The last installment in Lucio Fulci's unofficial zombie cycle (or his quasi-Lovecraftian trilogy, if you prefer), 1981's THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY is easily the least of the lot. Coasting by on the reputations of its predecessors, it's not as rich--thematically, visually, or viscerally--as THE BEYOND or CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD, it has by proximity and similarity been grouped in with them by both fans and critics. Though not without its merits, it's a much weaker experience, marked by what feels like Fulci's fatigue with the paranormal (it's little wonder that he went on to the non-supernatural sexual violence of THE NEW YORK RIPPER for his next feature).
HOUSE's prologue, a sequence toying with the conventions of American slasher films, suggests a continuation of the gruesome excesses of Fulci's previous films, as a pair of fornicating teens are done in by a mysterious figure (the female of the pair is Daniela Doria, who so memorably puked up her intestinal tract in CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD). It's a blunt, stylish scene that sets the tone for what's to come, but in hindsight it works more as a bribe to hook audiences into a dry, rote haunted house film, as the movie rarely operates on the same level.
In a premise that undoubtedly owes a debt to Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of THE SHINING, professor Paolo Malco packs up his wife Catriona MacColl and their towheaded (and irritatingly dubbed) son to New England, where he's to complete the research project of a recently-deceased colleague. Amid the growing marital turmoil and their son's communication with ghosts, Malco discovers Dr. Freudstein--a hulking, almost featureless figure that must consume human flesh to regenerate his cells--living in the basement (I guess Fulci couldn't have been bothered with bartending specters or guys in bear suits giving blowjobs).
What sinks THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY isn't its thin characterization or narrative freestyling (two things you don't exactly go into a Fulci film looking for), but its lack of the weird, dream-like atmosphere that made THE BEYOND and CITY so compelling, causing the pace to feel sluggish rather than careful and deliberate; there are a couple of exceptions--the hallucinatory scene in which a mannequin loses its head, for instance--but the story feels very stiff and tired without the ambience to support it. Nor does it boast any of the bravura set-pieces of gore that've been a Fulci a trademark; a prolonged stabbing can't compare to over-the-top show-stoppers like ZOMBIE's eye-splinter sequence or Giovanni Radice getting a massive drill bit through his skull.
Though it's much better than subsequent Fulci releases like MANHATTAN BABY, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY isn't the classic that its cult following implies. Devotees of Italian horror and Fulci himself will no doubt consider this a must-see, it doesn't have enough meat on its bones to make it required viewing.