Lucio Fulci began his career in the late 1950s, but not as a horror director. He built his career making comedies, dramas, and even a few westerns. In the early 1970s, he made a couple of giallos that have stood the test of time, most notably Don't Torture a Duckling. Then, in the late '70s, fate stepped in as producers were looking to capitalize on the success of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (released as Zombi in Italy). Fulci was tapped to make an unofficial sequel. That film became Zombi 2 (released as Zombie in the US). The rest is history as fans took right to it and Fulci entered the most famous stage of his career, as the gore-drenched madman behind a series of bloody horror films.
Much like Dario Argento's "Mother" trilogy, Fulci has an unofficial trilogy of his own. These films are linked by the presence of seven gateways to Hell. In each film a gateway is opened with disastrous results. The Beyond (aka L'aldilà) is the middle film of the trilogy, released in 1981, one year past City of the Living Dead. It is also considered by many to be the crown jewel of Fulci's career, and there is no denying the effect it can have in the right environment. Do you agree with that assessment? I have not seen enough to make that call yet, but you cannot disagree with the mastery Fulci displays over the genre.
When you enter into a visual contract with this film, there are a few things you need to accept. The film is set in New Orleans, yet the central location of the hotel has a basement. No home in New Orleans has a basement due to the city being beneath sea level, but at least they shot in a local cemetery so the tombs are above ground. Next, you need to accept that the film will be paced slowly in between gore sequences. This is something I have noticed in the few Fulci films I have seen. Then you have to deal with the story and script; they are never that good. They bring in big ideas that you can fill in working from the outside in, but he is much more interested in atmosphere and surrealism than about a solid story. The script leaves a lot to be desired as the actors are left to do the bulk of the heavy lifting to make it watchable and give it meaning. It's sort of like trying to perform the poem "Jabberwocky."
The film opens in the past, 1927 to be exact. A man is painting a picture in his hotel room, a bleak, grey image. Meanwhile, men with torches arrive by boat and by car. They storm into his room, call him a warlock, and proceed to drag him to the basement, whipping him with chains before ultimately crucifying him, nailing his wrists to the cement walls — not to mention some other nastiness inflicted upon him.
Jump forward to 1981. We meet Liza, a New York girl who has just inherited the derelict hotel from a deceased uncle. She is working on getting the place back up and running, having all manner of construction workers around in addition to housekeepers Martha and Arthur, both of whom "came with the hotel." No sooner have we been introduced to Liza (Catriona MacColl) that strange things begin to happen. A painter sees a woman whose eyes have gone white, the plumber is attacked and killed in the basement, and Liza meets a blind girl she is told is not real.
What is going on? Well, according to the Book of Eibon (introduced in City of the Living Dead), the hotel is built on top of one of the gateways to hell. The murdered artist figured out a way of opening the doorway but was unable to finish prior to his murder. Apparently, his soul has haunted the hotel and the plumber's meddling in the basement finished the job. Now the evil forces are spreading their influence outward and upward making Liza's life a hell.
She teams with local doctor John McCabe (David Warbeck) to try and piece together what is going on. The problem is whether or not they can figure it out in time to stop the coming of the apocalypse. Knowing the way the first "gates" film ended, you have to assume the worst. These films are not exactly known for their cheery outcomes.
That is about as far as the story goes. When you watch The Beyond, you must let yourself go, get swept up in the atmosphere. Fulci, in concert with composer Fabio Frizzi and director of photography Sergio Salvati, creates a movie of immense atmosphere and great tension. The movie is seriously disturbing. It is almost a how-to in terms of creating tension and using gore without relying on jump scares.
There is one other person whose work needs to be recognized — well, maybe two. Special effects man Germano Natali and make-up artist Gianetto De Rossi work absolute wonders here. Yes, some of the effects still look fake, but for the low budgets they were working with, and assuming the audience gets behind what is going on, their work is astounding. From the lumbering zombies, to the spider attack (even with the toy spiders), to handling Fulci's desire to do harm to the window to the soul known as the eye, they are fantastic.
Audio/Video. The tech of this release is probably about as good as it is going to get. The widescreen image has a soft look that does not contain an enormous amount of detail. Still, it looks considerably better than the chopped releases that have come before. It is interesting to note that the film was not available uncut prior to 1998 when Quentin Tarantino brought it to midnight showings around the country. In any case, the image may be soft, but it is still clear and is likely the best it will ever look.
The audio is in a similar boat. Everything is dubbed, just like a large portion of Italian films, especially Fulci's films, which had an international cast with everyone speaking in their native tongue. The volume levels are low, so you will need to turn the volume up somewhat to get everything.
Extras. This Anchor Bay release (in Limited Edition tin) includes a nice selection of extras.
- Commentary. This track features stars Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck. It was recorded two weeks prior to Warbeck's death following a long bout with cancer. The track is a great one as the two watch the film and reminisce on things they have not thought of in years. Among the topics are Fulci's relationship with the cast, the lack of a good script, and how much fun it was to work on this project.
- Photo Gallery. There are a few galleries with photos from the set, the production, and some other cast appearances. It cannot be navigated and runs over 16 minutes accompanied by music inspired by the film.
- Trailers. We get a trio of trailers: the US re-release, international theatrical, and German theatrical.
- Alternate Scene. The German color pre-credit sequence is included. There dies not appear to be a big difference between the two openings.
- Music Video. Necrophagia's "And You Will Live in Terror" video incorporates clips from the movie. Nothing special, and not particularly good. This is a death metal act we could do without.
- Easter Eggs. On the "Images from Beyond" feature there is an Eibon symbol underneath the eye, click on it to see a trailer for Fulci's 1990 film Cat in the Brain. Also, there is another symbol on the audio setup page. Click there and you will get the opening sequence for the heavily edited US cut that was titled 7 Doors of Death and directed by "Louis Fuller." It cuts out the entire pre-credit sequence and all of its blood.
- In the Tin Extras. The tin includes a nice booklet filled with thoughts of the film and of Fulci, definitely worth reading for fans. There is also a series of postcards depicting various poster art. Very nice inclusions.
Bottom line. This is a must for horror fans. You may not like it at first – I didn't – but revisit it a few times and its excellence will be revealed. It is very surreal, very bizarre, and highly atmospheric, plus the gore is terrific. This is a classic example of first-rate Italian horror.
Note: The tin is long out of print, but the DVD is still available from Grindhouse Releasing and includes a few more extras, including an introduction by Catriona MacColl.