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Beyond Fulci:  An Interview with Catriona MacColl

Looking at Catriona MacColl, she’s every bit as beautiful today as she was 30 years ago in Lucio Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Sitting down to speak with her at the 2009 Rock and Shock, I was happy to find her every bit as charming and eloquent as I’d hoped she’d be.  It’s still hard for me to believe that this very gracious Englishwoman is most beloved on these shores for her roles in a trilogy of the maestro’s ultra-violent zombie romps, three films I discovered she shied away from for many years.  Now, thanks to our mutual friend Mike Baronas, she’s on the convention circuit, meeting members of what she fondly refers to as the “Fulci cult.”

Thanks to Mike, Catriona and I sat down on a snowy Massachusetts day last month and discussed the MacColl/Fulci legacy, and her career as a whole.  I give special thanks from Icons fans and personally to Mike for setting up our conversation, and of course, to Ms. MacColl, who does not do many interviews.

Phil and Catriona


Phil:  How did you first get involved in films?

Catriona MacCollCatriona:  In film  full stop, you mean.  Not just the Fulci films.  Well, I was a ballerina, first and foremost.  I trained at what was considered the top ballet school in England, where you get an overall education.  And I got hired to dance in a company in the south of France, which has something to do with the fact that I live in France today.  After a couple of years of intense pressure on my body, like most people involved in sports or athletics, I got an injury, and I had to more or less put an end to my career as a dancer.  In my youth, I had taken an acting class.  I’d usually been cast in lead roles in school plays.  And people had said to me, “Maybe you should be an actress.”   So I had a passion for acting at an early age, but I didn’t actually get into it until I joined a repertory company.   Having had this injury, it was a chance meeting with someone in France who was looking for someone, a young actress who could actually dance.  Despite the injury, I was actually able to dance in this play, and after that I joined this company for two years and then I started meeting people in the industry.  So I moved to Paris to be in the south of France with this repertory company, where I learned my ground work in acting.  There, I met an agent and I started working on French television and things went from there.

Phil:  You’re best known to horror fans for your trilogy of films with Lucio Fulci.  How did you end up in the first of these, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD?

Catriona:  Well, by this time, I was working between Paris and London.  I had an agent in both places, and I City of the Living Deadgot a call from my English agent saying  he had received a then-very well known Italian agent, who was looking for an English actress to play the heroine in this Lucio Fulci film, and that this Italian agent had come across my photograph through my English agent, and that he thought that I would be right for the role, and he wanted me to go and meet Lucio Fulci in Rome, and was I in agreement to do this?  And of course, I was, going to Rome to meet a pretty well-known-- well-known in Italy, he wasn’t well-known outside Italy then-- but well-known Italian film director.  You don’t say “no” if you’re a young English actress.  So I went.  I hadn’t actually gotten the part at that point, because I needed to meet Lucio, sort of an audition, I suppose, and I hadn’t agreed to do it, either, because I hadn’t read the script;  it was subject to me reading the script.  So I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into.  But the initial meeting with Lucio Fulci was extraordinarily impressive.  It took place in the chicest part of Rome at this Italian agent’s office, which happened to be in a kind of palace.  All very Italian and rather decadent right at the beginning, in fact, and Lucio was determined to come across as a very serious, intellectual director.  And looking back on it, there was this kind of Hitchcockian atmosphere to this first meeting, because there we were in this palace, I was very dressed up, and he was also very dressed up.  And there was a certain amount of reserve between us.  And at the end of the interview, he gave me the script and said, “Read it in your hotel room tonight and tell me what you think.  And so I read it.  And quite frankly, the scripts of Lucio’s movies didn’t really read very well.

Phil:  I would imagine.

Catriona:  They transferred very well because of Lucio’s talent, and the talents of everybody that joined us in Catriona Screamsmaking them.  But they really didn’t read very well, they were very basic and they looked like the story was virtually non-existent, just there to link up different scenes with major special effects in them.  So I really wasn’t even sure if I should do this.  I noticed that my character didn’t actually have any vile things done to her.  All she did was combat evil and run away and scream and try to defend herself and everybody else.  So I realized from that point of view, I wouldn’t have anything too terrible to do.  And I rang my English agent and said, “Listen, I’m really not sure that I should get myself involved in this kind of thing,” because it really wasn’t fashionable in those days to do these films.  And he came out with a classic line that I have quoted quite often.  He said, “Oh darling, if you need the money, and if you want to go to Rome for a number of weeks, just do it.  No one will ever see them.”  Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us either, he died a number of years ago and probably didn’t realize the cult that these films have now exposed themselves to.  Quite amusing, “No one will ever see them.”  And here we are, nearly 30 years later, talking about them.


Famous pic of Fulci on set of THE BEYONDPhil:  Fulci has a reputation as a notorious misogynist.  Did you, as an actress, encounter any problems because of this?

Catriona:  In fact, I didn’t personally.  I was aware of this rather obnoxious side to Lucio.  There were several obnoxious sides.  But he was such a highly complex character.  It’s quite difficult, because there was a very soft side to Lucio.  There were various different sides:  the very dark side, the misogynist side, the paranoiac side, all kinds of sides.  But I was aware of the misogyny, because I witnessed various scenes with some of the Italian actresses that were there.  And of course, I didn’t always understand what he was shouting about;  he was usually shouting or being abusive in that way to these actresses.  But I came to the conclusion, as I believe I’m right, he didn’t take fools gladly, as we say, and he really didn’t respect the fashion for bimbos, if you like.  I call them bimbos, because it’s a very good way of describing them, poor little things, that were around at that time, that were purely concerned with looking pretty, and whether their makeup was good, and whether their hair was done properly.  They weren’t really into throwing themselves headlong into the role, it seemed to me.  I don’t think it’s necessarily their fault;  I think it’s what was expected of them at the time in Italy.  And in England, certainly, we’d moved a long way on, thank goodness, from that. 

So this slightly has-been, old fashioned approach amazed me, I guess because I gave myself entirely to the role, and I tried to make it as credible as possible, and do it in the way I would approach any other role.  And I think he respected that.  He also had a huge respect for Anglo-Saxon actors.  So I started off on the right foot, really, and his infamous shouting matches, or tantrums if you like, actually made me laugh.  But I wasn’t the target for them, so it was to laugh at, in a way.

Catriona within the CoffinPhil:  CITY has that remarkable coffin scene, where I swear every time I watch it, that you, the actress, are about to get impaled.  How did you pull that off?

Catriona:  Well, I mean I didn’t pull it off on my own.  Obviously, you had all the technicians involved, and designers and art directors et cetera, and stuntmen. 

Phil:  I think it’s very convincing because of the camera angles.

Catriona:  Yeah.  I must say that, actually, not really having liked these films at all, at the time when I did them, and also because it wasn’t politically correct as an actress to do them, I ran away from them for a long time, as I think most people know now.  But now I find myself embracing this cult that has emerged around them. So all these years later, I can analyze them better, and I actually have a particular fondness for them, because there’s something strangely, I can say, poetic about them.  It’s kind of a macabre, Edgar Allen Poe-like poetry about that scene.  And I actually rather like it now.  There’s a stillness within the scene at the grave, which is very good, considering you’re inside a coffin.  But it was just a scene that we did like any other scene. 

My theory is, if you read a script, you realize what is asked of you within the script.  You can’t then start causing a tantrum because you don’t want to do something.  You’ve read it and accepted it.  If you’re asked to do something that’s not written in the script, then of course you can refuse it.  But if you have a problem with a scene, you need to talk about it before you agree to do it, and ask the director how they’re going to do this.  I’m not quite sure how I would feel now about filming in a coffin.  I think I would find it extremely disturbing and weird.  But at the time it was almost a challenge, because I was so young;  when you’re that young, the idea of death seems so far away that it was freaky but fun.  You know what I mean?  Doing something slightly forbidden, getting into this coffin.  But there was, as far as I remember, one very strange moment when he did actually put the lid on in order for Christopher George to put the beginning of the axe through the lid.  And that was very, very strange.  But anyway, I survived.

Phil:  You shot your three Fulci films in the United States.  What was it like working on location?

Catriona:  Oh, it was great!  It really was, because I’d never been to the States before.  Travel was not as cheap in those days, and I was only 23.  I didn’t have the money, or the reason to go to the States, and I wasn’t going to go on my own.  So that was terribly exciting, and not many of my contemporaries, if any in fact, had been in those days to the States.  So there was something very exotic to coming to shoot, as well.  And of course I was with a whole bunch of wonderful Italians;  I adore the Italians, I adore Italy.  And that was a laugh.  So I saw the States through European eyes.  Also, I got to go to several places, like Savannah, Georgia, which I remember incredibly well.  There was a different side to Savannah in those days, with the wealthy, residential side, and there was also a very poor side, which we filmed in.  I wasn’t perfectly scared, because I was very well surrounded by the Italians, and certain assistants who we hired on the spot, who were Americans.  But there was a scene or two that we did in an area of Savannah that had a big edge to it.  But anyway, we pulled it off.

Looking back, we very often didn’t have permission to shoot in certain locations, and that is kind of wild, really.  When I think about that now, where we were filming... we did have a few problems on GATES OF HELL (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD’s alternate title) with the Teamsters.  I do remember there were times I was told they let the tires down, but I’m amazed it wasn’t more than that.  And then with THE BEYOND, I think we did have permission.  We filmed in New York in GATES OF HELL with no permission whatsoever, in Washington Square and on Brooklyn Bridge.  But again, that wasn’t my problem, it was theirs (the filmmakers).  But now that I look back on it, it’s kind of amusing, that we got away with it.

Phil:  There are some really gorgeous shots of New Orleans in THE BEYOND.  Some really poetic, lyrical shots.

Catriona:  Yeah, absolutely.  I think that’s why I would say... I’m often asked the question which one do I prefer...

Phil:  Which I was going to ask you.

Catriona:  You were.

THE BEYONDPhil:  So I might as well ask it now.

Catriona:  Well, why not?  Because you gave it to me.  I used to find that quite hard to judge.  I made them all back-to-back, and I didn’t think about them, really, for a number of years.  I just got on with my career and I thought no one would ever see them, as my agent said.  So the page had been turned.  So when I came to start talking about them, I began to get them all in a muddle, which scene was in which movie.  I guess I could say that  I probably have the greatest fondness for THE BEYOND, because I think probably of what you just said, the atmosphere that was created right in the beginning, I think, in that opening sequence.  But I loved New Orleans.  I don’t know what it would be like now, because of Hurricane Katrina.  I’m sure it’s a pretty disturbing appearance now.  When it happened, Katrina, I thought about it, I thought perhaps a lot of the places I went to were no longer there, or even the people.  But at the time, it was great.


Phil:  You mentioned Christopher George before.  How was it sharing the lead with him?

Catriona:  It was really good.  I would say we had a jovial relationship, but it was essentially a professional Christopher Georgerelationship.  And he seemed to me an extremely professional actor.  I don’t really think I worked with that many Americans before I worked with Christopher.  He had quite a long career.  He died young, sadly, but he had a very good career.

Phil:  He was an American character actor, who did a lot of work.

Catriona:  Yeah, and very active, physically.  He was very right for the part, for the casting, I would say.  And very nice to work with, straightforward, a family man.  He was very pleasant.


Phil:  Moving on to THE BEYOND, you worked with David Warbeck in that.  How did that compare with working with Christopher George?

Catriona:  Two totally different actors.  Two different worlds.

Phil:  David Warbeck seems like an interesting bird.

Catriona:  Oh, very interesting.  I got to know David much better than I got to know Christopher.  It was more Catriona and David Warbeck in THE BEYONDof a professional relationship with Christopher.  David, I tended to mix with more off of the set.  And in fact, in later years, I hooked up again with David.  Our paths crossed, probably through all this cult that I started to embrace.  David was already very much involved in it, because he loved everything that went with the business, all the fans.  He loved all the admiration—who wouldn’t, in a way?  But David loved it particularly, in a very sweet way, not in a narcissistic way, necessarily.  He just loved people, and loved having fun.  He was very outgoing, generous, a loving man.  He was a party character, David.  It wasn’t the same kind of professionalism;  he was professional, but I think he got a real kick out of filming, whereas Christopher was doing it from a different angle.  David didn’t really care what happened in the future, or where his career went, if it went left, right or wherever.  He would go there with no real career plan.  He was originally a model, I believe, so I’m not quite sure how he fell into acting.  I don’t think he necessarily set out to be an actor.  So he embraced the whole with a childlike fun.  He was coming from a different position.  But he was a lovely man, and he’s sadly missed by all of us. 



Catriona:  I like it.  The three characters I played in the films were all obviously different parts of myself.  Perhaps in HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, the character is more fragile than the other two.  That’s an interesting quality and emotion to play. 

Phil:  I think the difference is, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE BEYOND have a much bigger scope, and that with HOUSE, Fulci pulls that scope way back and created what basically turns out to be a haunted house movie.

Catriona:  And the monster in the cellar.

Phil:  You can tell it’s Fulci because of the visual style.

Catriona:  Yes, the poetry.

Phil:  And there are some very weird things going on.

Catriona:  So it has all the Fulci traits.  But perhaps it is a more simple plot.  And of course, we don’t get into the zombie too much.  And the end is pretty black, as well;  Mummy and Daddy die, and get taken away by the monster, and the kid... well, one can make up one’s own mind as to what happens to him.  But basically, I think he probably disappears as well.


Phil:  Fulci’s movies are known for their shunning of plot in favor of atmospheric visuals.  How did that affect your job as an actress?

Lucio FulciCatriona:  Obviously.  I realized that when I first read them.  Once I’d read one and agreed to do another, then I wasn’t expecting a huge amount of difference in the scripting.  It probably meant that I had to put more of an effort into making the whole thing credible.  Given, my character wasn’t written up at all, just the fact that she was called Mary, or Laura, or whatever she was called.  The fact that he cast me in it meant that I could use my own imagination, and also very much use who I am.  And that’s always interesting, especially for a young actress, to make the character a part of you.  And that’s why I’m slightly more attached to THE BEYOND, because my character is probably more me.  The others are also me, but perhaps that one resembles me more at that time.  In that case, it was interesting and kind of fun, because you could take the characters wherever you wanted, because there was nothing really written on the paper. 

I have said often as well, as far as doing what Lucio wanted, he didn’t direct you;  there wasn’t much direction for the actors from Lucio.  I’m sure he was capable of it.  But he wouldn’t say very much.  It would have been nice if he had said, “That was good,” or “wasn’t good enough,” or “That emotion was great,”  but basically he didn’t give very much.  Time was money, and we had long days and a lot to do.  But he wasn’t terribly demonstrative, emotionally.  A lot of messed up emotions in there.  Demonstrative when he was screaming and shouting, but not so with saying complimentary.  But of course one got to know the way he proceeded, and basically the less he said, the better one was.  It was okay to put something into it that wasn’t in the script, and as long as he didn’t say anything, it was actually pretty good.

A gruesome effect shot from THE BEYONDPhil:  Fulci’s films also revel in their ultra-violence.  How do you feel about the gore in your Fulci films?

Catriona:  At the time, I was pretty shocked that I was actually in them, had actually agreed to do them.  But as I thought no one would ever see them, and I had a lot of fun doing them, I thought, “Well I don’t have to worry about this too much.”  I started to worry about it a little bit more when I realized that, a few years later, they were considered, in England anyway, video nasties.  Censorship of the form was discussed at various conferences about video nasties, whether they should be allowed to be screened or not.  And so at that point, I shied away and pretended that I hadn’t had anything to do with them.  I didn’t put them on my résumé, I didn’t talk about them, I didn’t even tell my then-French agent anything about them.  So to this day, she doesn’t have much idea of the huge cult following that’s going on now. 

As the years have gone by, and I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’d been in these films and justify to myself that I was part of this whole adventure, I analyze and it seems to me that, unfortunately violence in films has escalated.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s escalated in the world, although perhaps it has;  it’s always been there, but with the media as it is today and the scope of technology, we’re seeing more and more of it.  So, in some respects these movies today are not exactly tame.  I see mainstream movies with my 13-year-old stepson and think, “Oh my God!  That’s far more terrifying than our gory fantasy.”  So I’m sure it makes them a little bit more powerful.  But I notice that when I’m asked by various kids, friends of my teenagers, to show them one of these (Fulci) movies that they’ve heard about, they actually sit there and kind of laugh.  So I think, they can’t be that scary any more.  But I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, as it means violence has become more mainstream.

Phil:  I’ve heard you turned down a role in Fulci’s NEW YORK RIPPER.  NEW YORK RIPPER Poster

Catriona:  Yes, I hadn’t read the script.  But once you’d read one Fulci script, you knew what to expect of one.

Phil:  Were you just done with the Fulci cycle?

Catriona:  Well, I was, because as I said to you, I had no idea they were going to become what they would become.  I really wanted to get away from them.  I also didn’t know that Lucio would disappear not long afterwards, sadly.  I was a young actress, and I didn’t then want to become known as a horror queen.  The irony is the fact that I’ve done very many things since, in Europe—not anything that you would necessarily know here in the States –but nevertheless, that is what I’m known for.  That’s the irony, that it’s caught up with me in the end.  I was asked to do a French film—they don’t even like to say “horror” film, really, in France;  they call it a “fantastique”—a few years ago in 2004, and because the young, French director was so heavily influenced by Lucio in his teenage years, and he is truly becoming well-known for films which are pretty brutal.  So this film we made together, he made as an SAINT AINGEhomage; he cast me as one of the four actresses in it as a direct homage to Lucio.  And it was really interesting to do.  I played this rather nasty character.  Because I’m older now, I can get into slightly more interesting parts.  The baddies are always fun to play, I’m sure all actors will agree with that.

Phil:  I just can’t imagine you playing a baddie.  I guess because I’m so attached to you in the three Fulci movies.

Catriona:  Yes, and I’m sure a lot of people probably think like you.  But anyway, it was just really fun to be part of another very classy horror movie.  The French didn’t take to it very much, because I think it doesn’t resemble French cinema in any way.  Although I have been told that there is an exciting, emerging French horror scene, and perhaps I should get involved with that a little bit more.  But I don’t have David Warbeck’s attitude, “If you want to do it, just do it.”  I do want to preserve quality, so I won’t do just anything, let me put it like that.


THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII Foreign PosterPhil:  You mention on the commentary for THE BEYOND that you worked with Sir Laurence Olivier.  The cast of “The Last Days of Pompeii” also included stars such as Ernest Borgnine and Olivia Hussey.  What was it like working with some of Hollywood’s biggest names?

Catriona:  Oh, there was an incredible distribution of actors on that mini-series.  Incredible English actors, and there was also Franco Nero, who was a huge Italian star himself.  I worked with him twice, actually.  What was it like?  Pretty impressive, is all I can say.  I guess it’s probably the only time I’ve ever done something quite of that ilk.  We shot for about a month in Italy, and it must’ve cost ABC and Columbia an absolute fortune.  The critics were not terribly positive, not that that really matters.  It’s probably become a cult as well, I would imagine.  It was adapted from one of the worst books ever written.  The year we did it, I think it was hailed that year as the worst book ever written. 

But anyway, we had a complete ball.  I didn’t have a huge amount of contact, other than we met up in makeup in the morning, with Ernest Borgnine.  I did have a lot of contact, because he played my dad, with Ned Beatty, who was great, really inspiring.  Oh God, did we laugh, with the English actress who was playing my mom.  And Sir Laurence, bless him.  In actual fact, I didn’t have a scene with him.  And he was already quite aged at the time, having some difficulties, so they would have him come down on the set.  He didn’t go out to Italy, he just worked at Pinewood (Studios).  And he was delightful.  At least I can say I met him, and shook his hand, an unforgettable memory in an actress’ life.

Phil:  You’ve done a number of conventions recently.  What do you like about the convention experience?

Catriona:  Well, it’s mind boggling, if you come from Europe.  We don’t have anything like it, although there are a few European conventions I’ve been to.  The first one I went to was in Germany  Some of the people here today were present there, like Gunnar Hansen and Tom Savini.  And I think I had a better time than  they did, because it was my first one.  I couldn’t believe it.  These films are very popular in Germany too.  And since then, it’s been great.  I see some of the same faces, and I feel I have friends everywhere. 

Mike BaronasI have a wonderful person, I’d like to name him, Mike Baronas, who’s looking after me and does a great job.  He deserves the credit here.  He’s incredibly professional, incredibly laid back, and I love him dearly.  You know, if he hadn’t come and found me, I wouldn’t be here, I would’ve shied away from this. 

 And indeed, I did shy away from this whole cult for many, many years in fact.  But I realize that the people that come to these conventions, sometimes they look a bit strange as if it’s Halloween, but everybody’s perfectly normal.  Why shy away from them?  Everybody’s just charming and delightful.  It’s kind of wild.  It’s hard to explain what they’re about to my friends back home, because they can’t imagine these films they haven’t really seen and don’t know so much about are so huge on the other side of the Atlantic.  The more the merrier.  I’d like to come back.


Phil:  You’re meeting fans today 30 years after CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD first came out.  What are your reflections on the MacColl/Fulci legacy now?

Catriona:  Well, it’s obviously one that works, the Fulci/MacColl relationship.  When we did these films, you don’t think about all of that, obviously, especially when you think no one’s ever going to see them.  But I’m pleased that I brought the same professionalism into them as I do with everything that I do.  But it’s obvious that my attitude, the way that I approached the roles, my relationship with Lucio, all that is on the screen.  It has something to do with the fact that these three particular films—even though I realize that ZOMBIE and several other films are also part of the Fulci cult, I wasn’t in those—but the fact that these three particular films are perhaps the best remembered or the best known must have something to do with the MacColl/Fulci legacy and relationship. 

As far as the legacy goes, I don’t know what to say.  It’s difficult to analyze that, but obviously there is one.  Lucio was a very mysterious person and never will be completely unfathomed.  So perhaps the mystery surrounds the legacy as well.  Filmmaking is about osmosis, it’s the right elements coming together, and that in a way is where chance comes into it.  Anyway, it’s all in a day’s work, isn’t it?

Mike, Phil and Catriona

Phil:  I want to thank you very much, for taking some time out today to speak with me.

Catriona:  Oh, it’s a pleasure.

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    What a delightful interview. Thanks for posting it. I've just seen City of the Living Dead for the first time in about 15years and was hugely impressed by Catriona's performance - concentration and poise and understanding. Rare qualities indeed in genre pictures.

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