EZMM 2022 Day 2: The Beyond (1981)

It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 20082009 (a bad year), 201020112012 (when we left the blog behind), 20132014201520162017201820192020, and 2021.

The Beyond, or …E tu vivrai nel terrore! L’aldilà (1981)

Directed by Lucio Fulci

Screenplay by Lucio Fulci, Dardano Sacchetti, and Giorgio Mariuzzo

After the success of City of the Living Dead, Lucio Fulci decided that his follow-up film would carry on the “Gates of Hell” conceit, with what would become a trilogy of films all dealing with the sometime surrealistic, always grotesque, impact of human beings coming into contact with an entrance to Hell. The Beyond is maybe the most successful film in the trilogy, but also has the most impressionistic narrative.

Catriona MacColl returns for The Beyond, playing Liza Merril, who inherits an old hotel in Louisiana which just happens to have been built over a gate to Hell. She is reluctantly aided by Dr. John McCabe, played by David Warbeck. In the course of trying to restore the hotel, a lot of crazy shit starts happening and from that point on there is very little traditional narrative going on here. Instead, what we get is a heavy dose of Fulci’s surrealistic dream logic.

The majority of The Beyond was filmed on location in and around New Orleans with the help of the Louisiana Film Commission, and according to Larry Ray, a New Orleans resident hired to help scout locations, there was no official shooting script, only a three-page treatment.

Opening in 1927 New Orleans, a group of locals torture and murder an artist/warlock named Schweick, who is working on a nightmare landscape painting in Room 36 of the Seven Doors Hotel. While he is dragged from his room and crucified in the basement for practicing black magic, a white-eyed woman reads from the ancient Book of Eibon, a four-thousand-year-old book of prophecy about the opening of the seven gates of hell (another nod to Fulci’s Lovecraft influence, as the book was originated by Clark Ashton Smith and appeared in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”, “The Horror in the Museum”, and “The Shadow Out of Time”, amongst other stories).

So yeah. We’re all in from the opening minutes of this film as Schweick is graphically whipped, nailed to the wall, and then has something I couldn’t really identify poured over his head, which proceeds to practically melt his face off. And we linger on the face melting for quite a while.

Cut to 1981 New Orleans and Catriona MacColl is trying to restore and open the hotel she inherited, and she feels like this is her last chance to make something of her life. It’s a bare-bones motivation for her to stick around when things start going crazy, but the entire film is a series of wafer-thin narrative links designed to allow Fulci to go hog wild with bizarrely surreal scenes of graphic violence and brutality.

Which is exactly what one should expect when you live over a hell gate.

The bloody deaths in The Beyond never quite reach the level of a maggot storm, but are generally more imaginative than in City of the Living Dead, and the sheer amount of eye trauma in this film is stunning, as blindness becomes symbolic of contact with evil or the Beyond. The blind, white-eyed woman from the opening is Emily (Cinzia Monreale, literally blind in painted glass contact lenses) and her knowledge of Eibon and the history of the hotel allows her to serve as a Cassandra, warning Liza away but being ignored – even when horrible accidents and disgusting corpses start piling up.

And pile up, they do. Eyes are gouged out, necks are broken, faces are eaten by tarantulas or have sulfuric acid poured on them, and whenever someone dies, they are added to the ranks of undead ghouls who constantly return, hideous and deformed.

There’s a sense of inevitability to the surreal stream of grotesque, violent imagery. These characters are doomed from the moment they appear on-screen. There is simply no hope of escape and the only characters who even know what’s happening have no intention of trying to close the gate to hell. Liza and Dr. McCabe never even get the chance to comprehend what’s happening around them. They’re simply thrust into a nightmare that slowly seeps out of the flooded basement of the hotel until their entire world is the other side, the Beyond. Even trying to escape to the hospital during the climax becomes a descent down a staircase only to end up back in the hotel basement as reality warps, leading them helplessly back to the subterranean gate to hell.

There is no escape.

Where City of the Living Dead at least had a semblance of a heroic journey and a victorious ending before cutting to black and implying that our heroes were too late to stop the end of the world, The Beyond doesn’t even try to spare the characters torment and confusion. As reality spirals into madness in the final act, the world that they knew, the daylight world of New Orleans – utilized nicely throughout the film – vanishes, and they are utterly helpless, utterly abandoned, utterly doomed.

There are hints here and there about a larger narrative world in the film, of rules and magic and ancient powers, but they are suggested in passing and never really explored, creating a subtle, practically subconscious tapestry of unreality lying just beneath the surface of New Orleans. Was Emily an escapee from the Beyond before the dead finally retrieve her? What connects her to the little girl, Jill (Maria Pia Marsala) who also goes blind and ultimately contributes to the madness of the finale? Why does a hotel in New Orleans have a basement?

The Beyond was released theatrically in Italy on April 29, 1981 and had problems with the censors in practically every country in which it was released. The BBFC in the UK gave it an X rating, demanding several cuts and it wouldn’t get an uncensored release until 2001 on home video. The film wasn’t released in the US until 1983 with a new musical score, several cuts to bring it down to an R rating, and a new title, 7 Doors of Death. The uncut version of The Beyond wasn’t made commercially available in the US until after Fulci’s death in 1996.

In October of 2000, Grindhouse Releasing and Anchor Bay Entertainment released a limited-edition tin and standard DVD, featuring the fully uncut 89-minute version of the film. The US wouldn’t get a high-def Blu-ray release until 2015 from Grindhouse Releasing, featuring two Blu-ray discs, a CD soundtrack, and a 10-page illustrated booklet.

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