This Fulci thing. Man, I don’t get it.
Like every other UK horror fan of my age, my adolescent need for gore was heightened to fever pitch by the ludicrous “video nasty” scare (which the ever free-thinking Times and Daily Mail have apparently been doing their best to resurrect recently), and in that era of savage censorship and outright bans, the name of Lucio Fulci was legendary. The eyeball scene in Zombie Flesh Eaters/Zombi 2 was practically the gore fan’s equivalent of the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. And then there was the scene in City of the Living Dead/Paura nella città dei morti viventi where some poor girl vomits up her own intestines. Not to mention the razor blade nastiness found within The New York Ripper/Lo Squatatore di New York (“Slashing up women was his pleasure!” announced the tagline), still censored in the UK to this day. This stuff was intense.
But then (hopefully) you get a bit older and wiser. And you come to realise that Fulci was basically a jobbing hack with no grasp of narrative pacing and little interest in telling a coherent story. The zombie movies upon which a large portion of his fame rests are often fun and contain a few striking sequences, and looking further back, his 70s gialli are actually interesting films for the most part. Overall though, you have to say that most of his CV flat-out stinks, especially once his career dwindled into ever-lower budgets and ever-greater irrelevance after the early 80s. Quite frankly, most of Fulci’s output doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the best work by some of his countrymen (Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Pupi Avati, Michele Soavi and others). But hardcore Italian horror fans will still curse your name for daring to say such things.
I’d just like to see them sit through Manhattan Baby. It took me two attempts, and it’s only about 100 minutes long. Despite a reasonably atmospheric opening section filmed amongst the pyramids, the film soon lurches into slack incoherency and outright idiocy. A witless mishmash of Egyptian cliches and plot devices lifted from Hollywood devil movies (one of the supporting characters is named Adrian Mercato, in an utterly pointless homage to Rosemary’s Baby), the narrative veers between being inane or simply inert. What little plot there is revolves around an evil spirit being released from an Egyptian tomb and possessing the daughter of the archaeologist responsible. People die in bizarre fashions. There are lots of close ups of eyes (I swear about a third of the film consists of shots of eyeballs and nothing else). The daughter is (somehow) exorcised. The exorcist is then killed by his collection of stuffed birds (I’m not making this shit up. “YOU CAN’T TAKE MY LIFE WITH STUFFED BIRDS!” he cries, in the best line of the film). There is the inevitable ending showing that the whole cycle is about to begin again. And by the time the credits roll you’ve probably forgotten exactly what you spent the last hour and a half doing.
I just don’t understand what’s to be gained by releasing stuff like this these days. Even Fulci’s more notorious work has only a limited cult appeal now that the moral panics of the 80s are far behind us. And lacking the gore and outrageousness of those films, something like Manhattan Baby has absolutely nothing to recommend it. A UK release of a Fulci film like Don’t Torture A Duckling/Non si sevizia un paperino probably wouldn’t have them queueing at the tills either, but at least it’s a genuinely good movie. This, on the other hand, should probably just be locked up in an Egyptian tomb and forgotten about for a few hundred years.