Written by: Rossella Drudi
Directed by: Claudio Fragasso
Starring: Jeff Stryker, Candice Daly and Massimo Vanni
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I'll persecute you after I'm dead--I'll come looking for you and feed on your intestines--I'll be in your nightmares!"
If there’s one golden rule about Italian horror cinema, it’s “anything that can be ripped off, will be ripped off--multiple times.” Sometimes, distributors would even take the derivative products and slap on familiar titles to market them as sequels, which is exactly how we ended up with three movies purporting to be Demons 3. So it followed with the Zombie series, which is probably the best example of the trend. Starting with Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead (re-branded as Zombi in Italy), it was followed up with an equally essential classic in Fulci’s Zombi 2 (re-branded as Zombie in the States). After this, the quality rots faster than a walking corpse, as Zombie 3 ended up being one of the most nondescript works in the Maestro’s career, and Zombie 5: Killing Birds is quite possibly one of the worst movies you’ll ever see. Sandwiched in between is Zombie 4: After Death, which is definitely the best zombie film to feature its own power ballad.
Because it just can’t wait to get to the flesh-eating, a voice-over narration during the opening credits informs us that a bunch of scientists have retreated to a remote island to tackle the mystery of death, specifically cancer. The opening scene hints that shit went bad involving a voodoo priest’s daughter, which results in the witch doctor literally raising hell and unleashing a horde of undead. Only a young girl manages to escape the island (don’t ask me how this is even possible), and, by sheer coincidence returns twenty years later, though the film literally gives you no indication of this--we cut straight from the little girl wandering off to an establishing shot of a boat. In the boat is the now grown-up girl and a group of friends that’s apparently comprised of a couple of mercenaries and other typically feeble-brained doofuses. They must be on vacation or something (Who knows? I don't think the screenwriter did either), but fate has different plans, as their boat stalls on the doomed island, where another group of researchers are already there along with the still walking dead.
Helmed by one of Italy’s minor schlock-masters, Claudio Fragasso (who did work on the likes of Hell of The Living Dead and Troll 2, so your expectations should now be swiftly buckled into check), Zombie 4 is a hot mess of mozzarella that barely passes muster as an actual movie. Italian cheese veterans will feel right at home with the nausea-inducing zooms, the flagrantly bad dubbing, and the overall cheap production (there’s literally only a couple of set pieces). Hell, Fragrasso can barely frame some shots in competent fashion, as characters’ heads are constantly butting up against the top of the frame, probably because he simply didn’t care (much like the audience for this sort of thing). Toss in the gonzo, almost jangly score and a slipshod narrative, and you’ve got exactly what you’d expect from the third film to capitalize on the Zombie moniker.
All of that points to potential audiences falling into an irrecoverable, hellish abyss of despair, but the initiated will find nary a dull moment peppered in. From that opening sequence (which features one of the most deranged looking scientists I’ve ever seen) that climaxes in a wild voodoo woman emerging from a pit (which is later confirmed to be a door to hell) to the various zombie attacks, Zombie 4’s action is rather relentless at times. The few dull stretches even manage to have absurd payoffs because none of these people act like actual human beings, probably because they’re (well, their voice over actors) are forced to spout ridiculous dialogue and do stupid things, such as reading an incantation from a Book of the Dead that will unloose hell. If a zombie flick can somehow still manage to be interesting despite the title characters not being around, it’s succeeded; I mean, Zombie 4 might only be intriguing because it’s a cinematic train wreck, but boredom is hardly an issue. You’d swear Fragasso was doing this stuff on purpose considering his career trajectory.
Zombie 4 reveals its tawdriness at nearly every turn--it features a porn star (Jeff Stryker) as one of its leads, the film stock looks like it was dragged out of a dusty warehouse, the lighting is paltry, and the zombies are a bit nondescript (outside of their ability to talk and move swiftly), especially when compared to the great designs of previous efforts. The most telling moment perhaps comes when one of the guys informs the group that the undead are arriving “by the hundreds,” which ends up resembling “dozens” when we see the sparse, straggling throng gathered outside. But no expense is spared when it counts--in the gut munching, flesh-tearing, and throat-ripping gore set-pieces. Even Fragasso’s lens is right on point here and captures the eviscerations in all of their glory. Occasionally, he also manages some other decent visuals, such as some of the more ethereally-lit sequences set in decrepit caves and such.
As this film is essentially an unending series of people running from and shooting zombies, one can hardly expect much beyond the gruesome spectacle and abject silliness. The latter is best personified by Al Festa’s very unexpected theme song; though the mush-mouthed delivery precludes me from figuring out any of the lyrics beyond the howling chorus of “leeeeeving after death,” I think it’s safe to say that this is probably the best thing ever to come from 80s hair metal. Like the Italian horror industry, that musical movement was on its last legs in ‘89, and here they’re married, with their honeymoon being a one way trip to hell. Shriek Show at least rescued Zombie 4 from the depths of obscurity by releasing it on DVD a few years back; their disc is fine, though the anamorphic transfer isn’t exactly the sharpest or most vibrant around. Likewise, the mono soundtrack isn’t spectacular, but it gets the job done, and the lone extra is an interview with Fragasso. It’s kind of a paltry offering, so definitely pick it up as part of the first Zombie Pack issued by Shriek Show, where it’s joined by its other two non-sequels (which means, yes, there’s a DVD set out there where Zombie 4 is somehow the best movie to be found).
Italian horror has an incredible range; a lot of it is genuinely brilliant, while some are hideously so. Zombie 4 falls into the latter category, as it’s one of the better terrible movies that industry spewed out in its vomitous insistence on ripping off every trend--even when it was shambling on its last, rotting legs.
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