This isn’t just my favorite Fulci movie; it’s one of my favorite horror movies period.
2. City of the Living Dead (1980) – A very close second for me, City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell) is maybe the best example of Fulci’s talent for creating sustained nightmares – movies that make little to no logical sense but which bombard the viewer with atmosphere and gruesome imagery from which there is little relief. The story here is simple: a priest commits suicide in the opening moments, thereby opening a doorway to Hell. What makes City of the Living Dead so effective is the way the story is told, all soft focus and misty grounds and the threat of violence at any given moment. One of the movie’s most famous sequences, in which a woman vomits up all of her innards in real time, is a the perfect distillation of what makes Fulci – and this movie – great: it’s a nightmare from which the director refuses to look away, from which we cannot wake. It’s a horror movie that really horrifies.
3. The House by the Cemetery (1981) – The third and final entry in the “Gates of Hell” trilogy is a movie that sneaks higher up the list every time I revisit it. This is prime Fulci, full of creeping dread punctuated by shocking violence. The plot is straightforward: a mad scientist is more or less reanimated in the basement of a house and begins committing murders. Fulci has worked with the trope of “the Bad Place” before and would subsequently, too, but there’s something about limiting himself to the location that energizes him here. A lot of horror fans seem to find Giovanni Frezza’s Bob character irritating, but I’ve always found him and his crazy dubbing just one more oddball element in a movie (and a career) full of them.
4. Zombie (1979) – I’m sure it will be considered blasphemous to place Zombie (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, aka Zombi 2) at #4 on this list, seeing as it’s arguably Fulci’s best known and most beloved movie. It’s a movie with which I’ve had a complicated relationship, as it took me a handful of viewings to really come around on it. Zombie’s best moments, be it the famous scene of Olga Karlatos getting her eyeball impaled on an enormous wooden splinter or the ominous and haunting visual of an army of zombies luring their way towards New York City, are as good as anything Fulci has ever done. I just find that this one sags a bit more in its down moments than the movies that appear above it on this list, all of which maintain an atmosphere of weirdness and dread even when the guts aren’t being spilled.
5. The Psychic (1977) – Fans of Lucio Fulci’s splatter movies may have little use for The Psychic (aka Seven Notes in Black, aka Murder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes), as it’s one of the director’s classiest and most restrained efforts. Jennifer O’Neill plays a woman whose psychic visions lead her to uncover a murder, but there’s much more to the grisly crime than she first realizes. This is Fulci in full-on Hitchcock mode, much more interested in tension and suspense than shock or horror (that wouldn’t come until Zombie Flesh Eaters two years later). It’s one of his best-constructed efforts; the final third is pure cinema, told entirely through visual suspense and with very little dialogue. Those who would contest Fulci’s technical merits as a filmmaker clearly have never seen The Psychic.
6. Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) – Fulci’s first proper giallo (following the warm-up that was One on Top of the Other [aka Perversion Story]) is one of the genre’s funkiest, most original outings. Florinda Bolkan is a politician’s wife who begins having dreams about orgies and murder, then wakes one morning to discover she may have actually acted upon these impulses and killed her neighbor. This is the best of Fulci’s non-supernatural horror films, flirting with the dreamlike vibe of his later work and conjuring up a number of striking, abstract nightmare images like a collection of dogs that are split open (done with puppets) or a pair of hippies whose eyes have gone all blank white, predicting a similar effect in The Beyond. The mystery at the center is pretty good, too, and not entirely easy to predict.
7. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) – Despite its classification as a giallo, I almost feel like Don’t Torture a Duckling barely counts as horror…except for the three child murders at its center, of course. There’s the requisite amount of Fulci salaciousness, but the film is fairly elegant in its construction and quite restrained, given how sleazy this subject matter could have been. Instead, it’s gorgeously scored (by Riz Ortolani) and photographed, making the most of its location shooting across the Italian countryside. It’s also interesting as a personal statement of Fulci struggling with his own Catholic faith. Many of his films examined the true nature of evil, but rarely did that evil wear so human a face.
8. The Black Cat (1981) – Though often considered middle-of-the-pack Fulci (which, as Fulci scholar Stephen Thrower points out, might have something to do with the film’s lack of gore), The Black Cat is a surprisingly strong entry in the Maestro’s filmography. Made during what is arguably the most creative and fertile period in his career – sandwiched between City of the Living Dead, Contraband, and The Beyond, The Black Cat is a loose adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe tale featuring the titular feline as a vessel of vengeance exacting revenge on an entire village. While the pacing is again uneven and the narrative never quite crystallizes in a satisfying way, there are so many strong set pieces in the movie – nearly all of which play out with no dialogue – and so many gorgeous qualities to the film (not the least of which is Pino Donaggio’s score) that The Black Cat deserves better than its overlooked reputation might suggest.
9. The New York Ripper (1982) – Easily the sleaziest, most polarizing, and most controversial film Fulci ever made, The New York Ripper plays like the director is doubling down on everything he was ever criticized for doing on screen. It’s a giallo about a killer who is mutilating and murdering women, targeting their bodies and ways that are both ugly and highly sexualized. Oh, and he continually makes phone calls to his potential victims and speaks in a series of duck quacks. I’m not making that up. The movie could be self-parody if it wasn’t so brutally violent and so well made. This one closes out the golden period of Fulci’s career that began with Zombie and ends here.
10. Manhattan Baby (1982) – A number of Fulci films could be described as “mixed bags,” but maybe none more than Manhattan Baby. This uneasy mix of the supernatural and Ancient Egyptian history offers a good deal of striking imagery, some nightmarish sequences, and represents a genuine effort to do something different within the horror genre. That it doesn’t totally work isn’t for lack of trying. The story falls flat, but the camera work is so fluid and precise that it’s among the best of Fulci’s entire filmography. There are a handful of moments of gore that feel a bit wedged in (Fulci gotta Fulci), and the repurposing of Fabio Frizzi’s brilliant score for The Beyond is a constant distraction, even if it does serve to remind the viewer just how good a score it is – distraction or not, the sequences in which it appears are better for it. Fulci himself was not especially proud of the movie, more or less discounting it as a misfire in later years. There are too many good moments, though, for the film to be totally ignored.
11. Murder Rock: Dancing Death (1984) – Fulci seems somewhat disengaged from this one, a mix of giallo and standard slasher slathered in ‘80s music video excess. A murder mystery set at a dance studio, Murder Rock is a direct response to the success of Flashdance – a response that reportedly came at the insistence of the movie’s producers, despite Fulci’s own protestations. Some of the director’s trademark sleaze and insanity has carried over from the likes of The New York Ripper, but it’s often strangely dispassionate, as though the director’s heart isn’t fully in it.
12. Touch of Death (1988) – One of the rare comedic Fulci films since his early days (he got his start making Italian sex comedies), Touch of Death (aka When Alice Broke the Mirror) takes much of the director’s mean-spirited ugliness and attempts to wring laughs from it. Brett Halsey plays a middle-aged serial killer who kills and regularly eats his victims. The movie is episodic in the way that it follows him romancing and then killing a series of women, each of them cartoonishly repulsive (as anyone who has seen The New York Ripper can attest, Fulci may have some issues with misogyny). While it may never be explicitly funny, the insanely dark humor is an amusing respite from a body of work that’s usually very, very grim. Touch of Death is almost too ugly to really be enjoyed and runs out of steam about halfway, but ranks above other entries in Fulci’s filmography for the ways in which it manages to stand apart and reveals a different, more playful (albeit demented) side of the director’s personality.
13. A Cat in the Brain (1990) – Fulci goes meta, and the results are a fascinating mess. The director, who, like Hitchcock, nearly always cameos somewhere in his movies, this time takes center stage as the star, playing himself. He’s a director of notoriously violent movies whose work has begun creeping into his daily life, either triggering memories of his own films or causing him to have hallucinations of violence all around him. This is Fulci’s most experimental film – his 8 ½ if you will – and also his most challenging. The use of violent clips from his films, the way its cut together, and Fabio Frizzi’s acid jazz/rock score all combine for a pretty unnerving experience, which is appropriate considering the movie’s depiction of a descent into madness. It’s a movie I like to study more than I enjoy watching, and is really only for advanced students of Fulci’s filmography.
14. Zombi 3 (1988) – The first sequel to Fulci’s own classic Zombie (aka Zombi 2, hence this one being part 3) is a movie only partly directed by the maestro himself. There are conflicting stories as to why: some accounts say he left due to illness, while others say it was conflict with the producers over what he felt was a bad script, resulting in less than an hour of usable film after editing. Bruno Mattei, arguably the hackiest director in Italian horror at this time, took over directing duties to complete the film, which helps explain why Zombi 3 is scattershot. It’s never boring, though: colorful, violent, often ridiculous (an attack by zombie birds is particularly memorable, as is a woman giving birth to a full-grown zombie), and plenty energetic. With as much green ooze as there is on display in Zombi 3, it’s the closest Fulci ever came to making a Troma movie.
15. Voices from Beyond (1991) – Another narrative mess from near the end of Fulci’s career, Voices from Beyond takes on some additional relevance because it’s such a personal film. Directing from a screenplay he co-wrote, Fulci tells the story of a man (Diulio Del Prete) who passes away mysteriously and then speaks from beyond the grave to enlist the help of his daughter (Karina Huff) in solving his death. Between facing his own mortality – the Maestro was in his 60s and in poor health for years at the time the movie was made – and the close relationship between father and daughter (Fulci’s own daughter Camilla served as assistant director and this and several more of her father’s films), there is a lot of the director’s own life on display here. That alone makes it more interesting than the other late-period Fulci films, as do the small handful of shocking or horrific sequences included, from a bowl of eyeball soup to an insane opening that lurches from sweaty sex to the brutal stabbing of a young child.
16. Aenigma (1988) – Only a director like Lucio Fulci could make a movie as weird as Aenigma and have it still feel like he’s on autopilot. An awkward college student (Milijana Zirojevic) is the victim of a cruel prank and winds up in a coma, but manages to psychically take revenge on her tormentors while unconscious in her hospital bed. Aenigma suffers from being too derivative, not only of Stephen King’s Carrie (from which it draws its clearest inspiration) and Patrick, but also Fulci’s own work. Unfortunately, the repetition nets diminishing returns: it’s one thing to re-stage the famous spider scene from The Beyond, but it’s another thing altogether to try and do it with snails. Maybe there’s a horror movie that can make snails scary. Aenigma isn’t it.
17. Demonia (1990) – Fulci travels back to Manhattan Baby territory for a story about archaeologists investigating the ruins of an ancient Sicilian monastery and awakening the spirits of some vengeful nuns who were crucified there centuries earlier. The director’s Catholic background reappears here (as it has in City of the Living Dead and Don’t Torture a Duckling), but the movie uses its evil ghost nuns as more of a gimmick than it does as a way of commenting on the Catholic Church. A more sympathetic lead (Meg Register), as well as a more consistent pace and tone, help this to feel less sloppy than other entries from this same period, but we’re still a pretty long way from The Beyond.
18. The House of Clocks (1989) – Fulci got very sick in the mid 1980s, and though he recovered, his work almost never did. Outside of The Devil’s Honey (one of his best movies, but one which isn’t really horror and therefore won’t appear on this list), none of his post-illness films have the power or precision of his previous output. This one tells the story of some young thieves who set out to rob the house of an old couple, only to discover that the old couple are ghosts and that time follows its own rules inside the house. There are a few good moments and a bit of Gothic atmosphere – fans of Stuart Gordon’s Dolls may be particularly interested – but the narrative is shapeless, the characters weak, and the last act goes from bad to worse. Originally made for Italian television but deemed too violent to air, this was Fulci’s second consecutive film to be released direct to video following Sodoma’s Ghost the year prior.
19. The Sweet House of Horrors – (1989) Originally made for Italian television (but released to video instead because of its violent content), The Sweet House of Horrors might be one of Fulci’s strangest efforts – and that’s really saying something. A brother and sister are orphaned when their parents are brutally murdered by an intruder, but not to worry: the parents spend the rest of the film visiting the kids as two floating flames, wreaking havoc on any who attempts to sever the bond between them and their children. Like a lot of late-period Fulci, there are powerful images and moments of inspiration, but it’s all surrounded by a lot of dull nonsense. At least this one scores a few points for pure weirdness.
20. Sodoma’s Ghost (1988) – A group of teenagers stumble upon an abandoned mansion and decide to stay for the night, not realizing it’s the same location where a group of Nazis were killed following a Bacchanalian orgy in the 1940s. Though the opening prologue of Sodoma’s Ghost (aka Ghosts of Sodom) seems to set up something sleazy and perverse, the subsequent 70 minutes are by turns clumsy and dull, and that’s something a movie about Nazi sex ghosts should never, ever be. There’s plenty of nudity on display, but very little of even Fulci’s demented sense of sexuality to liven up the proceedings. Only a handful of images – one involving a decomposing figure and another involving a sexual attempt gone horribly awry – manage to speak directly to the nightmare centers of our brains. Even Carlo Cordio’s score feels like the stuff of early ‘80s easy listening radio. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the first Fulci film to never receive a theatrical release.
21. Door to Silence (1991) – Fulci’s last film is also, sadly, his worst. Fulci’s variation on Duel stars John Savage as a man who…drives a lot. Despite working with maybe the biggest movie star of his career (Hollywood movie star, at least), Door to Silence never really comes together at all and definitively demonstrates that Fulci’s best days were behind him. He would never direct again, and died in his sleep five years later at age 68. He leaves behind an uneven but often brilliant body of work. We horror fans are forever in his debt.
Thank you, Maestro.