Four of the Apocalypse is a 1975 spaghetti western film directed by noted horror director Lucio Fulci. And it’s unlike any film I’ve ever seen.
I am a huge fan of spaghetti westerns. As a teenager I fell in love with the big three by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). While those are probably the most satisfying and well done, there are literally hundreds of others to explore. A few dozen of them are great and worth your time. Unfortunately, once producers saw a successful genre they milked it too deep. Putting out so many mediocre-to-bad spaghetti westerns killed the genre for a long time.
I had already been a fan of Lucio Fulci’s horror films. He became known as the ‘Godfather of Gore’ in the 70’s and 80’s and earned that moniker from such great films as The Beyond, Zombi, and The House by the Cemetery. When I learned he dabbled in various other genres including spaghetti westerns, I quickly tracked this film down and gave it a watch.
Honestly, I kind of hated this film when I first watched it. I imagine that was because I went in with expectations of a gore-fest like his other films, and/or I expected a gritty revenge tale in the style of Death Rides a Horse or the original Django. I found it very unsatisfying and the music irritating. Four of the Apocalypse in indeed an odd movie. Some would call it batshit crazy.
Here’s the description from the back of the Blue Underground DVD release:
Having survived a vigilante slaughter, four hard-luck strangers – gambler Stubby Preston, a pregnant prostitute, the town drunk, and a madman who sees dead people – escape into the lawless frontier. But when they meet a sadistic bandit named Chaco, the four are plunged into a nightmare of torture, brutality, and beyond. In a land that screams with the pain of the damned, can four lost souls find redemption and revenge?
Yeah I guess that is the basic description of the plot, but it’s much more than that. I can’t tell if Fulci wanted to just mess with our expectations of his film, or if he was trying for a more surreal and emotional classic quest story. The film at times feels like a road film, other times a pseudo-love story, a horror film, or even an exploitation flick. Normally this tonal change would sink a movie, but somehow I think that it works here. They are all flawed, anti-heroes that end up meeting a truly sinister and evil antagonist in Chaco.
One of the strongest performances, and a compelling reason to watch this film, is Tomas Milian’s role as Chaco. He exudes menace and malice with every squinty dusty glare. He based this character in part on Charles Manson. Scraggly hair, wild eyes, unpredictable, and sadistic. He clicks his ring against his Winchester rifle like a nervous rattlesnake about to pounce on a desert mouse. He draws crosses underneath his eyes in a completely striking and original move. He gives all four miscreants peyote and ties everyone up. He tortures a captive just for the sake of torturing them, rapes a character, kills many many people, and basically seems to have an agenda of chaos. Most recently, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow seems to have taken much visual inspiration from Chaco. Much like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now, his character doesn’t actually have all that much screen time, but he is talked about and feared and reacted to for the entire movie. And his presence dominates any scene that he is in.
If the film was more hallucinatory and symbolic, it would give Alejandro Jodorowsky a run for his money. I was definitely reminded of El Topo and The Holy Mountain at times. But then the opening scene has great slow-motion shootouts with bloody squibs a la the great Sam Peckinpah. Parts in the middle of the film feel like a horror movie. The snowy landscapes bring to mind McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Great Silence. The love story reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This movie is all over the place. Maybe Fulci was inspired and intentionally mixing it all up. Maybe he was lost and didn’t really have storyboards or all the details worked out. Maybe he and the entire cast were drinking and drugging in the desert making it up as they went. All possibilities are valid.
Don’t watch is as a spaghetti western. Watch it as a mythic quest film. I think then the chance of disappointment would be lessened. Upon my second viewing, all the characters are archetypes and antiheroes desperately trying to escape a torturous and insane antagonist. Their surreal journey across the harsh desert will bring redemption, death, life, madness, and revenge, among other things.
One criticism is the music. Indeed there are numerous folk songs that, by today’s standards, seem to distract from the story. I hated the music the first time I watched it. Some of the songs have the exact vocal effects and style as 70’s Pink Floyd. Which makes sense since Dark Side of the Moon came out a couple years prior to this film and sold a bazillion copies. And, just like Keoma, another spaghetti western with questionable music, some of the songs actually are narrating the action on the screen. That’s a hard narrative choice to pull off without sounding corny.
But it was the 70’s and music like that was huge. It wouldn’t be any stranger than a current film using current bands and styles on their soundtrack. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out a few years prior to this movie, and I don’t love their use of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. Some of the most successful album-oriented-rock acts then were artists like The Carpenters, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Eagles, etc. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Keoma, Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, and Django all use folksy acoustic music. So go into it knowing that this film is of its time, and it has some interesting music to show it.
But on the good side, this film is unusual and takes you to areas you didn’t expect to go. Which I love. One of the best scenes is when Bud is walking around naked in the rain talking to tombstones in the graveyard as if the people were there and could hear him. I’ve never seen something like that happen in any other movie. Another striking scene is when a small town comprised entirely of men all stop and react to the sound of a baby crying after being born. No baby had been born in the town prior, people had only died. The way the men rally around and celebrate that new life is touching, and something very unusual in movies, let alone a spaghetti western. Finding out the fate of the church caravan is very well framed and directed. I noticed a group of baby goats walking over to the corpse of their Mama goat when I watched it this week. What a subtle detail that probably took several takes and intricate staging.
The cinematography is gorgeous and gives us creepy spiderwebbed rooms in an abandoned church. The director caught heat wave ripples in the air above the mountains when the band of four trudges across the wilderness. Images of the group carrying one person on a stretcher across the cracked desert playa are beautiful. It’s a surreal and almost nihilistic film where you’re just rooting for the least evil character. At times I feel like the film, and director Fulci, are actually sneering at us. When the film first came out it was apparently censored or banned in some regions due to some graphic violent scenes. By today’s standards it would only be rated R, or even a hard PG-13, but the subject matter and oppressive tone and dread certainly can add to it’s reputation. It is stark, violent, and disturbing stuff, to be sure. But I think marketing the DVD in this way does a disservice because then we except some horrific scenes of brutal graphic violence like in Fulci’s horror films. And what we get instead is a very unusual and actually poetic spaghetti western that will keep you on edge if you let yourself be drawn into it.
I’m a big fan of the final confrontation amidst shaving cream, blood, and a straight razor. This film stands alone in its greatness. I actually think that is is Fulci’s best film. Join the group of strange anitheroes on their quest across the desert of hell.