DVD. Region 1. Shriek-Show. Unrated.
“… a distorted form of human endeavour”.
The recent coincidence of Keith Emerson’s shocking suicide with the 20th anniversary of Lucio Fulci’s passing persuaded me to take another look at this underrated effort.
After the peak of personal creativity represented by the period 1979-82, Lucio Fulci’s career entered a confused phase, characterized by frantic hopping from genre to genre and the announcement of films that were never made, or mutated into new projects. Disagreements with producers and bouts of ill health compounded his problems. British fans found it difficult to keep track of Fulci’s output because most of these films were not released over here, distributors being wary of the censorship hassles that had dogged his zombie epics, not to mention the New York Ripper debacle. Having severed his successful partnership with producer Fabrizio De Angelis after 1982’s Manhattan Baby (the direction of which, allegedly, he pretty much phoned in) Fulci undertook Conquest in 1983 for Giovanni Di Clemente, reportedly walked before shooting of that one was complete and reunited the following year with his old producer Edmondo Amati (for the first time since Four Of The Apocalypse in 1975) on Rome 2033: Fighter Centurions. Conquest threw a few token (and unconvincing) zombies into its eclectic (that’s “eclectic” as in “totally barmy”) mix and Fighter Centurions concerned itself with the ethics of serving up violence as popular entertainment (an appropriate theme for Fulci to ponder and one to which he would add a few mind-boggling twists in 1990’s Night Concert / A Cat In The Brain) but there was a growing sense that his auteurist identity was fading along with the inexorable decline of the Italian film industry itself.
The first I heard of his Murder Rock: Dancing Death (Murder-Rock: Uccide A Passo Di Danza, 1984) was, typically for those pre-internet days, courtesy of Martin Coxhead in the pages of Video – The Magazine (or possibly moonlighting in Allan Bryce’s Video World.) Coxhead claimed that Fulci had taken a powder on this one after yet another bust-up with its producer, Augusto Caminito and that the finished item bore none of the trademarks of a Fulci picture. But when I interviewed Fulci, ten years after Murder Rock was made, he insisted that it was all his own work. And, with apologies to Mr Coxhead (who was perhaps understandably preoccupied with the director’s then recent gory zombie outrages) Murder Rock follows on very much in a tradition of Fulci gialli that stretches from One On Top Of The Other / Perversion Story (1969) through such ’70s classics as Lizard In A Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture A Duckling right through to the aforementioned New York Ripper (1982), though admittedly it falls short of the standard set by those.
In the latter Fulci had required his DP Luigi Kuveiller to emulate the look of an American TV cop show from the ’70s (he had Kojak very much in mind, apparently.) Convinced by his recent experiences that “the old style of horror… so wild and free” had run its course, Fulci dialled the gore right down and instructed Giuseppe Pinori to shoot Murder Rock in the style of a slick TV movie. Coincidentally, most of its action plays out in “The Arts for Living Centre”, a deadringer for Fame’s “School for Performing Arts”, right down to the presence of dance instructors who inform the students that if they want success it costs, and right here is where they start paying… in sweat. They’ve got plenty to sweat about too… “I’m gonna live forever”? Most of these suckers will be lucky to survive to the end of the second reel, as some loony is stalking them and puncturing their hearts with an ornamental hat-pin… a particularly feminine modus operandi for a serial killer, you might think, and one reminiscent of that in Lizard In A Woman’s Skin. As another indicator of how far the violence levels have dropped here, although much use is made of extreme close-ups of Olga Karlatos’ beautiful eyes, neither of them are at any point gouged out by a wooden splinter a la Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Karlatos it is who’s charged with unmasking the killer, a feat which she seems to achieve in a dream where she’s attacked by Ray Lovelock, shortly before meeting (and being romanced by) him for real. But is everything as it seems? In classic giallo style the exact meaning of that dream, though elusive, contains the key to the mystery. To keep you guessing, Fulci and co-writers Roberto Gianviti, Gianfranco Clerici and Vincenzo Mannini drag in a veritable shoal of thinly motivated and clumsily handled red herrings. The vocal cue “Not So Innocent” pops up at regular intervals… but to whom does it refer? Further attempts to distract the viewer are made with dance sequences as ill-assorted as they are intrusive… break-dancing kids bust their moves all over the title sequence but are never seen again (Fulci unintentionally capturing Hip Hop just before it degenerated from Popular Culture into Mass Culture), one of Jennifer Beals’ routines is clumsily lifted from Flashdance and elsewhere the chorus line shake a leg in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in “Seaside Summer Special.” During periods when Fulci couldn’t arrested in terms of film directing (he’s on the record as claiming that he was effectively blacklisted), he moonlighted in the direction of such TV variety fare, including shows hosted by Raffaella “Do it do it again” Carra.
There’s further fun to be derived from identifying familiar faces other than Karlatos and Lovelock… Claudio Cassinelli from any amount of Sergio Martino pictures, Christian Borromeo from House On The Edge Of The Park and Tenebrae, little Silvia Collatina – Doctor Freudstein’s daughter in The House By The Cemetery – and the ol’ doc himself (also Joe the plumber from The Beyond), Giovanni de Nava. Cosimo Cinieri from New York Ripper is the candy munching cop, Zombie Flesh Eaters alumnus Al Cliver appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo as a voice analyst and of course Fulci gets his own cameo as Phil the bitchy agent. No prizes for guessing that there’s a character named “Bob”!
When the true identity of the killer is finally trotted out it emerges as a major non-surprise (especially if you’ve been picking up on the heavy hints I’ve been dropping through this review) and their motivation, such as it is, recalls that of The New York Ripper… another protest by somebody who never got their bite of The Big Apple… the furious reaction of a loser against a society that celebrates winning to the exclusion of all other, more substantial human values. To quote a line from John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (as Fulci does in the film’s credits): “Often crime is a distorted form of human endeavour.”
Keith Emerson’s score for Murder Rock is often disrespected by the kind of confused, trendy fucktards who pay lip service to how cool Goblin are but also feel the need to sneer at ELP, seemingly unable to join the dots between those bands. In fact Emerson’s score is punchy, symphonic and synthtastic. The film itself is a lot better than it is generally given credit for (and picked up a prize when it made it to the Avoriaz Film Festival in 1986.) Contrary to Coxhead’s caveats, it’s recognisably Fulcian and arguably the last reasonably satisfying picture in the great man’s filmography… not exactly top drawer Fulci but as a supporting feature it would make for a great double bill with Michele Soavi’s Stagefright (1987.) It’s a sign of how times had changed that Soavi was outshining his old mentor at this stage in the game, but all such considerations became a moot point as the whole edifice of Italian horror collapsed around them. Both films are saying that the show must go on, but by this point the show was effectively over.