Lucio Fulci left behind a legacy steeped in horror—dozens of films ranging from sex romps, spaghetti westerns to science fiction socio-political fables—after his death in 1996 from complications with diabetes. Coined the godfather of gore alongside maestro Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci can be instantly recognized by fans of horror for his contribution to the ever-fluctuating zombie genre with Zombi 2, a 1978 spiritual successor to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, titled Zombi for Italian audiences. Fulci followed up Zombi 2’s box office success—grossing more internationally than Dawn—with City of the Living Dead in 1980 and The Beyond in 1981. Both tackle themes of religion and the supernatural, and showcase some of Fulci’s more inspired splatter moments; a power drill through the brain, a face doused in acid. For fans of giallo—a genre blending mystery, murder, and psychological elements with that of the slasher genre—Lucio Fulci had been a household name since 1969’s One on Top of the Other; a film that heavily prefigured the shift into erotic thrillers of the 1990s, such as Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. However, his garish visual flare and the sleek stylistic choice of the giallo genre wouldn’t stalk hand-in-hand until Don’t Torture a Duckling; Fulci’s lambaste of the Catholic Church. Dealing heavily in the sin of sex, Duckling would ultimately find itself blacklisted all around Europe, marking it as Fulci’s most controversial examination of religion.
Duckling opens with the excavation of decayed remains. Here we see a pair of bloodstained hands, matted with mud, carefully pushing back soil to reveal a child’s skeleton. The film cuts to a close-up of a woman, most importantly her eyes, as she responds to her discovery with mounting concern. Throughout Duckling, we are locked with the eyes of both children and women, though their symbolic representation vastly differs; one is that of the innocent, the other of the innocent’s destroyer.
But what do the eyes of humanity, primarily those of the female body, really mean to a director such as Lucio Fulci? In Zombi 2, we become prey to the mass dread surrounding a hapless woman until we’re locked in on her eye as it’s pulled closer to a commanding splinter. A woman becomes transfixed on a hanging priest in City of the Living Dead; her eyes slowly bleeding before vomiting her insides in one of horror’s most recognized and referenced moments. Fulci’s masterpiece, The Beyond, culminates with its protagonists going blind from the damnation of mankind. A young woman has her eye slashed by a razorblade in The New York Ripper. Exhausting as that list sounds, no matter where you look, the observing eyes become prey to the increasing morbidity of its creator, working as a link between the objectivity of vision and the personal views of religion.
In Don’t Torture a Duckling, Fulci may very well be sharpening and redefining giallo’s tools—POV shots, black-gloved hands, highlighted close-ups of eyes—establishing a link between its subjects and its subjectivity. Instead of leather-clad hands of the murderer, we see the mud-caked hands of a local gypsy woman Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), our film’s red herring. These hands clash with our understanding of what we see, as similar mud splattered hands clasp around the throat of a local village boy. It becomes the case of rational deduction – piecing together the films who-done-it aspect – though anyone who knows Fulci’s work will aptly determine that cause does not lead to a cogent story. Whether this is a case for the giallo genre as a whole is still on the table, as its mix between mystique and successional storytelling is more often than not manipulated against our own observation.
In an August 1982 issue of Starburst Magazine, Fulci stated that “the main characters of The Beyond, for instance, become blind, as their sight has no raison detre any more in this lifeless world.” Don’t Torture a Duckling works with similar themes of sight and existence; its children raised Catholic, their sole existence perceived as a sinless one. We continually observe the innocent – represented by three boys –who come face to face with lust, most notably by Patrizia (Barbara Boucet) and her post-counter culture miniskirt; a slight against God and a symbol of debauchery. It’s this sight that acts as a weapon on the boys, striking them blind through death in order to maintain their existence, even if it’s for a supposed afterlife.
Similarly, we operate on this notion of blatant and rampant sexuality as a weapon, observing the full figure of a woman just as bare as Jesus was on the cross. Given Fulci’s penchant for extreme close-ups—the shook eyes and slope of the nose our only real identifying factor between victims and saviors—it’s unclear whether he’s revealing or hiding something from us; or both. Our murderer is as overtly displayed as the symbolic imagery, though within the realm of giallo’s mysterious mind, we never truly know who we are seeing. Rather than see our killer directly, we see his prey and prophets; the religious iconography as raw as the corpses at its feet.
Raised Catholic, Fulci has time and time again depicted religion as being synonymous with horror, even going as far to state that he has “given up on horror for horror’s sake.” Killer priests, demonic priests, apocalyptic events (a wave of maggots replace locusts in City of the Living Dead), and black magic run rampant. Themes of repentance, possession, and chastity fill the same frames as decayed corpses, arterial spray and oozing eyeballs. It would be easy to label Fulci as anti-Catholic, but for a man who lost his wife to suicide in 1969 and his daughter to a car accident shortly after, some might say his work is that of a religious man astray. Perhaps his work is penitence in its most artistic form. What’s shown is what it feels like to observe a religious world as cruel and sacrilegious as the one our subjects see, and while Fulci may not have cared much about the audience, he certainly cared about his own religion enough to destroy it.