Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Beyond (1981)

The Beyond

Following in the footsteps of City of the Living Dead, Fulci’s second film in his unofficial Gates of Hell Trilogy delves deeper into the spiritual and the surreal. Centering on a Hotel in Louisiana, The Beyond opens with the murder of an artist in 1927, whom a lynch mob believes to be a warlock. This wrongful killing opens up one of the seven gateways to hell, allowing for all manner of strange zombie/ghost shenanigans to occur. Liza (played by Fulci regular Catriona MacColl) inherits the accursed hotel decades later, and ends up being warned away from the property by blind girl Emily, following a nasty accident in the basement involving a plumber. With the help of local doctor John, Liza begins to uncover the truth behind her hotel’s past.

That plot summary makes this film sound simple, but it isn’t. Disjointed and dreamlike, The Beyond floats through its story with little regard for character development or coherence. Dealing with the age-old human anxiety of life beyond death, a deliberately erratic narrative and haunting ending make this more than just your average zombie movie. If City of the Living Dead suggested “another side” through its sudden disappearing and reappearing of its ghouls, then its successor flat-out paints a picture of this other realm (literally). The idea of the artist’s death being the trigger for hellish happenings is important, for it highlights the value of creativity and imagination in a world filled with horror. The painting is a gateway to somewhere beyond, somewhere at once terrifying and alluring.

Fulci’s penchant for blood and guts doesn’t let up here. There are a countless number of gruesome deaths that shock, and often defy logic (there wasn’t that much acid in the bottle for crying out loud!), with eyes being popped out left, right and center. The famous face eating tarantulas scene elicits an odd mix of both laughter and horror as you can’t quite shake the awareness that you’re watching pipe cleaner spiders munch on prosthetic features, but it is an inventive set piece nonetheless, deserving of praise. Unfortunately, certain moments in the film are guilty of making absolutely no sense, and in entirely the wrong way, such as the hospital doctors hooking up some kind of EEG machine to a hundreds of years old rotting corpse. Having John be able to take down five zombies in a row with perfect head shots, but then miss countless times against one in particular makes for frustrating viewing, and it is flaws in the script such as this which do let the film down, sadly.

However, these flaws can be forgiven when faced with such a bold mix of gore and existentialism. Emily’s white eyes make for some stunning shots, and the scene in her drawing room (does this room even exist?) with the zombies invading from all sides is gorgeously nightmarish. Some of Sergio Salvati’s camerawork is stunning, a good example being the shot of Liza driving along the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway to meet Emily and Dickie, which is enough to send chills down the spine. These images, strangely, are the ones that stay with you long after the credits roll, more so than the moments of bloody carnage. And this is ultimately what makes The Beyond worthy of its four stars: it’s staying power. It haunts the mind in a more potent way than many other modern slasher horrors and “torture porns”, and is almost poetical in its approach towards life and its many mysteries. With a budget of only $400,000, the film is essentially a splatter-fest with soul, a cheap horror with a heavy heart, and is a fantastically wacky mess from start to finish. I loved it.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

City of the Living Dead (1980)

City of the Living Dead

“I’m afraid Mary’s Dead.”

Lucio Fulci’s obsession with eyes says a lot about his cinematic intentions. Eyes are often said to be the ‘windows to the soul’. Within them lies the suggestion of something beyond the corporeal, something intangible and unknowable, and the intense focus on them in City of the Living Dead reveals the film’s preoccupation with the otherworldly. The first of Fulci’s unofficial Gates of Hell Trilogy, this 1980 horror is less of a zombie movie and more of a supernatural thriller centered around religion. The zombies themselves, when they do appear, are not always animated and raving, but instead materialize out of thin air, flashing on and off the screen like ghouls. Mrs Holden, one of the “infected” (I use this term very loosely), manages both to bite someone’s hand, and transport herself from a mortuary to a kitchen floor without so much as a flinch. And the zombified antagonist of the film scares his victims by popping up unannounced, hanging in front of them from various timber beams and ceilings.

Set in the fictional town of Dunwich, New England (made famous by H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story The Dunwich Horror), the beginning of the film shows a priest hanging himself from a tree in his Church’s cemetery, thus opening up one of the seven gateways to hell. Eerily Gothic 80s music from Fabio Frizzi accompanies this spine-chilling scene, and helps to establish the story’s surreal tone. From here we see physic Mary Woodhouse seemingly die during a seance, but not before she has had a vision of the priest, and of the dead rising from their graves. At one point her eye’s iris frames a shot of the hanging man, linking the two themes of religion and the supernatural that have already been been set up within the first ten minutes of the film. Investigative reporter Peter Bell (another Fulci film with a journalist named Peter) is assigned to Mary’s case, and ends up being the one to save her from being buried alive after she wakes up in her coffin. The two then join forces with psychiatrist Gerry and patient Sandra to try and discover the truth behind Mary’s visions, and the mysterious deaths that are plaguing Dunwich.

Compared to Zombie, released a year before this, City of the Living Dead is a deeper, more metaphysical film, but one that still revels in the sickening gore that characterizes Fulci’s horror. The voodoo of old zombie movies is left behind here, and replaced with Italian Catholicism. The priest’s death can be symbolic of the death of religion itself, and it is this representation of a “heinous” act which gives way to the horrors that follow. The zombies exist within the absence of faith, and prowl through the dark side of human consciousness. When Gerry is faced with a grotesque Emily returned from the dead (who looks somewhat Carrie-esque), he manages to make her disappear simply by closing his eyes. This moments suggests that the evil in the film gains its power from the evil within the mind itself, a concept that is surprisingly complex for a horror often considered nothing more than a gore-fest.

And yet, don’t get me wrong, there is an abundance of gore: brain squishing, guts vomiting gore, that makes this one of the most inventively bloody films that I’ve ever seen. Staring into the priest’s eyes makes one girl throw up the contents of her stomach (and I don’t mean food-wise) whilst her eyes bleed. Strangely, it’s only the females in the film who seem susceptible to this particularly nasty hypnotism, with the males simply looking on in dumb horror. The zombie bodies are almost always worm-covered and decomposing, with red-raw flesh and bones on show, and one of the most horrifying scenes involves a man pushing a boy’s head through a drill bit (this scene was actually cut when the film was first released in the UK).

With some wonderfully stupid lines of dialogue (“the air in Dunwich is getting awful thick”), and some bizarre sound design (monkey and baby noises?), City of the Living Dead is definitely flawed, but is impressive in its unexpected handling of heavy, religious themes. Some standout scenes such as the coffin opening, where Peter repeatedly hacks into the wood, narrowly missing Mary’s face each time, are proof that Fulci knows exactly how to entertain his audience. You can see here many of the ideas that were to be explored further in the next (and arguably better) film of the trilogy, The Beyond, such as the presence of the supernatural, and the idea of the child being possessed (one explanation for the bizarre ending is that Emily’s brother becomes evil and attacks Mary and Gerry, but that this footage was lost), and if not a perfect horror, this film can be admired for its far-reaching ambitions, and bravely shocking themes.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Zombie/Zombie Flesh Eaters/Zombi 2 (1979)

Zombie

I cannot tell you how refreshing it was to watch this 70s zombie flick after having endured the later George A. Romero films (post Day of the Dead). And yes, I’m calling this viewing experience “refreshing”, despite it being filled with the flesh eating undead. What a joy it was to finally be shocked, scared and grossed-out by what I was seeing, rather than be bored out of my brains.

Set on the island of Matool, the film sees Anne Bowles (Tia Farrow) and sandy-haired journalist Peter West (Ian McCulloch) team up to investigate strange goings-on following the disappearance of Anne’s father. Through the help of resident doctor David Menard, and couple Bryan and Susan, they discover that the island’s buried dead are rising from the ground to attack the living. Scenes set in New York City frame the film, having been added to the script following the huge success of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and the result is a simple enough story that is brought to life by fantastically absurd and grisly set pieces which mark this out as a zombie classic.

One, much-talked about scene in particular has a half-naked, scuba diving woman pitted against both a shark and an underwater zombie, who then proceed to fight each other in front of her eyes. It’s brave, ingenious decisions such as these which make Zombie (or Zombi 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters, whichever you prefer) so unforgettable, despite its flat-out uninspiring story and characters. Without scenes such as the eye-gouging (which made me squeal like a little girl), or the Spanish Conquistadors rising from their cemetery to interupt Anne and Peter frolicking in the grass (the first time in this zombie marathon that I’ve actually seen the dead rising from the dirt), this film would be pretty dull. However, to say that, is like saying that a Terrence Malick film wouldn’t be very philosophical without its voice overs*. The visceral gore and spilling guts are the film’s identity. They are its heart. And what a brilliantly mangled and gory heart it is.

*Yes, I did somehow manage to reference Malick in a review of a Lucio Fulci horror.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★1/2

Survival of the Dead (2009)

Survival of the Dead

Survival of the Dead is just bizarre. Half-zombie movie, half-western, it is a confused film that is defeated by its own overblown narrative. George A. Romero squeezes in too many ideas in to too small and cheap a space, resulting in a stifled story that is never straightforward enough to make an impact.

Inspired by the Hatfield-McCoy Feud, and by William Wyler’s The Big Country, the film plays out a bitter rivalry between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, two warring Irish families who live on Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware. In the aftermath of the outbreak, the O’Flynns, led by Patrick (Kenneth Welsh), wish to kill off all of the undead who inhabit the island, whereas the Muldoons, led by Seamus (Richard Fitzpatrick), propose to keep them alive until a cure is found. Patrick’s daughter, Janet (Kathleen Munroe), is fond of horses, yet not so fond of her father, and suggests that he be exiled from the island in order to end the bickering. Meanwhile, National Guard deserters Sergeant ‘Nicotine’ Crockett (played by Alan Van Sprang who briefly appears in both Land and Diary), Kenny, Francisco and Tomboy, hear of Plum Island through a boy’s stories (this character is literally named “Boy”) and decide to seek refuge there. There is some confusion and double-crossing involving Patrick attempting to dupe the guardsmen, but eventually everyone finds themselves on the island together, endlessly arguing, plotting and running around like characters in a blood-soaked soap opera. A couple of twists in the story are an attempt to keep things interesting, and there is some unnecessary love-interest talk which does nothing but make the audience feel that they’ve suddenly tuned in to an episode of Wildfire.

Land and Diary were evidence of Romero’s storytelling skills slipping: in both, the messages trip over themselves to take center stage, kicking over many other important aspects of the films in the process. They glory in their prospective audience, repeating themselves over and over (especially so in Diary), whilst forgetting that the strongest statements in film live and breathe through good drama and visuals. In Survival, the messages may not be so obtrusive, but what we see instead is an uncontrolled excess of narrative threads and pointless dialogue. As a student film from a first-time director, I could forgive this zombie flick for being sloppily written, but as the latest of films from a renowned horror director, this kind of baffling, third-rate drama is heartbreaking. I can only sit patiently and hope that Romero can successfully create something both new and brilliant in the near future, whether it be in the form of his series of comics Empire of the Dead (rumored for release in January) which will purportedly involve vampires as well as zombies, or in the form of a film that, dare I say it, leaves the undead alone to focus on something else entirely.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★