by Steve Habrat
Before Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci became known as the “Godfather of Gore,” the grindhouse/horror legend dabbled in a number of non-horror film genres. In the late 1950s and 60s, he directed a handful of comedies and then set his sights on thrillers and gialli in the early 1970s. In the mid to late 60s and early 70s, Italy was enamored with spaghetti westerns and it comes as no surprise that Mr. Fulci decided to contribute a few westerns of his own to the booming subgenre. Near the end of the spaghetti western craze, Fulci released Four of the Apocalypse, a surprisingly sensitive but brutal trip into the Wild West that plays by its own set of rules. Lacking a strong, silent hero going to war with a pack of snarling gunslingers, Four of the Apocalypse is heavy with character development and shockingly light on gunplay. If you’re a fan of Fulci’s gory later work, rest assured that Four of the Apocalypse has plenty of the blood and torture that many of his fans expect, but you will also be surprised to find that you get attached to the four main characters before you are blindsided by the pitch-black tragedy that looms over the second half of the film. It really proves to those who wrote off Fulci as a horror hack that the “Godfather of Gore” is capable of making films with some serious substance.
Four of the Apocalypse picks up in Salt Flat, Utah, with a big time gambler named Stubby Preston (Played by Fabio Testi) arriving in town looking to make some money. Shortly after arriving, Stubby has a run-in with the Sheriff and he winds up thrown in jail with a beautiful prostitute, Bunny (Played by Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Played by Michael J. Pollard), and the local loony, Bud (Played by Harry Baird). That very evening, a group of masked bandits attack Salt Flat and leave the town a bloody mess. The next morning, Stubby cuts a deal with the sheriff and the four soon find themselves traveling to the next town, which is 200 miles away. As they make their way down the dusty trail, the colorful group gets to know each other and Stubby begins taking a liking to Bunny, who also happens to be pregnant. The lighthearted trip is soon interrupted by a mysterious bandito that calls himself Chaco (Played by Tomas Milian), who wishes to join and travel with the group. Chaco claims that he is an expert hunter and that he can defend the rag-tag group from raiders and bandits. All seems well at first, but Chaco soon reveals himself to be a sadistic bandit that leaves the group for dead. With no food or water and one of their group severely wounded, Stubby vows to track down and kill Chaco for what he has done.
While the spaghetti western was known for delivering plenty of shoot-em-up action, Four of the Apocalypse shies away from the relentless violence that made the genre so popular. While a gun is fired here and there, the only real action comes from the beginning of the film, with the masked bandits turning Salt Flat into a war zone. This early scene has plenty of Fulci’s signature gore, with holes blown through the bellies of drunken cowboys and gunslingers hung from buildings. It is actually a fairly creepy sequence, especially since the bandits seem to be attacking for no reason and they are sporting white masks with eyeholes torn into them. From there on out, Fulci leaves most of the gunplay behind and focuses on the sunny relationship between our four likable travelers. The downside to this opening explosive action is that the pacing is thrown off and the film seems to come to a screeching halt when the group hits the road. While the all-out action is pulled back, Fulci does darken the whole affair when Chaco rides into the frame. Chaco is certainly a captivating character, but with him comes torture, rape, and death, all of which shatter the innocence of the group. Things really get grim when cannibalism rears its ugly head in one of the darkest moments of the entire film.
Four of the Apocalypse also features some truly exceptional and memorable performances from nearly everyone involved. Fabio Testi really casts a spell as Stubby, the handsome and outgoing gambler that everyone seems to be familiar with (Even Chaco has heard of him!). A clean-cut guy who can’t say no to a good shave, Stubby is far from the conventional spaghetti western hero. When he mingles with a group of hardened outlaws near the end of the film, he is glaringly out of place but we can see that he may be considering going down the path that these men have chosen. Then we have Frederick’s Bunny, the beautiful prostitute who strikes up a romance with Stubby. Despite her line of work and her growing baby bump, she retains a youthful innocence that is rare when it comes to spaghetti western prostitutes. Pollard’s Clem is a pitiful soul, one who is a slave to the bottle and will literally do anything for a swig of whiskey. Fulci really focuses on his sad eyes, which easily pierce your heart. Baird’s sweet but simple Bud was probably the most sympathetic and naive character as he rambles on about speaking with ghosts in a graveyard. Yet the one that stands high above all these characters is Milian, who is absolutely unforgettable as the unpredictable Chaco. As sadistic as they come, Chaco is like a gun slinging Charles Manson, one who manipulates and violates with the aid of peyote.
What I absolutely loved about Four of the Apocalypse is that it really seemed to be playing by its own set of rules. The final confrontation between Stubby and Chaco is subtle and minimal yet strangely poignant and satisfying. You’ll also find yourself hanging on the hope and tragedy that blossoms out of Stubby and Bunny’s arrival in the town of outlaws, all of whom melt over the arrival of Bunny’s child. You will find yourself wishing that Fulci had paced his film better and that he would have pulled the distracting folk score from the film and replaced it with a jangly Ennio Morricone track. Over the years, Four of the Apocalypse has become sort of a midnight movie for some of the violence peppered throughout, but the film never seems overly interested in exploiting the bloodier moments, something that is very rare for Fulci. Overall, Four of the Apocalypse is an absorbing and emotional journey across a bleak and hopeless landscape. There are a few dry spots to be found but end result is a wildly disturbing character study that allows the film to set itself apart from the other films of this subgenre.
Four of the Apocalypse is available on DVD.