Criminally Neglected: Don't Torture a Duckling

In certain corners of film geekery, admitting you're a fan of Lucio Fulci is sort of like being a hormonally-driven thirteen year old and discovering a porno mag that blew out of someone's trash. It might very well be the best single piece of garbage you've ever stumbled across. Hell, it might even be art, but admitting you like it makes you feel kind of dirty. In his ever-evolving list of Cinema Snob reviews on Italian horror films, Brad Jones may have put it the best: "Ugh, you mean those movies.... that I secretly like?"

Lucio Fulci is what you might call a "Showstopper Director." Even his best films are little more than outstanding set pieces surrounded by what can only be called a story in the loosest term. Take Zombie for example, also known as Zombi 2 and Zombie Flesh Eaters. It was released as a sequel in name only to Dawn of the Dead (titled Zombi for its European release), and somehow spawned a whole line of completely unrelated "sequels" -- some of which don't even have zombies in them, but that's another thing entirely. Unless you have seen the flick multiple times, you won't recall the story. What you will remember is a zombie fighting a shark, buckets of blood, and a jagged piece of wood being shoved into a half-naked woman's eye socket in extreme close up. These diamonds in the rough practically stand apart from the film itself, almost as if the entire script was written around them.

The same can be said for most of his work, but Zombie proved to be the break-out film of Fulci's career, introducing him to the world as a top-tier exploitation director, and the iconic "Eyeball Gag" became a staple of his filmography from that point forward. Everything from the giallo sleaze-fest The New York Ripper to the surreal undead masterpiece The Beyond showcases Fulci destroying eyeballs ad nauseum in gruesome ways. His influence is palpable in the career of modern masters like Nicolas Winding Refn and even Quentin Tarantino, who not only plucked eyeballs from their sockets in Kill Bill, but also included a Special Thanks to Fulci in the credits of his classic revenge tale.

You would think it all started in 1979 with that first orbital blow-out, but if you dig deeper into the archives of Fulci, you'll discover he'd been making films since the 1959, even writing some as far back as 1953. Most of these are hit and miss; many of them aren't even available in the US. But in 1971, Fulci co-wrote and directed a police procedural called Don't Torture a Duckling, a basic mystery surrounding the murders of several children in a small Italian village. This is undoubtedly where Fulci's career as a showstopper began, and it contains what is hands-down the most masterfully constructed scene of his entire career.

"What you mean, 'They wanted Burt Reynolds'?"
Up until about the 45 minute mark, Don't Torture a Duckling plays so it by-the-numbers it almost dips into the realm of boring. The police interrogate suspects, a local journalist sniffs around in places he doesn't belong, some characters seem to be loose plot threads blowing in the breeze, so basically you can pick your cliche. The signature stamps that we have come to love about the director haven't come together yet: There's no catchy Fabio Frizzi music (although he is expertly subbed by Riz Ortolani), and no Sergio Salvati behind the camera to pump up the atmosphere. There's also precious little gore, although his love of full frontal female nudity is certainly placed centerstage early on in a scene so exploitative that we might hate it if it wasn't so well shot. And also because when you have Barbara Bouchet in your film, it's an unspoken rule that she get naked at least once. But then something miraculous happens: Fulci creates a sequence that actually draws on all that carefully constructed buildup. Over the course of five flawless minutes, all of the motivations and plot threads suddenly tie together to fuel a scene of such brutal and savage originality that it completely redeems -- and elevates -- the entire film to classic status, catapulting us toward the final act with an adrenaline rush of invigorated interest.

I can't go into any detail without breaking the cardinal rule of no spoilers, but let me just say that as this scene played out, I realized a few key things: 1) Fulci's influence on modern directors did not stop at the eyeball gag. His use of pop music ironically juxtaposing horrific violence has had a clear and monumental impact on many filmmakers. Tarantino didn't just start quoting Fulci in Kill Bill -- he was emulating the man since the beginning in Reservoir Dogs. 2) Showstoppers work best when there's actual context to the scene. While Fulci's future efforts like House By the Cemetery might have more creativity behind the technical nature of the kills, the motivations behind them are always murky. Even something as disturbing as the infamous Drill Kill in City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell) doesn't leave an impact beyond its viscera because we're not completely sure of why this guy needed to be murdered in cold blood by the latest Italian actor sporting Edward Mannox's voice.

"I can see my own nose!!"
And the last thing I realized: Five minutes of perfection is enough for me to call this the best film in Lucio Fulci's career. Even as the plot misdirection and surprises don't completely add up. Even as the final moments of the film are so over-the-top graphic that admittedly it's downright hilarious. There are some cheeky hints along the way that make up for some of the story's shortcomings, but for the remainder of my days on this earth I will remember those five minutes of sheer genius. Just replaying the scene in my head excites both the filmmaker and the film critic inside me. Seek this film out -- now. If you consider yourself a fan of one of Italy's most audacious exports, you will not be disappointed.


-- Blake O. Kleiner

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