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 made headlines). It took almost a decade before Zombi 2 (or as we here in the States know 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 guts 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 overtones.
In the film, Liza Merrill inherits a dilapidated hotel in Louisiana from a distant relative and 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.
Over the twenty or so years since its release, The Beyond has developed a loyal and loud cult following that champions this film and voices its frustration at the horrible hack job it is usually 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 title The Seven Doors of Death. Minus most of its slaughter, a good five minutes of mood setting prologue, and rendering the already jumbled film even more disjointed with random cuts, Seven Doors was the stupid remnant rabid Fulci fans had to dig his or her claws into. Now thanks to Grindhouse Releasing, who provide the film a new DVD package, a whole new generation of horror mavens can discover what so many have pined over for so long.
The Beyond is indeed brilliant. It is also an incoherent, messy combination of Italian terror and monster movie grave robbing that is saved by its bleak, atmospheric ending. It is a wretched gore fest sprinkled with wonderfully evocative gothic touches. It has more potential than dozens of past and present Hollywood horror films, getting better with multiple viewings as familiarity lessens 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.
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.
The ocular obsession of Italian filmmakers are another issue 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 their slushy sockets. Ghouls poke them out, spiders chew them up, and random acts of fire burn and blind them.
And then there's the gore. 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.
As part of this new DVD set, Grindhouse gives us insight into the entire production. Those who own the previous Anchor Bay-distributed edition may recognize a couple of these intriguing added features, since it was Grindhouse who handled the original restoration and pulled together the ample bonuses. There is an anecdotal commentary track featuring stars Catriona MacColl (Liza) and David Warbeck. They loved their experience on the film and working with each other and Fulci (apparently, not all actors have the same response) and their narrative is filled with jokes, insights, and honest reactions to the movie. There is also a rare onset interview with Fulci (engaging), a lost German pre-credit sequence shown in full color (nasty!) and liner notes from horror journalist Chas. Balun. They provide a plump set of supplements, especially for those new to the film.
In truth, all The Beyond 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. 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 Beyond's repulsive stew, he kicks back and regroups until it's time to serve another heaping helping. Of course, Fulci and his fans are always sated.