Despite groundbreaking work to identify numerous proteins and to focus attention on molecular interactions, the mechanism of calcium-triggered membrane fusion remains unresolved. A major difficulty in such research has been the many overlapping and interacting membrane trafficking steps in the secretory pathway, including those of membrane retrieval. Identifying the specific role(s) of a given protein, beyond its general involvement in exocytosis, has therefore proven problematic. Furthermore, the power of time-resolved optical and electrophysiological assays can be best applied to testing the function of known proteins rather than to the identification of unknown, critical membrane components. The identification of essential membrane constituents requires combined biochemical (molecular) and functional (physiological) analyses. A fully functional, stage-specific physiological membrane preparation would be one direct approach to dissecting the calcium-triggered fusion steps of regulated exocytosis. Herein we review our use of specific minimal membrane preparations consisting of fully primed and docked secretory vesicles, or the isolated vesicles themselves, and characterize the late events of exocytosis, with an aim towards identification of essential molecular components. We have established a functional definition of the fusion complex and its activation by calcium, based on our kinetic analyses. Together with a variety of biochemical and alternate functional assays, we have tested whether the SNARE core complex that is present in our vesicle membranes satisfies the criteria of the functionally defined fusion complex. Rather than a direct fusogenic role, the SNARE complex may promote the calcium sensitivity of fusion, possibly by defining or delimiting a localized, focal membrane fusion site that ensures rapid and efficient exocytosis in vivo.