[15 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the world of horror, you either “get” Lucio Fulci or you don’t. After starting his career in Italian cinema as a genre jack-of-all-trades (moving from comedies to westerns to musicals), he found himself hated by his homeland when he made the scathingly anti-Catholic Don’t Torture a Duckling (which hinted at the whole “priest-pedophile” issue years before it was acceptable). It took almost a decade before Zombi 2 (or as we here in the States known it, Zombie) refurbished his box office clout, turning Lucio into one of the most recognizable international brand names for excessive gore epics.
Zombie was followed by The City of the Living Dead (AKA Gates of Hell), a notorious bloodbath featuring young women vomiting up their internal organs and a man getting an industrial drill thrust through his head (all witnessed in loving close-up). Toward the end of his career, he was accused of repeating himself (The House by the Cemetery) or creating low budget, incoherent junk (House of Clocks, Cat in the Brain). Right in the middle of it all was the film that many consider to be his masterpiece, the often misunderstood and named The Beyond (or The Seven Doors of Death or And You Will Live in Terror: The Afterlife). It combined the guts and grue of Fulci’s newfound fondness for flesh rendering with a hyper-stylized visual flair and somber, sullied Southern Gothic overtones.
Over the twenty-five or so years since its release, The Beyond has developed a loyal and loud cult that champions its artistry and voices frustration at the horrible hack job it is usually made available in. For a long time, the only way to see this Fulci flick was to rent or buy an abysmal, pan and scan full screen edit job with the strangely suggestive Seven Doors title. Missing most of its slaughter, a good five minutes of mood setting prologue, and rendering the already jumbled film into an even more disjointed collection of random cuts, it was the stunted remnant the rabid Fulci fan had to dig his or her claws into. Thanks to the efforts of the unlikely duo of Sage Stallone (Sly’s son), who oversaw a major restoration of the movie, and Quentin Tarantino, who distributed it through his Rolling Thunder prestige label, The Beyond got its comeback (sadly, Fulci died before the rediscovery was in full swing). The end result, however, may be a small swatch of disappointment.
Our story begins when Liza Merrill inherits a dilapidated hotel in Louisiana from a distant relative. Naturally, she moves from the big city to the Big Easy to start anew. When one of the workmen helping to refurbish the place has a horrible accident, it seems to portend terrible things to come. A plumber named Joe is attacked and killed in the basement, and a long dead corpse is discovered. Joe’s wife dies of an accidental acid bath to the face. Then Liza runs into a blind girl named Emily who warns her about the inn’s haunted past. More gory accidents occur.
Soon it is learned that sixty years before, a warlock named Schweick lived in the lodge and occupied Room 36. The hotel was apparently built over one of the seven gateways to hell, and the strange sorcerer was either working to keep it closed…or trying to find a way of opening it. With the help of a local doctor and an ancient book, Liza must discover the truth about the “doors of death” and face down evil before the dead walk the Earth and plunge the planet into a nightmare world of malevolence.
The Beyond is an incoherent, chaotic combination of Italian terror and monster movie grave robbing that is almost saved by its bleak, atmospheric ending. It is a wretched gore fest sprinkled with wonderfully evocative touches. It has more potential than dozens of past and present Hollywood horror films, yet finds ways to squander and squelch each and every golden gruesome opportunity. It’s a movie that gets better with multiple viewings, familiarity lessening the startling goofiness of some of the dialogue and dubbing. It is a film that is far more effective in recollection than it is as an actual viewing experience. It would probably work best as a silent movie, stripped of the illogical scripting, stupendously redundant Goblin-in-training soundtrack drones, and obtuse aural cues.
Fulci is more than capable of creating stark and moving visuals, and there is nothing wrong with linking them together to form a dreamlike state of ambiguousness, but the problem with The Beyond is that the stream of consciousness style fails to build into an effective state of dread. Instead of being mortified at what’s around the corner, or what waits in darkened Room 36, we are pitched about like Tilt-a-Whirl patrons, the film hoping we are pleased with a less than smooth suspense ride.
The Beyond also suffers from the drawbacks of its ethnic heritage, a mishmash of ogre overkill that could be called the Pasta Eater’s Prerequisites to Heavy-Handed Horror. First and foremost in any Sicilian scare-a-thon, there must be a blank-eyed woman who seems determined and empowered in one scene, but that can also become completely useless and scatterbrained the next. She must radiate innocent virginity as she embarks on soul blackening escapades. There must be strange entities materializing from the ether, ghouls, ghosts, or spirits hanging out in the material world to warn or haunt us. There is always a pissed-off dog or monkey hanging around, some manner of mauling mammal to boost the beast factor.
And as with all pathways to a Roman roundelay, all Italian horror roads lead to zombies: slow, dull-witted, seemingly nonchalant members of the living dead who are more sedate than scary. Indeed, Fulci is not out to make his flesh eaters visions of cannibalistic evil. In some ways, the reanimated corpses in The Beyond are like plot point speed bumps, ambulatory path blockers that mandate the characters maneuver around or circumvent them in order to advance the storyline. They are never menacing, never seen munching on arms or even breaking a sweat. About the most macabre thing any of the clamoring cadavers do occurs when Joe, a plumber turned pus bucket, forces a wall spike through the back of the head (and up through the eye socket) of an unwitting victim.
The ocular issues of Italian filmmakers are another concern altogether. Speaking of peepers, Fulci does have his own unique fixations, fear fetishes if you will, that get overplayed and exaggerated in The Beyond. He must have had some blunt trauma to the eyeball at some point in his life, or a desire to deliver said, since he is absolutely obsessed with removing the gooey sight orbs from out of their slushy sockets. Ghouls poke them out, spiders chew them up, and random acts of fire burn and blind them. When we’re not witnessing the purposeful removal of the soul’s windows via cruel and unusual punishment, we are compositionally close up on them, director and cameraman filling their frame with bloodshot or baby blue marbles emoting to beat the band. Fulci is a director who takes the description of cinema as a “visual” medium both figuratively and literally.
Still, the focusing on one’s corneas is not the only thing obsessing this Mediterranean maniac. Lucio also likes to place his characters and action underground, usually in a filthy, body-strewn catacomb or water filled basement. Doesn’t make any difference if logic and location renders the setting stupid or impossible, if he can bury it beneath the Earth, Fulci is placing his plot in it. This means lots of darkened shots of people standing around, wet and dirty, just as confused as the audience about where they are and what lies ahead. Of course, this should all be incredibly moody and spine chilling, right? Sure, and tiramisu was Julius Caesar’s favorite food. Unfortunately, these fascinations are more monotonous than affecting. The choices are all obvious, the symbolism as rote and routine as a grad student’s short story. Yet without them, the film would be missing one of its main selling points. It just wouldn’t be a bit of Lucio lunacy without them.
And then there’s the gore. Italians in general (and Fulci specifically) love to ladle on the red sauce, and we ain’t talking about Mama’s homemade manicotti gravy here. If there is a chance to feature the inner workings of the human body in all their claret giving grisliness, Fulci will provide untold moments of chests bursting open, guts flowing like Vesuvius, and wounds gaping like waterless goldfish. A gash is not just a cut; it’s an open pipeline to the human circulatory system. When something bites or bashes someone, it causes untold internal hemorrhaging that always finds some way to spray out and spill all over the surfaces.
Blood is poured like syrup over dry IHOP pancakes and the camera is always moving in to capture the viscera and cartilage as it’s folded, spindled, and mutilated. Unlike the surgeon’s precision of Tom Savini or a warped weirdness of Rob Bottin, the Roman and Tuscan tongue gouger enjoy languishing over the mayhem their makeup creates and even muck it up a bit more to increase its lunch loosening. They can produce some truly spectacular and disturbing imagery, but they are also capable of constructing everything to look as fake as the forehead on an Irwin Allen alien. Imagination and malignancy are not attributes missing from their latex and greasepaint gross out kit, but occasionally, things can really look more or less mannequin.
So, with all these potentially nauseating engrossments in hand, it’s hard to understand why The Beyond is not a better movie. There are boatloads of body parts and blood. There are incredibly atmospheric settings and sequences. We get excellent shock value out of seeing a little girl’s heads explode in two and a dog rip huge chunks out of its master’s throat. Rotting corpses rise from filthy bathtubs and acid melts the faces (and most of the rest of the head) of random characters. So why aren’t we cheering in cheesy delight or mortified beyond our own moral tolerance? One answer could be overkill. After all, even a movie like Day of the Dead knew to throw a little politicizing in with its vivisection.
All The Beyond (or City of the Living Dead, or Zombi 2 for that matter) wants to do is wallow in lurid disgust until the organs offend you with their over-the-top gore and then add a scene or two of inspired visual poetry to offset the smell. Fulci is going to beat you over the head with the clots and sideswipe you with the sinew. Now fellow foreigner Dario Argento creates dream imagery we can relate to, attaching the nightmares of childhood into the real world reality of adults to disturb and unarm us. His hallucinations may seem as intangible as Lucio’s, but somehow he manages to fuse tone and texture together to create a truly unnerving experience. Fulci is all about the fester, the feel and pong of rotting flesh. Once you’ve sampled the repulsive stew, he kicks back and regroups until it’s time to serve another heaping helping.
Or maybe it’s the fact that gothic horror is just a hard sell in today’s short attention span marketplace, where werewolves battle vampires in Matrix inspired fight scenes filled with hectic stunts and CGI cartoon creatures - and yet the game playing fanboy still screams for more. Something as languid and repugnant as The Beyond just can’t register. Perhaps at an even slower pace, with more stunning images and settings, this movie would really spook. As it stands, its startlingly short running time and slapdash cinematic approach to story and scenes guarantees that once Fulci looses his audience, it’s going to be hard as hell to win them back…that is, until the ending.
It’s one of the few times where Lucio understands what he’s actually got going for him. The setting is remarkable, the acting pitch perfect, and the overall effect engrossing and yet incredibly disconcerting. It almost single handedly makes up for the previous exercise in jigsawed juvenilia. If the entire film had been handled like the last five minutes, fulfilling the prophecy the previous ninety minutes had all but mucked up, The Beyond would be a stellar work of breathtaking cinematic scope and power. As it stands, it’s just an above-average offering from a director gripped by heart juice, sewers, and tearing out tear ducts. The Beyond may be a celebrated work of forgotten genius, but why it is held in such high regard may just be “outside” your comprehension.