To some degree Italian horror used to dictate the landscape of American horror. The Giallo films of yesteryear, for example, paved the way for the American slasher film.
Directors like Dario Argento would not only helm movies that would be major hits internationally, like Suspiria, but would also occasionally serve as a producer on American horrors like Dawn of the Dead. In an age when even VHS was young, Italian horror was the underground favorite. The movies were great, but couldn’t be found on every street corner. One film could have a multitude of translated English titles, each more enticing than the last. Giallos were virtually identical to slashers, but slicker, more stylish, and in many cases gorier. A first viewing of a Giallo is like a graduation from fare such as Friday the 13th and Halloween. It is the next step.
Not to say, of course, that there were no Giallo films in the 1980’s. There absolutely were, and titles like Tenebre and Opera are some of the best of the bunch. But the output when compared with the late ‘60’s through the ‘70’s is night and day. It’s a stark contrast. Something needed to happen and, after the release of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Fulci knew exactly where to go next.
It’s unclear if Fulci made a conscious decision to start focusing on zombie films. Maybe it was a happy accident. Maybe it wasn’t even a decision dominated by the huge international success of Dawn of the Dead. But whatever the reason, Fulci followed up that film with the unrelated sequel of a thousand names, Zombi 2, aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, or the much simpler Zombie. The rest, as they say, is history. Immediately after the release of Zombie, Fulci became known for his work in that sub-genre and was even forced to inject zombies into films that were never supposed to feature them, like The Beyond.
Zombie paved the way for Fulci’s “Doors of Death” trilogy consisting of City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery. Each of these is in some ways a zombie film, and yet they are three of the most unique and different zombie pictures you are ever apt to find. This kept things fresh as zombies began to dominate the marketplace a little more each day.
While Italian movies about the flesh-eating undead certainly existed before, they were never as common as they were after the release of Zombie. During that time, there was a new exploitation film centering on the living dead almost every weekend. They were huge. It even led Fulci to come back later in the decade and make a rare direct sequel to his own work with Zombie 3. Fulci got sick during the production, leaving Bruno Mattei to finish directing duties on that feature.
He was at least partially responsible for the worldwide zombie phenomenon in the 1980’s. On a less superficial level, Fulci’s work has influenced every corner of the genre, even acclaimed filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. His mix of gore and overpowering atmosphere was something previously unseen on the screen and remains unparalleled today. As low-budget as they could have been, especially late in his career, you could always tell when you were watching a Fulci movie. He had a very specific vision, and made films that stuck with the audience long after they ended. He helped pave the way to push Italian horror in bold new directions and for that he has earned his place as one of the all-time masters.