Lucio Fulci is best known for his manic fever-dreamish horror movies that offer a little slice of Hell on Earth. His movies are basically plotless, with scenes hung up on the flimsiest framework of story, so as to allow the most amount of carnage possible without letting things like character development, exposition or coherence stand in the way of what he wants to really get down to.
The most surprising thing about this method of filmmaking is that it works. Films like The Beyond are somehow incredibly personal. You get a sense of what he fears. You get a sense of his insecurities. He’s apparently terrified of eye-gougings, so he films them whenever he has an opportunity and lingers on the remains almost fetishistically.
So, it comes as some surprise that Lucio Fulci has, apparently, made a Spaghetti Western, given his most prominent career of surrealist, disgusting terror. Like his most notorious works, the ones that he’s most famous for, it also delves into the darkest recesses of the human mind, but it’s a work completely different than anything he’s ever done before—or since.
Four of the Apocalypse begins with the arrival of Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi), a known gambler, to the town of Salt Flats, UT. Unbeknownst to him, the Sheriff has decided on today of all days that he’s going to clean the town up and he is promptly arrested. He finds himself with the other three of titled four of the apocalypse in a jail cell:
There’s Bunny, played by Lynne Frederick of Phase IV, a pregnant prostitute.
There’s Clem, played by Michael J. Pollard of Scrooged, a degenerate drunk.
And then there’s Bud, played by Harry Baird of the original The Italian Job, a man who swears he can hear and see the dead. “Must drive a guy crazy,” jokes Stubby, and Bud answers him with a manic grin.
Violence erupts, with the locals planning a violent uprising against the criminal influence in the town, to which the Sheriff plans on simply ignoring and allows to happen. The four scream from their jail cell for help, that it’s only a matter of time before they get killed too. The next morning, with dozens dead, the Sheriff explains to them that the town is safe again from degeneracy, and that they are free to go, but never to return. He gives them a wagon and they make their way toward salvation, a place where a gambler can gamble, a drunk can drink, a man can talk to the dead and Stubby assures bunny that there’s probably a nice whorehouse for her there, too. She recoils from him, upset, and he’s too stupid to realize why.
They have 200 miles to go, “200 miles without a drink!” as Clem puts it. Their journey begins pleasantly enough, like any adventure western populated with pistols, rifles, cacti and desert terrain. But once the villainous Chaco (Thomas Milian) enters, their story becomes a stygian nightmare, with torture, rape, cannibalism and insanity coming along for the ride.
As disturbing as the film gets, which is just about on a par, psychologically, with some of his more notorious “Video Nasties” Four of the Apocalypse also has time for a scene of childbirth that Lucio Fulci films with such compassion, it’s hard to believe it’s from the same person who had once filmed a scene with a topless woman fighting a shark and a zombie at the same time. In the middle of a town inhabited solely by men who quite vocally hate both women and children, Bunny must birth her child in the midst of venomous hostility directed toward her. Something happens, a shift in perspective, and the men embrace the moment, and it reminded me of that moment at the climax of Children of Men. If only coincidentally, the similarity is somewhat striking. And there’s actually a brilliant movement of the camera, where a hectic-looking ground-level shot becomes a towering, omnipotent crane shot.
Dare I say, Four of the Apocalypse is Lucio Fulci’s masterpiece. Yes, I enjoy The Beyond a good deal. I adore The House by the Cemetery. Zombi is a lot scarier than people realize—it’s not all eyes being skewered, there’s some excellent craft involved. And City of the Living Dead is like a best-of hits from nightmares. But Four of the Apocalypse is sort of like the Jackie Brown to his film career. It showcases all of his best elements of a filmmaker and a storyteller and puts them into a mature context unlike anything he’s ever bothered with again. It shows him at his very, very best, utilizing actual Hitchockian techniques to amazing results.
Consider this scene: Bud, the poor soul, has been driven mad in a ghost town and he swears that at night he can see well-dressed men and women in suits. The others must leave him. Stubby explains that they’re not leaving without saying goodbye, that Bud knows they’re leaving. Every shot is conducted in such a way that every shot could be from the perspective of Bud watching them leave, or possibly from the ghosts that no one else but Bud can see. The entire passage from within the ghost town is grade-A stuff, being scary without being clear about the horror of the place… it’s just evil.
But none of this is specifically “horror” mind you. Four of the Apocalypse is very clearly a western. It’s not a western with horror movie aspirations, it’s just a western that pits good against evil in such a way that evil leaves a lasting mark, clouding “good’s” perception of what it once was.
It’s a surprisingly deep and thoughtful movie coming from Lucio Fulci and something I wish he’d had a chance to do more often in his career. It’s available on Hulu right now, so if you have a chance, I would recommend it.