Whenever a genre fan hears the name Lucio Fulci, a river of blood red gore caked with brains comes streaming into their mind's eye, viscera and maggots infesting ever last liquid slop pot drop full. From the pancake-faced living dead of Zombie to the befuddling bayou balderdash of The Beyond, Fulci favored films where wounds and goons are part and parcel of the storytelling language. Having never met an eyeball he couldn't impale with a sharp object in extreme close-up and deliberate slow motion, Fulci used guts and grue as a way to move terror out of the esoteric and back into the devil's vertebrae, where it belonged. Fulci formulated his own sub-genre of scary – the physiological horror film – and avoided coherent narrative concepts to make sure his nightmare images filled the screen. So it comes as a surprise to many fright fans that Fulci helmed Westerns, Comedies and even a perplexing peplum (the Italian demarcation for sand and sandal epics) called Conquest. Muscle clad men in Speed-O sized loincloths fighting fiends of unknown supernatural origin, while maintaining a sincere level of non-erotic male bonding just doesn't seem like the kind of subject matter that this Mediterranean manufacturer of the macabre would leap all over. But Fulci was always, first and foremost, an exploitation maven, and in 1983 with Conan barbarianing his way to international box-office gold, opportunity knocked. Time to rev up the rip-off machine and make bodybuilder bullstuff while the irony is hot (it was the Italians, after all, who invented these pec-fests).
And what a glorious cow-flop he created. Fulci's Conquest is a splendidly disjointed mess, an unstuck in time reinvention of the sword and sorcery saga into a montage of mostly meaningless images that still somehow add up to pure cinematic cheese. Mixing animal-skinned heroes with anthropomorphic archery skills into a strange simmering swamp of zombies, Chewbacca like dogmen, pasty-faced cave dwellers, topless temple tantalizing, as well as far too many sequences of senseless landscapes, Fulci creates his own private Idaho universe out of bushes, brackish water and bewilderment. Garnish the whole thing with a great deal of foggy camera work and you've got a movie that believes it is constructing a cosmic vista of everlasting luminescence. But the truth is far tackier. Conquest is like reading a previously highlighted copy of Mythology by Edith Hamilton except a black, not fluorescent, magic marker was used. It's Mount Olympus meets Mount St. Helens as any attempt at logic or lucidity is blown up and cast to the four foul winds like so much volcanic ash. Fulci fills the frame with so many mind-boggling and jaw-droopingly deranged ideas that it's hard to know which is more ridiculous: the rabid Rottweiler guys who resemble killer shrews (complete with augmenting bathmats and stuff); the unknown animal that flings arcane animated quills; or the dolphin rescue, which really has to be seen to be believed – and even then, it's almost incomprehensible.
Fulci is fudging with us hear, trying to impart the idea and the feel of a peplum without resorting to any of the genre's Cine-scope battles, grandstanding grappling or bodice-ripping romance. There are only two main women in this sordid chronicle: one is a local peasant lass who finds her gray matter on Ocron's severed serving plate, and the cranium cracker herself, and neither offers much pandering pulchritude. Sure, Sabrina Sellers looks fetching in gold leaf paint and very little else, but after a while, her encased-head histrionics grow dull (Ocron wears a full head covering of gold – when she has it removed, you'll understand why - YIKES!). Same goes for the oversized killer collies. At first, the Planet of the Apes style F/X works, just convincing enough to make us believe that these non-house broken Bowzers are evil entities. But just like most bad guys in the battle between good and evil, they have very little success at stopping our heroes. And then there are the main men of action here; Ilias (played with tussled haired hunkiness by Andrea Occhipinti) and Mace (Jorge Rivero, MST3K fan favorite for his role as Yuri, the ever-changing coiffure creep in Werewolf). Representing both sides of the same sappy coin (Il is good but naive, Mac is jaded but honorable) all these dimwits seem to manage during their tenure as skunk skin wearing warriors is silly psychobabble conversations, getting caught in obvious ambushes and pissing off the corrupt k-9s. They don't prevail or conquer so much as stumble into success.
Indeed, this all must have been part of Fulci's plan. Why create a sword and sandal – or in this case, bows and biceps – story is you have to play by the rules. Fulci wants us to bask in the glory of his visual splendor, to stare in awe-inspired wonder at this weird world he's created, and croon when he doesn't follow the steroid-induced stupidity of the 60s era Hercules hub-bub. Lucio likes playing with preconceived notions and nowhere is this more obvious than in Conquest. Oh sure, The Beyond takes the Gothic haunted house horror and channels it through a surreal series of set-pieces, and all of his zombie films have filtered the social commentary and symbolism out of the story to focus on good old-fashioned flesh feasting. So it makes sense that Fulci forgets all the basics of the flights of fantasy genre to drag his own delirium through the quagmire. The result is something truly original while completely complimentary to the type of movie it's more or less mimicking. This is not to say that every element in Conquest works. Fulci's camera never takes advantage of the wide-open spaces he's shooting in, instead employing far too many medium shots and close-ups. Also, the use of the diffusing lens, which renders the entire film like one big soft focus Massengill commercial, is equally unimpressive. It never attains the timeless effect Fulci is apparently going for. Instead, the entire movie looks awash in murky bong water.
Conquest is still a fabulous disaster, nonetheless. It doesn't provide the fixed design for what makes most heroics of the he-man guiltily pleasurable, but it can and does fulfill a strange missing element of mirth in mythological motion pictures. It bends the rules of reality to make a world wholly unlike our own. There are no recognizable landscapes or discernible civilizations in this film. People live off of and are part of the fat of the land. Among all the portentous omens and ominous prophecies, sprinkled in among the pus-sucking ants and exploding body boils, is a nonsensical narrative that is not supposed to suggest anything other than the link to the next set piece. Fulci's formulaic approach to film, the lull and lavish manner of movie making, is in full effect in Conquest. It is a mere series of sequences that hint at horror, insinuate imagination and suggest the resemblance to sword and sandal epics of the past. Fans of his puke-inducing output, weaned on a tainted tit for blood and body parts may find this peplum pandemonium too disorganized for its or their own good. Others will simply stare in stupefying disbelief as actors dressed as dogs bark orders and sniff around for clues. If you want your mythos campy, stick with Herc and his hunks. If you desire your dioramas to be steeped in reality, give Ridley's world a whir. But if you want to take a chance on something truly unhinged, it's Lucio Fulci's Conquest all the way. One look at this kitschy clash of the titans will have you wobbly in your wineskin for days.