"The House by the Cemetery" seems to divide fans of Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci, while those who've never learned to appreciate the pleasures of vintage Italian Horror often delight in making it exhibit one in their case against the inimitable director, and what they see as his films' simplistic brand of gross-out, gore-swamped craziness. The film certainly came at the end of that golden period which gave us the works that would go on to make Fulci's name in the Horror genre: "Zombie 2", "The Beyond" and "City of the Dead". But "The House by the Cemetery" shares with these films actors such as the beautiful Catriona MacColl, who appeared in three Fulci movies — and the elegant visual style and typical Fulci motifs are as much in evidence as ever, here. But even fans of the film such as I, have to admit to one or two frustrating, sometimes bewildering deficiencies in the execution of this otherwise unusual and inventive entry in the Fulci oeuvre.
Researcher Dr. Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco), his wife Lucy (Catriona MacColl) and young son Bob (Giovanni Frezza) move from New York to Boston, where Dr. Boyle is to take over the research project originally started by a colleague who inexplicably committed suicide after the violent death of his mistress. The estate agent Laura Gittleson ('70s Italian giallo starlet, Dagmar Lassander) finds them a beautiful old 19th century house called Oak Lodge to stay in, surrounded by picturesque autumnal New England countryside. This apparently idyllic family soon reveal cracks in their facade: Lucy seems to suffer from a form of nervous exhaustion and is often encouraged by her husband to take medication, something she wants to resist. The couple's son Bob has a special "gift" which goes unacknowledged by his parents, and seems to give him a telepathic link with a mysterious girl called Mae (Silvia Collatina) who has a tendency to appear and disappear after warning Bob to stay away from the old Victorian house that is now his home. Dr. Boyle, meanwhile seems strangely detached from his family, becoming obsessed by a former occupant of the house, the curiously named Dr. Freudstein. It seems the researcher who committed suicide in the local library was looking into the work of Freudstein just before the tragedy occurred.
Meanwhile Lucy Boyle, left alone in the house while her husband is away (apart from her strange and virtually mute baby-sitter, Ann [Ania Pieroni]), starts to become haunted by strange noises and creaks in the house. The fact that Dr. Freudstein's grave is actually inside the house — in the passageway, under a carpet — hardly helps to dispel her growing sense of panic and paranoia. The focus of the strange noises and odd activity seems to be the house's darkened cellar. Something vile and malevolent is in fact lurking down there, and soon the bodies are piling up: Mrs. Gittleson and Ann meet particularly gruesome ends at the scarred hands of a zombie-like creature. When young Bob finally ventures downstairs, the scene is set for a crescendo of horrors that will see the whole family battling for their very lives against something evil and inexplicable.
"The House by the Cemetery" can be rightfully placed as the last in a quartet of zombie movies by Fulci, and, as in all his previous entries in the series, the one zombie creature in the film is a putrefying, rotten, maggot-infested cadaver, shuffling with a painfully protracted, nightmarish determination. This is not a straightforward zombie flick though: for a start this creature uses various implements to dispatch his victims (a knife, a poker) and hacks up the bodies in the cellar as well! The film also has a strong paranormal, inexplicable element that takes it well outside the normal terrain covered by the zombie genre. Strange surreal visions pepper the narrative: a photograph of the old house with an image of the mysterious girl, Mae, in one of the windows, that changes even when no-one is looking at it; a foreshadowing of the death of the baby-sitter when Mae watches a mannequin, that looks exactly like Ann, lose it's head in a boutique window, blood pumping from the severed neck stump; a bittersweet finale that offers the hope (or is it the threat) of an unusual afterlife for little Bob on the other side of the cellar. This film is full of ambiguities and hints that are never quite fully explained, perhaps this explains why so many people find the film laughable, since it is much closer to the supernatural narrative free-fall of "Suspiria" and "inferno-era" Argento than the hard, documentary-style immediacy usually associated with the typical Romero zombie flick.
Nevertheless, there are odd narrative lapses and omissions which appear to come down to sheer ineptitude rather than deliberate use of dream logic, although this general surreal atmosphere enables the film to just about get away with them if you're willing to overlook these points. For instance, why does the estate agent Mrs. Gittleson fail to notice or acknowledge Lucy Boyle, at one point? And what does it entail when the librarian claims to have seen Dr. Boyle visit the library before with his young daughter (Mae?) — but neither of these points is ever brought up again, let alone resolved! Other negative points that detract from the film are the atrocious English dub performances (especially the grown up female voice artist who takes the part of Bob) and the infamous unpopularity of l mop-headed Giovanni Frezza who played the little boy Bob, and who just happens to have been cursed with having the most notoriously punchable face in European Horror cinema!
One element that has always been associated with the work of Lucio Fulci is more than adequately covered though, and that is, of course, his films' tendency to dwell on scenes of vividly intense gore and violence. Although the gore effects might not be as accomplished as those you would expect to find in a contemporary Horror film, they still have a strangely unusual impact just because of the peculiarly gleeful way in which Fulci's camera lovingly glides in to survey the bloody carnage with Peckinpah-like slow motion. Fulci had a reputation for cinematic misogyny, since most of the victims are women and the most memorable death scenes are unusually inventive in finding ways to protract the horror of their deaths. The opening scene sees a young woman get a carving knife slammed so hard into the top of her skull that the blade comes out of her mouth; later Mrs Gittleson is slowly tortured with a poker, and when her jugular is finally skewered, the relish with which Fulci's camera slowly pans in on the ensuing fountain of gushing blood is positively perverse.
However, Fulci seems to me to be not so much a misogynist as just generally misanthropic: a disillusioned romantic who delights in dwelling on the grimy, maggoty impermanence of life, and who is disgusted by the fragility and vulnerability of innocence. Certainly, despite the drawback of having Frezza play him, little Bob Boyle is exposed to more violence and horrific imagery than perhaps any child in screen history: if watching his baby-sitter's head bouncing down the cellar's wooden stairs wasn't traumatic enough, or having his head held against a wood door while his own father unknowingly hacks at it with an axe from the other side, he finds himself forced to stumble through the rotting, dismembered remains of just about every victim in the film and then has to see his dad's throat get torn out with by a bare zombie hand and his mother's face get repeatedly pounded against hard, splintery wooden steps as she is tugged and dragged down the cellar stairs! All the while, Walter Rizzati's score veers between catchy Bach-like fugal prog rock to demented synth wailing; and the set design and cinematography is unusually lush and beautiful in this particular film, lending all the disgusting imagery a bizarrely ornate set of surroundings. For me, "The House by the Cemetery" overcomes most of its drawbacks and still stands as one of the director's most enjoyable and inventive outings, before his drift into low budget mediocrity in the late eighties and early nineties.
This new release from Arrow Video's Masters of Giallo series presents a pleasing, crisp transfer with only very occasional graininess visible. On the Extras menu, there is a short featurette, newly shot for the disc, in which various talking heads give an overview of Fulci's career, explaining his unique contribution to the zombie genre and placing it in the context of Italian genre cinema as a whole. There is also a short, soundless deleted scene which is really just a minor extension of the bat sequence, and a trailer and TV spot.