Now that the cynical and dull "Scream" series has received undue credit for reinventing the modern horror film, we owe ourselves a reexamination of the Italian productions of the late 1970s and early 1980s that did the job first and better. While the late Lucio Fulci's 1981 "The Beyond" is by no means the be-all and end-all of the movement, its current midnight-movie rerelease is a more than adequate introduction to a body of work that deserves greater recognition outside of the "Fangoria"-reading public.
A non-genre director who slowly made his way to horror over the decades, Fulci is generally considered to have reached his apotheosis with this creepy (and often unbearably gory) operetta of damnation. Young New Yorker Liza Merrill (Catriona "Katherine" MacColl) inherits a dilapidated Louisiana hotel from her deceased uncle, but her efforts to restore it to its former glory meet a literal dead end when she discovers that the edifice lies directly atop one of the seven fabled gateways to hell. Soon, the place is overrun with hollow-eyed zombies, who mercilessly slaughter the cleanup crews working to make the hotel livable for more corporeal guests.
Please understand that the use of the word "violent" in the above paragraph is in no way capricious. Relatively short at 88 minutes, "The Beyond" still manages to cram in a full three scenes in which eyes are separated from their sockets, along with a crucifixion and an extremely protracted sequence of a man being eaten alive by spiders. Fulci and his contemporaries had studied in great detail the work of George A. Romero, who took shock cinema to unheard-of extremes in his "Night of the Living Dead" trilogy and subsequently became an unofficial patron saint of the Italian horror community.
Many of them also adopted Romero's lyrical camera work, particularly the great Dario Argento in his enduring "Suspiria" (1977). "The Beyond" doesn't occupy the same plane in a cinematographic sense: Its bloody tableaus are merely serviceable in their construction, never attaining the level of visual poetry that marked Argento's visions. Fulci also has some problems telling a story set on American soil. In one scene, a hospital door is emblazoned with the sign "Do Not Entry"; in another, Liza counters stories of a haunting with the dismissal, "I've lived in New York all my life, and if it's one thing I've learned not to believe in, it's ghosts." Excuse me?
For all of its failings, "The Beyond" remains an honest, earnest attempt to craft a slice of straightforward scariness, with no need for the ironic, postmodern apologias that the likes of Kevin Williamson feel compelled to float on every page of their navel-gazing scripts. If you're going to laugh at the ridiculousness of your chosen field, you had better be ready to prove yourself smarter than any of those who have come before you; if your agenda is less deconstructive, however, your love of what you're doing can excuse all manner of sloppiness. Fulci, bless his eyeless little head, resided squarely in the latter category.