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Blu-ray Review: Fulci’s Dance School Giallo “Murder Rock” Chassés Into HD

Monday, November 19, 2018 | Blu-ray/DVD

Starring Olga Karlatos, Ray Lovelock, and Claudio Cassinelli
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Written by Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, Roberto Gianviti, and Lucio Fulci
Scorpion Releasing

Long live the age of the boutique Blu-ray label! In an age when physical media is supposedly on the way out, the folks at Scorpion Releasing and Ronin Flix are truly god-sent, gifting lovers of weird cinema and sleaze the sort of deep-cut oddities that most viewers would turn their noses up at. Case in point: Lucio Fulci’s oh-so-tacky 1984 “American” giallo, MURDER ROCK (sometimes MURDEROCK: DANCING DEATH, or SLASHDANCE, or THE DEMON IS LOOSE…for whatever reason) which has arrived on Blu-ray looking crisper than Jennifer Beals’ curly shag.

Candace Norman (Olga Karlatos) oversees a troupe of dancers at New York’s Arts for Living Center, who are practicing a new number choreographed by Margie (Geretta Marie Fields, aka Geretta Geretta) in preparation for a visit from talent agents who will be looking to select three of the company for a television program. After practice, one of the top dancers is murdered by an unseen assailant who chloroforms her and plunges an ornate hatpin into her naked breast, stopping her heart. The nut-chomping Lieutenant Borges (Cosimo Cinieri) initially fingers Candace, but as word of the three coveted star spots spreads, everyone in the dance company becomes a suspect. Further complicating matters, Candace is dogged by dreams in which she’s murdered by a handsome stranger—the same man she spots on a billboard prominently featured around town (Ray Lovelock). Just who is picking off her students, and Is this stranger really a stranger at all?

MURDER ROCK has never been one of the director’s better regarded efforts, with Fulci obsessive/apologist Stephen Thrower having trouble drumming up even the faintest of praise for it in his essential, Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci. Worse still, this ill-advised marriage of dance drama and thriller has the dubious pleasure of following THE NEW YORK RIPPER (1982), a film that, in spite of its cult following, has a reputation as the cruelest and most controversial of Fulci’s works. Reacting to the moralistic fracas that erupted in its wake, MURDER ROCK is a largely bloodless, reigned-in affair for a director synonymous with gouged eyes and spilled innards, and an obvious indicator of his late-career downturn in both relevance and craft. Still, if MURDER ROCK isn’t Fulci’s best, it’s certainly one of his most energetic efforts from this period of decline.

With quick zooms out the wazoo, top-down shots, and handheld camera work, Fulci shoots the painfully 80s opening dance number from every imaginable angle, while Keith Emerson’s ridiculous Streets to Blame spills tunelessly into the studio: just one of many rattletrap original disco “songs” the prog rocker contributed to the movie. Each has a vibe an out of control mirror ball teetering violently on its axis. With not a leg left unwarmered or a hip unthrusted, from the start this spaghetti cinema take on FAME (1980) is more deliriously, dumbly entertaining than it has any right to be.

 MURDER ROCK features an almost expressionistic interplay between light and shadow, disorienting use of mirrors, flashing lights, and lens flare, and a swooping camera. Though it’s difficult for Fulci to keep the energy rolling when the dance numbers cease, these elements keep things snappy and visually stimulating. Candace’s slo-mo dream sequence is like a Bonnie Tyler video from Hell (billowy fabric, gauzy lenses, comically large pins) and though the murder set-pieces (all tits and swoony guitar licks) get repetitive, they’re stylishly staged. The denouement is one of the most delirious Fulci ever produced–seeming to draw from both Sci-Fi and Noir in the film’s daringly abstracted finale. It’s a shame then, that the central relationship between Karlatos and Lovelock is such a lame duck, and the procedural elements are a snore. Still, there’s a visual dynamism here that Fulci would never quite capture again. 

Scorpion Releasing can only do so much with the material, but the work is more than passable. This new color-corrected scan looks just right and mines plenty of depth from the deep blacks and blinding highlights of Giuseppe Pinori’s photography. There are moments when lots of visual detail is lost, but this is a cheaply made film with extreme variances in light and dark. It’s even arguable that the occasionally blown-out practical lights are purposeful, and add to the aforementioned disorienting effect. Supplements are sparse, but excellent. An interview with Geretta Geretta is particularly enlightening about Fulci and the state of Italian filmmaking at the time from an outsider’s perspective, and in a fabulous audio commentary, film historian Troy Howarth mounts a convincing defense for MURDER ROCK as one of Fulci’s more enjoyable, mid-tier efforts. The Blu-ray includes a limited edition slipcover and 9×11 mini poster with artwork by Wes Benscoter (while supplies last).

If Luca Guadagnino’s turgid dance academy of the damned bored you, take a walk on the tacky side with MURDER ROCK. Though far and away from Lucio Fulci’s best genre-aping cash-in, it’s a delightfully dumb piece of Italian knock-off artistry with some lurid-bordering-on-artistic visual panache. Ronin Flix’s disc isn’t a must-buy for everyone, but for Fulci lovers and Italian genre completists, what a feeling (you knew it was coming!) it is to have this garish marriage of dance flick and giallo on Blu-ray for the first time!

Rocco Thompson
Rue Morgue's Online Managing Editor, Rocco is a Rondo-nominated writer and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous.