Today, Lucio Fulci is still best known as the Italian Godfather of Gore, a horror filmmaker who reveled in some of cinema’s most lurid, violent imagery and who often disregarded coherence in order to create his blend of viscerally resonant work. While many have pointed to the director’s interest in Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and time spent as an art critic as evidence of the late filmmaker’s clever intentions, his work has largely been written off as schlock by critics and his films have received very little significant attention outside of genre circles. The release of Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, Zombie) in 1979 was both a blessing and a curse, because while the film made him a worldwide success, it also pigeonholed the director for nearly the remainder of his career.
Those familiar with Fulci will be quick to note his varied career prior to 1979, which featured comedies, westerns, dramas, thrillers, and even musicals. For all of Fulci’s films, the genre that the director arguably worked best within was that of the giallo. Giallo is a term that refers to a subgenre of cinema — particularly Italian but not limited to Italian productions — that blended elements of detective fiction with the horror-thrillers, often but not always taking a supernatural bent. It was with Fulci’s second giallo, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), that the director produced what remains one of his most impressive, masterful works.
In A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan stars as Carol Hammond, a neurotic and well-to-do wife of a successful lawyer and daughter of a powerful British politician. Despite her life of luxury, Carol suffers from recurrent bouts with nightmarish fantasies revolving around her sexually liberated neighbor Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg) that grow more violent with time. When Julia is discovered murdered in her apartment in the exact fashion of Carol’s dreams, Carol becomes the key suspect in the case. As the case develops, Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker) must decide whether the acts were a manifestation of Carol’s subconscious desires or if an elaborate ruse has been hatched in order to frame her and ruin the reputation of her noble family.
If the bulk of Fulci’s later output can be criticized for being incoherent and enigmatic, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin reveals Fulci’s ability to craft an overtly narrative film. In fact, A Lizard is so plot-driven that it can be a bit difficult to follow. Carrying forward from its literary antecedents, Fulci fills the film with red herrings and twists so that, by its denouement, it’s nearly impossible to piece together the puzzle without the aid of Inspector Corvin’s final monologue. Fulci imbues the film with the feel of that of a Sherlock Holmes novel, which given the locale may not be unintentional. While some could argue that the twists and intentional misleading elements could be read as cheap ploys, it produces an effective semblance of disjointedness that really allows the film to work on a visceral level. By destabilizing them, Fulci places viewers in the psychedelic, surreal position of the film’s main character; an attribute that makes it one the director’s most successful works.
Matching the elusive screenwriting, Fulci’s collaboration with DP Luigi Kuveiller allows for one of the director’s most manic visual styles. Fulci gives Kuveiller a great deal of space to experiment, and the pair fill the film’s runtime with a series of stunning shots and sequences. The feverish nature is created through the continual oscillation between points of view, the use of an unmotivated moving camera, reflective surfaces, and frenetic editing. These techniques are demonstrated in one of the film’s best sequences, in which Carol’s hysteria is given a sense of weight by crosscutting between her uncomfortable attempts at remaining posture in her posh apartment and an unruly party simultaneously taking place in Julia’s flat. Fulci stylistically doubles down with use of split screen, a fitting use of the hyper-stylistic technique.
This juxtaposition of class also calls attention to one of the film’s key thematic interests: the disparity between the burgeoning counter-cultural movement and that of ‘proper’ society. Far from an aristocrat, Fulci’s own reservations towards the free-love movement can be witnessed in the film’s eccentric, off-putting representation of hippies on screen. Yet, while the counter-cultural elements are often a source of ridicule on screen, Fulci places a far greater onus on the upper class characters. At worse, the film comes off somewhat confused but in a manner that can be expected given the film’s release date — only a few years after the Manson family murders, which caused a major shift in the overall view of counter-culture.
Like Kuveiller, composer Ennio Morricone’s score is an essential contribution to the film’s style. Morricone mostly relies on his jazz tendencies for this particular composition but the final product is one that captures a full range of registers. At its most disconcerting, Morricone’s work feels in tune with free-form jazz but at other moments in the film’s progression we are presented the familiar, wistful elements that can be expected in many of his best scores. The composition is, most importantly, always in service of the film’s visuals and unlike many giallo scores, it’s not too showy or distracting.
Compiling hours of special features, including an exclusive, informative commentary track by Pete Tombs and Kris Gavin, new interviews with cult aficionado Stephen Thrower and actor Tony Adams, a series of archival documentaries and interviews, Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray makes for an excellent entry point for those less familiar with the director, as well as a great addition to any fan’s collection. Mondo Macabro has also gone the extra step by restoring the footage missing from the prior Blu-ray release of the film from the French Distributor Le chat qui fume, and while it is sad that these restored shots were not able to be cut from a high definition transfer, it is nearly impossible to spot any inconsistencies of quality in the mix.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin remains a film far too much ignored and despite its significant cult following, its many merits continue to be overlooked by those outside of genre circles. A Lizard sees Fulci as a forceful visionary that didn’t need to rely on his bag of tricks to craft an engaging work. Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray— which compiles the most definitive cut of the film available in high definition — is a fantastic progression for the film, and one that will hopefully be a big step in pushing the film to the forefront of people’s minds.
Joe Yanick is a freelance writer and Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.