EDITOR’S NOTE: With Halloween around the corner, we thought it might be time to post some reviews of films that will be screening at festivals during the season, such as the Silent Movie Theatres “Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!” series we mentioned in this post.
There is a wall, an outer envelope like the sound barrier, against which horror films often hopelessly slam on their way to an inevitable crash-and-burn. This barrier separates what can be shown on screen from what can be sensed in the mind. True horror should have a metaphysical component that reaches down into the soul, but most horror films settle for simple suspense, based on the jump-and-scare tactics of who will survive and who will perish. Even HELLRAISER, which had its cenobites promise to “Tear your soul apart,” actually did nothing of the kind, instead opting for the sight of rending flesh.
Lucio Fulci’s undead epics, with their over-the-top depictions of graphic violence, fall squarely into this splatter category — or so it seems, at first. Actually, there is a little something more going on: a kind of demented, despairing metaphysical speculation. Working with meager resources in an exploitation genre that demanded strong appeal to a core audience, Fulci never developed his notions into something that could be called an unqualified masterpiece, but he did leave us with at least one film that struggles mightily to go Beyond the wall that stops so many other horror films. THE BEYOND is the third of three zombie films that Fulci made after DAWN OF THE DEAD, but it is equally inspired by Argento’s INFERNO: both films posit a series of buildings connected with a supernatural phenomenon (in INFERNO they house the three Mothers of Darkness; in THE BEYOND, they surmount the Seven Gateways to Hell); both portray the supernatural elements in ways that defy rational understanding; and both abandon traditional plot structures in order to disorient and confuse the audience into a state of unreasoning dread.
Despite the similarities, THE BEYOND manages to stand on its own — if not as a completely original work, then as an inspired entry distinguished by memorable touches of its own. In fact, the borrowings actually help Fulci overcome his limitations and emphasize his strengths. Anyone who has seen ZOMBIE or THE GATES OF HELL knows that the director could be lackadaisical in his handling of characters and exposition, but when the horror emerged, there was no one who could turn the screws so tightly on an audience. For instance, the infamous eyeball scene in ZOMBIE may be gratuitously graphic, but it is also one of the single most horrifying moments ever recorded on film, guaranteed to make even the most jaded genre fanatic squirm in his seat.
Truthfully, THE BEYOND has no single moment to match that scene; fortunately, it doesn’t need one. The gore effects by Gianetto DeRossi (which include slivered glass, burning acid, biting spiders, and – yes — more gouged eyes) come across with less impact — like an obligatory attempt to top previous efforts. On the other hand, the very arbitrary excess of the carnage serves a kind of larger purpose. It’s as if Fulci were destroying the flesh, burning it away in some alchemical process, in order to leave nothing behind but the spiritual essence of horror.
As far-fetched as this sounds, it works in concert with the intentionally fragmentary story line, which is almost devoid of plot development. Basically, once one of the dreaded Seven Doorways has been opened, Hell gradually encroaches on Earth, in ways the characters cannot begin to fathom. The lack of clear plot connections only increases the feeling of a Lovecraftian Crawling Chaos overwhelming life as we know it, until there is nowhere left for the characters to run, except into the bowels of Hell itself.
This finale, though obviously achieved on a low-budget, is nicely realized. With but a single set and a hazy effect above the skyline to imply an endless horizon, Fulci conveys an apparently infinite monotony of deserted nothingness; plus, the imagery comes full circle, dissolving back to a painting seen in the prologue, at last clarifying what the artist Schweik (Antoine Saint-John) was attempting to portray. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the characters who suffer this fate have done nothing to deserve it. (It’s not quite clear whether this Hell is personal experience only for the two leads or whether the entire world will soon follow.)
This is a film in which no power of Good presents itself, and there seems to be no way to stop the advent of Hell once the Gate has been opened. In an intriguing, climactic image, MacColl and Warbeck sport contact lenses similar to those worn by Antonella Interlenghi as the blind Emily. The apparent conclusion is that they have been struck blind; however, they are not acting as if blinded, but are continuing to stare at the Hellish landscape surrounding them. What is really happening? Earlier, Emily had made the cryptic statement that the blind “see things more clearly.” Perhaps her pupil-less eyes do not really signify blindness; perhaps this is what happens when one’s sight is blasted by a glimpse into The Beyond.
One small note of praise for the cast: In a film like this, not much is required of the actors in terms of characterization, so it helps to have some kind of inherent appeal or likability. Both Warbeck and MacColl fill the bill. Though hardly allowed to deliver tour-de-force performances, they nevertheless face the proceedings as seriously as possible, never descending into camp or winking at the audience (except for a memorable, briefly glimpsed joke, in which Warbeck pretends to reload his gun by dropping the bullets down the muzzle – a moment you’re likely to miss unless you’re looking for it, because an elevator door is closing in front of him).
Wretchedly mangled in its original U.S. release, THE BEYOND has long deserved a resurrection in restored form. I do not wish to extol the virtues of this film too loudly, because it is not perfect; in some ways, in fact, it holds up better on recollection than upon viewing, allowing the mind to free-associate between its disjointed elements. From this perspective, the film achieves an almost unique sense of metaphysical horror through its portrayal of disconnected, disastrous events beyond human control or understanding. THE BEYOND remains a graphic gore film that will put off squeamish viewers, but also it contains dark notions that are genuinely disconcerting.
When first released in the United States, THE BEYOND was recut, rescored, and retitled as SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH. Most of the gore was removed, and the credits of the film were Americanized (e.g., the American distributor gave himself a producer credit, and director Lucio Fulci became “Luis Fuller”).
In 1998, Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder (a division of Dimension/Miramax) teamed with Grindhouse Releasing to distribute an uncut version of the film for midnight screenings in the U.S. This led to a subsequent laserdisc and DVD release of the restored version.
Anchor Bay’s limited edition DVD, released in 2000, came in a metal, lunchbox-type tin that included six 5X7″ international poster replicas, plus a 48-page color booklet featuring photos and liner notes.
The film is presented in uncut widescreen, enhanced for 16X9 television screens. As a bonus chapter, there is a color version of the pre-credits sequence, as seen in Germany (the sequence is in sepia tones in other territories).
There are soundtrack options for English and Italian dialogue, plus an audio commentary by actors Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck that was recorded (for a planned laserdisc release) just weeks before Warbeck’s death from cancer in 1997. It’s a fairly lively and informative track.
Other bonus features on DVD includes an on-set interview with director Lucio Fulci; German, International, and U.S. trailers; a bad music video by Necrophagia that uses (and re-uses) footage from THE BEYOND; six galleries of stills, and more.
A separate, virtually identical DVD was released without the tin box packaging, booklet, and poster reproductions. After these two releases went out of print, a new edition was released in 2008, which added a section of bonus features entitled “Voices of the Beyond,” consisting of video interviews with cast and crew who had worked with director Lucio Fulci.
THE BEYOND (a.k.a. L’Aldila, 1981). Directed by Lucio Fulci. Screenplay by Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, and Fulci, from a story by Sacchetti. Cast: Catriona MacColl (a.k.a. Katherine MacColl), David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale, Antoine Saint-John, Veronica Lazar.
Copyright 1998 by Steve Biodrowski. This review (in altered form) originally appeared in Cinefantastique Magazine.