FORM OVER CONTENT

Articles and Interviews

The hidden romanticism Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy

Please note that this article may contain spoilers.

The Gates of Hell trilogy of films from the Italian director Lucio Fulci defy classification to a certain extent. Sure they are horror but what type? As fans of the genre will understand, using such a broad classification is too simplistic when discussing not only our love of these films but the artistic intent and style contained within. 

By using such an umbrella term one may fail to do justice to the work and the (variety of the) genre. Consider the films of Lucio Fulci alongside the horror of Tobe Hooper (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; POLTERGEIST), Wes Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and Alexandre Aja (HIGH TENSION; PIRANHA 3D). All of which are notably different and may appeal to slightly different audiences but yet all come under the bracket of horror.

So there is often the need to discuss and classify sub-genres but what kind of horror do the Gates of Hell films fall under? 

General consensus would place them in the filone of the zombie sub-genre however at certain points they may also incorporate the supernatural, the haunted house, the fantastical, the slasher and maybe even a little touch of the giallo. One thing however is that these three films are art.

In his book How to Read A Film, James Monaco argues that art is what you can’t specifically define and these three films certainly adhere to this. 

But ironically even the undefinable needs to be classified. I propose that these films do in fact conform to the definition of later period romanticism. That is to argue that they are art for art’s sake; in this case to elicit a sense of trepidation and fear. The same argument could be made for SUSPIRIA by Dario Argento, but that is a topic for another article.

Taking the movement of romanticism, which promoted form over content, we can see clear parallels between it and the work of Lucio Fulci covered here. Hardly surprisingly and I doubt a coincidence or mere conjecture considering that the director himself started out as an art-critic.

Throughout each film of the trilogy we are quick to realise that despite a relatively basic story that the films themselves do not directly relate to our reality, that is the world in which we live in, but rather to the relationship between the film and the artist (that is to say Lucio Fulci) and to the relationship between the film and us – the viewer.

Ever since the Ancient Greeks and their creation of drama a psychological element has been evident in performance but here it is taken to a logical, or perhaps that should be illogical, extreme wherein the emotion felt is the art and therefore is also the film. As such the three films that make up this trilogy focus on the visual and the atmospheric as opposed to plot or character development. A clear prioritisation for the makers is the focus on abstractism.

Although that is not to say the trilogy was exempt from contemporary economic demands or pressures. Those zombies are not there necessarily because they suited Lucio Fulci’s artistic vision but rather because distributors insisted that they be there and besides it was the early nineteen eighties and zombies sold. And who was he to argue with their demands considering it was their money paying for it all. Not to mention that it was arguably the zombie which gave him his biggest box office returns and may do once again.

CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD was originally proposed under the title Paura, which translates as fear in Italian, and according to Italian screenwriting legend and frequent Lucio Fulci collaborator, Dardano Sacchetti, after the success of ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS the director had realised the potential success that could be had from the horror genre and so he began reading H.P. Lovecraft, falling in love with the atmosphere of the books, in a bid to further his own journeyman career. This perhaps explains why the flesh-munching voodoo inspired ghouls from his previous film were put aside for more cranial, teleporting creatures. 

With a desire to reach critical and commercial success, a refined and well-read palette and having shown himself to have his own artistic capabilities (see A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN for evidence) it was as if now “(Lucio) Fulci had let go of reality and embraced the fantastic…[taking] horror into a more primal subconscious place” (Eli Roth in An Introduction to The Beyond [Arrow blu-ray booklet]). 

City of the Living Dead

maxresdefault

Starting with CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, a film which critics and fountains of Italian genre cinema knowledge Antonio Bruschini and Antonio Tentori state “oscillates between splatter and fantasy, visual cruelty and metaphysical poetry” (from their book Lucio Fulci: Poetry and cruelty in the movies). A brief synopsis of the film sees a reporter and a psychic traveling to Dunwich to close a gate of hell which opened due to the suicide of a priest, courtesy of a powerful and heretical opening – it all sounds rather straightforwards.

However a deep Lovecraftian influence pervades the film lending it a sense of the strange. Additionally there is further literary influence as opposed to a cinematic one, by way of the likes of Edgar Allen Poe (the rural gothic atmosphere; premature burial) and Stephen King (influence from Salem’s Lot). These influences are moulded into something that would almost define what many would think of when they think of Lucio Fulci’s body of work – surreal visual horror.

All of the Lovecraftian illogical and unpredictable horror utilised actually generates its real horror from the evil of men and their sadistic nature. This dark cynicism is a theme common in several of Lucio Fulci’s films.

In CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD perhaps this is most clearly shown in the brutal killing of Bob (as played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Here this act represents arguably one of the most brutal moments in the film and without a supernatural aspect in sight.

Talking of the supernatural, the séance in the opening of the film is unfortunately borderline Garth Marenghi, just take a look at the flames that occur after the first incident, but does a job in setting the tone for the rest of the movie.

Another moment from the otherworld, and one in which makes very little narrative sense, is where familiar faces Michele Soavi and Daniella Doria are sat in a car when our problematic priest reappears and disappears causing eyes to bleed, intestines being vomited up and skulls being crushed by teleporting zombies. Here the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ are irrelevant making it about the form and not the content. 

Free from the restrictive shackles of the George Romero inspired undead or even the requirement for a tight script and continuity, Lucio Fulci is able to focus more on the form. As Fangoria editor Chris Alexander is quoted in the booklet ‘Fulci of the Living Dead’ by Calum Waddell, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD see’s “Fulci at his most uninhibited, free to jam his curious camera into the crevices of creepiness…with grandiose, abstract gore and surreal shock.”

Further support for the argument of art for art’s sake can be found in the films ambiguous ending. Like with a painting (more on that later), we the viewer are invited to overlay our own thoughts and interpretation to the piece. This is device that is repeated across the three films and the idea of the innocence of children is explored further also.

The Beyond

Db-q54cXUAETGI6

A year later and THE BEYOND would continue with not only many of the same themes but also an ending that is also open to interpretation. 

Due to its focus on visual horror and supernatural themes some have compared THE BEYOND to the first two (SUSPIRIA; INFERNO) of Dario Argento’s ‘3 Mothers’ trilogy however this is slightly misleading as although there are several commonalities the key driver and execution are significantly different. 

In THE BEYOND Lucio Fulci eschews the more traditional thriller plot structure and instead fully commits to creating “an experiment in total terror” (Antonio Bruschini and Antonio Tentori). The film builds on the abstract and the surreal which again gives the director free reign to terrify us with no logical rhyme or reason. But that is ok as this almost dreamlike narrative flows like a nightmare as again the how and why is superfluous to the resulting action. 

Now THE BEYOND is the perhaps the best example of form over content, with critics such as Arnold Blumberg & Andrew Hershberger (in their book Zombiemania: 80 Movies to die for) stating that “the key to appreciating the proceedings is not to get wrapped up in the plot and instead focus on the mood.” Something that the director is on record as stating as the aim indicating a very conscious effort. Upon its release Lucio Fulci is believed to have been quoted as saying:

“People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection. They say it is very difficult to interpret such a film, but it is very easy to interpret a film with threads: Any idiot can understand Molinaro’s LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, or even Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, while THE BEYOND or Argento’s INFERNO are absolute films.”

THE BEYOND opens in Louisiana, 1927, as an armed mob slowly descend upon a large rural hotel. A psychic reads the book of Eibon telling us of seven gateways but it is not her that the vigilantes are interested in but an ungodly warlock, played by the distinctive Antoine Saint-John (THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN), who resides in room number 36.

More than a simple whipping later we jump to contemporary times as Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits said old building and is having it renovated so that may give her a much needed fresh start. Throw in a handsome local doctor (as played by David Warbeck) and we get what initially looks like playing out as a classic gothic horror but with Italian horror sensibilities. However after an attack on Joe the friendly plumber, things begin to change. 

This act of shocking barbarity is followed immediately by a beautiful and expansive shot of an empty bridge, save for Liza travelling in her car. But in the middle of the bridge, quite literally stands a blind woman, Emily, and her canine companion. Very strange. Even more so considering Emily was stood there waiting for Eliza and we get a sense that whatever conventional narrative (in horror terms at least) that had begun to take hold was about to be twisted into something a little stranger. On a side note the arthouse film INFERNO VENEZIANO would take influence from the image on the bridge and prove to be equally out-there in terms of abstract horror.

Now after some much needed exposition, courtesy of our blind friend, we get a first look towards a barren and bleak painting, showing us more that what is just on the canvas. Such as with any painting the meaning is personal and open to interpretation. While in his review Donato Totaro states that the “painting that becomes integral to the thematic and metaphysical landscape” and I am certainly one to agree.

In THE BEYOND Lucio Fulci has shown us the materials for which we can either interpret, simply accept and be entertained or as is the case with most genre fare, to scorn and ridicule it’s lack of spoon-fed narrative. However you see it though, you cannot deny that THE BEYOND has the feeling of a film in which anything could happen and it does.

The House by the Cemetery

6hdJYDH

It is hardly surprising that the thematic influence of Lovecraft would seep into the final entry of the trilogy, only this time it is seemingly merged with a variation of the myth of Frankenstein. Only this time the doctor and the monster are one and the same.

In the film, rationality once again takes a backseat and rather than mull over lines such as “You really should take those pills your baker prescribed” we should instead accept and appreciate that it plays out almost in a dream-like state where brutal random violence is juxtaposed with childlike innocence by way of situations that assault our senses.

Much like CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD the film is a mesh of several strands of horror; the slasher, the giallo, the supernatural and the haunted house movie. Because of this THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is the hardest film of the three to rationalise in terms of a (neo)romaticism angle, as it could just as easily be argued for as a disjointed and incomplete mess as it could a poem of childhood anxiety and fear. 

For those unfamiliar with the film the basic storyline focuses on Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) and his family, rounded off by Catriona MacCall as the wife and Giovanni Frezza as the oddly voiced son, who relocate to the rural town of New Whitby (a Bram Stoker reference perhaps?) so that he may continue on the research of his recently departed mentor. Oh did I forget to mention that the research was on suicide and the late mentor had also committed suicide – the ill omens are all there. While discussing strange coincidences this is a second pivotal character in the trilogy named Bob. 

From the very beginning Lucio Fulci lays his cards out on the table for all to see, indeed even before the opening titles, a female victim (played by the ever suffering Daniela Doria) is brutally murdered. If anyone had wondered what type of film they were about to watch they did not have long to wait in order to find out. 

Interestingly throughout the film the script drops what may be seen as a few clues as to both the absurd nature of the proceedings and also the underlying objective and direction of the film. Examples of this include when the babysitter (Ania Pieroni) is cleaning up a large pool of blood on the kitchen floor and is questioned about it by the lady of the house, Lucy. Rather than answer she simply states that some coffee is in the pot and this random bit of information placates Lucy who simply forgets about the unexplained spillage. Although this is perhaps also explained by the previously mentioned line regarding Lucy Boyle’s pills (as prescribed by her baker) in order to supress her hallucinations, leading us to question is any of this real? After all Bob is a bit too odd but he seemingly isn’t the only one. 

Talking of odd, a member of the local community while speaking to the Dr suggests that he had visited the town previously only that time with his daughter. While it is very possible that the citizen had heard but not seen Bob and just assumed it was a girl this is very unlikely. However just as these points are raised quite often they are ignored although both do hint at another reality so to speak, one in which the young girl May exists in, only whether this is genuinely real or a figment of someone’s imagination is never made clear. 

Supernatural aside, and there are several ethereal moments, arguments of the neo-romanticism influence on the film can be made rather interestingly through the use of the ugly. Ugly in the terms of the gratuitous violence that is employed. Not only through the framing (credit to Sergio Salvati here) but also in the way that THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY makes the viewer feel like a helpless voyeur during the carnage as the director elects to revel in the violence. Instead of shying away from the action we are actually invited in for a closer, longer look and just like those visiting the grand guignol shows of Paris we love it. We are captivated by it and it draws us in. Check out the death of the Estate Agent for some prime action.

For fans of horror THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is a must watch. It is a film built on many things including the creation of suspense, the mystery of the murderer and perhaps most of all, the visceral thrills of the violence. In short it is about eliciting and heightening a select group of emotions through its visual medium.

While watching the film viewers will have many questions, including the symbolism at the end as Bob emerges from the tomb that is located in the front room.

What does this all mean? After all he is too young to be ‘born again’ but is it even representative of a birth of anything? Meanwhile his ghostly friend May does not seem too bothered about the final confrontation that Bob had just been a party to but then again neither does Bob despite both parents fates…as he has seemingly travelled back in time without a care in the world. 

A singular vision

The Gates of Hell trilogy are three films brought together by a singular idea; to create emotive horror free from the logical constraints of a traditional narrative. Incorporating a Lovecraftian influence, as Jamie Russell would say in his book “Book of the Dead”, Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti “set out to create …radical, avant-garde gore movies” and to an extent this is an accurate take.

As all three films reject conventional and traditional film structures instead focusing on “just a succession of images” (Lucio Fulci in a printed interview with Starburst Magazine) that are interested in exploring personal fears and anxieties. 

Indeed the Tate Gallery define Romanticism as a “movement in art and literature distinguished by a new interest in human psychology, expression of personal feeling and interest in the natural world” which Neo-Romanticism builds upon to overlay the more abstract. In which it is the message and not the content that matters. 

Clearly as evidenced by the men involved these three films are built on abstract literary sources and were created for a specific form of expression and feeling in which we, the viewer, are then invited to impose our own interpretations upon.

So it is not surprising when people talk about the poetry of Lucio Fulci’s films, or when some of them are are described as “delirious, dreamy and often demented” (Calum Waddell in his booklet ‘Freudstein Revisited’ for Arrow films) because like a dream many scenes and sequences have no logical starting point or arc to help feed into the narrative but instead jump from action point to action point. Thankfully however Dardano Sacchetti never forgets to throw in some exposition so that we have some context and to aid the flow of images.

The deeper level of artistic endeavour employed adds weight to the argument that Lucio Fulci is, as many of us would already believe, a creative artist and not merely a workmanlike artisan or even a hack as some would have you believe and that the Gates of Hell trilogy stand up as a collective yet singular piece of art.

These films therefore in my mind are akin to an artist’s collection, which we as fans have dubbed the ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy, held together by a common concept and artistic execution. Like individual paintings each film can be enjoyed on its own and viewing of the whole collection is not necessarily detrimental or mandatory but when viewed together Lucio Fulci’s vision can be best understood. Whether or not it was his original vision is another matter.

And remember…Fulci lives!

ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS 2 (1988) BY BRUNO MATTEI & LUCIO FULCI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Zombi 3; Zombie 3
Director: Lucio Fulci / Bruno Mattei
Writers: Claudio Fragasso, Rosella Drudi (uncredited)
Year: 1988
Starring: Deran Sarafin, Beatrice Ring, Ottoviano Dell’Acqua, Massimo Vanni, Gli Reinthaler, Luciano Pigozzi

Synopsis:
Scientists in a government laboratory develop a chemical, aptly named Death One, that turns those infected into pus faced flesh-craving zombies.  The army deal with the initial outbreak but foolishly decides to cremate the bodies, thereby sending the virus airborne.

Review:
Coming so late in the the zombie splatter cycle (it was practically dead) it is important to note the various contributors to the film. In particular, the contribution made by the iconic director Lucio Fulci who began working on the film but quit after around six weeks of shooting. 

Now many conflicting reasons for this exist, with illness being the main reason, although the great man himself claimed that it was in fact due to a terrible script and arguments with the production crew. As always the truth is probably somewhere in the middle especially when Lucio Fulci’s own daughter admitted that the humid temperature was contributing to her father’s ailing health.

Upon his departure, rather than leaving a sellable product Lucio Fulci left producer Franco Gaudenzi with a rough 70 minute cut which had to then be trimmed down a further 20 minutes. As a result of this the infamous second-rate director Bruno Mattei (ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH; RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR; ZOMBIES: THE BEGINNING and ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD) was called upon to complete the film.

However due to the contracts expiring and subsequent scheduling issues with the original actors drastic plot changes were required and it is estimated that around 40% of the final film was added in by Bruno Mattei reducing much of that shot by Lucio Fulci to a sub-plot, and giving us the version we have today.

The majority of the lead cast are pretty much unknown in front of the screen, including the American actor Deran Sarafin, who would go on to have a decent career as TV director, and French actress Beatrice Ring. However there are one or two that you may recognise here – Ulli Reinthaler would also appear in Lucio Fulci’s AENIGA, Luciano Pigozzi had several minor roles in popular films while Massimo Vanni got around a bit being credited in the Maurizio Merli Eurocrime flick VIOLENT CITY aka ROMA VIOLENTA, Lucio Fulci’s original ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS aka ZOMBI 2, Bruno Mattei’s RATS:NIGHT OF TERROR, Claudio Fragasso’s ZOMBIE 4: AFTER DEATH not to mention Sergio Stivaletti’s THE WAX MASK. He certainly had good contacts.

Although these pale in comparison to stuntman Ottoviano Dell’Acqua also known to many zombie fans as the wormface from ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS aka ZOMBI 2. However Ottoviano is much much more than that, having been a stuntman since 1973 he has plied his trade in many films including IL GRADE RACKET, STARCRASH, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, DEMONS,DIAL:HELP, LA SETTA and THE STENDHAL SYNDROME not to mention bigger Hollywood fare such as LADYHAWKE, QUANTUM OF SOLACE and ANGELS & DEMONS as well as the TV series ROME. Ottoviano, as evidenced in ZOMBI 3 also managed to snag more than a few acting roles himself and can count amongst his many credits ROMA A MANO ARMATA, RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR as well as many uncredited such as in FELLINI’S SATYRICON, VIOLENT NAPLES, NAPOLI SPARA! and NIGHTMARE CITY. 

But what about the film itself? 

We start with some very impatient doctors administering some sort of serum to a green deceased body, the influence of Stuart Gordon’s REANIMATOR is clear from the outset (and becomes rammed down your throat later on) but before you can dwell on this the writer Claudio Fragasso quickly takes us not only into NIGHTMARE CITY territory but also revisits parts of his own ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH.

What will strike viewers almost immediately about the opening few scenes of ZOMBI 3 is that the budget required for any additional material had clearly already been spent as we witness a gun fight without any muzzle flash or exploding squibs. It is just a bunch of guys running around with toy guns and sound effects. Once again Bruno Mattei lives up to his reputation. 

Once we have been introduced to our two groups of characters (and an additional sub-plot established) the movie has a bit of flexibility and therefore variety. As group one (some soldiers and travellers) become embroiled in a vicious zombified animal attack while group two (a girl and her boyfriend) barely have much more luck as they happen upon a seemingly abandoned petrol station. 

It is this second scenario that leads to the films first genuinely well shot, creepy and almost supernatural sequence that is pure hallmark  Lucio Fulci. Had it not been for the sped up mad machete zombie attack, this could have been the start of something comparable to the gates of hell trilogy. Although I am sure the phrase mad machete zombie attack will appeal to more than a few people reading this review.

As the film progresses some elements and scenes seem to make no sense at all either in terms of  continuity or logic but this is all irrelevant (and expected due to the production nightmare noted at the beginning) as we are treated to several fast paced rock fuelled set pieces, one in particular being a sequence set in what appears to be an abandoned resort complete with overgrown reeds and decaying furniture but which we are meant to believe was populated just one week earlier. Again, minor details we don’t need to worry about because we are about to get another suspenseful scene broken only by screaming and blood in a true what the hell happened there moment.

Then, as always the film shambles forwards, never quite displaying the consistent development needed but rather one of a cobbled together collection of scenes that never quite knows what it is meant to be, or even what it wants the zombies to be. 

By the beginning of the third act it ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS 2 appears to have settled on the low budget zombie film classic staple of becoming a siege movie but as proven, never one to settle on a single stolen idea this, rather pleasingly, is blown off less than five minutes later for another idea until ultimately the required minimum running time is reached and things are brought to an end.

This film has plenty of fun scenes, some genuinely well constructed, some brutal (a zombie reverse caesarean) and some just down right bizarre (how do zombies get in cupboards or hide under tumbleweeds we just saw moving in the wind?) but ultimately it will be an entertaining watch for any zombie fans.

Claudio Fragasso, Bruno Mattei and Lucio Fulci give us a nonsensical, fun, if extremely derivative, patchwork piece of trashy entertainment that benefits just as much from the references (or should that be stolen pieces) of other films as it does it’s own innovation.

As you would expect with the amount of time that had passed, this film has an entirely different aura to the one that preceded it and ultimately is a sequel in name only (where have we heard that before) but one that is still worthy of adoring your shelf. Also, what a great audio title track.

Furthermore it is rumoured that Zombi 3 was due to be filmed in 3D but both technical and financial limitations ended this plan. Oh what could have been. 

Oh and keep an eye out for writer Claudio Fragasso and replacement director Bruno Mattei both of which appear in the film playing a couple of soldiers who put a corpse into an incinerator.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the 88 Films blu ray release of the film. Benefitting from a new HD transfer the film looks and sounds fantastic, easily the best version on the market while the disc itself also features several extra’s; from the almost pointless Italian opening and closing titles to the interesting interview with the prolific stuntman/actor Ottaviano Dell’Acqua who talks about his time working with Lucio Fulci on this and the original ZOMBI 2, ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS as well as other memories of his time on set.

The 88 Films release also treats us to an audio interview with Beatrice Ring which despite it’s less than engaging slideshow visual actually contains a few terrific anecdotes and stories about how she became an actress and her thoughts on both Fulci and the film. A further interview (we are being spoiled) is also contained, this time with infamous producer and writer Claudio Fragasso (TROLL 2) who gives us an interesting insight into the film and it’s troubled production.

Rather oddly, and it has been discussed online why, but we are also treated to a Q&A with Lucio Fulci video nasty star Catriona MacColl which is an enjoyable watch thanks to her recollections of working alongside Lucio Fulci but doesn’t really explain why it is on this disc. Overall however 88 Films have put together a very strong package and I can’t see how this film could be improved for future releases, not that it even deserves further improvement, but if you are a zombie fan you can’t go far wrong with this release.

CONTRABAND (1980) BY LUCIO FULCI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Luca il contrabbandiere; The Naples Connection; Luca el contrabandista; La guerre des gangs; Das Syndikat des Grauens; The Smuggler
Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Gianni De Chiara, Ettore Sanzo
Year: 1980
Starring: Fabio Testi, Ivana Monti, Marcel Bozzuffi; Luciano Rossi;

Synopsis:
Fabio Testi stars as Luca, an ‘old-school’ cigarette smuggler who triggers a ferocious mob war when his brother is killed and his wife kidnapped by a rival gang headed by a totally drug dealing, depraved sadist who is intent on replacing the cigarette smuggling status quo.

[Adapted from the Shameless DVD release]

Review:
Seemingly a million miles away from the sun-kissed coast of Naples that exists in our minds, CONTRABAND starts in a bleak, misty Neapolitan harbour where a local smuggling gang, led by our protagonist Luca (Fabio Testi – WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?; GANG WAR IN NAPLES; THE BIG RACKET), make a successful yet clearly illegal pick up only to be rumbled by the fuzz resulting in a passable chase which has the novelty of being on the water instead of in the streets.

Struggling to get away, Luca pulls plan B out of the bag and his neat trick ensures that all of his team get away…but at a cost of two million in earnings. It is clear that the gang were sold out and Luca thinks he knows who by.

With suspicions aroused it is not long before Luca’s brother Mickey (Enrico Maisto – THE CLIMBER; VIOLENT NAPLES; CORLEONE) is gunned down in front of him and it is this event that is the real catalyst for the story. 

Although relatively early this pivotal moment of the film is treated with all the grandeur it deserves as director Lucio Fulci pulls out the slow-motion effect in an attempt to heighten the emotional impact but as would happen on a number of other occasions throughout the film these little attempts to add a touch of gravitas to proceedings fail to hit the mark.

Now by this point of the story we have been introduced to Luca’s family, living and dead, but through an exposition we discover exactly why there was a such a tight bond between brothers and why vengeance is so important to Luca.

Having spent the opening twenty minutes laying down these emotional foundations it is a shame that the affect on the viewer is minimal, although this is in part down to the limited range of Fabio Testi. Thankfully however there is a growing level of criminal political intrigue, double crossing and violence to keep our attention. 

I suspect that Lucio Fulci could see that the drama was failing to register at this point and rather bravely at this point the director decides to double down as CONTRABAND boosts the family element ensuring that it not only added further impetus to Luca’s vendetta but would also raise the stakes for the viewer thanks in part to one particularly sadistic scene.

With this it is interesting to see that after all these attempts at building intricate plotting between characters and a strong family dynamic, albeit a two-dimensional one, the director falls back to what many modern audiences would expect – graphic, shocking violence – as a body is thrown in a sulphur pit, a face shown being burnt by a bunsen burner and a throat being shot off being just some of the highlights of the brutal war that ensues between the old guard and the new crime boss from Marseille, played by Marcel Bozzuffi in a part not too dissimilar to the one he held in THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

Despite all of this violence however, CONTRABAND fails to live up to its promise in the action stakes, relatively speaking, and this arguably could come down to Lucio Fulci himself, on his first and only eurocrime film, not yet being knowledgeable enough in directing the required big action scenes to the same standard as genre masters Enzo G. Castellari (HIGH CRIME; STREET LAW; THE BIG RACKET THE HEROIN BUSTERS) and even fellow journeyman Umberto Lenzi (GANG WAR IN MILAN; ALMOST HUMAN; SYNDICATE SADISTS; VIOLENT NAPLES; THEY CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST) had achieved by this point in time.

This is not saying the action is bad here, in fact the violence considered in isolation certainly lives up to the hype and shock expected of the director but it is the surrounding action and context that is notably weaker than his peers in the genre. 

Which arguably explains why CONTRABAND shifts ever so slightly more towards the dramatic, and this is something that it suffers for in an almost pedestrian first act. Looking at the period in which the film was made this dramatic aspect may also tie in with where Italy was as a society at the time. Moving into a new decade the stories of public disorder and seemingly random true life violence that once influenced the seventies eurocrime were becoming more infrequent and while Lucio Fulci has technically maintained the tradition of drawing from real life it is here perhaps with more of an artistic licence as he delves deeper spending more time on Luca’s family dynamic than perhaps is necessary in this film or rather should I say in the audiences demands.

Coming at the very tail end of the sub-genre one could almost see CONTRABAND as an evolution from the more direct action set-piece focused eurocrime (I do feel that A SPECIAL COP IN ACTION attempted this as well). It is also worth noting the sporadic use of two police officers throughout the film. Used sparingly they break up the criminal focus and more serious drama thanks to their dialogue lending an almost thoughtful (and sometimes lighter) tone as they mimic the conversations of the philosophers of antiquity by discussing the morality of the smugglers actions and how communities rely on them for their livelihood while at the same time being in direct violation of law and civil order. Honourable crooks if you will – much like Luca and no doubt the small number of producers on the film who were actually Neapolitan smugglers (as noted by Roberto Curti in his book ‘Italian Crime Filmography 1968-1980’) and surely had a hand in how they were portrayed.

Overall CONTRABAND is not only a Lucio Fulci film – layered, intelligent and at times graphically violent– but one representative of a certain point in his career. While it will certainly appease those looking for superficial violent thrills it does attempt to offer much more, even if it does not necessarily succeed. 

Clearly not a top tier film, despite the wonderful and seasoned supporting cast, CONTRABAND does entertain and add a little something different to the genre.

Oh and as well as nice gun-toting cameo from Lucio Fulci look out for our pal Luciano Rossi. He would also go in to feature in Lucio Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD in the same year and the two films were released in theatres only three days apart.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the 2014 Shameless Films DVD release which had a slightly grainy image quality and English dubbing of a dubious quality but it is released uncut and with an Italian audio track.

Finally the lenticular case for the DVD packaging is fantastic and certainly does the film and Shameless justice. Check it out.

Lucky or not so lucky Ros!

Articles and Interviews

Wait, you’re that guy from that movie, aren’t you?

Many may not know his name but almost every Italian genre fan will know his face. Having appeared in over 70 movies, although not always credited, the career of Luciano Rossi appears almost a paradox. 

Constantly in work but barely ever in truly memorable roles, Luciano Rossi would be seemingly invisible in the grand scheme of things, often reduced to a mere footnote, due to the frequency of being cast in a minor or extra role, usually as a glorified punch-bag.

However thankfully his contribution has been not only noted, but actually the sole purpose of the book A Violent Professional by Kier-La Janisse, and it is in this spirit of recognition that I wrote this brief piece on his more known genre work. And if you enjoy this piece (or even if you don’t) I would suggest picking up A Violent Professional, which marks an interesting read and discovery of the man’s roles. 

Luciano Rossi was born in Rome on the 28th November, 1934 and would begin adulthood working at an import/export business before deciding that acting would be the career for him. As a result he began visiting Cinecittà regularly looking for any work that he could find as an actor.

No doubt aided by his distinct and stereotypically un-Italian appearance his first, albeit uncredited, role was as a German soldier in the 1962 war drama ‘Dieci italiani per un Tedesco (Via Rasella)’ which literally translates as ten Italians for a German. 

For whatever reason it would be a further four years before he would return to the big screen  – this time appearing in the Franco Nero fronted DJANGO.  Although uncredited once again, this brief role saw him play a lackey to the town Major, and would set the tone for many of his future roles as viewers would witness him being violent towards a woman before being killed. Normally I might consider that bit of information a spoiler but as this is Luciano Rossi we are talking about these actions are almost a given. 

Several varied roles followed across a range of genres as Luciano Rossi, like many other Italians in the industry, forged a journeyman career but at least for him there was one constant – Django! In total he would go on to feature in seven Django films during the late sixties (including ‘Sentenza di morte’) as well as a handful of other westerns and crime flicks.

After a very active 1968/69 his career was on an upward trajectory, at least in terms of volume of work, but it would be another uncredited role in 1970 that would see him appear in perhaps the most successful film he would ever be involved in – Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST. It is just a shame that his role is so brief that you might miss him even if you don’t blink.

However things would soon click for Rossi however with a role in Roberto Bianchi Montero’s 1972 giallo-esque thriller SO SWEET, SO DEAD which is also known by the catchy title THE SLASHER IS THE SEX MANIAC or if you manage to get hold of the US hardcore sex version, PENETRATION. Although I suspect that version had a very targeted audience for whom plot and mystery had little to do with the appeal.

Roberto Bianchi Montero’s film features an almost moralistic killer who targets adulterous women resulting in several denouncements for misogyny and it certainly does attempt to live up to the more salacious and presumed stereotype of the sleazy side of the genre, However due to the cast this film is still worth your time, but don’t go expecting a classic. 

In it Luciano Rossi plays a morgue attendant who likes to engage in, let’s say, extracurricular work activities but portrays the character more as pitiful than perverse – a distraction or a lead suspect, that is for you to find out.

In addition to this, Luciano Rossi would go on to feature in a small but notable role in Luciano Ercoli’s giallo DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, 1971. Playing Hallory, a very distinctive village local, he managed to briefly steal some of the attention away from our leads in a terrific and intriguing little robbery thriller-come-giallo.

Now whatever he did on set, he clearly did it well enough to feature in the directors second ‘Death walks…’ feature, released the following year. Although in truth it was probably harder to not be recast by Luciano Ercoli than it was to be cast as highlighted by the return of several actors. 

Only this time in DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT he gained a bit more screen time with his memorable role as Hans, seeing him cast as a German once again while also maintaining his default comeuppance and ultimately taking a beating.

Crazy and hamming it up, Luciano Rossi not only looked fantastic in this film but also puts in arguably one of his best performances, even if he was had very little dialogue or variety to work with. 

Now death isn’t a good thing for most people but Luciano Rossi thrived off in a manner of speaker as he followed up these two films with appearances in Maurizio Pradeaux’s neat little giallo DEATH CARRIES A CANE, seeing the actor once again feature alongside Luciano Ercoli’s other half and muse Nieves Navarro aka Susan Scott. This film of ‘death’ was soon followed by DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER by Joe D’Amato. In this he managed to secure a relatively awful lot of screen time as the hunchback Fritz in what Janisse would call “one of the most satisfying roles of Rossi’s career”.

By this point the Italian industry saw the giallo wane, at least in terms of its golden period, with this genre being overtaken in popularity by the rise in eurocrime and poliziotteschi. So it would be no surprise to see Luciano Rossi, along with many others in the Italian film industry which no doubt suffered from cronyism, make the move across. However this would not be it for him and the giallo as he would return later to the genre, if only loosely with 1974’s PROSTITUZIONE by Rino Di Silvestro – a curious hybrid of giallo and social sleaze.

However back on cinematic trend, Luciano Rossi went on to appear in THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS (1973) alongside Luc Miranda, Silvano Tranquilli and American actor Richard Conte…however he would not event make it out of the first act, such is his lucky.

This role however would set him off on a spate of eurocrime including an uncredited role in EXECUTION SQUAD (aka Le mano spietata delle legge; The Bloody Hands of the Law) in which he receives a blowtorch to the groin courtesy of the one and only Klaus Kinski. According to writer/director Mario Gariazzo this scene was somehow set to be even more violent but was shortened in order to appease both the producers and the ensure an easier ride with the censors.

Roles soon followed as part of the Comissario Betti films, first as a low life rapist in the 1975 film VIOLENT ROME before scoring a more substantial role in Umberto Lenzi’s follow up VIOLEN NAPLES in which Maurizio Merli reprised the role of Betti handing out judo chop after judo chop.

In VIOLENT NAPLES Luciano Rossi plays young thug Quasimodo who, as part of a small gang kidnap a married couple and rape the wife. This action all occurs near the start of the film and is the initial trigger for Comissario Betti to rally against the bureaucratic and restrictive system and culminates in a battle against John Saxon and the mob. Although that is not before the world’s worst escape attempt in which poor Quasimodo is impaled on a spike in an almost comedic manner. VIOLENT NAPLES proves that rarity of a sequel in that it actually manages to surpass the original with Luciano Rossi playing the small-time, loathsome criminal perfectly as ever.

Once again, the by now dare we say character actor, must have made a good on-set impression as Umberto Lenzi would also give him a part in his 1976 crime drama Il trucido e lo sbirro which was co-written by Umberto Lenzi and Lucio Fulci regular Dardano Sacchetti and stared another genre icon, this time in the shape of Tomas Milian.

Now Luciano Rossi was ever worried that he would be typecast as a low-level criminal he needn’t have worried as that another stereotype – a Nazi – would provide him with some variety. First briefly in SALON KITTY by Tinto Brass and then in Fabio De Agostini’s THE RED NIGHTS OF THE GESTAPO.

Based on a book by Bertha Uhland, the ridiculous plot sees a group of German industrialists try to overthrow Hitler . This film however is one for the dedicated only.

Unfortunately it was around this time that depression began to sink in, perhaps due to the frustration of always being the nearly man. Eventually the actors health began to give way as severe weight loss and muscular dystrophy took hold and the mid-to-late 70s marked the beginning of the end for Luciano Rossi.

The final act of Luciano Rossi’s career saw more brief roles in minor films, primarily in the ailing eurocrime genre with little of interest except perhaps the 1977 film CRIME BUSTERS starring former Django Terence Hill (who he featured alongside in THEY CALL ME TRINITY and DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN) and Bud Spencer.

It wouldn’t be until 1980 when, thanks to Lucio Fulci, Luciano Rossi would be back on the cinema screens thanks to CONTRABAND in which he played a chemist and in CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, released the same year, where he played a policeman. Both very small roles but he is instantly recognisable if inconsequential.

Eventually Luciano Rossi would see out his career with roles in a few footnote films (HOTEL PARADISE; SANGRAAL; La spade di fuoco) culminating with the comedy LONG LIVE THE LADY! in 1987 which was the end of a deteriorating career that would parallel his health.

Having starred alongside and for many greats of the 1970s Italian film industry, many of which he would work alongside on multiple occasions it is a shame that someone who toiled away in the background so often and on so many entertaining and quality films would ultimately be remain overlooked struggling to get his due for many decades.

For whatever reason that breakthrough to the next level of success eluded him but thankfully now with the re-release of many classic and not so classic films he is finally, albeit posthumously, getting the attention that he deserves.

So next time you recognise that blonde haired, short little sleazeball or that chemist that the camera holds on for slightly too long think of Luciano Rossi and what a life he must have lived.

Brief note, depending on the film and the release you have Luciano Rossi may also be known by one of his anglicised pseudonyms such as Lou Kamante, Lucky Ros or Edward/Edwin Ross.

Un’intervista con Antonio Tentori

Articles and Interviews

Per il mio l’ultimo blog (Cosi Perversa) ero fortunato a intervista il meravigoloso Antonio Tentori. Questa intervista sono stato difficile per me perchè abbiamo fatto in italiano, quindi la mia lingua forse brutto ma spero divertiti comunque.

CE: Come hai fatto a entrare nel mondo del cinema e hai sempre saputo che volevi scrivere storie?

AT: Scrivere è sempre stata la mia più grande passione e da quando ero ragazzo ho desiderato fortemente scrivere per il cinema. Ho iniziato a lavorare nel cinema come generico in alcuni film (per esempio Yado di Richard Fleischer, che è stato girato in Italia) e in seguito sono stato assistente alla regia di Antonio Bido (Barcamenandoci), Tonino Valerii (Sicilian Connection) e Lucio Fulci (Demonia). Questo percorso mi è stato necessario per poter arrivare alla scrittura cinematografica.

CE: Quando hai capito che avevi fatto come sceneggiatore e ti senti che coloro che lavorano con orrore ottenere il credito che meritano?

AT: La consapevolezza di essere sceneggiatore è venuta in un secondo momento. All’inizio ero soltanto felice di aver contribuito alla realizzazione di alcuni film con registi che amavo, come Fulci e Aristide Massaccesi. Le soddisfazioni sono arrivate nel tempo, non subito. Ma ritengo che le prove e le sfide che superiamo siano stimoli per andare avanti e fare sempre meglio.

CE: Hai lavorato con Lucio Fulci e lui ti ha dato un’introduzione al settore con ‘Demonia’ e un inizio con il meta-film ‘Un gatto nel cervello’. Come avete trovato questo battesimo del fuoco nel settore?

AT: Lucio Fulci è stato il mio maestro, non avrei fatto niente senza il suo aiuto. Esordire con lui mi ha insegnato tanto e ancora adesso conservo i suoi preziosi consigli e seguo le sue indicazioni. Ho vissuto il mio “battesimo del fuoco”, come giustamente lo chiami tu, in uno stato di perenne entusiasmo, quasi di esaltazione. E’ stato un momento indimenticabile, magico.

CE: Qual è stata la principale lezione che hai imparato a lavorare con Lucio Fulci?

AT: Conoscere e lavorare con Lucio Fulci, ripeto, è stato fondamentale. Mi ha insegnato che il cinema è tecnica, lavoro, professionalità. Elementi essenziali per uno sceneggiatore, insieme alla visionarietà e a quel tocco surreale che ha sempre contraddistinto il cinema di Fulci e a cui sono legato.

CE: Quando ti scrivi un racconto che cosa è il solito processo per la scrittura?

AT: Quando scrivo un racconto seguo l’idea principale, da cui si svolge poi l’intera narrazione. È un tipo di scrittura non lontana dalla sceneggiatura, nel senso che parto da un inizio e proseguo con le varie diramazioni del racconto. È evidente che ogni racconto è a se stante e quindi ogni volta è diverso il modo in cui comincio a scrivere. Per alcuni racconti è necessario una ricerca e una documentazione riguardo luoghi, ambientazioni o argomenti scelti. In ogni caso mi faccio trasportare dalla fantasia.

CE: Italiano è tua lingua madre, ma la maggior parte dei film sono in inglese, si fa a scrivere le bozze script in italiano o in inglese? E quanto si perde nella traduzione?

AT: Scrivo in italiano. Qualcosa nella traduzione inevitabilmente si perde, ma non l’essenza della storia che si vuole raccontare. Un buon traduttore deve saper restituire in inglese quello che esiste nel testo originale.

CE: Per uno sceneggiatore, cosa vorresti dire è stata la sfida più grande nel garantire che la vostra visione si imbatte o avete semplicemente affidati al regista di fare il meglio per il tuo lavoro?

AT: Il primo compito che mi prefiggo quando scrivo è che le mie idee abbiano una loro coerenza narrativa e che anche la storia più delirante possa avere una propria logica interna. È chiaro che poi sta al regista visualizzare il mio lavoro e farlo al meglio, secondo il proprio stile e la propria sensibilità.

CE: Una notevole quantità di tempo trascorso tra ‘Frankenstein 2000 -Ritorno dalla morte’ e tuo ritorno per l’industria con il fantastico film di Sergio Stivaletti ‘ I tre volti di orrore ‘(I tre volti del terrore’). Che cosa ha spinto questa pausa?

AT: È vero, tra questi due film sono passati una decina di anni. Ma sono anni in cui ho sempre lavorato come sceneggiatore, anche se diversi progetti non si sono concretizzati. Nello stesso tempo ho scritto e pubblicato libri di cinema, collaborato a riviste, scritto fumetti horror. Bisogna poi aggiungere che all’inizio degli anni novanta c’è stata la crisi del cinema italiano di genere e il lavoro è sceso per tutti.

CE: Hai scritto Dracula 3D con Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo e Stefano Piani. Come si è arrivati a tanto e come si fa a trovare la scrittura con un gruppo?

AT: Ho scritto Dracula con Argento e Stefano Piani, Cerezo è nei titoli solo per ragioni di coproduzione. Il film nasce dall’incontro tra Dario e Gianni Paolucci, il produttore di tanti film di Bruno Mattei, con cui avevo già lavorato. A noi si è poi aggiunto Stefano Piani. In precedenza avevo lavorato sia da solo che con altri sceneggiatori e in questa occasione mi sono trovato molto bene a scrivere con Stefano e, naturalmente, con Argento.

CE: In questo processo di scrittura di gruppo si è dovuto compromettere o c’è una sensazione di sinergia un terreno comune tra tutti voi?

AT: Non ci sono stati veri compromessi, ma soltanto la scelta di eliminare alcune situazioni narrative presenti nel romanzo di Bram Stoker (tutta la parte londinese per esempio) e concentrarci sul territorio e sul paese dominato da Dracula. C’è stata fin dall’inizio un’intesa immediata tra noi e la comune volontà di creare qualcosa che ci differenziasse da tutti gli altri film di Dracula.

CE: Dracula può cambiare in animali ma perché una mantide religiosa?

AT: L’idea di Dracula in grado di trasformarsi nei più diversi animali nel corso del film è stata potenziata al massimo da Dario. Dopo aver mutato forma più volte, l’apoteosi delle sue trasformazioni è questa mantide gigantesca che appare in maniera imprevedibile nel finale. E’ irreale e delirante, ma personalmente trovo che sia una scelta indovinata, per quanto straniante.

CE: Hai lavorato a fianco della vecchia guardia (Argento, D’Amato, Fulci e Mattei) e ora la nuova generazione di registi italiani (Pastore, Cristopharo). Quali sono stati i maggiori cambiamenti nel settore da quando hai iniziato nel 1990?

AT: Sono fiero di aver lavorato con maestri del cinema fantastico e horror e adesso sono contento di collaborare con giovani autori. In questi ultimi anni ho incontrato diversi registi che sono cresciuti con gli stessi film che ho amato io. Oltre a Pastore e Cristopharo, anche Edo Tagliavini (Bloodline), Lorenzo Lepori e Bruno Di Marcello. I più grandi cambiamenti sono stati a livello produttivo: rispetto al periodo in cui ho iniziato io, ovvero la fine degli anni ottanta, mancano produttori che investano nel cinema di genere. Di conseguenza si producono ovviamente meno film. E’ nata, però, una notevole produzione indie, da cui a volte nascono autori notevoli e film interessanti.

CE: Quale film per tutta la carriera si è sentito più soddisfatti?

AT: E’ difficile rispondere a questa domanda perchè ogni film a cui ho collaborato, anche quelli minori, ha rappresentato per me un momento importante nel mio percorso di sceneggiatore. Posso dire che sono molto legato ad alcuni film, così come ai registi che li hanno diretti. Ne cito soltanto due: Un gatto nel cervello, che ancora oggi dopo tanti anni continua ad essere visto e apprezzato dai fan di tutto il mondo, e Dracula, grazie al quale ho avuto la fortuna di essere invitato al festival di Cannes.

CE: Hai scritto molti libri, sia fiction e non-fiction. Pensi che la scrittura narrativa ti dà più libertà di uno script?

AT: Parallelamente alla sceneggiatura, la saggistica è una componente importante del mio lavoro. Ho cominciato nello stesso periodo, perché il mio primo film ha coinciso con il mio primo libro. Per quanto riguarda i libri sul cinema, questa forma di scrittura è certamente molto diversa dalla sceneggiatura. La libertà totale è però quella della narrativa.

CE: Ho letto e apprezzato le versioni in lingua inglese di film italiani Giallo (con Antonio Bruschini) e film horror italiani (con Luigi Cozzi). Che cosa ti hai fatto decidere di scrivere queste guide?Ci sono piani di tradurre tutti i più libri in futuro?

AT: Italian Giallo Movies è l’aggiornamento due libri sul cinema thriller italiano scritti con il mio amico Antonio Bruschini, ovvero Profonde tenebre e Sotto gli occhi dell’assassino. La stessa cosa si può dire per Italian Horror Movies, aggiornamento di alcuni volumi sull’horror italiano scritti con Cozzi.Potrebbero uscire altre versioni inglesi dei libri che pubblico con Profondo rosso, la casa editrice del mio amico Luigi Cozzi.

CE: Il tuo primo credito attore è tornato nel 2010 in di Luigi Pastore ‘Come una crisalide’, che si anche aiutato co-scrittura. Come è nata la decisione di venire su per voi per recitare in essa, o era sempre presente l’intenzione?

AT: Precedentemente sono apparso in film scritti da me (Demonia, Un gatto nel cervello, I tre volti del terrore), oppure di registi amici come Brass (Fermoposta Tinto Brass, Trasgredire, Senso 45, Monamour) e Argento (Il cartaio, La terza madre). Come una crisalide – ‘Symphony in Blood Red’ è il primo film in cui sono veramente attore. Inizialmente non dovevo interpretare io il serial killer, ma Luigi Pastore era rimasto colpito dalla mia apparizione in I tre volti del terrore, dove impersonavo un torturatore vestito di nero, e mi ha proposto il ruolo. Ho accettato anche per ragioni di budget e perché sarebbe stato più complicato spiegare questo ruolo a un attore “vero”!

CE: È tornato davanti allo schermo con un ruolo nel film di Pastore 2015 riavvio del Violent Shit’. Possiamo aspettarci di vedere di nuovo in qualunque momento presto?

AT: Dopo ‘Symphony in Blood Red’ sono apparso anche in Ubaldo Terzani Horror Show di Gabriele Albanesi e Paura dei Manetti Bros. Prossimamente mi vedrete in Catacomba di Lorenzo Lepori (nell’episodio Evil Tree) e nel nuovo film di Luigi Cozzi Blood on Melies Moon.

CE: Quest’anno tu sei coinvolti in un paio di film, tra cui ‘Virus:Extreme Contamination’. Cosa mi puoi dire dei tuoi prossimi progetti?

AT: Con Domiziano Cristopharo abbiamo altri progetti in lavorazione ma è troppo presto per parlarne, così come per quanto riguarda i progetti con altri registi. Per ora posso dire che uscirà il film a episodi Catacomba di Lorenzo Lepori e tra breve dovrebbero iniziare le riprese di House of Murderers di Bruno Di Marcello.

CE: Grazie mille a Antonio per il tuo tempo e tanti auguri.

Mi scusa a tutti per mio scrivendo brutto in italiano. Trovi piu vertere intorno Antonio Tentori sul website o su Facebook.