Along highways littered with a dead civilization’s detritus, a radio crackles. “It’s hard to know if loneliness is more dangerous than a company,” the crazed disc jockey announces to anyone still alive to listen, “To be alone is to risk sanity. To be with someone is to risk life. It is better to be a crazy loner than have company six-feet under.” Few know this better than the strange bespectacled man wandering the countryside with nothing but a car, a handgun, and a samurai sword. He is the Officer. He has existed since the beginning of time itself. And he has but one purpose: to find the Dark Rider and kill him. Theirs is a duel with no beginning and no end. Yet still they search. Still they battle. And with the End Times upon them, with the last vestiges of humanity twisted into zombies, their meeting draws near.
The driving conflict behind Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro’s Brazilian horror film Beyond the Grave is simplicity itself. Yet Pinheiro uses it to frame a journey into one of the most striking sci-fi/horror worlds in recent memory. Characters come and go with little expectation for their long-term survival, but the space they occupy keeps us mesmerized with its detail and depravity: gravel-faced bandits cook watery stew in a brick dungeon guarded by bloodied mannequins; a single bloody handprint survives as the only remaining trace of the humanity which once inhabited a run-down apartment building; a daemonic summoning circle putrefies beneath the weight of countless severed human ears; and somewhere out there a Being—sometimes a man, sometimes a woman—lurks in wait for the Officer (Rafael Tombini).
Refusing to indulge in the quick-cutting, lightning fast storytelling of its genre contemporaries, Beyond the Grave evokes a deliberately distended sense of time, lulling the audience into a trance. I suspect most viewers will call it “slow.” But no, the film is merely “paced.” Calmness and reflexion need not prove anathema to horror, particularly in the kind of mystical, highly symbolic cosmos which Pinheiro chose to create.
But Beyond the Grave demonstrates difference in one other crucial way: it unabashedly revels in moments of joy and happiness. Most apocalyptic films chain themselves to one tone: bleak nihilism (The Road ), dark adventure (Mad Max ), or even comic irreverence (Zombieland ). But in a distinctly Brazilian flourish, some of the most memorable moments of Beyond the Grave are joyous: the Officer teaching two teenagers how to shoot by firing his empty pistol so as not to waste bullets; survivors sharing a slow dance in a shelter; a young man crooning to his lover, “And to think, if the world hadn’t ended I would never have met you.” That’s not to say that Beyond the Grave isn’t dark, depressing, and intense. The film acts out a litany of tragedies and heartbreaks. But Pinheiro seems to argue that joy and sorrow can, perhaps even must, co-exist. The world may end, but there will always be time enough for a dance.