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FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (or THE FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE to give it its full title) was released in 1975, towards the very end of the 'spaghetti western' boom. It was Fulci's second stab at the western genre, his first being 1966's MASSACRE TIME (aka 'Colt Concert'). Two years later he made his third and final contribution in the form of SILVER SADDLE, by far the lesser of the three.
The film is set in 1873, and the action opens in the small town of Salt Flats, in Utah. Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi), a card shark, arrives in town only to be promptly arrested by the sheriff (Dr Butcher MD himself, Donald O'Brien). After unsuccessfully attempting to bribe him, he is thrown into jail, along with three other prisoners; a prostitute called Bunny (Lynne Frederick); a black man called Bud (Harry Baird); and the town drunk, Clem (Michael J Pollard). Whilst they are relaxing in jail a group of masked men take up positions in the town, surrounding the entrance to the saloon. A massacre ensues, whilst the sheriff calmly continues to eat his tea. In the morning the sheriff takes them out into the town and explains that the massacre was a pre-arranged vigilante attack, intended to clear the town of bad characters. In effect, he chose to save the four of them by putting them in jail overnight. In payment, he takes all of Stubby's cash and gives them a scruffy old horse-drawn wagon.
The four set out into the desert, before long meeting a travelling caravan of religious people. It turns out that Bunny is quite heavily pregnant, and not feeling too good. Later they meet a strange bandit called Chaco (Tomas Milian), who falls in with them, catching animals for them to eat. Three men ride after them, and Chaco shoots them all before torturing one of them, much to the disgust of Stubby. That night, Chaco gives the four a strange drug to chew and paints crosses on his cheeks, below his eyes. He makes Clem act like a dog, before bribing him with alcohol to tie up the other three. In the morning, Chaco rapes Bunny; Stubby vows to kill him. When Clem tries to stop Chaco leaving in the wagon, Chaco shoots him in the leg. Clem unties the rest of them and they set off once again with Clem on a stretcher, though they soon realise Chaco is following them with two other bandits. Just when it seems they have been caught up, Chaco is distracted by the bible caravan from earlier. The caravan is wiped out and Stubby vows for a second time that he will kill Chaco
FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE is a strange beast – not your typical western, and certainly not your typical Fulci film. After three very successful years between 1969 and 1972 (during which he directed ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER (1969), BEATRICE CENCI (1969), and two of the all-time best gialli A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971) and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972)), Fulci entered a bit of a dry patch that would last until the release in 1979 of ZOMBIE, which heralded a second three year patch in which he would produce the rest of his best work. FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE and SEVEN NOTES IN BLACK (1977) are really the only films from this seven year period that reminded viewers what Fulci was capable of. Many fans consider it Fulci's best western, though my vote would go to the technically rougher and more genre-typical MASSACRE TIME. FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE is loosely based on the writings of Bret Harte, a nineteenth century American pulp writer. The title is obviously a throwaway reference to the biblical 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse', and it's interesting that the packaging of the film (including the original Italian poster) implies that the 'four' referred to in the title are Stubby, Clem, Bunny and Chaco. In fact, this makes little sense and the four must be Stubby, Clem, Bunny and Bud.
The film is often referred to as being very violent, and one could be forgiven for expecting the film to be to westerns what CONTRABAND/THE NAPLES CONNECTION (1980) is to the violent crime thriller. Sadly, this is not the case. There is only one scene in which Fulci even approaches his usual level of unpleasantness, and this is the oft-censored but brief scene in which Chaco tortures a sheriff. Having said that, there is a fairly unpleasant (especially when one considers that the victim is heavily pregnant) rape scene, and some over-the-top gunshot wounds at the beginning. As with the chain-whipping scene in DUCKLING and the dog dream sequence in LIZARD, these act as telling signs of the excesses that were to come in Fulci's later work.
What is more interesting about the film is the casting, and some of the photography. This film marked the first collaboration between Fulci and Director of Photography Sergio Salvati. After FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE, Salvati worked with Fulci on 9 of his next 10 films up to HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981) (The only one he didn't act as DP on was 1976's little-seen 'La Pretora'). After parting company with Salvati, Fulci directed THE NEW YORK RIPPER and MANHATTAN BABY (both 1982), arguably his last significant films. As such, it can be seen that Salvati was very important to Fulci's success during this second boom period. FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE is very well photographed and includes a very surreal scene in which Bunny and Stubby leave Bud, the blackman, in a deserted town. Bud is crazy, believing that he can see and talk to dead people, and chooses to remain in the town with its large cemetery, rather than go on travelling. As Stubby and Bunny leave the town, Stubby speculates on whether Bud is hiding, watching them. The camera peeks out from behind old windows and holes in walls as Stubby gestures towards them, creating a spatial dislocation that leaves the viewer with an odd feeling.
The star of the film is Fabio Testi as Stubby. Testi will be familiar to most viewers thanks to his roles as the professor in Massimo Dallamano's classic giallo WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1971) and as the titular smuggler in Fulci's THE SMUGGLER / CONTRABAND. He puts in a very solid performance here, making his loveable rogue character work well. Tomas Milian will also be familiar, thanks to his many roles in Euro westerns (most notably the infamous DJANGO KILL! (1967, Guilio Questi), FACE TO FACE (1967, Sergio Sollima and LOS COMPANEROS (1970, Sergio Corbucci)), as well as many of Umberto Lenzi and Bruno Corbucci's violent crime thrillers. He also appeared in a small role in Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING and in a larger role in BEATRICE CENCI. Fulci apparently regarded BEATRICE CENCI and FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE as his best films, and it's probably no coincidence that Milian stars in both of them. He plays Chaco with relish, making him a Charles Manson style bad guy. As with a lot of his roles in Italian films at the time, he only showed up for five days of shooting, but Fulci manages to get good mileage out of him none-the-less. The supporting cast are also interesting; Bunny is played by Lynne Frederick, who is best known for having been married to Peter Sellers. She's not strikingly attractive, and it has to be said that she is somewhat annoying in this part. Harry Baird does quite a good job with his small, slightly stereotypical role as the crazy black guy, and Michael J Pollard is very good as Clem, the drunk, though he is strangely reminiscent of Evan Jones' character 'Cheddar Bob' in the Eminem film 8 MILE (2002)!
One other aspect of the film I should comment on is the music. This is primarily made up of hippy-esque ballads describing the action ("Moooooving on, through the desert guided by the sun
.") and is rather badly dated. Interestingly, another latter-day western, KEOMA (1976, Enzo G Castellari), also features annoying songs, though they're considerably more of an irritation in that film. Having said all that, the music is very notable for one reason: this was the first time that Fabio Frizzi worked with Fulci. Frizzi will need to introduction to Fulci fans, having contributed the classic scores to ZOMBIE, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) and THE BEYOND (1981), as well as others. He's not solely responsible for the music in FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE though, Franco Bixio and Vince Tempera being his collaborators (they also worked together on many other films, including the scores for several other Fulci films).
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film for me though is the extended sequence involving the birth of Bunny's child. I can't think of any other Fulci film that contains a comparable sequence, and it's atypical in the extreme for a director who is so often accused of misogyny and a lack of emotion in his work. Around 20 minutes of the film's 104 minute runtime is taken up with these scenes, and they are all the more surprising for the way in which they are set. Bunny and Stubby meet a travelling reverend familiar to Stubby just as she is going into labour. They travel to the nearest town, which is made up only of men and is inexplicably snowbound. These hardened prospectors are initially very reluctant to help with the birth but by the time the baby is born are completely transformed by the experience. These scenes are twee, corny, clichéd and pretty hard to believe, given Fulci's pedigree
yet he gets away with it, or very nearly.
Overall then, it's a mixed verdict. Fulci perhaps tried to do something different with this film, avoiding the usual generic formula for spaghetti westerns, right down to not even staging a proper climactic shootout and including the aforementioned birthing scenes. There are positive things to say about the film as well as negative, but I have to say that I'm surprised by the very high esteem that the film is held in by many Fulci fans. On the evidence of Fulci's three westerns it's fair to say that this wasn't really his genre, and that he was definitely better off sticking with the horror and giallo films that have rightly made his name.
Anchor Bay's DVD is excellent. The transfer is as good as we've come to expect from them and the film is presented in 16x9 enhanced widescreen. There is a trailer, biographies and an interesting 15 minute featurette that sees Testi and Milian discussing their roles in the film and their relationships with each other, and with Fulci. Note that there are two very brief scenes for which the film reverts to Italian (with subtitles), as these were never dubbed into English (as with the TORSO and DEEP RED DVD's).