It's been mentioned countless times that I was quite easy to scare as a child. The slightest hint of terror in any form of media (movies, television, books, music, you name it) would have me fleeing from the room in fright, eventually coaxed back in by very patient family members ensuring me everything was fine.
Whenever we would visit my father's family in Goldsboro North Carolina, my brother and I would sleep on air mattresses in a room that was typically full of various pieces of memorabilia collected by one of my uncles. Hung on the backside of the bedroom door was a poster that mortified my little child brain so much whenever the door was closed that eventually my parents made my uncle hang a curtain over the poster any time we visited. That only did so much for me though. Sitting in the dark at night, staring at the curtain, I knew that poster was still there, peeking through, staring right back at me.
The poster in question was for Lucio Fulci's 1980 film, City of the Living Dead, although the poster read The Gates of Hell, which was the title the film was given when it first debuted in the United States in 1983. The poster in question depicted a cityscape covered in a murky night and the head of a rotting undead corpse hovering above the buildings and staring out at the viewer with a glazed, unsympathetic glare. It was that zombie's eye (He only had one. The other was missing) gazing at me that truly haunted me to my core, that and the blood red words reading he Gates of Hell or the cryptic tagline "THE DEAD SHALL RISE AND WALK THE EARTH" certainly didn't help.
Time passed, I grew up, and I slowly but surely got bit by the horror bug. By the time I was in college I was a fully fledged horror genre fan. The image of that poster still haunted me. We hadn't visited Goldsboro in a long time and I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen it, but the imagery stayed fresh in my mind. Eventually my horror nerd exploits led me to discovering the work of Lucio Fulci.
I knew who he was at the time solely because I had read about Zombi, specifically the two most popular scenes, the zombie/shark fight and the infamous eye gouging, but that was as far as my knowledge extended at the time. Eventually in my journey through horror, I came across City of the Living Dead, and I fell in love with it. After some post-screening research, I discovered that this was this movie was actually Gates of Hell and everything came full circle.
I've seen a few more Fulci films since then (Zombi, Don't Torture A Duckling, and most recently, the second film in the GOH trilogy, The Beyond) and with each film I find something else to love. At first glance, Fulci films can be easily dismissed as "trashy" cinema. They're pulpy, low budget, the plots are fairly silly, and depending on what your sensibilities are, they can seem pretty depraved.
But I realized something about Fulci last night while watching The Beyond and I think it has a lot to do with why I enjoy his movies so much. Regardless of how old or low budget they are, Fulci films scare me more than most bigger budget horror films. I watched The Beyond by myself and halfway through the final climax I became so unnerved that I had to turn the lights on because watching in the dark was becoming much too stressful.
Fulci flicks are pure visceral horror, light on story and heavy on atmosphere. The monsters and evil forces of these movies are grim and gritty, rooted in bodily decay and destruction. Character deaths are tactile, sweaty, and gruesome. Even when the deaths are practically absurd, they feel real to our brains. Fulci's heavy shadows and slow moving cameras create a sense of dread more palpable than any other horror film. I sincerely dread whatever is hiding just offscreen or whatever is lurking in the shadows.
Particularly in The Beyond, the feeling of experiencing a nightmare you can't wake up from is ever present in the atmospheric set pieces. Moments of violence and horror are lingered upon and Fulci refuses to let us look away. The narrative isn't logical. Sequences blend together in an oneiric fashion, particularly at the end of the film as events become more and more feverish and dreamlike.
Even without the atmosphere and grit of these films, they are undeniably rich in their visuals. The cinematography of Sergio Salvati give these films massive amounts of character. The imagery is crisp, striking, and ultimately beautiful even when depicting the most horrific carnage. Fulci's influence on current filmmakers is constantly present in his films in the way he moves his camera.
Fulci films may not be the most well known horror films outside of cult status, but they have certainly stood the test of time, continuing to prove their worth by haunting our dreams well after the credits begin to roll. Even in a world with constantly evolving special effects, the practical effects of the Gates of Hell trilogy remain rooted strongly in horror film mythology where it rightfully belongs. Fulci found a way to portray the inevitability of death in such a profoundly disturbing way in the way his walking dead are depicted. Even when I'd never seen one of his films, the illustrated image of one of his zombies was enough to drive fear into my heart. And perhaps that's another reason why these movies will always frighten me more than almost any other film.
Each viewing is a reminder of that poster, watching me in the dark, never blinking, and never looking away.