It was around the time of Lucio Fulci’s return to the giallo genre in 1982 with the odiously awful The New York Ripper his penultimate collaboration with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti that the downward spiral of his filmmaking career began. Their last collaboration along with Sacchetti’s wife Elisa Briganti was ‘Manhattan Baby’ one of the director’s biggest failures released that same year. However, prior to these two low points the screenwriter was responsible for co-writing some of Fulci’s most successful films.
One of the director’s finest gialli is ‘Seven Notes in Black’ (1977) and Dardano Sacchetti would re-team with Lucio Fulci again a couple of years later along with Briganti for his reinvention of himself as a horror maverick with the much lauded although overrated ‘Zombie’ with its poorly paced meandering narrative. The movie would catapult him to cult international status as "The Godfather of Gore" a moniker he shared with fellow famed goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis due to the film’s now legendary graphic depictions of gory viscera. Due to this massive commercial success, the pair worked together again immediately on the more satisfying City of the Living Dead (1980) an exercise in surrealistic atmosphere and intense gore depicting the illogic of fear through metaphysical concepts with a non-linear narrative. This experimental formula Lucio Fulci would perfect the following year with his greatest horror movie ‘The Beyond’ that would also turn out to be his Achilles’ heel failing to come anywhere near close to matching this quality of work ever again.
With the bar rose so high ‘The House by the Cemetery’ released that same year also featuring again writing duties from Elisa Briganti is a mess albeit an enjoyable one for some striking imagery, finely executed set-pieces, a imaginatively creepy antagonist and is dripping with an irresistible dreaded atmosphere. It remains one of Fulci’s few passably watchable efforts in his post-Beyond era. It would seem that his partnership with Sacchetti worked well when working with non-linear narratives striving for surrealism to string together set-pieces of atmospheric gore with their outright horror projects as with City of the Living Dead and ‘The Beyond’. Although ironically when it came to actually trying to tell a story as with ‘Zombie’ and ‘The House by the Cemetery’ they came up with disjointed messes.
Returning to the giallo genre in 1982 in which the director had previously made four of its best examples - ‘Perversion Story’ (1969), ‘A Lizard in a Woman's Skin’ (1971), ‘Don't Torture a Duckling’ (1972) and the aforementioned ‘Seven Notes in Black’ (1977) - and bringing Sacchetti with him I wonder how much input the screenwriter actually had. Despite the writing credits on the wretched The New York Ripper and the immediate abysmal ‘Manhatten Baby’ I cannot help but think that this was when their relationship began to deteriorate. As disappointing as ‘Zombie’ and ‘The House by the Cemetery’ are there is still much to look at there in admiration but little to be had here on these two occasions and are more reminiscent of the poor dip in quality of Lucio Fulci’s later movies. I think it might be a little more than a coincidence that he failed to bring Dardano Sacchetti along for his next project 1983’s sword and sorcery Conan rip-off ‘Conquest’ and never worked together again.
This was the start of the rot. A severe lack of form that only grew considerably worse with ill health suffering from diabetes and emotional problems due to the past traumas of his wife’s suicide and daughter’s fatal car accident that attributed to his constant need to work to keep his mind pre-occupied. Keeping himself busy though while battling health and emotional problems only resulted in burn out and Fulci sadly became nothing more than a hack for hire with the poor quality of his later work forever cemented. The director’s last giallo that followed the next year ‘Murder Rock’ is a prime example of this.
Lucio Fulci takes full writing duties here with a story set in a New York City dance academy where a mysterious black gloved stranger stalks and murders one by one the young attractive students who are picked off in the order of their talent hierarchy leading the police to believe that it is a jealous rival amongst the students. Fulci takes a note from Paolo Cavara’s solid 1971 giallo ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ as the killer punctures the victims’ hearts by plunging a pin into their chests. The class instructor Candice Norman played by Olga Karlatos who you might remember as Menard’s wife in ‘Zombie’ dreams of a man (Ray Lovelock) trying to kill her wielding the same kind of large golden hatpin that the killer is using. Discovering that he is down on his luck actor George Webb she tracks him down explaining her dream and as George cannot remember her thinking they have not met before Candice thinks that somehow they have. They become lovers and Candice later reveals to George that a hit and run accident ended her promising dance career and is the reason for her now teaching behind the scenes. Turning amateur sleuths, they team up to find the killer.
The writer and director has crafted a dull ineffectual by the numbers whodunit offering little in the way of intriguing mystery. There are no interesting twists and turns in sight other than throwing almost every character in as a suspect making for piss poor red herrings that the viewer can see a mile off with so blatant extreme close-ups of the cast’s suspicious facial expressions. So obvious it makes the so-called big reveal at the end easy to see coming. The film unlike the majority of Lucio Fulci’s previous work is goreless but that is not a negative criticism, as it is just that the extremely lacklustre murder set-pieces are completely lacking in suspense and tension. The lack of gore was an overreaction on Fulci’s part to the harsh criticism he received for the prolonged cruel sadistic murders of women he graphically depicted in The New York Ripper for which critics branded him a misogynistic woman hater. Although, the director still makes sure that the audience gets to see some T & A before and during the young beauties meet their demises and he has no problem of injecting his usual sleaze into the proceedings implying that the female dancers are moonlighting as prostitutes to support themselves.
These set-pieces are made all the more unmemorable by being overshadowed by unnecessarily extensive badly choreographed dance sequences supplemented by Keith Emerson’s terrible cheesetastic pop disco soundtrack. Despite the dance school setting this was not the original intention by Fulci as it was producer Augusto Caminito idea to include these sequences to cash in on the successes of the Hollywood dance musicals of the day - Alan Parker’s ‘Fame’ (1980) and Adrian Lyne’s ‘Flashdance’ (1983). This just makes for a disastrous disco giallo cocktail that is just too campy in this respect for genre fans to appreciate and too mean spirited for dance enthusiasts to get into who are maybe fans of those aforementioned mainstream hits. Actually, one of the movie’s many alternative titles is ‘Giallo a Disco’.
With the exception of the presence of the always-good Lovelock who is a saviour of lost causes even in pieces of shit such as the 1978 rape and revenge film The Last House on the Beach, the acting is very lousy overall. Karlatos annoyingly overacts and the rest of the young cast fare little better especially when handicapped by the script’s one-dimensional characterization and laughable dialogue. As crap as the movie is, it is made to look like beautiful crap with great quality production values. The New York locations are captured beautifully thanks to Giuseppe Pinori’s sumptuous cinematography making a low budget of an estimated $100,000 look anything but low budget and it is a stylistic treat when it comes to the gorgeous visuals that the director employs with some inspired shots.
‘Murder Rock’ pales in comparison to Lucio Fulci’s previous gialli up to 1977. Uninspired direction and poorly written it lacks the sexual subversion, the social criticism, the throw off plot points and just overall intelligence. It is clear evidence of a filmmaker slumming it trying so desperately to rekindle the once successful career he had a success he did not taste again since parting ways with screenwriting partner Sacchetti. Recommended only for the hardcore Fulci completest, otherwise it is best avoided.
* out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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