Midway through Lucio Fulci’s 1980 Italian horror film City of The Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi), a quiet, sympathetic young man named Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) hides in a garage, fearful of the newly awakened zombies menacing the small town of Dunwich. Anne, who lives in the house, has an opaque history with the boy — dialogue reveals that he attempted to seduce her in the woods when she was underage some years prior, but the warmth she shows towards him calls this into doubt. While Anne comforts the frightened Bob, her father Ross (Venantino Venantini), who holds a grudge against the young man, barges into the garage and finds them together. The two men struggle, accidentally throwing the switch on a giant drill press pointing horizontally. Ross holds Bob’s head down in the path of the oncoming drill. Fulci plays the moment for maximum suspense, repeatedly cutting between the struggling Bob’s head and a subjective close-up of the drill’s point moving slowly towards him. It is a frightening sequence, the whirring drill bit marching steadily towards the camera’s lens; it is also typical of many suspenseful sequences in many horror films. The slow, dread-inducing push of the impending catastrophe, suddenly averted at the last moment by a Herculean resurgence of strength from Bob, who would throw off Ross and regain the upper hand in fight, narrowly avoiding gruesome death. Except that isn’t at all what happens: Ross holds Bob’s head on the press until the drill bit reaches his skull, bores its way inside and — in a series of effects-driven close-ups — pierces all the way through, its bloody tip breaking the skin on the other side of Bob’s head while he gurgles and chokes to death.
In a series of conversations between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut (the book memorializing them is called, aptly, Hitchcock/Truffaut), Hitchcock articulates what he sees as the distinction between surprise and suspense. His example, told to Truffaut: “We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!’ In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
This infamous Italian horror drill scene from City of the Living Dead reconciles both Hitchcock’s ideas of suspense and surprise into one horrifying moment: the suspense comes from fearing the eventual contact of the drill with Bob’s head, and the surprise arrives when it actually happens. It can be fruitful to point out areas of continuity between Italian horror and American horror — influence moves in both directions. On the other hand, it can be a dead end to essentialize qualities of Italian horror movies at the risk of being too reductive. However, Fulci’s drill sequence offers a synecdoche for the existential dread that runs through Italian horror films, which often plays out in the films’ uniquely dark world views. In Fulci’s Zombie (Zombi 2; 1979), City of the Living Dead, Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (Incubo sulla città contaminata; 1980), Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead (1980) and Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (Le notti del terrore; 1981), impending doom is certain.
After the popularity of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) in Italy, released under the title Zombi and cut by Dario Argento, who worked with Romero to finance the film and helped secure Goblin (who had done the music for Argento on Deep Red  and Suspiria ) to score it, a wave of imitators rushed through the gates in the fine exploitative tradition of Italian genre cinema. Pessimism is endemic in the zombie film — after all, their subject is the end of the world, far from the happiest of outcomes. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) infamously puts its protagonists, trapped by the undead in an isolated farmhouse, through hell; it spares the film’s black protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), until he staggers out of the house in the morning, alive, only to be shot dead by a roving band of vigilantes taking matters into their own hands. It is a bleak reminder of the wave of political assassinations that defined the 1960s, especially of high profile African-American leaders, cruelly cut down by white racists opposed to their vision of a more just society. Despite the darkness of the first film, Romero’s subsequent films end, somewhat surprisingly, on more upbeat notes. Though the zombies in Dawn of the Dead have overrun the shopping mall, the two remaining protagonists Peter (Ken Foree) and Francine (Gaylen Ross) escape in a helicopter; their destination is uncertain, their fuel supply rapidly dwindling, but they have avoided death for the time being. Romero’s claustrophobic Day of the Dead (1985) spares three of its main characters, Sarah (Lori Cardille), John (Terry Alexander) and McDermott (Jarlath Conroy), who also use a helicopter to fly to a deserted island where they will presumably be relatively safe from the hordes of zombies that have laid waste to the world. In Land of the Dead (2005), Romero takes glee in sending his zombies into a gilded tower built by the uber-capitalist Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) who has decided not to let the crisis — the end of the world — go to waste, reconstituting old social and economic hierarchies. When the zombies finally break in, the rich who get torn limb from limb deserve it; the film’s working class heroes get to ride off in their armored vehicle, living to fight another day. For all their gore, all their pain, all their moments when characters must confront the reanimated corpses of their loved ones, these films ultimately prolong the end — it will continue, at least for some.
Italian zombie films offer no such relief. Fulci’s Zombie pulls a masterful bait-and-switch, sending the group of protagonists away from the dawning of the zombie threat in New York City to a tropical island where the outbreak began in search of one character’s missing father; while they try to survive the rise of the undead on Matul, the action in New York goes entirely unnoticed. As the last remaining survivors, Peter (Ian McCulloch) and Anne (Tisa Farrow), head back to States on their boat, they tune in to the radio and hear the anguished terror of the broadcasters chronicling the advance of the undead. Fulci cuts away from them to the Brooklyn Bridge, where zombies stagger towards the Manhattan skyline, a series of shots punctuated by Fabio Frizzi’s droning music. The Italian horror film stays away from New York for just long enough to erase the memory of the danger, but the switch doesn’t feel cheap; the inevitability of the outbreak is amply foreshadowed by the twitching hand of a dead police officer on a gurney in the city morgue, his throat torn out by the sailboat zombie during the film’s opening sequence in the harbor. The dread image of the zombies marching slowly on Manhattan circles back to the inevitability of the end; instead of emphasizing Peter and Anne’s escape from the island, Fulci dramatizes the hollowness of the victory. There is nowhere to run in the Italian horror movie.
The ending of Lenzi’s Italian horror film Nightmare City is clumsier than Fulci’s in Zombie, but no less indicative of Italian zombie films’ pessimism. A journalist, Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz), goes to the airport to cover the return of a group of scientists for his television news station; when the plane door opens, the passengers manically disembark, their faces charred black, and attack everyone waiting for them with weapons, cutting open the victims’ throats and sucking their blood. Miller and his wife Anna (Laura Trotter) try to escape to the countryside while the increasingly impotent efforts of the military, personified by General Murchison (Mel Ferrer), fail to stop the spread of the zombie attack. Just when things seem lost, Miller wakes up in his bed, the events of the film having represented nothing more than nightmare, that most hackneyed of twists. Lenzi, however, gripped by the same pessimistic streak that runs through his compatriots’ films, has merely foreshadowed reality in dreams — when Miller is called to the airport after waking, the same shots, the same blocking of actors, the same dialogue presage a predetermined path. Lenzi freezes on a wide shot of the plane, its door now open, ending the Italian horror film more or less where it began. Fulci, too, feels the pull of fatalism in the final scenes of City of the Living Dead. Even though psychiatrist Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) and clairvoyant Mary (Catriona MacColl) have survived their battle with the zombies in the crypt beneath Dunwich, and seemingly felled the undead priest who was their alpha, the final shot of a young boy charging towards them suddenly splinters into a black, cracking quake while ominous music crashes on the soundtrack. It is a compromised, abrupt ending, rumored to be the result of a mishap with the film negative, but one that nonetheless shows Fulci’s predilection for hopelessness. In the Italian horror film Hell of the Living Dead, all the protagonists on the tropical island where the chemical accident has brought the dead to life are killed, devoured by the horde of zombies — the despairing coda extends to the mainland, where the undead have arrived and attack a couple leaving a bar. The last survivors in Burial Ground are trapped in an old mausoleum, the zombies on the verge of ripping them to pieces. In each, total failure is the only realistic outcome.
Beyond the cynical endings of each Italian horror film, however, there is the gore. Gore occupies a dubious place in such genre films — routinely, it is seen as an inferior tactic to “atmosphere,” a craft-intensive use of cinematic tools ranging from complex interplay of light and shadow to rumbling soundtracks to tightly controlled cinematography. In A History of Italian Cinema, Peter Bondanella argues that a number of Italian horror films, these zombie pictures among them, are “meant to shock and disgust more than terrify their audiences […] Gore and splatter often overcome any interest in complex narrative plotting.” Similar objections have been raised against the Saw film series, as well as Eli Roth’s Hostel films (themselves heavily influenced by European horror), dismissed derisively as “torture porn.” The appearance of such films during the mid-2000s, at a time when the United States government was undertaking a program euphemistically called “Enhanced Interrogation” (read: torture), indicates that physical risk to the body is a foundational horror concern. Gore is outrageous and excessive by its very nature; in Italian zombie films, the blood and guts are the visceral manifestation of the cycle’s obsession with the inevitability of annihilation. On screen, gory set pieces — flesh torn, limbs ripped off, skulls pulverized — resonate because they literalize spectators’ awareness of the vulnerability of their own bodies. As is common in Romero films, Italian zombie directors mix special rubber effects and prosthetics designed for the actors with real animal guts, a fusion of fantasy and reality. In the Italian horror film City of the Living Dead, a young woman necking with her boyfriend in a car is suddenly transfixed by the undead priest whose suicide has opened the gates of Hell and made the dead walk again. The priest appears, and the woman cannot look away, her eyes welling up with tears of blood. She begins to vomit foam, then blood, with Fulci intercutting between the hypnotized actress and the priest’s piercing eyes. Eventually, he reframes to a close-up on the character’s mouth so that he can switch to a dummy for the sequence’s gory climax, a full on avalanche of intestines and other organs erupting from her face. It is a disgusting moment, but beyond its visceral impact, the expulsion of the body’s essential but hidden elements coincides with the woman’s total destruction. The guts literalize the self, an abstract concept made flesh in all of its wet, ugly horror, no longer contained by the shell of the body — the world turns inside out. In addition to the show-off nature of sequences like this, these films turn gore into a weapon that strikes at the heart of the human awareness that, eventually, the fragile body will fail — and when it does, the soul will go with it.
Across these Italian horror films, the zombies themselves illustrate the same terror of annihilation. Romero’s films dwell more on the newly dead. Night of the Living Dead’s most horrific moments come when zombie Johnny (Russell Streiner) crashes through the farmhouse window to grab his sister Barbra (Judith O’Dea) or when the young girl in the basement turns on her parents and eats them. The horror of the familiar, made unfamiliar by the cycle of death brought back to life, drives a number of Romero’s concerns. In Italy’s zombie films, however, the dead are often relics of the more distant past. All of these Italian horror productions (except Nightmare City, whose zombies are radioactive mutants) contain slow, dread-inducing shots of the undead rising from beneath the earth, their empty-socketed skulls slowly emerging from the dirt. As they rise, clumps of mud stick to their reanimated bodies, glistening worms dangle from their teeth and maggots crawl on their foreheads. Romero’s films contain no such shots. His zombies stagger, their danger advancing in aggregate, but their gray skin makes them more alive than dead. For instance, in Day of the Dead, zombie Bub (Howard Sherman) resembles a mummy, his expressive, desiccated face visible beneath wrinkled lines, emphasizing the memory of his humanity. Italian zombies are wet, their shambling frames suffused with the dampness of the earth they have just abandoned. A glistening undead hand slaps a window in the Italian horror film Zombie; bloody drool cascades from a ghoulish jaw in Hell of the Living Dead; the wet smack of guts meets zombie lips in Burial Ground. These are monsters — many of them have no eyes — who are driven by a desire to kill and eat, the past coming back to devour the present towards an apocalyptic future.
It is not a far leap from the shock horror zombie films of the late 1970s and early 1980s to the disgust-driven high art of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Porcile (1969) and Salo: 120 Days of Sodom (1975), both of which are obsessed with various forms of consumption. In Porcile (Pigsty in English), Pasolini tells two stories at once, intercutting between a survival story in the ancient world and a wealthy German businessman’s family and economic struggles. Each story ends with an act of outrageous, off-screen consumption: the German businessman’s son Julian (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is eaten by the family’s pigs, and the unnamed protagonist (Pierre Clementi) of the provincial narrative confesses to an act of cannibalism tinged with erotic fervor: “I killed my father, I ate human flesh, I quiver with joy,” he intones repeatedly. Salo’s story, such as it is, concerns the last days of the Mussolini regime as its remaining members withdraw to the north of Italy, taking refuge in an expansive villa with a collection of young men and women as hostages; they intend to use the young people to satisfy every urge they have, no matter how depraved, all the while Pasolini maintains a frighteningly stable, distanced camera position. Salo’s confrontational approach to sadism and psychosexual violence feels of a piece with some of the more intense horror films to come out of Italy in its aftermath; the difference is that Pasolini includes a bibliography in the opening credits that references Roland Barthes and Simone de Beauvoir, while Fulci and his compatriots, well, don’t do that. However, Pasolini’s scatological opera is preoccupied with the body and especially its fluids. There are endless discussions of urine, semen, blood, feces, recounted in disgustingly vivid monologues of sexual adventurism by well-dressed aristocrats. But the fluids also show up literally in images: a gob of spit on a woman’s face; urine trickling into a subordinated man’s beard; blood pouring out of a young girl’s mouth after she has bitten into a mass of food containing nails. The film’s centerpiece is a fine banquet during which the fascists and their subjects dine on human feces served from silver dishes. Its final sequences of violence wrought on nude bodies, during which a man is branded with a hot iron, a woman is scalped and another woman has her eye pierced by a knife, are nearly indistinguishable from sequences in Euro shock horror. To underline the point, all of these sadistic acts of violence are viewed by a group of fascists from the villa trading binoculars, the emphasis on spectatorship coinciding with similar concerns that run throughout the giallo film.
Gialli, however, have no monopoly on danger to the eyes in Italian horror films. Fulci’s most famous sequence occurs in Zombie, as the freshly showered Mrs. Menard (Olga Karlatos) is pulled by a ghoul towards a piece of splintered wood. As with the drill sequence in City of the Living Dead, Fulci creates maximum suspense through intercutting before eventually pushing the jagged splinter deep into Mrs. Menard’s eye; she screams, and then her head is jerked to the side, breaking off the piece of wood in her skull. The effect is hideous and gory, but is also the manifestation of the dread of inevitability in this collection of Italian zombie films. Of Fulci, Bondanella says he “seems to have no ‘message’: he is far more interested in creating believable monsters and a terrifying future.” Bondanella reads Fulci correctly up to a point — the “terrifying future” he creates is not “no message,” it is the message. The overriding sense of despair, that cultural devastation is inevitable, is underlined by the fundamental similarities of all five of these films. They follow in the tradition of Italian genre cinema, knocking off and ripping off to an extreme degree. Even by the flexible standards of Italian exploitation movies, Hell of the Living Dead is notoriously low-rent. Mattei’s plot — send a group of people to a tropical island where they encounter the undead — recycles Fulci’s Italian horror film Zombie just one year later. Mattei also makes confounding use of wildlife stock footage; some of it is practical, to sell the tropical location, but at other moments, it veers into strange, alienating ground. Some of the footage — the gutting and skinning of animals by a tribe of indigenous people — feels remarkably appropriate to the film’s subject matter, the dirt full of extracted innards rhyming visually with its numerous scenes of zombie-on-human consumption. Bianchi’s Burial Ground takes a similarly free approach to its horror sequences, as he restages Fulci’s splinter-to-the-eyeball set piece with a zombie dragging a woman towards a shattered window, its glass shards pointing dangerously at her face; later, he substitutes Fulci’s City of the Living Dead power drill for a table saw, as a pair of zombies hold a man’s face near it — Bianchi blinks, however, and ends the Italian horror film before the blade meets flesh. There can be no doubt, however, that the blade did find flesh.
These five Italian horror films, all made within a two-year period, dramatize the total destruction of both the self and society. Their obsessive focus on gore makes existential dread literal through sequences that temporarily pause the forward progression of the narrative in favor of the outrageous depiction of body horror. These moments become the most memorable aspects of these shock horror films because they appeal to the visceral, gut-level instincts in their audiences. Yes, they are disgusting, shocking and violent — but so is life, they argue. In many of these Italian horror films, human society has engineered its own destruction: chemical accidents, radioactive spills, meddling with the mystical forces of good and evil through opening their tombs and tampering with their artifacts. However, the act of suicide that opens City of the Living Dead, wherein a Dunwich priest walks into the cemetery and calmly, methodically, hangs himself, is a profound encapsulation of the terror that runs across the Italian zombie genre from its most successful to its most exploitative entries. This is a world where faith, governments, businesses, families and the other institutions humans have built will all crumble, just like human bodies, which will inevitably succumb to their fragility and fall victim to total destruction.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.
Categories: 1970s, 1980s, 2019 Film Essays, 2019 Horror Essays, Featured, Film Essays, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller