This week on TCM Underground: Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery (1981) and Michael Curtiz’s The Walking Dead (1936)
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on December 9, 2015
If you love, as I do, to re-read Charles Dickens’ classic Yuletide novella A Christmas Carol every December then you’ll love TCM Underground this weekend! Ghosts, the restless dead, dark old houses, vengeance, redemption, severed heads, capital punishment — why, it’s as if Old Boz scripted these movies himself. Disagree? Eh, I don’t care.
Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci is remembered, at least in the United States, for the horror films to which he turned in later life, nearer the end than the middle of a long career banging out product for Italian cinemas. Born in 1927, the Rome native had been pointed to a career in medicine before he change course to join the Italian film industry in the aftermath of World War II. Working his way up through the ranks, Fulci served as an assistant director, screenwriter, and actor before making his directorial debut in 1959. Though Italy had no paucity of movie-making maestri during the age of la dolce vita, the country’s second run theaters were in constant need of fresh product for working class audiences with little to no interest in the artistry of Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, or Pasolini; as such, Fulci put his hand to whatever producers and distributors thought would sell: comedies, romances, period dramas, crime films, action adventures, psychological thrillers, and westerns. So it was with horror films, which had shifted from being the stuff of kiddie matinees in the late 1960s to expressly adult material taking full advantage a global relaxation of standards regarding graphic violence.
George A. Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) had been financed in part with Italian money and received an Italian release as ZOMBI. Called upon to cash in on the vogue for excessively violent horror films was tradesman Lucio Fulci, whose unrelated ZOMBI 2 (AKA ZOMBIE/ZOMBIE FLESHEATERS, 1979) was sold in his homeland as a sequel to the Romero film. The formula for ZOMBI would be repeated in the wake of its international success (and infamy). As Fulci had shot scenes for ZOMBI in New York City, he would head for Savannah, Georgia, to make CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), to New Orleans, Louisiana for THE BEYOND (1981), and to Boston, Concord, and Scituate, Massachusetts to shoot locations for THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981). Cobbled together from narrative bits and bobs cadged from the likes of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, fueled by the adrenaline rush of nightmare logic, and particularized by an orgiastic excess of hyper-violence, Fulci’s 80s horrors earned him the well-deserved (if not entirely comprehensive) nickname “the Godfather of Gore.”
THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (in Italy, QUELLA VILLA ACCANTO AL CIMITERO) went into production in March 1981 under the working title FREUDSTEIN. The original story was the work of ZOMBI alumna Elisa Livia Briganti, with screenplay credit claimed by Briganti’s screenwriter husband Dardano Sacchetti, Fulci, and Giorgio Mariuzzo. The tale of a modern American family that takes possession of a creepy country house that endeavors to take possession of them was familiar territory, reflecting Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), Stuart Rosenberg’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979), Dan Curtis’ BURNT OFFERINGS (1976), and even William Castle’s spookhouse satire 13 GHOSTS (1960) – to say nothing of the made-for-TV terrors of Walter Grauman’s CROWHAVEN FARM (1970), Steven Spielberg’s SOMETHING EVIL (1972), and John Newland’s DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973) – each a sobering parable of the dark side of home ownership. (One might even detect the influence of Paul Wendkos’ 1975 telefilm THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN, which located in the Borden family basement a ghoulish mortician’s lab not dissimilar from the lair of HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY‘s resident bogie, Dr. Freudstein.) Though the narrative structure is boilerplate – with a generalized feeling of unease metastasizing into inexplicable occurrences and gruesome deaths – distinction arises from Fulci’s charnel insatiability, a no-holds-barred/no-quarter-given authorial intent straight out of the Roman Bread and Circuses.
A key ingredient to the fun of Fulci’s 80s output is his rotating repertory of actors. British leading lady Catriona MacColl was at this point making the last of three films for Fulci, having played the leading lady in both CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE BEYOND. MacColl’s leading man, Italian Ron Silver lookalike Paolo Malco, would turn up as the second male lead of Fulci’s brutal 1982 slasher THE NEW YORK RIPPER while child actor Giovanni Frezza (recipient in this setting of the worst English dubbing in recorded history) would play another terrorized tot in Fulci’s MANHATTAN BABY (1982). THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY‘s roster of unfortunate victims includes Dagmar Lassander and Daniela Doria (both dispatched with gory aplomb in Fulci’s 1981 take on Edgar Allan Poe’s THE BLACK CAT) and cameos are contributed by CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD‘s Carlo De Mejo and Fulci himself. The comfort factor – if one might call it that – of HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is completed by the camerawork of frequent Fulci collaborator Sergio Salvati, who cloaks the proceedings in appropriate shades of doom and decay… though the throbbing, insidious electronic score by Fulci one-timer Walter Rizzati plays a significant role as well in encouraging repeat viewing.
What’s funny about this lineup is that both THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and THE WALKING DEAD were misrepresented by some promoters as being Frankenstein films. Let’s be clear: Mary Shelley’s synthetic shuffler makes no appearance in either film but it’s not hard to understand why the poster artists (or whose whipping them on) pushed the association: Freudstein is a heady (monster) mashup of the Frankenstein Monster and psychology’s patron saint while Karloff was only five years removed, in 1936, from his career-defining role.
In 1936, Boris Karloff took a sabbatical from his longtime home base at Universal to make films for Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, the short-lived Grand National, and Gaumont in Great Britain. At Warners, Karloff was teamed with director Michael Curtiz for THE WALKING DEAD, a tale of vengeance from beyond the grave that seems at once tailor-made for the FRANENSTEIN star and yet something completely different. In THE INVISIBLE RAY (also 1936), Karloff had played an embittered and, as such, mad scientist who kills his enemies by radioactive touch; in THE WALKING DEAD, he is a wrongly condemned man who survives his execution as a slow but sure-moving, dead-eyed instrument of divine punishment – causing the deaths of the men who framed him for murder without laying a finger on them. However it may seem torn from the pages of Tales from the Crypt, THE WALKING DEAD is a potent morality play bordering on religious homily. Curtiz squeezes the maximum effect from his limited budget thanks to director of photography Hal Mohr’s eerie use of shadows. Mohr had been the first Academy Award nominee ever to win by write-in vote (for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM ) and picked up his second Oscar for Universal’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943). Curtiz was at this point between collaborations with Errol Flynn, having completed CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) and pointed towards THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) and THE SEA HAWK (1940) – with his most famous film, CASABLANCA (1942) six years down the road. Come to think of it, “As Time Goes By,” with its lyrical imperative “You must remember this,” would not have been an inappropriate theme for THE WALKING DEAD.
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