UK-based teacher, actor, musician and fearful film enthusiast Nigel Parkin ongoing column charting sexual perversion in classic horror films.
Lucio Fulci. Is there another director who has corroded our humanity more powerfully…or with such disgusting relish? His charnel house chef d’oeuvre ZOMBIE was released in the UK as ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS – that title is a sensational appeal to our basest instincts that also works as a perfect statement of Fulci’s corrupt carnal sensibilities. The three strands of Fulci’s vile vision are there in that phrase: his characters are ghouls, appearing to have a semblance of life and yet rotting on the inside, stumbling around a decaying and surreal world in which their dialogue and actions can seem absurd – a pathetic, illogical parody of humanity; flesh is ferociously and feverishly fetishised as something to magnify, manipulate, mutilate or moulder; and the number of images of solid matter being reduced to putrid slime calls to mind the process of regurgitation practiced by a fly as it consumes its food. Fulci is that fly, spewing over his own creation even as he holds it out in front of us. We then willingly, hungrily devour it, knowing that we will throw it up, at least in our minds, in a mixture of confusion, exhilaration and disgust, before watching it dissolve and transform into something even more repugnant and then eating it again.
We see ourselves in the zombies tucking into what has become of the body of Olga Karlatos’ hapless Mrs Menard. These creatures eat as if they are in some kind of exhausted trance. The slopping sounds of the wet strips of flesh peeled from the gelatinous carcass suggest secretions and fluids that in some distant, strange, perverse chamber of our minds we see as sexual. We’re wallowing in a bloody post-coital carnal soup.
Of course this is an outrageous idea but it is no less than Fulci intends. Consider the classic scene in which these zombies capture their beautiful feast. At the moment we begin to see Karlatos as prey she is in a shower. We know we are watching her through a zombie’s eyes and our inevitable arousal casts a new dimension on the zombie’s ‘hunger’. Fulci leers over her flesh while simultaneously stripping away our own to reveal the worm under the skin. We see the fingers of what was once a human hand press themselves against the glass of the window through which we are playing voyeur. By proxy these crawling, disembodied, grub-like fingers are moving over Karlatos’ body, expressing a hideous desire which we perceive with both revulsion and recognition.
We continue to be complicit with both camera and zombies in stalking Karlatos through the house. Her vulnerability is emphasised by the delicate, loose-fitting night gown falling away from one shoulder. Once she realises she is not alone she tenses with fear and we continue to observe her in this heightened state of awareness – eyes wide, body taut, needing some sort of release. The whole scene is framed and edited as a work of pornography. Listen to the thrusting of the door and Karlatos’ urgent gasps as she tries to push against the zombie assailant that has seemingly appeared from nowhere. Watch the rotting hand burst through a splintered opening in the slats of the door, grasp her hair and pull her head towards that opening as if she is being forced towards some sort of grotesque glory hole. And behold the phallic monstrosity protruding from that hole, the horrifically huge splinter pointing its finely whittled, sting-like tip at her right eye!
The moment we now witness is pure Fulci – an illogical parody not just of humanity but of pornography. Karlatos is riveted by the terrifying sight of the splinter. She screams yet does nothing to resist. She does not try to pull the hand away from her hair. She does not even close her eyes in what would be an admittedly futile but surely understandable act of desperate self-protection. All of this might make sense if it was happening quickly but no…the moment is drawn out to absurd lengths. Close-ups of the eye, the splinter and Karlatos’ anguished profile keep alternating in what ultimately seems to be an endlessly repeating montage from hell. The effect is to make Karlatos, for all of her terror, appear strangely submissive and in this respect she is brutally objectified and made to resemble the ‘willing’ recipient of some particularly ‘hard’ and ‘creative’ treatment in a porn film. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the way in which the splinter slowly but surely buries itself in Karlatos’ eye in long, lingering close up as another kind of penetration.
Is this a suggestion too far? With Fulci there is no such thing as too far. This scene needs to be placed alongside its truly appalling sibling in ‘The New York Ripper’ to make full sense. You know the sick puppy I mean – the moment in which a naked woman is tied to a bed and mutilated by a razor blade, climaxing in a similar violation of the right eye while her screams are relayed over the phone to taunt the police. The fetishistic close-ups of slowly sliced breast defy belief. Fulci is one of the few film makers who genuinely makes us feel as though we ourselves are being taunted by a psycho. We can hear him laughing, squawking, screeching or quacking as he takes delight in provoking us, forcing us to acknowledge the extent to which we have been entertained and yes even aroused by the sadistic sights with which he has assaulted our eyes.
Yes, that’s right. Fulci fucks our eyes, fills our heads with his egregious ejaculations, then scoops out the putrid matter from our worm-infested sockets and feeds it to us again. The iconic poster image of the ZOMBIE is our own reflection – the viewer, all humanity eaten away, staring hungrily out of dark sockets writhing with repugnant life.