(Lucio Fulci, 1981)
(essay by Kevin)
Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond is one of the best films of the Italian Horror genre. The film is definitely better than most horror movies, and it is doubly better than most Italian horror movies. The problem some people have with the film is that it makes no sense, and has no interest, at all, in following any kind of sensible or linear story path. Post gialli-Fulci was not interested in making stories that made sense, but, to his credit, The Beyond, for all of its craziness and inane moments, probably makes the most sense when held up to his other supernatural films. Fulci and the Italian’s love to stylize things — really ever since Fellini decided to abandon the neo-realist movement in Italy all bets were off — and Fulci’s garish imagery evokes some of the great moments from the giants of Italian cinema: Fellini and Bertolucci. The Italian’s had an eye for imagery (and Fulci had a thing for shooting eyes…) and for how something could just pop on the screen (or out of sockets); whether it be beautiful shadow play (like The Conformist) or an ethereal narrative a la Fellini, Fulci definitely knew how to create an eerie atmosphere on a par with the masters of Italian cinema (and especially his contemporary Argento), and The Beyond is his supernatural masterpiece.
The “plot” of The Beyond, however, is another thing, and usually with Fulci you have more fun at the expense of the story, rather than actually being chilled or thrilled by it. The Beyond is about a favorite theme of Fulci’s: the “gates of hell” being opened up by some ancient artifact or painting, or because a priest hangs himself (all themes from his films). Time travel also comes into play as do psychics and yes, even when they don’t belong: zombies.
This was the second film in Fulci’s “gates of hell” trilogy (which also included City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery); however, it was released before the unofficial first film of the series, City of the Living Dead. Fulci’s career was burgeoning after he resuscitated his career with the fabulous (and financially successful) Zombi 2. What’s interesting to see, though, when one looks back on Fulci’s trilogy is to see a man who became so disillusioned with the system that he just decided to give up and became nothing more than a hack after the release of The House by the Cemetery. To his credit it, though, Fulci tried to fight the good fight with The Beyond, and it was the producers, not Fulci, who decided to add a hospital full of zombies at the end of The Beyond (he didn’t want these films to be like his smash hit Zombi 2). And Fulci succeeds in making The Beyond one of those ethereal experiences people always attribute to Argento’s early work, and for the first hour or so, The Beyond works on you like no other horror film you’ve seen. It’s one of the most perfect examples of displacing and creepy-as-hell horror.
The film opens when an African-American artist in 1920’s Louisiana paints something evil looking which ends up rousing the interests of a lynch mob who thinks he’s a warlock. They burst into the 7 Doors Hotel (The butchered American version of the film is called The Seven Doors of Death) and find the man in room 36; they nail him to the wall and pour lots of quicklime (a favorite of the Italian’s). Meanwhile there is a little girl downstairs reading out of some book of the occult (the same book used in The City of the Living Dead…so Fulci was trying to have an underlying thread run through this “trilogy”). As the quicklime does its thing, the book goes up in flames. This opening shows Fulci was interested in doing something different with The Beyond, and I think it’s one of the reasons why so many horror buffs hold the film in high esteem. The opening is shot in sepia tone, and is beautifully lit; however, it’s the subtext that’s going on in the scene that makes it all the more interesting. Fulci’s take on lynch mobs and race in general is something that you just didn’t see in Italian horror…at all. So, kudos to Fulci fro trying something different, and for trying to make the opening of The Beyond feel like something that Italian audiences hadn’t seen a million times (probably the reason the producers freaked and made him put zombies in the end of the movie).
Back to the story: in present day Louisiana our heroine Liza buys up the hotel where the artist was murdered. During the remodel she notices a bad leak in one of the rooms. She calls Joe the Plumber (were the McCain/Palin campaign manager’s fans of Fulci?) and he goes down to investigate. Well this takes him under the hotel and face to face with the artist…who is now a zombie! It’s all academic from there as poor Joe the Plumber dies by means of Fulci’s favorite death: injury to eye. Once Joe is dead, the picture the artist painted reappears and…dun dun dun
…the gates of hell have been opened. Oh noes!
What follows are gory-as-hell scenes strung together by the thinnest of plot threads; scenes that include: the resurrection of Joe the Plumber, acid melting the face of a woman, a little girl inexplicably escaping from a room full of zombies, the noisiest spiders in the world eating a man’s face off, and a dog attacking zombies…only to turn into a zombie and attack its owner instead.
The Beyond is a giant middle finger to all horror fans that come to it expecting something logical and terrifying in its horror. No, The Beyond – despite my playful tone above – is brilliant because it doesn’t seek to do anything conventionally. Fulci is basically daring us to sit through this thing without being creeped the hell out by all of nonsensical goings-on.
The Beyond is full of wonderful gory death scenes, and that is why it’s fondly remembered and was so fervently sought out after it appeared on the infamous “video nasties” list. Every low budget independent zombie (or regular horror) film made today in some way borrows Fulci’s philosophy and style of gory filmmaking. Watch when Joe the Plumber’s wife is shocked to see her dead husband approach her. There is a spike in the wall right behind her and then watch how long this scene takes to develop. The pay off is great, and you can see this pacing today in gory torture porn like Hostel and Saw. If Fulci knew how to do anything he knew that if he spliced in the visceral moments with the deliberate pacing of his story – the fact that the audience had to wait for the big bad gory moment – it made it all the better.
Fulci uses the edges of his frames brilliantly here, and really employs and takes advantages of the widescreen format (I especially like the shot of the Medium on a vast and expansive highway) – something that isn’t the norm for a genre that usually seeks to employ a claustrophobic aesthetic – creating something unique and ethereal (there’s that word again, but it works so well when talking about Italian horror).
Italian exploitation cinema has always been about making movies that are popular in other countries. It’s why Mario Bava and some of the other classic Italian horror filmmakers become obsolete in the 70’s, because Italian cinema was all about spy movies and cop movies (not to mention Cannibal films and Mad Max type films that would bleed into the 80’s). The filmmakers for The Beyond were no different, they knew the blueprint for making enough money that would insure they could finance their next movie (based on Romero’s success in the states with his Dead movies) — Italian hack-filmmaker Umberto Lenzi is a perfect example of this “blueprint theory”, only working once with both the cannibal (Cannibal Feroux) and zombie genre (Nightmare City); however, both were arguably his two most famous and profitable films (he also worked in every genre there was, as did Fulci towards the end of his career). This understanding of how Italian exploitation cinema works causes the zombie moments of The Beyond (read: the ending of the film) to feel flat and passé (Fulci’s Zombi 2 did in fact gross more than Romero’s film, so it only seemed natural that his next film would have zombies in it). However, the rest of the film is daringly original in comparison (and after understanding the circumstances), unlike most horror films of that era.
Some would prefer to see The Beyond as a really crappy, nonsensical film; however, I prefer to view the film through the lens of ethereal, atmospheric horror that displaces the viewer…and it’s wonderfully fun camp, too. I can see why Tarantino loved the movie enough to give it a midnight revival in the late 90’s. The film has many charms, looks great, has hilarious dubbing, and some of the iconic gore moments in all of horror cinema. If you’re a horror fan, there should be no reason that you haven’t seen this film yet. Just prepare for having your mind messed with for 80+ minutes.
(this film appeared on Robert’s list at #76, Troy’s at #26, and Kevin’s at #17)