Few filmmakers have accomplished what Lucio Fulci has by turning gorefest pulp into a demented form of art. For the uninitiated, it may be impossible to get past the incomprehensible dubbing, inhuman acting, and nonexistent plots in some of Fulci’s films. Once used to these elements, though, one can see the way his films feel like nightmares, a series of impressionistic images that inspire dread. While I won’t claim that Fulci’s films are high art, I can perceive something important going on beneath the smears of gore. He has more on his mind than creative kills.
In two of Fulci’s films, The Beyond and City of the Living Dead, there are direct references to Clark Ashton Smith, the author who helped create the fantasy and science fiction genres. Smith was a friend of H.P. Lovecraft, and created a cosmic mythos of his own, with inventions like Tsathoggua appearing in stories by both authors. Where Lovecraft had his Necronomicon, Smith had the Book of Eibon, a powerful sorcerer’s tome. For any fan of cosmic literature, it comes as a surprise to see this book appear in Fulci’s films—not as a simple prop, but as an instigator of the horrors to come.
Fulci is arguably most famous for Zombi 2, Italy’s unofficial sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. While it reaches none of the dramatic and political heights of Romero’s film, it is still notable for its dripping atmosphere and absolutely bonkers death scenes. Beyond that, there is little of interest. One finds much more to examine in his later offerings, The Beyond and City of the Living Dead. While the living dead are still important factors, they are summoned by forces beyond our understanding—the forces within the Book of Eibon. None of this is explicitly stated, of course, as nothing is explicit with Fulci aside from the gore.
Yet, the presence of the Book of Eibon transforms Fulci's films. There are plenty of shambling corpses in The Beyond, but before they arrive onscreen, Fulci builds an uncanny and apocalyptic atmosphere of voodoo and the occult. Similarly, in City of the Living Dead, the animated corpses are agents of the end of the world, summoned by a suicidal priest whose death opens a door to hell. Whereas the brain-eaters in Zombi 2 are the entirety of the plot, in Fulci's later works, they are simply visual aids. His “Death Trilogy,” beginning with the aforementioned films and ending with House by the Cemetery, are steeped in cosmic dread.
Even his visuals reflect Smith's work. In Smith’s more horror-centric stories, such as “The Dark Eidolon” or “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” there is a strong presence of the macabre. Mummies, skeletons, and animated corpses play heavily into Smith's imagery. Necromancers and sorcerers find their armies in tombs. While not nearly as graphic or pulpy as Fulci's throat-biters, Smith still finds richness and dread in the images of dead things.
Fulci's living dead resemble embalmed and dusty creatures more than human bodies, which increases the otherworldliness and nightmarish sense that they evoke, because we don't recognize the corpses. This is most evident in House by the Cemetery, a convoluted but creepy film that is possibly about a doctor who keeps himself alive with the body parts of others. The appearance of this doctor is horrifying, mummified, and inhuman. The film’s New England setting, and its tale of mad scientists entombed in a Northeastern mansion, feels close to Smith and Lovecraft.
It is impossible to know whether or not Fulci meant to pay full homage to Smith's work, or if he just used the Book of Eibon to form a semblance of a plot. Regardless, it is fascinating to watch these pseudo-adaptations. Authors like Lovecraft and Smith—along with Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and other cosmic authors—rarely reach the big screen. When they do, the most successful attempts focus on mimicking mood and imagery rather than plot.
Some may disagree, but I believe Fulci achieved this. He captured the pulp in these authors' stories and brought it to the screen, rendering splattery nightmares that inspire nebulous dread along with disgust. While the films themselves are far from literary, they find their roots somewhere deep, and perhaps that is why they still haunt horror fans today.