Friday, October 23, 2009

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: The Beyond

[Today I dust off an old review I wrote when I started this blog almost two years ago. There's no denying the cult following Fulci has for his 1979 film Zombi 2, but I think his best post-giallo work is found in this weird little nonsensical number from 1981. Enjoy.]

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 in following any kind of sensible or linear story path. Fulci was not interested in making stories that made sense, and really to his credit, The Beyond, for all of its craziness and inane moments, probably makes the most sense when held up to his other 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 takes after filmmakers not just within the horror genre. Look at some of the films of Bertolucci (like The Conformist) which are almost all style over substance; or the surreal, ethereal nature of Fellini’s final films; but Fulci’s style is mostly akin to the supernatural, non-linear stylings of Dario Argento. 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 the bright neon and somewhat otherworldly colors seen in Argento’s Suspiria, Fulci definitely knew how to create an eerie atmosphere on par with 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 for some reason 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. I could try to go on and on about how there are themes at work here and Fulci really was trying, but I would just be lying and trying to turn a hack filmmaker into something more than he could possibly be. There are a number of retrospectives by people who think Fulci was a great artist, and there are no doubts that he had the eye of a very astute student who studied the Italian masters, but I just don't think he can be taken too seriously. Now to his credit it was the producers who made him add a hospital full of zombies at the end of The Beyond, not Fulci, so he wasn't completely hack-tastic here (he didn't want these films to be like his smash hit Zombi 2). Fulci succeeds in making The Beyond one of those ethereal experiences I always attribute to Argento’s early work. Unfortunately for Fulci, this was about it for him as he would give up any remnants of talent he had for the easy buck, as he would finish his career with awful slasher films like The New York Ripper and Murder Rock(which is sad considering how good his career was in the 70’s when he was making interesting gialli). The Beyond is indeed the best of Fulci’s post-giallo career, but if you are looking for a scary story – something that moves beyond the eeriness of the images, then you should probably look elsewhere.

The film opens when a warlock/artist in 1920's Louisiana paints something evil looking which ends up rousing the interests of a lynch mob. 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 pour lots of quicklime (a favorite of the Italian's) on him as Fulci proceeds to film the scene in typical Italian horror film fashion. 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 (gasp) goes up in flames. That's about all of the story I can relate because there really isn't much else to tell. It's all set up for scene after scene of Fulci's most famous gore moments. And they’re good ones.

The best part about Italian horror (and especially Italian zombie) movies is the fact that things take so long to happen, usually with a really weird funky bass line or synth playing over the action. What easily begins as unsettling and somewhat unnerving, turns into a gross out fest that sometimes turns laughable because of how long the camera lingers on something so grotesque (the famous spider scene or the moment where acid burns off a ladies face are two scene’s that come to mind). Often these loooong moments of gore seem like filler, but sometimes they work in evoking a sense of otherworldiness that displaces the viewer and unsettles the nerves, but whatever the effect one thing is for certain: it's no wonder Fulci didn't tighten things up through the editing process, the film would only be 50 minutes long.

In the opening scene mentioned above the mob pour quicklime on the artist and for about two minutes you get to listen Fabio Frizi's synth play over the imagery while the calcium oxide does its thing. Skin pops, eyes fall out, and then if that weren't enough, Fulci has to nail the dude up to the wall. It's a pretty brutal scene that gives the viewer a sense of things to come and showcases some of what made Fulci so popular with Zombi 2; here he ups the ante substantially.

(Back to the “plot”) Well sure enough cut to present day and the 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.

The injury to eye death is seen all through Italian horror (especially post-Zombi 2) and Fulci was the master of it. This shot usually consisted of the cheap scare of something that you think is dead springing to life and grabbing the face of the living. This leads to a POV shot and once again the plodding camera of Fulci lingers on things just long enough so we realize how fake things look and how horrible the violence is going to be. Once we (as Joe) see that the fingers are going straight for the eye socket...out it goes. Once Joe is dead, the picture the artist painted reappears and dun dun dun...the gates of hell have been opened.

Another scene that is brilliantly strange and hilarious is when one of the characters is researching the gates of hell, and the weird occurrences around town and in the hotel. He finds the book he needs (a book about the history of the hotel) at the very top of a bookshelf (thanks to the librarian played by Fulci, in a cameo), and as he climbs the ladder for no reasoning whatsoever lightening strikes and what started out as a normal scene turns into something so bizarre and hilarious I think I'll just let you see it for yourselves:

Click here to watch video

Again, the staples of Fulci's "craftsmanship" are at work here. The scene goes on so long that it becomes obvuous that two out of the four spiders have strings attached to them. Not to mention the spiders make a ridiculous hissing noise, and they chomp when they eat this guys flesh as if they were the Simpson's sitting down for dinner. It's always a paradox with Fulci, because the film is pretty squirm inducing, and when he wanted to he could really put the effort in to pull off a great looking gore effect; however, sometimes he just phoned it in as he did with this scene and the obvious fake spiders.'s one of the most memorable (and was one of the most heavily cut) scenes of the film.

There are other great moments like when the zombie artist (remember him) is hooked up to a machine to indicate its heart rate (that should make it obvious what scene will follow), or how about when a beaker of acid (why is there acid just sitting around in a room of corpses?) tips over and eats away at an entire face for what seems like an eternity (again, Fulci getting every last minute out of his budget) and then that same acid slowly approaching a creepy girl in what looks like jell-o; also in this same scene, how does the girl escape? We don’t know because Fulci just ends the scene with the girl screaming, looking up at all the zombies about to attack her in the morgue. But the girl comes back later in the movie just so Fulci can have someone blow her face off (in what is probably the most famous death in the movie, and perhaps in all of Italian Horror).
Or, how about the scene where a blind girl gets eaten alive by her seeing eye dog in an obvious homage to Dario Argento's Suspiria? All of these are wonderfully memorable scenes from what is one of the seminal horror films to come out of the 80's.

Click here to watch video

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. There's also a head being shot off and glass from a window somehow finding its way onto some poor guys face. If Fulci knew 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..

Click here to watch video

Fulci, after the 70's, never made anything as good as The Beyond. For all of the crap I am giving it, the film really does look good on DVD, and Fulci was good a creating an eerie atmosphere and some really nice shots (I especially like the shot of the Medium with no pupils on a vast and expansive highway) that created a unique, ethereal (there’s that word again, but it works so well when talking about Italian horror) mood rare to the horror genre. I would liken it to what Wes Craven did with A Nightmare on Elm Street where you never knew what was real and what was fantasy; however, where Nightmare creates an unsettling feeling as you watch, The Beyond fails to reach that kind of unnerving of our emotions. For example, Fulci never really takes the material seriously or really approaches it at all. Secondly, the Italian filmmakers had Fulci's blueprint from Zombi 2 on every set, so screenplays received very little attention because the producers had an idea of what would make them money: zombies and gore (which explains the zombies at the end of this movie).

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.


  1. Wow! You really summed up the entire genre here. Terrific job. I was lucky enough to see THE BEYOND earlier this year at a retro-horror festival and it was SO MUCH better on the big screen. I think it truly is the quintessential Italian horror movie because it just goes for broke.

  2. This one is my favorite Fulci. Its got everything you could want in a Fulci movie, including bizarre animal attacks like the one you mentioned with the fake looking spiders.

    The sound the Spiders make as they eat is so unrealistic, I do not understand why Fulci made awesome sequences...and then allowed scenes like the spider sequence to happen.

    But what I loved the most, where the scenes involving the blind ghost girl. Everything in her home is so dark and ominous. I loved those scenes where we first encounter her in the middle of the road!

    And then her wild and crazy animal attack, now theres a scene that worked great!

    And we get an unforgettable moment with the little girls head being blown up with a shot gun, that scene is as awesome as the girl spewing her guts out in City of the Living Dead or Bobs brain drill.

    Fulcis masterpiece if you ask me!

  3. Saw this on the big screen back when Tarantino had perpetrated an art-house re-release for it. That was about ten years ago and at that time the ending left me baffled, probably because I didn't take the "gates of hell" thing seriously. But my appreciation of House By the Cemetery on a recent viewing (and Fulci was apparently under no pressure to include a zombie army in that one) leads me to think I would at least get The Beyond more than I did the first time if I saw it again.

  4. Will:

    You're right. I love the go for broke attitude of this movie. That's a great way of putting it.

  5. Francisco:

    Yup, some of Fulci's most memorable moments are found in this film. It truly is a must see Italian horror movie.

  6. Samuel:

    I recently watched City of the Living Dead and think the atmosphere is a lot better in that film than it is in The Beyond or The House by the Cemetery, but I think Fulci's craft and skill are better displayed in this film. I didn't really care for House even though I can appreciate the moody ghost story/The Shining thing Fulci is going for.

    I don't think his loose trilogy was ever meant to be taken seriously, I just happen to think that there is a very thin underlying theme in all three films, and he just happened to shoot them all at essentially the same time using the same crews and in some cases the same actors.

    So, I don't know if there is more to necessarily "get", but it certainly is one of the most wonderful and visceral Italian horror experiences I've ever had.

  7. I think its main concern is to spook you with its themes "the gates of hell have been opened!" It tries to scare you with its supernatural elements, I dont think it goes further then that either. That and to shock with all its over the top gore.

  8. AWESOME review - THE BEYOND is one of the only films I can think of where your hilarious opening makes complete sense:

    "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 in following any kind of sensible or linear story path."

    Classic, just classic!

  9. Your best post in the Italian horror movie blog-a-thon so far, Kevin.

    The image of the blind medium in the middle of the empty highway stretching away to infinity is one of the most iconic images Fulci ever captured. Likewise, the visual landscape of the finale - the beyond of the title - sums up the style and weird non-narrative dissonances that make Italian horror movies so unique.

  10. Chris:

    Thanks! I'm glad you liked it.


    I appreciate the kind words. I had a lot of fun writing re-visiting this essay. You're right about the image of the blind medium, it's one of the best and most iconic in all Italian horror.

  11. Not much to add here -- your review is terrific. It's great to see so many people can accept and enjoy this film, although I'm really curious to hear what a non-horror fan would think of it.

    I'm trying to determine if The Beyond is my favorite film of the Italian horror genre or if I'd go with an Argento instead (Deep Red or Suspiria). I think it just depends on the about for you?

  12. Yeah, it definitely depends on the day for me...although after watching some more Italian horror for this blog-a-thon I would toss in Soavi's The Church and Stage Fright as some other favorites of mine. I still think that Deep Red is the best of the Italian horror -- but my favorite...well that's another debate.

  13. Amazing ! The film is looking fucking good. I just saw the eyes of girls in photos shared by you and I was scared..terrible film.