Stuck In My Head: Fabio Frizzi and the Score to Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond

by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue

Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) is alternately praised as a surrealistic masterpiece and criticized as a disjointed mess. I see no reason why it can’t be both. Italian horror films are all about the image, and The Beyond is filled to overflowing with pulverized apparitions, impromptu crucifixions, acid baths, face-devouring tarantulas, zombie-infested hospitals, creepy-eyed blind girls in the middles of highways (warning: if you’re blind and you appear in an Italian horror film, do not keep a seeing-eye dog if you value your larynx), and roads to nowhere that only look normal if you live in Louisiana, which is where exteriors were shot. You can view what little narrative exists as a careless excuse to cram all these into a single film or as an abstract philosophical opus. That’s not the point. The film, for me, stands the test of time in that its images have resurfaced in my mind unpredictably and repeatedly over the years since my first viewing. The triggers are many and seemingly unrelated; countless streams of consciousness lead me back to The Beyond.  Pretty sure the film’s haunting atmosphere was intentional, but whether or not it was is really immaterial. If you look at director Lucio Fulci’s body of work, you will see that virtually all his films, even the child-oriented Challenge To White Fang, take place in a world full of ignorance, cruelty, and senseless victimization. The Beyond is no exception, though its ending could be taken as bleakly optimistic or even spiritual in the same way as, say, Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim. The message could be something like, “Life may suck, but death is always there for you.”

I first saw The Beyond in the 1990s at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, an ornate movie house built in the 1920s with the largest screen I have ever viewed a film on. It was a new, uncut print. On the way out of the theater, the friend I’d seen the film with (who’d been drinking a forty in his seat and loudly proclaiming, “I KNOW WHAT HE’S GOING TO DO. I KNOW WHAT HE’S GOING TO DO. HE’S GOING TO CUT THE GUY’S PENIS OFF,” during the Cannibal Ferox trailer that came before the movie) reacted by complaining about the film’s illogic, while my reaction was, “But it ends with two people trapped in a cavern of the same matte painting no matter which direction they turn and a voiceover that says, ‘And you will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored.’ How is that not cool? Who the fuck cares if it doesn’t make sense?”

That sums up the film and how it affects people.

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The musical score is even better. It was composed by Fabio Frizzi, whose name can be found on Italian genre films from 1968 right up to the present day. Other Fulci horror films that Frizzi worked on, such as Zombie and City Of The Living Dead, tend to have scores that are mostly electronic and consist of a couple pieces of music repeated. Not so The Beyond. Here, Frizzi constructed a complete, complex score with rich instrumentation and a wide array of textures. “Verso L’Ignoto” (“Toward the Unknown”), which is the soundtrack’s opener and one of its biggest earworms, opens with piano that sounds like it’s playing an eerily deconstructive prog rock guitar part; wind instruments join this as the part rises and falls and goes just slightly off from where it sounds like it should. Electric bass soon announces hypnotic drums that pulsate and pulverize at a drag-ass pace, like goose-stepping zombies that stomp really hard but go really, really slow.  A minimalist flute augments. I rediscovered this score recently and all these sounds have been stuck in my head for days as I go about my business. Not sure if it gives the best tincture to life, but it’s beautiful music and it’s just the beginning of Frizzi’s score.

Hang in, and you’ll be treated to wordless vocal choruses that share registers and styles with everything from Tibetan monks to Gyorgy Ligeti to Handel’s Hallelujah. You’ll get tense strings, sounds of dissonance, sounds of falling, and sounds of very temporary relief that will be obliterated by the score’s next turn into some dark mood. “Oltre La Soglio” (“Beyond The Threshold”) features jazzy drums, brooding minimalist bass, and funky keyboards that, again, are just slightly off. There is a weird coexistence of the conventional and the demented throughout this score, as if it were the product of sadistic musicians from another planet attempting to blend in by aping the Bee Gees, but just not having it in them, or like the ergot trip one might have in Studio 54. Come to think of it, if Fulci’s The Beyond could be called the modern-day cinematic equivalent of a medieval vision story, which it easily could, Frizzi’s score is uniquely appropriate. Downright fucking perfect, even. Parts of it sound more suited to accompany one’s first exposure to scenes of wonder and awe-inspiring beauty than any kind of horror. The film’s Italian title, L’Aldila, translates to “the afterlife.” Not so horrific in and of itself. The closing line, “And you will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored,” could be interpreted as a sincere, hopeful promise rather than a doomy warning or a threat.

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“What I really wanted to get across in L’Aldila was the idea that all of life is often really a terrible nightmare and that our only refuge is to remain in this world, but outside time.” – Lucio Fulci

Fabio Frizzi’s score will get you there quick. I’ll be waiting.

– The Acolyte