Lucio Fulci, the “Godfather of Gore,” had a knack for turning poorly structured and acted exploitation movies destined to die in the grindhouses into minor works of art. He did this by painting over their mediocrity with blood and guts in a aesthetically stylish manner. Although he is best remembered for directing a handful of cult-classics in the horror genre such as Zombi 2 (1979) and The Beyond (1981), he did make three Spaghetti Westerns: Massacre Time (1966), Four of the Apocalypse (1975), and Silver Saddle (1978).
The best of these westerns is Four of the Apocalypse. Fulci introduces its four main characters as they bet on racing cockroaches in a jail cell of a small town: the well-groomed gambler Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi), the pregnant prostitute Bunny (Lynne Frederick), the chronic alcoholic Clem (Michael J. Pollard), and the ghost-talking gravedigger Bud (Harry Baird). Meanwhile, the rest of the townsfolk are slaughtered for unknown reasons by an unknown group of bandits. A horse is wire-tripped, a begging man is hung; the blood is plentiful, and the murders are merciless. And, for reasons we are not entirely aware of, the jail is left untouched and the four cellmates become the town’s sole survivors.
Together they head to the next town on a journey that brings to mind Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Like that epic of Middle English verse, Four of the Apocalypse‘s stereotypical (almost satirical) character depictions and its pilgrimage structured plot-line chronicles a voyage to redemption. The four characters start their travels as self-centered misfits, but while camping out with a God-fearing family a sense of comradeship between them begins to take shape. Stubby and Bunny have fun flirting with each other as they take on the role of newlyweds, and Clim asks Bud, “Do you like the breasts?,” while loading their plates up with chicken and laughing together.
But their path to redemption doesn’t really begin until Chaco (Tomas Milian), a self-proclaimed hunter with a Charles Manson-like aura, invites himself into their group and puts them in a position where they must replace their self-centeredness with selflessness in order to survive. At first Chaco is a welcomed addition. A hypnotic scene scored with some happy hippie music shows the group riding their wagon through the desert as Chaco shoots down duck after duck with the ease of a Nintendo nerd playing Duck Hunt. With Bunny giggling, Bud fetching the kills, and the group having what looks like the time of their lives while beams of sun blind the camera, I felt as though I was watching a less pretentious version of Easy Rider (1969). The fun continues even when they are attacked by a group of bandits, because Chaco shoots them down one by one as if they too are nothing more than digitalized ducks.
“Is he a hero?” asks the awe-struck Bud. “I don’t know anything about heroes,” answers Stubby just as Chaco, at the other end of their camp, begins to skin one of the bandits alive. This shockingly violent scene is then followed by what could either be a Peyote or a flesh eating ritual—Chaco claims they are pieces of Peyote but the shoddy editing suggests they are pieces of the skinned man. Whatever it is Chaco forcefully feeds the group, it gets them stoned out of their minds. “With this stuff you can dream without even going to sleep,” says Chaco while Bunny lets out erotic giggles, Clem barks like a dog, and Bud passes out. Stubby, who only pretended to partake in the ritual, is the only one aware of what is happening… and what is happening is that Chaco is tying them up and leaving them for dead. Before Chaco leaves, however, he makes a cuckold of Stubby by raping Bunny in front of him and then crushing his crotch.
The remainder of the film shows each of the four characters, who started as self-centered fuck-ups, finding redemption through selfless acts that, in one way or another, benefit the group as a whole. This theme of redemption, however, is admittedly vague. While the selfless acts of each character—whether it is haphazardly taking a bullet to the kneecap or supplying meat that turns out to belong to the buttocks of one of their dead companions—benefit the group, they don’t necessarily benefit the story. Instead of adding meaning to the film and creating empathy in its viewers, the four characters’ voyage to redemption comes across as nothing more than a plot device used to drive them from one entertaining episode to the next. At times, I felt as though Fulci’s thematic ambitions were distorted due to horror genre conventions.
But while Fulci’s horror genre mentality may have been detrimental to some aspects of the film, that same mentality was likely responsible for the greatest aspect of the film: the unrelenting mood, which is both mournful and mesmerizing, that exists just beneath the surface of Four of the Apocalypse. The awkward one-liners, the overzealous laughing, the odd musical score, the unexpected philosophizing, the obvious emulation of Easy Riders—it all helps establish and maintain this hard-to-describe mood. And it’s this mood of the film, which becomes almost overwhelming in its potency when Fulci repeatedly juxtapositions scenes of extreme violence and tenderness, that makes up for the flaws in the film.
Then, when you acknowledge the solid acting of Testi, Frederick, Pollard, and Baird, along with the brief but outstanding performance from Milian playing one of the most memorable villains in the entire genre, you have a great Spaghetti Western. Throw in the closing scene of bloody vengeance in which Stubby takes his time taking the life out of Chaco’s evil eyes and Four of the Apocalypse becomes an excellent film that deserves a permanent—though understandably controversial—spot in the genre’s canon. If you want to experience the violence in all its glory, as well as some full-frontal male nudity, be sure to get an uncut version of the film, for there are many censored versions still on the market.