Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (L’aldilà, 1981) is a masterpiece. It was not always recognized as such and even now there are certainly those who argue the point, but it is. It’s a gory, Grand Guignol guided tour through Hell. A master class in surrealism, with visuals and acting that are appropriately heightened and exaggerated to achieve the desired effect. But the real hero of the film is also the unsung hero, the one aspect that never seems to get as much recognition as the striking visuals and incredible score: Louisiana.
Setting is as important to horror as any other genre—sometimes more so. Mood, atmosphere, these are things that are crucial to the effectiveness of a horror film. They’re especially necessary to something as surrealistic and stylized as The Beyond. Interestingly enough, most of the Italian maestro’s most well known features were not actually set in his native country. Each entry in the “Gates of Hell” trilogy—of which The Beyond is the middle chapter—is set within the United States.
City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi, 1980) takes place in a very loose idea of New England; House by the Cemetery (Quella villa accanto al cimitero, 1981) is set in New York. Then there is The Beyond, which switches the location to the Deep South. It’s an incredibly different setting than the other two, but in some ways it works better. The combination of thick atmosphere, exaggerated gore and general sleaziness that defined Fulci’s work in these films is a more apt fit for the swamps of Louisiana than the clean-cut Northeastern atmosphere of the other two.
Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” features hinge on an accepted magical realism that, while present in Northeastern horror, has come to define the genre of Southern Gothic. Everything about it is charged with a mystical atmosphere that sets it apart from his other works and makes it feel, in some ways, more American.
The combination of this very Italian style with the Southern location make for a viewing experience that is truly unique. The setting isn’t just a backdrop in The Beyond, it’s a character. From the hotel to the city itself, these things are a presence that lingers over every single scene. It creates a world that feels like anything can happen at any time, where at least some level of macabre weirdness seems to be a part of everyday life for many of the characters.
In that, it stands out in Fulci’s extensive filmography. He creates an entire world with The Beyond, one that feels truly Southern Gothic in that it’s just as Gothic as it is Southern. It has the backwoods intensity of things like Eaten Alive and Texas Chain Saw Massacre as well as the heightened emotion and overbearing dread of Dark Shadows. The two things shouldn’t necessarily mesh, but they do, and the results are fantastic.
If the entire city of New Orleans is a whole character, then the Seven Doors Hotel is certainly its black heart. It’s not just the main setting of most of the action, it’s truly the spiritual center of the movie. Everything revolves around the hotel. Even the name, as on-the-nose as it might be, only helps establish the magical realism of the world Fulci is attempting to create.
Hotel horror is its own sub-genre and The Beyond certainly fits into that — the surrealism and unpredictable imagery rivals that of The Shining, which this film followed by only a year. But the hotel seen here is so much more than haunted and that’s where it becomes really interesting. So much of Southern horror is about a place being bad rather than any kind of particular monster. Even the folklore regarding Tennessee’s Bell Witch depicts an array of demonic and poltergeist activity. Yes, the central part of the story revolves around a young woman put to death, but in most of the accounts and stories told over the years, this incident is just wrapped up in the much larger insanity of the overall legends of demonic activity in that area. It’s the place that’s evil, making the supposed witch a symptom, not the disease itself.
The Beyond operates on exactly this same logic. There’s a gruesome opening scene that sets up the recurring vision of a man who was brutally killed in the hotel, but he’s far from the only ghoulish creature we see, especially when the film kicks into more familiar Zombie Flesh Eaters territory with the third act. Sweick is maybe the most iconic figure in the picture, but in the larger context, he’s just one of an endless string of nightmares.
The places we see are very much in keeping with Southern Gothic traditions. Dilapidated cemeteries, mausoleums; everything we see in the movie’s version of Louisiana feels old. There’s nothing new here and that absolutely helps to define the overall tone. Even the hotel is practically rotting. This extends to the living dead as well—fitting, too, as the visions of Hell at work here are all inherently tied to the location. There are few fresh corpses in The Beyond. Even the ones in the morgue don’t really look new. The zombies here are more like the shambling, swamp-dwelling corpses of E.C. Comics. They’re barely held together, just as decaying as the buildings around them.
The Deep South trope of the “wise old witch” is also readily apparent in The Beyond, although it has been updated and applied in entirely new context. Instead of the reclusive crone of something like Pumpkinhead, we have beautiful young woman, Emily, isolated only by her disability. This ever-present trope in horror usually revolves around the character being shut off, blind to the world outside their small home. Here, this is reinterpreted, as she is literally blind. Her powers are also different as she is not technically a witch. She’s psychic. Possibly even a ghost. Either way, her abilities don’t stem from magic; they come from inside her, which is only befitting her loosely defined role as mentor to the protagonist, Liza. The exposition goes a little more smoothly knowing that the character giving it is channeling the hotel’s entire history.
What ultimately makes The Beyond so fascinating is that even though it is a unique and surreal journey, it does adhere to — as well as reconfigure — several classic tropes of Southern horror. A place that’s inherently evil, decaying locations, a local legend recounting a horrific murder, a witch; all of these things are ever-present in The Beyond, but they’re often reconfigured in ways viewers would not necessarily expect. It’s one of the most overlooked things about the film, but it’s also one of its greatest strengths. It’s a movie drenched in Deep South atmosphere. You can feel the heat, the humidity, you can practically even feel the mosquitos.
The setting is the most crucial aspect of the picture because it’s what cements it in any kind of realistic, identifiable context while still being the very thing that drives that surrealistic nature. It’s what sells The Beyond as something that is as dreamlike as one would expect from Italian horror, while also being as believable a vision of Hell as you are ever apt to see.