“If you want to open the door to Hell today, these four words you must say…”
“Why are you stopping at the best part?”
The Fulci / Mattei / Fragasso Zombi 3 (1988), recently reviewed in these pages, wasn’t the only Latin living dead epic laying claim to that title… Andrea Bianchi’s astonishing Burial Ground / Zombi Terror / Nights Of Terror (1981) got there first and Jorge Grau’s even more prodigiously multi-titled Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974) was at one point, via some inscrutable worm hole in the space / time continuum, deemed to be a sequel to a George Romero film made five years after it. Romero was presumably happy enough with his own “Dead” series and anyway, Dawn Of The Dead co-producer Dario Argento’s attempts to quell the flow of ersatz sequels fell at the first legal hurdle, with Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979). Thereafter Fulci’s participation in the Guadenzi-produced Zombi 3 granted that film and its successors some kind of “official bootleg series” imprimatur, right up to Claudio Lattanzi’s Killing Birds (1987) being rechristened Zombi 5. Thankfully, we’re not concerned with the last-named clinker this time out, turning our attention instead to Fragasso’s Zombi 4, originally released (in 1989 according to IMDB, though this is disputed) as After Death (“Oltre La Morte”).
For this one Fragasso, again masquerading as “Clyde Anderson”, was back in the Philippines with a specific brief to come up with something that might recoup the losses that producer Franco Guadenzi had sustained on Zombi 3. Already disenchanted with his experiences on that one and 1980’s Zombie Creeping Flesh / Virus (which he had conceived as a reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy, only for it to turn out more like a feature-length, gored-up episode of The Goon Show), he was desperate to finally put his stamp on the zombie genre but inevitably came up against the usual under-resourcing (with only acrobatic Filipino extras and psychotropic banana liqueur in plentiful supply). His access to cameras (and indeed, DP Luigi Ciccarese) was restricted to night time because Bruno Mattei was using them to shoot one of his Strike Commando movies during the daylight hours. History predictably promptly repeated itself and Fragasso concluded principal photography with a Zombi 4 that was, like its predecessor, significantly short of feature length.
The sore thumb prologue that was subsequently shot on an Elios studio soundstage is successful at bumping up the film’s running length to respectable proportions, less so at explaining WTF is going on and why. It involves a team of Western cancer specialists (naturally turned out in military fatigues and armed to the teeth) confronting a voodoo priest who has just conducted a black magic ritual that climaxed with his wife being sucked down into to Hell. The boffins are here to provide a rationalist, humanitarian alternative to such superstitious practices, so naturally their enlightened response is to blow the voodoo dude away with blazing machine guns. He’s already threatened to “persecute you after my death… I’ll come looking for you, to feed on your intestines!” and he wastes no time making good on his promise. His wife also pops back up from Hell, made up exactly like one of Lamberto Bava’s Demons and spitting green goo with great gusto… clear so far?
If this outlandish, spastically directed introduction suggests that Fragasso had gone native, imbibing the heady influence of Philippine and Indonesian indigenous horror product (H Tjut Djali’s Mystics in Bali from 1981 springs to mind), as soon as every cemetery on the island has disgorged hordes of shrouded, bloodthirsty zombies the subsequent narrative settles into a series of more familiar tropes… “The dead will feed on the living”… “It’s not Tommy, he’s one of them, now”… all present and correct. We get the zombies warded off with a wall of fire, the crazed military man who loses it and jumps into the midst of the living dead, the little blonde girl who survives the opening massacre…with the novel twist that this one doesn’t turn up in the jungle twenty years later as the glamorous queen of the tribe that has adopted her: this one turns up (in the passable form of Candice Daly) twenty years later, returning to the jungle to discover what happened to mom and dad. Why she’s accompanied by a couple of Miami Vice refugees and a boatload of Vietnam vets-turned-mercenaries (including the immortal Nick Nicholson from Apocalypse Now and Platoon, looking like Al Cliver’s less couth kid brother) is something that larger brains than mine are going to have to figure out… ditto, why gay porn icon Jeff Stryker (billed here, marginally more believably, as Chuck Peyton) is wandering around equally aimlessly in the jungle with Massimo Vanni and some bird.
There are incidental laughs to be had from an arcane “Book of the Dead” that was clearly knocked up by the props department about two minutes before it appears on screen, and a “Third Gateway to Hell” (ulp!) which is rendered by the budget-scrimping spectacle of several while candles arranged in a circle (dunno about you, but I’m shitting myself…) The film’s pulsating AOR score (which was included in my copy as a bonus disc) is supplied by Al Festa of Fatal Frames infamy and dear old Al could himself conceivably have played a part in Zombi 4’s hysterical “climax”, in which Daly sacrifices herself (apparently by pulling out much of her hair and one of her eyeballs) to stem the rising tide of undead, while Peyton / Stryker is ravished by some voodoo dude’s fist…
Chuck / Jeff (who apparently secured this role on account of actor-turned-casting director Werner Pochath’s infatuation with him) gets his say in the extras and comes across as a very likeable bloke, still optimistic about getting a mainstream break (“I’m still breathing, I’ve still got a shot!”) Good for him. In the meantime, he poses with his anatomically correct action figure (shown in modestly clothed mode, above) and reflects sadly on the premature death, via homicide, of his co-star Candice Daly. She’s commemorated in her own micro-interview slot and you also get some “making of” footage.
Severin’s BD transfer looks every bit as good as we’ve come to expect and rounding out the extras, Fragasso and his work / life partner Rossella Drudi argue that screen zombies represent the growing immigrant / refugee underclass (well, maybe…) and – more compellingly – that the “fast moving zombie” furrow that has been so lucratively harvested by The Living Dead et al was originally ploughed by them and Umberto Lenzi… whom they eventually concede did it first, in 1980, with Nightmare City.
In certain markets, Nightmare City has been roped into alternatively numbered “Zombi” sequences along with the likes of Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagous and Absurd, Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust, Tonino Ricci’s piss-awful Panic, and even Jess Franco’s Virgin Among The Living Dead and Revenge In The House Of Usher….
… and still they keep on coming.