After making his classic giallo "Don't Torture A Duckling", Lucio Fulci turned to the Western/Adventure genre for his next few films. His "White Fang" was quite a big success in Italy, spawning a number of sequels - one of which was also directed by Fulci. In 1975 Fulci made what some people are beginning to see as one of his best films: "Four Of The Apocalypse". This was another entry in the Spaghetti Western genre, coming near the end of its popularity. The film is typical of many of Fulci's seventies offerings: sporadic bursts of extreme violence and cruelty are contrasted with a world-weary poetic sensibility that emphasis the human need for love and the price that has to be paid because of that love's often fragile nature.
The film was actually inspired by the short stories of the Nineteenth Century American writer, Francis Brette Harte, whose work was set in, and captured the flavour of the mining camps and small towns that sprang up in the years following the Californian Gold Rush of 1849. Scriptwriter Ennio De Concini, structures the film as a series of episodes, some of which revolve around situations from Harte's stories, such as "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and "The Luck Of Roaring Camp", while the brutal elements incorporated into the film seem more indicative of Fulci's influence.
Professional card shark, Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi) arrives in the town of Salt Flat, Utah to ply his "trade", but immediately finds himself under scrutiny from the local sheriff who throws him into the slammer for the night. Unfortunately, the Sheriff has also just employed the services of some masked bandits to clear out the town of its criminal element, and a massacre ensues that leaves the place virtually deserted. Stubby pays off the Sheriff to let him, and the other three strangers he was imprisoned with, go free - and the four of them set out into the bandit infested, lawless frontier, hoping to reach the neighbouring Sand City. Accompanying Stubby on the journey are pregnant prostitute Bunny O'Neill (Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Michael J. Pollard), and Bud (Harry Baird), a madman who talks to dead people. Soon they meet up with a fifth member: the mysterious Chaco (Tomas Milian); at first he appears friendly, but when Stubby witnesses him torturing a man who, initially, appeared to be part of a group of bandits that attacked the group, he becomes suspicious. These suspicions are soon borne out and Chaco turns his sadistic impulses on the four travelers, leaving them to die, tied up in the desert frontier after first drugging and raping Bunny and then making off with their supplies and wagon to join his bandit colleagues. The remainder of the film details the struggles and hardships the group have to endure to stay alive, and the bond that grows between them as they wander the desert and witness firsthand the violence of the lawless frontier.
The violence in the film is as graphic as has come to be expected by Fulci fans, but there is not that much of it and I suspect that more than a few viewers may be climbing the walls with frustration after half an hour or so of this slow-moving, but quite beguiling little film. In fact, I remember reading an online review from an irate gore-hound who complained that the film was nothing but "an hour-and-a-half of people wandering around in the desert". It's certainly true that there is very little plot and a lot of wandering about — but this is a very moving film which is more about the emotional development of the Stubby character (thanks to his experiences with the other three travelers, whom he is bound to through circumstance) than a shoot-em-up-style western. The episodic structure of the film leads to a certain disjointedness at times: we never find out how Stubby and the gang untie themselves after being left bound up by Chaco, for instance. We simply cut to them making a campfire and contemplating their next move - with no indication given as to how they extricated themselves. Still, I wasn't too bothered by this kind of thing; the emphasis is on the evolving relationships between the characters due to their struggles -- and the situations they encounter only matter in so far as they have relevance to this theme. We see how four characters, who are either outcasts from society (a prostitute, a drunk and a madman) or who are alone for more selfish reasons (Stubby the self-centred gambler) coming to depend on each other and forging relationships of love and friendship. But -- this being a film by Fulci (that old misanthropist!) vengeance becomes the dominant emotion when these relationships are disrupted and broken by the evil intentions of Chaco.
Tomas Milian's role as Chaco is pretty much a cameo. He's not in it that much - but makes a very big impression with his on screen brutality! Judging by his interview on the featurette (the main extra with this disc) he's quite a garrulous character who's rather full of himself but quite an entertaining interviewee nonetheless. The scene where he rapes a pregnant woman (Lynne Frederick's character, Bunny) is on a par with Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini in "Blue Velvet" for its squirm inducing value. especially as, in her drugged state, the prostitute seems to automatically respond in a sexual way to his molestation. Not pretty viewing, but very well acted by both parties. Scenes like this, and others where he tortures or humiliates people, give the character a much greater impact than his limited screen time would normally lead you to expect.
Side by side with these more disturbing elements (which include a touch of cannibalism at one point - no zombies involved!) we have the more touching, humane aspects that we don't normally associate with Fulci. In particular, an episode set in a snowbound, all-male town entirely populated with ex-miners, who end up finding themselves helping to deliver Bunny's baby. The film can totter precariously on the edge of sentimentality at times like these, but we never quite topple into Little House On The Prairie territory -- principally because Fulci always manages to add just enough of his pessimistic outlook to the proceedings to avert disaster! The ending is rather ambivalent because the likeable Fabio Testi character may have grown in maturity but he has also become more ruthless and vengeful as a result of having to deal with a great loss.
The soundtrack music has caused mixed feelings among viewers. There are several country-rock-style tunes, with lyrics that comment on the character's actions and events in the film -- they're a bit fay and drippy, often making Simon & Garfunkle sound like Ramstein by comparison -- but, as they appear in the film, they work quite well. I also noticed that one of these songs can be heard playing on the radio in a scene from "City Of The Living Dead" which Fulci made five years later.
Anchor Bay have released the film uncut -- with a couple of scenes previously censored now restored. As with their "Deep Red" disc, they have used the Italian soundtrack, together with English subtitles for these scenes, since no English track now exists. The transfer is fairly solid although some grain and a few vertical lines can be discerned sporadically throughout the movie. The audio is an adequate mono track.
Extras-wise we get the usual biographies and a rather naff trailer, but also a great Blue Underground produced featurette consisting of interviews with Milian and Testi. Both actors seem to have great respect for Fulci but Milian can be a bit rude about his fellow actors! He is amusing to listen to though, and the disc contains an Easter egg which consists of one of Milian's anecdotes.
"Four Of The Apocalypse" is a sweet and sometimes lyrical character study punctuated by bouts of graphic brutality. Essential for Fulci's fans but gore-hounds will end up being disappointed.