Italian horror cinema of the 1970s and 1980s were some of the goriest and graphic of any made in the period. Though the American horror boom was in full swing, and slasher movies were all the rage, Italy was still making giallos and zombie movies in the highest of clips. One of the stalwarts of the Italian horror movement was Lucio Fulci, whose flicks were standouts in terms of over-the-top gore, which I think is very impressive, and often a huge helping of misogyny, which I really can’t stand. On top of making Zombie (alternately known as Zombi 2 or Zombie Flesh-Eaters depending on where you are in the world), Fulci also made a very loose trilogy of zombie/black arts/hell movies, each depicting the result of one of the fabled seven gateways to hell being opened. The first of these was 1980’s City of the Living Dead, which is solid for what it is, but it’s the second of these, 1981’s The Beyond, which I think is the best of both the trilogy and possibly the director’s whole catalog.
UBER GORY TRAILER. PLEASE BE ADVISED
The Beyond, like most Fulci movies, and indeed most Italian horror movies, has a plot that makes sense on paper but not really much once you start paying attention to it. It’s really more just an excuse for creepy imagery and gruesome set pieces, which are by all rights incredibly effective and impressive, if this is the kind of thing you’re into. Of all of Fulci’s movies, and he directed over 50 films in his career, The Beyond is the one that for me has proven the most rewarding on multiple watches, precisely because it’s so oblique and it requires the audience to fill in a lot of the information on their own. It’s not a well-written screenplay, but the artfulness of the direction makes it something special, as does one of the most bombastic and apocalyptic endings of any such film you’re likely to see.
The story begins in New Orleans in 1927, at a hotel called the Seven Gates (ha ha ha), where a group of torch-wielding townsfolk come wanting to lynch an artist name Schweick who lives there because they believe him to be a warlock. They murder him very graphically by nailing him to a wall and pouring acid on his head. Turns out he was a warlock, though, and his death opens one of the gateways to hell. Luckily, not too much happens because of this until 1981 when Liza (Catriona MacColl, who is in all three of the films in this trilogy, playing different characters) inherits the hotel from her relative and plans to re-open the long abandoned building. The renovation reactivates the portal and the dead start trying to break through into our world again. Liza is met by a creepy blind woman named Emily (Cinzia Monreale) who warns her not to open the hotel, and also Dr. McCabe (David Warbeck) who seems to be the only other sane one in N’awwlins.
While doing some investigating, Liza discovers a book on which is the word Eibon, and finds Schweick’s still-crucified corpse, but it’s gone when she brings the Doctor back to see it. This is when stuff starts getting really strange for Liza. She attempts to tell Emily of her findings, and McCabe tells her Emily doesn’t exist. Then she sees a copy of the Eibon book in a bookshop window but when she goes in to ask about it, the owner says he’s never heard of it, and the book is gone from the window. Eventually, Emily tells Liza about what happened to Schweick in ’27 and that the gateway to hell is open. Throughout, different people die in weird accidents or by strange occurrences and those dead people begin rising. Eventually, Emily and her dog are killed by zombies and the gate fully opens and zombies overrun New Orleans.
So that’s a very, very rough outline of what happens in the movie, but that’s not what’s interesting about it. Each of the murder set pieces are shot from many angles, very close up, and with loud music. Even though ’80s Italian special effects weren’t the best, Fulci shoots them like they’re perfect and absolutely true to life. There’s a whole sequence where a freshly lightning-struck man (just go with it) gets slowly He wants to make the viewers of this movie experience each and every eye gouge or throat rip. And, boy, Fulci sure loves his eye-gouges. While his most famous one comes in Zombie where an undead ghoul pulls a woman’s head slowly toward a jagged piece of wood, here in The Beyond, it’s a case where the back of a woman’s head is shoved onto a nail and the eye gets pushed out.
The Beyond contains one of the most famously gory moments in all of horror. There’s a strange little girl with pigtails in the movie who seemingly comes out of nowhere and who Liza takes in. By the end of the movie, Liza, McCabe, and the girl are in a hospital just as the zombies begin rising from the morgue. While McCable is firing his pistol at the onslaught, no one’s paying attention to the girl who suddenly turns on Liza and grabs her by the face. Seeing this and thinking quick, McCable takes aim and fires. What we see is the front of the girl’s face get blown off as the bullet hits her in the back of the head. This has to be one of the most shocking moments in all of Fulci’s cinema. Not only is it in slow-motion, shot from two angles, and impossibly graphic, it happens to a little girl in pigtails. It’s kind of amazing.
While always hard to fully grasp, Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond offers atmosphere by the truckload, which is aided by the location shoots in New Orleans, and by the director’s penchant for gruey nastiness. The zombies do feel a bit shoehorned in, but it makes for a very distinctive final act. Fulci would follow this movie up with The House by the Cemetery which makes absolutely no sense, so The Beyond represents what the Gates of Hell films should have been from the beginning. It’s a great premise and one that I hope gets revisited at some point in the future.