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The Beyond (1981)

Connective Tissue Issue

Between 1979 and 1981, Lucio Fulci directed five horror movies, one crime drama, and six episodes of a TV series. This is pure speculation, of course, but The Beyond (the first of two zombie films that third year, and the second installment of his loosely connected "Gates of Hell Trilogy") feels like it was made toward the end of an exhaustive run. It has all the steaming, bubbly viscera we love about Fulci but none of the coherence that makes a movie, well...a movie, as opposed to a ninety minute assemblage of atmospheric set pieces. The Beyond is a work of creative exorcism first and narrative craftsmanship second.

The film opens in 1927, and finds an angry mob of superstitious Louisiana rednecks attacking an artist who's staying at the Seven Doors Hotel. The locals don’t appreciate folks dabbling in the occult, and they crucify the wannabe warlock before dousing his body in acid. The body melts into the building's foundation as Fabio Frizzi's eerie yet poppin' seventies score plays over the titles. The imagery and the music are incongruous but infectious. As the camera lingers over the grotesque special effects (which, at the time, must have seemed truly disturbing but today play more like an ill-conceived baking soda volcano), I realized that Frizzi's tunes had placed me off kilter, suggesting a groovy-cop-show opening, rather than a film that would, in short order, envelope its world in fog and flesh-eating fiends.

This disconnect proved to be an omen, as the screenplay by Fulci and co-writers Dardano Sacchetti and Giorgio Mariuzzo revealed itself to be an exercise in suggestion rather than nitty-gritty plotting. Although Catriona MacColl's leading roles in all the "Gates" films are technically different each time out, her characters always find a way to resurrect zombies and open a creepy-basement Hell-mouth. Here, she plays Liza Merril, a struggling New York dancer who inherits the Seven Doors from a dead relative several decades after the lynching. She moves to the bayou in hopes of resurrecting the hotel and, of course, mysterious things begin to happen: a painter is gravely wounded in a scaffolding fall; the handyman goes missing (two guesses as to where); and a ghastly young woman named Emily (Cinzia Monreale) materializes to offer riddling admonishments and something almost resembling friendship.

I’m hard-pressed to recount the relationships in The Beyond, partially because the men are uniformly nondescript bearded guys, and partially because the script leaves so much “up to the audience” that it becomes apparent very quickly that anyone who’s not Liza or Emily is simply meant to become mush, a zombie, or spider-food.* Yes, in the last act of The Beyond, in which the world has literally gone to Hell, Liza and one of her fuzzy-faced beaus wind up in a hospital, shooting and shoving their way through an army of the walking dead—the result of some very unfortunate financier meddling, in which Fulci was pressured to make his film, I guess, more “Romero-esque” (i.e. commercial).

All that said, nitpicking the nonsensical plot of The Beyond is like complaining about the white space in between paintings at a museum. The stuff that works really works, and one way to consider Fulci’s work here is that he made the first YouTube horror movie, twenty-four years before the technology existed. Today, when people talk about re-watching big-budget spectacle films or horror movies, how often do they actually sit down with the whole thing, beginning to end? More often than not, they’ll look up the “best” scenes on-line, unencumbered by the need to fast-forward through the “boring” parts or the “talking” parts (often one and the same).

Fulci presents us with several gore set pieces, like the opening crucifixion; the library/spider attack; an encounter between Emily, her seeing-eye dog, and a gang of shambling demons; and a handful of morgue-resurrection scenes that dovetail into the hospital climax. Taken as vignettes, these scenes are effectively unnerving, claustrophobic, and terrible to imagine happening to us (especially that doozy of a closing shot).

Pan out from any one of them, though, and their impact deflates against a backdrop of bad dubbing, half-formed characters, and a plot that doesn’t demonstrate a tenth of thes individual set pieces' imagination. To clarify, there are more of these sequences than the ones I’ve described, but they mostly retread the melting-bodies motif—nothing as imaginative as City of the Living Dead’s organ-vomit or head-drilling scenes.

I didn’t have the benefit of watching The Beyond through a 1981 filmgoer’s eyes. All I have at my disposal are experiences and tastes that are uniquely my own, which have led me to conclude that Lucio Fulci should have taken some time off in the early 80s.** With a bit less in the pipeline, he might have achieved (or at least had the wherewithal to aspire to) the relative coherence of City of the Living Dead. As it stands, The Beyond is just a black-hearted, brutal, and atmospheric montage. That’s still an achievement, but it’s also a damned shame.

*One of the drawbacks of today’s 2k- and 4k-remaster craze is that dodgy horror-movie effects lose much of their power when held up to digital scrutiny. I imagine the scene in which a man is attacked in a library by an army of tarantulas played much better in 1981 than today, when what should be a chilling sequence of arachnophobic terror devolves into a frustrating game of “Spot the Puppet”.

** On the other hand, if he hadn’t made The Beyond, I wonder if Clive Barker’s Hellraiser would have existed. The two movies make a fascinating double-bill, as The Beyond concludes with a sadistic twist that Barker would later explore in the stories for both Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II.

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