The House by the Cemetery (1981) dir. Lucio Fulci


To the casually acquainted– which is to say, fairly well-versed genre fans who have yet to go down his particular alley– Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci is largely defined by a single scene: the bit toward the end of Zombi 2, his casually non-canonical sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (tagline: “We’re going to eat you!”), in which one of the titular undead forces a woman’s eye toward a splintered piece of wood. As gross-out scenes go, it’s a knockout– Fulci’s camera remains fixed well past the point where most filmmakers would cut away, and it climaxes in a truly absurd amount of red corn syrup and ripping latex– and it cemented its director’s reputation as one of the most uninhibited purveyors of cinematic gore.

To my mind, though, this isn’t the most iconic scene in Zombi (which, incidentally, is co-headlining the Coolidge’s Halloween Horror Marathon later this month), nor is it the most representative of what makes Fulci special. That comes a few scenes later, when one of the film’s female leads is attacked by a shark while SCUBA diving. Hiding behind a reef, she is then attacked again by a zombie. Fortunately, she evades both, leading to a lengthy underwater scene in which a zombie fights a goddamn shark. The scene is immaculately staged– the stuntman is suited up in full zombie drag with no visible air tank, and the shark is an actual shark— and an absolute showstopper. It also, it’s worth pointing out, makes not one bit of rational sense.

But it’s this sense of dreamlike weirdness that sets Fulci’s work apart from the likes of, say, Ruggero Deodato. Where the “Cannibal Fill-In-The-Blank” genre presents its viscera in the most joyless and unpleasant way imaginable, there is an ethereality– whimsy, even– which makes his best work a bit more palatable. Like countrymen Dario Argento and Mario Bava, Fulci isn’t only interested in making you uncomfortable (though, to be fair, he’s definitely doing that as well). He’s having fun.

Such is the case with The House by the Cemetery, my personal favorite of Fulci’s films. A doctor moves his family from New York to a suburb of Boston (amusingly dubbed “New Whitby” in some prints) to live in the house of a former colleague, who met a mysteriously gruesome end. His son, Bob (a singularly obnoxious presence, clearly dubbed by a grown woman) makes friends with a little girl who is very obviously a ghost, who warns him to stay away from the house. Said house, it turns out, was once home to a Dr. Freudstein (no, really), whose tombstone and burial place are cunningly hidden under the living room rug. There’s also a nanny who may or may not be an evil presence (the film seems to go back and forth on this), and any number of malevolent forces emanating from the basement.

If I seem unclear on some of the plot details, it’s not from lack of familiarity (I’ve seen House by the Cemetery many times, most recently less than a month ago), but because the plot is beside the point. In fact, its main gist– a portal to hell located in the basement of an unassuming building– was more or less exactly used in Fulci’s own City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, both of which were made within a year of House. The point is the details: a mannequin’s head falls off spontaneously, spouting a fountain of blood; the protagonist has a long, protracted fight with a bat, spouting geysers of blood; a woman is messily murdered with a pair of scissors in the cold open, only to completely vanish from the narrative. Fulci’s best films are roughly the equivalent of a book of doodles from a singularly deranged mind, unnervingly placed world of familiar suburbia (quite literally in my case; much of the film was shot in Concord, Massachusetts, in the very neighborhood where my grandmother ran an antique shop for much of my childhood). You can come for the gore– most do– but if you can look past it, you’ll find something a lot more fun.

The House by the Cemetery
dir. Lucio Fulci
86 min.

Screens Friday, 10/6 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre – midnight!

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