“Impossible … impossible ...”
And that just about sums up all the head-scratching logic that you’ll find in this magnificently enthusiastic holdover from a period of genre filmmaking that gore-hounds will forever hold dear.
Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Lucio Fulci’s 1981 shocker The Beyond is one of the most eagerly awaited titles in the category of reformed “Nasties” that have come clawing their blood-soaked way onto Blu-ray. Long despised by the British censor, this supernatural zombie offal-flinger has been on the top of most ghouls’ wanted lists for a very long time. Indeed, after viewing the original home video version released on the old Vampix label, containing the heavily cut UK theatrical print (the UK only saw the full version presented at the London Film Festival), you just knew that something pretty awesome had been denied you. After the celebrated double-release of Zombie Flesheaters (aka Zombi 2) in both its truncated theatrical iteration and its gorgeously christened “Strong Uncut Version” on cassette and the relatively intact (just the one major censor-snip) of City Of The Living Dead, gore-fans were champing-at-the-bit for this one to arrive. The great thing is that, even in its cut presentation, The Beyond (aka L’Aldila and Seven Doors Of Death) was still a force to be reckoned with. But, oh boy, once you got your bloody little mitts on the full uncensored version (via car boot sales, shady import ads in specialist magazines or, in my case, copied straight off critically acclaimed British horror author Ramsey Campbell’s own official European unrated tape), Fulci’s depraved delight really delivered the gory goods.
Now, for the first time ever, the full uncut version of The Beyond finds its almost applause-worthy release on the UK home market, courtesy of cult genre label and horror-fanboy champions, Arrow Video.
In an unmistakable variation on both Michael Winner’s 1976 chiller, The Sentinel (which was actually offensive with its use of genuinely deformed extras portraying the denizens of Hell, itself), and Kubrick’s psychotic adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, Fulci’s film concerns itself with the events that unfold when the unwitting Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits a New Orleans hotel that just happens to be situated over one of the seven gates of Hell. Years before, in a superbly gruelling and tremendously evocative pre-titles prologue, a warlock was caught, tortured, crucified by irate, torch-wielding locals and left to slowly burn with acid in the basement, before being walled-up, Poe-style. Now, with renovations taking place on the old building, his awakened influence is determined to wreak havoc amongst the living, and to open the doorway to the Pit – something that not only allows demonic zombies and supernatural manifestations to bleed out of, but also to drag its doomed victims back into. Liza makes an ally of the local doctor, John McCabe (David Warbeck), and together they combat the dreadful manifestations of the evil that are hell-bent on reviving fresh victims to a waiting legion of the damned. Clues lie scattered around the increasingly dangerous hotel, and there are warnings from a strange and tragic blind woman that may just hold the answer to all the unpleasantness that is going on.
The influence of Dario Argento is more apparent here than in any other of Fulci’s horrors. A blind character is assailed by supernatural menace, but protected by her German Shepherd guide-dog … just until the animal then becomes possessed, itself, and goes for her throat, just as we saw in Suspiria. He makes some gratuitous advances upon the scalded-face murder from Deep Red with an impromptu acid-swilling, though the inspiration is clear. He even enjoys the random barbarity of a human face suddenly meeting breaking glass – another early Argento trademark. And just listen to the score during the notorious moment when the pipe-cleaner spiders make their attack in the library – it is almost as though prog-rockers Goblin have gate-crashed the party for a nasty little jamming session. But Argento is not the only source that Fulci that draws upon. His dalliance with literary occult was to take in the aforementioned Edgar Allen Poe, M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft across The Black Cat, City Of The Living Dead, The House By The Cemetery and certainly here in The Beyond. He throws in another McGuffin, the devilish Book of Eibon, a definite nod to classical horror (which is something that is actually referenced in the expanded Cthulhu Mythos), and even makes poetic use of a ghastly painting, whose infernal depiction of the wasteland of Hell becomes the very image that will help his film transcend its zombie-gore tag and become one of the most audacious attempts to confront us with the beyond of virtually any genre production that has ever ordained to even try. There is also a hint of Mario Bava about the story, something that is admirably reinforced with that gut-punching prologue that evokes memories of poor Barbara Steele’s wide-eyed sorceress being viciously condemned and executed at the start of the classic Black Sunday. And let's not forget the Romero touch of how to properly put down a zombie.
Fulci, ambitious to a fault, but forever clumsy with his handling of such redolent material, is utterly marvellous at capturing pure mood and gothic atmosphere. His films may be derided for their bugaboo dubbing (although this is something that is part-and-parcel of Italian genre offerings and should just be accepted as yet just another great and otherworldly component in their genetic makeup), their rather illogical narrative and often outlandishly inept screenplays, but you simply cannot criticise him on his technical acuity and sheer determination to create one thunderously disturbing mis-en-scene after another. The assembly-line of atrocity may be the commodity that made his name, but his movies – the best ones that is, as in the infamous quintet of Zombie, City, Beyond, House and Ripper – all have a helluva lot more going for them than simple bloodletting. His photography and art direction are always highly impressive. The use of clandestine, unapproved and guerrilla location-shooting adds a real-time frisson to the visual tone. He favours those Italian-style portrait shots that cut through the foreheads of characters, but his compositions, otherwise, are terrific, and really make good use of the widescreen cinematography. The Beyond, especially, is a particularly ravishing film to look at, despite its threadbare budget. Real Louisiana and New Orleans locations provide ample ambience, and the genuinely dislocated aura of a place somehow lifted out of reality. The great setting of one of those raised New Orleans cemeteries adds an ethereally skewed touch, as well.
Lovecraftian geometry abounds – the hotel basement seems to magically link up with the bowels of the hospital, even though we know that they are miles apart – and whilst hordes of the undead shuffle about in anticipation of a bullet through the noggin, mysterious schematics evaporate from ancient tomes, instilling the sense that black magic prevails just behind the commonplace. His cellar-set sequences are abundantly filled with clammy, slow-seeping dread. The unreal sterility of the morgue is even reminiscent of something you might see in Space 1999 – cool whites and blue glows providing a visual jolt of clinical surrealism. The hospital corridors look more like the cold abstraction of a lunatic asylum than a place more befitting of care and healing. Emily’s antiquated home boasts an opulently furnished Southern parlour of an evening, but it becomes a dilapidated, ghost-house of cobwebs and dust in the daytime. Argento brought genuine magic to his supernatural shockers of Suspiria and Inferno, dropping all pretence of realism as he guided us into his garish hinterlands of warped imagination. But people seem to forget that Lucio Fulci was also adept at crossing such existential boundaries, himself. Though what critics love to claim as Argento's abstract surrealism is often levelled at Fulci as being something of fumbling of narrative. In some cases, this is regrettably true. But Fulci was also clearly smitten with fracturing the conventions of linear storytelling – thus setting himself far away from the legions of hack purveyors of gore and titillation who swarmed all over the Grindhouse circuit in his wake.
Fulci is also enamoured with the concept of limbo. Although Flesheaters ended with the apparent gut-munching end of humanity, his supernatural shockers have all contrived to open up the gates between our world and the next, usually with cataclysmic results. Both City and The Beyond favour this collapse of the walls of reality, and take great delight in thrusting us out into the hellish no-man's-land that lies just outside. This is pure Lovecraft, of course. Fulci has many monstrosities lurking at the threshold, although for him, the horrors are almost always born out of ourselves. This demented cycle would turn in on itself at the climax of The House By The Cemetery, in which our last survivor from the titular abode of slaughter makes his escape (magnificently through a cracked grave) into a ghostly limbo-land to be escorted to “Heavenly” safety by the ghost of a young girl he met earlier. It was almost as though Fulci was trying to makes amends for sending his casts and his audiences to Hell on several previous occasions. The fact that he was so determined to bring in such concepts and ideas was not in the least bit as pretentious or as ridiculous as many contemporary critics claimed. I'll concede that his ambitions far exceeded his actual abilities when it came to writing screenplays and formulating his plots, but this, in no way, detracts from the often jaw-dropping revelations that he attempts to hurl at us. Fulci definitely tried to think outside of the box, and you have to admit that he was responsible for hammering-in an awful lot of notions and themes into what many still regard as simply gore-porn. He made societal observations throughout his career, as many filmmakers do, but I find that his flair for accepting so many crazy metaphysical possibilities is something that has been cruelly overlooked. He lacked the talent to convey much of this esoteric stuff properly, I know, but you have to give him credit for trying.
In this way, a Fulci film from this barnstorming period, was set to push the bounds of graphic horror and to challenge a fair few existential sensibilities. And there aren't too many creators of Video Nasties who can claim to have done that, are there?
Although he has his regular mutilation-moll of Catriona MacColl, looking a lot more fetching here than she does in City Of The Living Dead (and without that awful frizzy hairdo from House), taking on another role that places her in the midst of all-things-ghastly, and turning once more to Blighty's rugged export (on the cheap) of David Warbeck, who had previously seen action for the director in his rather inept and ill-advised adaptation of Poe's The Black Cat, to provide some sense of detective heroism, Fulci's cast is actually quite committed to the dark tale. The great unsung Al Cliver, who had appeared as the least believable English bobby in The Black Cat and also made for a terrific zombie-basher in Flesheaters, provides some comical bumbling as Dr. John's distinctly unqualified assistant at the hospital. Giovanni De Nava (who would play the grotesque surgeon from beyond the grave in House) is a curly-haired yeti of a plumber who gets a lot more than he bargained for when he probes around down in the flooded basement of the hotel – and makes for a really grungy dead-head a little later on. Frenchman Antione Saint-John is terrific as the ungodly warlock whose dabblings in the occult set the whole horror-show in motion, his deadly serious demeanour and wholly believable agonies at the hands of the puritan posse actually quite affecting. The fact that he was terrified of Fulci, for real, probably aided his performance. And then there's Veronica Lazar, whose raven locks and intense witch-like countenance provided a couple of final jolts to Argento's Inferno, who crops up here as, ahem, a doomed Mrs. Mop, who unwisely pulls the plug from a bath containing a worse secret than the one submerged in Les Diaboliques.
It was always so cool to see stars from hackneyed and barely watched TV dramas getting to blast and hack their way through hordes of Italian zombies. Ian McCulloch was an atrocious actor, yet still surprisingly likeable in both Zombie Flesheaters, and even the stomach-blasting Contamination, for Luigi Cozzi. But David Warbeck had something a little extra. He was a guy who could play the hero, the tough guy. He appeared in several Italian exploitationers, most notably the savagely violent Vietnam action-thriller, The Last Hero (1980) and the Raiders Of The Lost Ark rip-off Hunters Of The Golden Cobra (1982), both for Antonio Margheriti. Actually born in New Zealand, Warbeck came to England and began a career that was initially quite eclectic. An early foray into the bloody 'n' booby world of Hammer Horror, with John Hough's Twins Of Evil, seemed to set him up for the grim tales that would follow, though, and once he moved into lower budget Euro Cinema he carved himself a niche in the annals of the cult arena. The actor makes reference, in his commentary with MacColl, to a Jack Nicholson impersonation that he slyly slipped in to the role. And, you know what - Warbeck does have a look of the superstar about him.
Fans will also love the moment when these two outsiders in the cast share an on-camera giggle that Fulci miraculously either does not notice, or simply lets through. The moment of stress-relieving slapstick also reveals the true chemistry that the pair had together. MacColl is also much more assured in this, her second role for the argumentative director. Her lines are no better than Warbeck's, but the lady has a class that not only elevates her above such banality, it also elevates the film around her.
But beyond our two stars, the film belongs to Cinzia Monreale, billed in the credits as Sarah Keller, who plays the ghostly, ethereal Emily, the poor girl struck blind by the ravaging secrets contained in the Book of Eibon. Actually very attractive, as you will see if catch her in Joe D’Amato's crass Beyond The Door (BD review coming soon), the hideous plastic contact lenses that she is forced to wear here do her no favours at all. Sickly pale and striated with root-like veins, the burned-out eyes of those who witness the beyond are another wretched ingredient. But Monreale delivers a very poignant portrayal of a woman existing out of step with reality and trying her damnedest to warn others of the coming apocalypse. The role is a sort of expansion of MacColl's own psychic from City Of The Living Dead, but Monreale brings a real sense of otherworldliness to her. I mentioned how Michael Winner placed real deformed extras in his own Hell sequence from The Sentinel … well, dear old Lucio wasn't entirely above such opportunist casting, himself. Quite a few of his ambling zombie-targets, and that eerie assortment of dessicated corpses lying in the wastes of the Beyond, are actually local down-and-outs and homeless people lured in with the cheap promise of a meal and a few quid to get some more booze. You look at them – they're not acting, are they?
And, of course, Fulci could never resist putting himself in front of the cameras in a little cameo either. Here, he plays the librarian who leaves one deeply unfortunate soul at the mercy of those bloody spiders. Man, he looks like Benny Hill, doesn't he?
Fulci has always enjoyed placing kids in dire jeopardy. Both City Of The Living Dead and The House By The Cemetery took great delight in the cruel and terrifying predicaments into which it could pitch aggravating youngsters, but he definitely went over a boundary with The Beyond. In one of the film’s most celebrated moments, and a sure highlight of De Rossi’s gore effects, a truly annoying little ginger girl’s head is spectacularly blown apart. Another shot snipped by the BBFC for a long time, this is like an explosive evolution of Kim Richards' blood-squibbed demise over a “regular vanilla” ice-cream in John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. At least, Kim was an innocent and the slaying was a deliberate shock-tactic. Maria Pia Marsala, who plays the brat, was actually much older in real life and something of problematic performer for Fulci. You can sense the pleasure that the little gnome-like director must have felt when the dummy of her head erupted in a that shocking welter of grue.
But no-one tears flesh like the great Giannetto De Rossi. I’ve discussed this cinematic butcher many times before, and we must make sure that we don’t confuse him with the special makeup FX artist who worked with Fulci on The New York Ripper, who also goes by the name of Giannetto De Rossi but whose work is far less impressive. This De Rossi, our De Rossi, is the man responsible for such grim early delights as the tearing off of a gossiping telephonist’s breast, the savage disembowelling of a country copper and the vicious axe/skull interaction to be savoured in the superior The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (BD reviewed separately), as well as the simply jaw-dropping, and literally eye-popping mayhem in the incredibly nasty Zombie Flesheaters, for Fulci. He had a prolifically blood-drenched tenure with the diminutive eccentric during this ebullient, anything-goes period … and some of the effects he created have become absolute cult classics that are truly on a par with anything that Tom Savini, or Tom Burman, or Dick Smith ever fabricated during that mad and potentially irresponsible era. In fact, when it comes to splashing the claret, I don’t think that anyone can touch him. Thinking back to Zombie Flesheaters, my favourite gore-effect was when the luscious Auretta Gay has her lovely throat opened-up by a ravenous Conquistador, and horrible stringy skin springs back to unleash a deluge of thick, deep red blood that simply doesn’t stop pumping. But he would add poker-impalings and deranged throat-shreddings to the mix with The House By The Cemetery, cannibal-munching and an entire midriff blown out of a body in Cannibal Apocalypse and, here, in The Beyond, he would push the limits of physical violence into frankly unbelievable dimensions. His penchant for eyeball abuse is almost jubilant – an unfeasibly elongated nail penetrates the back of a skull and thrusts the victim’s eye right out of its socket, another orb is plucked savagely from its lair by a grubby zombie-finger (we won’t worry about the fact that the eyelid still clings to it as it exits), and still another is dragged out by the ghastly mandibles of a blood-crazed tarantula! There’s a fizzy facial bath with embalming fluid that builds upon the pasty meltdown sequence with the captured warlock at the start. Glass shards plunge with satanic speed into the face of Al Cliver’s most inept morgue assistant, spewing blood in livid spurts. We see chunks of flesh cleaved from the captive necromancer via whips of chains, nails banged horribly into his wrists. And, best of all, we have that superbly gruesome throat-gouging and head-devouring sequence that splashes gooey latex and tremendous gouts of the red stuff all across the screen with stunning zeal.
When the FX let the side down – the pathetic pipe-cleaner spiders (which look terrible when seen alongside the real thing) tearing apart a very unconvincing nose, the fake dog-snout and jaws, and the paintball bullet-wounds on the foreheads – we still coast by on the giddily savage excess of it all.
This is always complemented by the sumptuous photography from Fulci’s regular DOP, Sergio Salvati. You wouldn't really expect such lavish attention to composition and framing for such low budget exploitation movies as these, but Salvati makes even the most hideous of death scenes look impressively epic. Although the locations are often suspiciously empty of passers-by, he makes streets and buildings look astonishingly weird and off-kilter. This is actually perfect for the Lovecraftian vogue that Fulci is aiming for. But you have to admit that the bizarre meeting on the that endless bridge between Liza and Emily, who is just standing there in the middle of the road as Liza drives up, is wonderfully odd and captivating. Once again, there is such visual flair taking place in all of these shockers that we simply cannot put it down to mere happy accident. Fulci was slapdash in many ways, but such glowing and eloquent production values reveal a mind toiling under the weight of an undeniably obsessive imagination. Again, that's a genuine Lovecraftian influence that is burning through.
There’s a signature zombie-shot that Fulci employs in his grisly thrillers that I always find absolutely skin-crawling and iconic. In Flesheaters, it occurs when the poster-boy of the maggot-ridden Conquistador lumbers towards the camera, and the fear-paralysed heroes, a bloody lump of Auretta Gay dripping from its mouth. In House By The Cemetery, it comes when the undead Dr. Freudstein rounds upon the young Bob down in his abattoir-like cellar. And in The Beyond, it is when the remains of the mouldy old warlock lurches after MacColl and Warbeck in the morgue, taking bullets from the gun-toting doctor, who still can't seem to grasp that you've got to shoot them in the head. Something about the fantastic use of camera angles and blood-freezing music really sets this sort of thing apart from what we see across the entire slew of other zombie offerings. Romero’s deadsters are slow and pathetic, for example, almost comical and Chaplinesque. But just look at Fulci’s! These pus-filled dudes may be just as slow, but they are genuinely scary. There is a method and a calculated ruthlessness about them. Fulci’s chief ghoulish aggressors never seem as passive as your average trademark zombies. Because of the supernatural qualities that they have in his films post-Flesheaters, his “hero corpses” tend to move with a distinct and obsessive resolve, a real sense of diabolical purpose. Oh, he still fills the screen with plenty of those more conventional shambling shrapnel-heads – all seemingly eager to take a bullet in the face – but he never forgets that suspense is also a vital ingredient, and he is able to bring this to fore, with gusto, when it comes to the handling of his sinister “leading” worm-depositories.
Despite that little Goblin homage during the spider-sequence, and even as the warlock's head melts away under the syrup of vintage acid, the score from Fabio Frizzi is completely typical of his collaborations with Fulci. A catchy synth-based theme pounds away with doom-laden gusto. A muted choir moans its way through a corrupted Gregorian Chant. A kind of funky pop-beat seems at odds with the nasty things that are usually taking place, but this is all part of that unique and quirky attraction to these films. Of course, the trademark with a Fulci score from this period was its earnestness. Whenever a main theme would crop up it would, due to its downbeat flavour, utterly refute any sense that we may eventually get a happy ending. Again, I would cite Frizzi’s score for Zombie Flesheaters as being the best of the bunch (he would also score City), but this is still hokey and jangling enough to inspire some appreciative shudders, and is sure to please those who enjoy a bit of Euro Prog-rock.
A strong personal favourite of mine, The Beyond remains a wonderful concoction of occult brouhaha, ultra-violence and extreme gore, and a hefty dollop of innate silliness. Very ambitious, and wonderfully atmospheric, this represents Fulci at his most assured. That may not be saying much about the man who’s most cherished output boasts a legendary level of incoherence, but The Beyond actually does make its own nightmarish sense. The pace is consistent, the characters a lot less bitty or irritating than his usual line-up – think Tisa Farrow in Zombie Flesheaters, or little Giovanni Frezza as the whiny Bob, in House. A splendid level of fear is maintained, and several set-pieces are extremely effective. Giannetto De Rossi’s splatter is a giddy mixture of the inept and glaringly fake and the stomach-churningly incredible and, with this outing, you know that you are never more than five minutes away from another graphic bout of intense mutilation.
Cult genre directors who could deliver so many movies in rapid succession that ticked all the right boxes and continually impressed the fans, in one veritable deluge, are very few and far between. We know that John Carpenter managed it – in his heyday. So did Dario Argento, for a while. But from 1979 to 1982 Fulci amassed five superlative horror classics that challenged the form, and still contain all the tricks, quirks and jaded delights that wow both the converted and newcomers alike even today. And he knocked them out, one after another, with barely any time to draw breath in-between each instalment. He was a force to be reckoned with.
The Beyond is not for everyone, of course. But, alongside his other gore-soaked and infamous “nasties”, this represents a true one-off at his most bravura and outrageous, and his most unpretentious. Here, Lucio Fulci, who had worked in virtually every genre possible, was at the zenith of his prolific career.
Crazy, wild and nauseatingly imaginative, The Beyond lives up to its name and pushes back the boundaries of graphic horror. And you've just gotta love it!
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