That’s what a friend of mine yelled a few years ago. Jack was a choreographer who had just received a call from someone in New York City, offering him the chance to come work on an off-Broadway show. He accepted, of course and then he hugged everyone who had been standing nearby, listening to the call.
“Manhattan, baby!” he shouted.
Now, the show itself didn’t really work out but Jack did get a trip to Manhattan out of it and really, I think that’s what everyone was excited about. No matter how many bad things you may hear about New York City, it’s hard not to get excited when you hear the word Manhattan. For many, Manhattan represents culture, sophistication, and wealth. For others, Manhattan represents crime, inequity, and alienation. Across the world, Manhattan stands for everything that is both good and bad about America. Just the word Manhattan carries a power to it. You would never get excited if someone announced that they had gotten a job in Minnesota, for instance. If Jack had shouted, “Minnesota, baby!,” we all would have been concerned about him. Minnesota? Who gives a fuck? But Manhattan …. Manhattan has power, baby!
Manhattan also lent its name to one of Lucio Fulci’s post-Zombi films and the title just happened to duplicate Jack’s proclomation, Manhattan Baby. Released in 1982, Manhattan Baby is often cited as being the last of Fulci’s “major” productions. While his career was reinvigorated by the success of the films he made with producer Fabrizio De Angelis (including Zombi 2 and the Beyond trilogy), Fulci and De Angelis had a falling out over Manhattan Baby. Fulci claimed that De Angelis essentially forced him to make the movie, despite the fact that Fulci himself did not have much interest in the script. Initially, the film was to be a special effects spectacluar with a large budget but, after the controversy surrounding Fulci’s The New York Ripper, the budget was drastically scaled back and the special effects were done on the cheap. Fulci later said that he felt the movie was terrible and that it set back his career.
As for what the film is actually about, Manhattan Baby deals with …. well, the plot is not easy to describe. Fulci’s films were always better known for their surreal imagery than their tight plots and, even by his standards, Manhattan Baby is all over the place. The film opens in Egypt, where archeologist George Hacker (Christopher Connelly) is struck blind when he enters a previously unexplored tomb. Meanwhile, his daughter, Susie (Brigitta Boccoli), is given an amulet by another blind woman.
Back in Manhattan, George waits for his sight to return and Susie and her little brother, Tommy (Giovanni Frezza, who played Bob In The House By The Cemetery) start to act weird. It turns out that their bedroom is now some sort of demensional gateway, from which snakes sometimes emerge. At the same time, the gateway occasionally sucks people through and they end up stranded in the Egyptian desert. Why? Who knows? Is Susie possessed or does the gateway operate independently from her? Why does she occasionally glow a weird blue color? Why do she and her brother suddenly seem to hate their nannny (played by Cinzia De Ponti, who was also in The New York Ripper)? It all has something to do with the amulet but the exact details of how it all works seems to change from scene-to-scene. Eventually, it turns out that the owner of the local antique shop knows about the amulet and its evil designs. Unfortunately, all of his stuffed birds come to life and peck his eyes out. Meanwhile, Susie’s parents and her doctors wonder why her latest x-ray seems to indicate that Susie has a cobra living inside of her and….
Like I said, it doesn’t really make any sense and, despite the power of the name, the meaning behind Manhattan Baby as a title is never really explained. In fact, more time is probably spent in Egypt than in Manhattan. It’s easy to assume that the film was called Manhattan Baby because it was felt that the title would appeal to American audiences but, when then the film was released in the U.S., it was actually retitled Eye of the Evil Dead in an attempt to disguise it as being a sequel to Sam Raimi’s classic shocker. (This was actually a common practice as far as the Italian film industry was concerned. Many films were retitled to disguise them as being a sequel. Fulci’s Zombi 2, for instance, recieved that title because, in Europe, Dawn of the Dead was released under the title Zombi.)
One can understand Fulci’s frustration with Manhattan Baby but, at the same time, is it really as bad as he often said it was? Yes, the plot is incoherent but that’s to be expected with a Fulci film. Yes, the special effects are cheap but again, that’s kind of part of the charm when it comes to Italian exploitation films. While Manhattan Baby never duplicates the ominous atmosphere of Zombi 2 or achieves the same sort of surreal grandeur as The Byond trilgoy, there are still enough memorable, if confusing, moments to make it watchable. The sequece where a shot of a man standing in a doorway cuts to a shot of him lying dead in the desert works surprisingly well. The scene where the shop owner is attacked by reanimated birds is both ludiscrous and scary, in the grand Fulci tradition. With their emphasis on foolhardy explorers ignoring curses, the Egyptian scenes feel almost as if they could have been lifted from one of the Hammer mummy films. Manhattan Baby may not be Fulci’s best but it’s hardly his worst.
In fact, with its obsession with blindness, Manhttan Baby is actually one of Fulci’s more personal films. Fulci was diabetic and reportedly lived in fear that he would someday lose his eyesight. Many critics, including me, have suggested that he dealt with this fear by having people lose their eyesight in his movies, often in the most violent ways possible. Manhattan Baby is full of people losing the ability to see. George Hacker is rendered blind in Egypt. The mysterious Egyptain woman hands out amulets to people who she cannot see. The store owner loses his eyes. One of George’s colleagues falls on a bed of spikers and, of course, one spike goes straight through an eye. Manhattan Baby is all about blindness and only be getting rid of the amulet can George hope to once again truly see the world and the people that he loves. If only illness could be tossed away as easily as an amulet.
Despite Fulci’s disdain for the final result, Manhattan Baby is hardly the disaster that it’s often made out to be. Those who aren’t familiar with Fulci’s unique aesthetic will undoubtedly confused by the film but, for those of us who know the man’s work, Manhattan Baby may be a minor Fulci film but it’s still an occasionally intriguing one.