December 15, 2010

The Beyond (Review)

The Beyond (1981)

Director: Lucio Fulci

4.5 / 5 zedheads

Along with George A. Romero, Italian director Lucio Fulci helped define a genre with Zombi 2, but he also used zombies in three other connected films: House by the Cemetery, City of the Living Dead, and The Beyond. Although The Beyond is more of a haunted house film than a zombie film, it is perhaps Fulci's best. The zombies play a crucial and effective role in the story, but it's actually unfair to call The Beyond a story. It's more of a surreal nightmare.

In 1927, a gang of locals infiltrate the Seven Doors hotel in Louisiana. Aptly named, the Seven Doors is built on one of the seven doors to hell, and the local people have come to kill a gaunt painter named Schweick who they suspect of being a warlock looking to open the door into the realms of the dead. They torture and kill Schweick, but in doing so leave the door open to the other realms. Decades later, the hotel is inherited by a New York woman named Liz (Catriona MacColl). When she tries to reopen the hotel, Schweik's corpse surfaces from the the flooded basement. With it, evil forces arise to curse all who come in contact with the hotel. Soon they start to die in extraordinarily gruesome 'accidents.' Liz is followed by a blind ghost attempting to dissuade her from returning to the hotel, but when Liz  approaches an aloof local doctor, Dr. McCabe (David Warbeck), about the supernatural danger, he tries to get to the bottom of things himself. This leads both Liz and Dr. McCabe to the local hospital where the dead have risen from their graves and pursue them into a shadowy realm of hopelessness.
Look into my eyes. Not around my eyes; into my eyes
The Beyond is not a film that makes conventional sense. Like Coscarelli's Phantasm, The Beyond employs the cinematic lens to craft visuals that are more dream-like than logical. The Beyond works on an intuitive and subjective level. Little of the film's finer points are explicitly stated, and morbid occurrences fly in the face of reality -- but that's the point. Fulci takes the audience into a world where reality is thin and intangible supernatural forces are reaching out through the void, using the claws of the dead or the tooth and claw of nature to tear at our flesh.

Zombie penalty! Ten minutes for hair-pulling.
In other films, this lack of coherence would be maddening. The Beyond, however, isn't trying to tell a complicated narrative. It isn't even trying to communicate a definite message. It's a film that squirms into the non-literal parts of the brain and takes root in the primordial lobes responsible for our abstract superstition and the fear of the dark's bleak abyss. Why did that man fall off the ladder and suddenly have his face torn at by inexplicably materialized tarantulas? Because the world is wrong. There's no logical explanation -- the world is just wrong. Whereas other films like John Carpenter's The Prince of Darkness belabor their eerie, disturbing, and haunting nightmare visuals with cloudy pseudoscience that spiral into fragmented plot holes, The Beyond fully embraces its nightmare logic. As a result, it's an impressively successful work of atmosphere over action.
Who says hospital stays have to be boring? Join a walking group.
But fret not, there's plenty of zombie action to be had. Among zombie fans, The Beyond is best remembered for its sequences in which gory corpses rise up and shamble the stark white halls of the hospital. Liz and McCabe are pursued by classic Fulci zombies that stumble and shamble but break through doors. McCabe doesn't quite seem to understand the effectiveness of his own headshots, however, and quickly runs out of bullets from repeatedly shooting the zombies in the chest. He and Liz are forced to separate and attempt to hide from the undead. Although these zombie scenes were added so Fulci could market his film to those looking for something more like Zombi 2, Fulci didn't phone in these scenes. The zombie element of The Beyond works just as well as the rest of its nightmare parade.

Would a Popeye joke be in bad taste?
Not everything works so successfully in The Beyond. Many of its practical effects are dated and, even for 1981, phony-looking. A scene involving fake tarantulas is painfully laughable. Also, a scene featuring a face being melted by acidic chemicals lingers too long on the fake head and its improbable dissolution. Then again, The Beyond features some practical gags that are as shocking and effective today as when they were produced. In particular, Fulci's trademark eye trauma scenes -- especailly a nail-induced eye-popping -- are extremly disgusting and extremly successful.
I think we took a wrong turn at the river Styx.
Overall, I really adore The Beyond for its weird dreamlike qualities and bleak sense of dread. For the same reason I enjoy the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, I like The Beyond for what it doesn't explain or attempt to rationalize. Somethings are just beyond the human experience, but that doesn't keep us safe from being terrorized by all that lurks in our world and beyond.

Stay tuned for the next two weeks as I review even more zombie classics as part of my Christmas countdown: THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE