Opening a film with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche is a reliable way to bum an audience out – not because of the towering existential dread that’s likely to follow, but rather because the oft-cited German philosopher is a staple of stoned college-freshman musings (“Yeah, bro, God really IS dead!”), and one risks creating an eye-rolling air of pretentiousness and impending boredom before the opening credits even roll.
However, a movie that kicks off with a little Nietzsche on its mind doesn’t necessarily need to be a stifling slog, so long as it tempers its high-minded intentions with an engaging narrative and enough compelling action to keep viewers from getting bogged down in philosophical ennui. Brazilian writer/director Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro attempts to strike that balance in the Portuguese-language feature Beyond the Grave (Porto dos Mortos), and while he doesn’t entirely pull it off, the result manages to deliver both pulpy thrills and an unexpectedly fantastical take on the well-worn genres that it cross-pollinates.
The film is set in a sparsely populated post-apocalyptic world that feels less like the rubble of a global war or economic collapse than it does the aftermath of the Biblical rapture. Its unnamed protagonist, played by Rafael Tombini, is – or was – a cop of some sort; the other characters refer to him throughout the film simply as “Officer”. He at first appears to be on a vendetta against the strangely colorful criminals that once eluded his grasp, but soon enough, it becomes apparent that something more mystical – perhaps even mythical – is spurring him on. Pinheiro plays information about Officer’s environment and his mission fairly close to the vest early on, but the film kicks into gear when it eventually reveals his goal: he’s on the trail of a villainous, body-hopping supernatural being he calls “The Dark Rider”, for whom he’s saving what might be the only bullet remaining in the entire world.
“Beyond the Grave is not shy about wearing its genre influences on its sleeve; the bloody showdowns and fatalistic attitude recall Peckinpah westerns, encounters with the pitiable returners play out like the quiet moments in George Romero’s Dead series…”
Structurally, Beyond the Grave takes on the feel of a road movie as Officer speeds through the countryside in his shiny black muscle car, meeting and occasionally joining up with the (very) few other survivors he encounters. Those include an earnest teenage couple (Amanda Lerias and Ricardo Seffner) and a kindly middle-aged man (Álvaro Rosa Costa) who’s taken a young pregnant woman (Luciana Verch) and an impulsive teenage delinquent (Leandro Lefa) under his wing. The world is also populated with shambling zombies referred to as “returners”, though they’re usually about as threatening and easily avoided as gum on the sidewalk; the film seems as distenterested in dealing with the walking dead as its viewers likely are at this point, and it refreshingly keeps the conflict centered on its more interesting protagonist and antagonist.
Not particularly grizzled or chiseled, Tombini nevertheless comes off as a traditionally gruff, gun-toting Western hero, and indeed, Officer’s single-minded pursuit of the Dark Rider brings to mind the narrative arc of Stephen King’s first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger – which is likely intentional, as the film also cribs that series’ repeated mantra about there being “other worlds than these.” There and elsewhere, it’s obvious that Beyond the Grave is not shy about wearing its genre influences on its sleeve; the bloody showdowns and fatalistic attitude recall Peckinpah westerns, encounters with the pitiable returners play out like the quiet moments in George Romero’s Dead series, and recurring images of Officer’s car tearing down the highway are evocative of cerebral 70s chase films like Vanishing Point.
While the film covers a lot of well-traveled ground, there are a few surprises contained in its pacing and the deliberately parceled-out revelations about its universe. The understated reveal of the Dark Rider’s face, for example, is a nice touch, as is the use of that character’s signature weapon, which owes a bit to David Cronenberg’s Existenz. The visual style is sufficiently atmospheric if unremarkable, framing the film’s characters amidst the expected squalor of its abandoned locations and lush but empty landscapes. Confrontations are quick, brutal, and mostly well-staged on an obviously low budget, but none is memorable enough to rise above the level of standard B-movie mayhem. The rock-guitar-based soundtrack is effectively propulsive, though it occasionally overpowers moments that could benefit from a more restrained touch.
So, does Beyond the Grave ultimately pay off the philosophical aspirations inherent in its opening quotation? Not really, but the specter of Nietzsche doesn’t overwhelm the film so much as it gives a little bit of shading to a relatively straightforward good-versus-evil tale. Pinheiro’s priority turns out not to be wallowing in existential rigmarole but instead building something rather unique and epic from a set of familiar genre tropes – zombie bites, gruff badass heroes, apocalyptic hellscapes, et al – that have largely worn out their welcome elsewhere. That gives Beyond the Grave a reason for existing and its audience a reason for watching, and if the film should also spark a conversation or two about morality or the nature of existence, well, at least there will be gunslingers, demons, and zombies involved.
Beyond the Grave (Porto dos Mortos) (2015). Written and directed by Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro. Starring Rafael Tombini, Álvaro Rosa Costa, Amanda Lerias, Ricardo Seffner, Tatiana Paganella, Leandro Lefa, Luciana Verch.
3.5 stars out of 5