Our latest cautionary tale on the consequences of tampering in God’s domain begins in the labyrinthine catacombs somewhere underneath a remote tropical island. Here, as one of his flock gesticulates all around him, a voodoo priest (Sampson) consults the Book of the Dead and puts the finishing touches on his spell, which causes a preternatural discharge of energy from the book, which is then consumed by the dancer; his wife. And as she vomits up a copious amount of goo and goes into some hysterical convulsions, the woman then gets sucked into a pit of doom, which causes everything to quiver and quake.
Meantime, a group of armed scientists are currently sweeping through the catacombs looking for the priest -- who also serves as the island native’s chieftain, hoping to stop him from whatever he’s up to. Seems the secluded island was taken over by a conclave of scientists, medical experts, chemists, and clinical researchers, who established a colony and tried to combine western science with the “arcane principles” of black magic to find cures for countless maladies, including cancer, and maybe, just maybe, conquer death itself.
Well, they defied Hell and Hell has accepted the challenge, raves the priest when this armed posse, about a half-dozen total, finally find him and beg him to stop -- by force if necessary. But it’s already too late, as he’s summoned “nightmares that will feed on their intestines” to avenge the death of his daughter, who served as a test case for a new serum to help fight off her leukemia. But not only did this treatment fail, it mutated and caused an epidemic that wiped out most of the island’s native population.
And now, in his quest for revenge, the voodoo priest has just opened the Third Doorway to Hell with this latest spell, which will resurrect the dead to feast upon the living, turning the island into an oasis of flesh-eating zombies, starting with his wife, who crawls back out of the hole, fangs bared, her flesh now sloughing off. Their science can’t help them now, scoffs the priest, right before he’s gunned down. But again, they’re too late as the zombified wife springs into action and makes sure none of these interlopers get out of the catacombs alive. Rather messily.
Meanwhile, as the medical colony is overrun by an army of ghouls, a family of three -- a husband, wife and young daughter, flee into the jungle, hoping to make it to the river, where a boat and apparent safety are waiting. But these are no ordinary zombies, as these undead revenants are sprinters, who retain most of their memories and motor-skills as the family is quickly surrounded.
Pushing his wife and daughter on without him, the husband sacrifices himself to buy them some precious time. But it’s not enough, and as the mother places an amulet around her neck, swearing it will protect her from the zombie curse, she gets the girl to swear to never look back as she screams at her to run. And as the mother is overwhelmed and consumed, the daughter disappears into the apparent safety of the jungle.
Cut to the river, where a motorboat putters along. Aboard are a band of five mercenaries and two young women. Now, as a viewer, you’re probably thinking that this is the boat that family was trying to get to and escape. An honest assumption to be sure. But, nope. You’d be wrong, and one realizes this when we noticed one of the women, the blonde one, Jenny (Daly), is wearing the same taboo amulet around her neck we saw earlier, forcing us to go out on a limb and assume some 20-years have now passed and this is the same person now grown up due to one of thee lousiest passage of time-transitions in screen history.
Sure enough, Jenny and the little girl are one in the same person, but her memories are a little fuzzy as she returns to the island for the first time since escaping all those years ago, whose environs seem awfully familiar to her. (How did she escape? Who the hell knows. It’s f@ckin’ Fragasso, man, you just gotta roll with these plot-holes or you will go mad!) Anyhoo, this group, led by Dan (Gaines), are out exploring this uncharted desert isle to scout locations for a new cannabis grow-up. I think. (Again, the script is a little murky here.) And, assuming further because it’s all we can do, Dan and his partners, Tommy (Wilson), Mads (Moss) and Rod (Nicholson), brought the girls, Jenny and Louise (Josephs), along for … reasons. Then suddenly, the boat engine starts acting up, and they barely make it to shore before it conks out completely.
Meanwhile, out in the jungle, three geologists, David (Vanni), Chuck (Stryker) and Valerie (Name withheld on advice from her lawyers), might be there to study a dormant volcano or they might be there to find out what happened to the lost colony of scientists that disappeared some 20-years ago under dubious circumstances as, once again, the script is having some trouble making up its damned mind. There is some mention of an abandoned lifeboat and a recovered diary recounting what happened back in the day that led them here but it’s pretty much irrelevant as they, well, not-soon-enough stumble upon a cave entrance after a lot of walking around in the jungle -- like, A LOT, a lot, which leads them into the catacombs, where they stumble upon an altar, loaded with lit candles, which surround the clearly and laughably labeled Book of the Dead.
As the failed voice of reason, Valerie can only watch as her two dunderheaded colleagues start thumbing through the book, ignoring her pertinent questions of who lit all those candles, and scoffing at her pleas that maybe they shouldn’t mess with this stuff and just get the hell out of there before it’s too late. Despite her sense of impending doom, Chuck starts reading from the book but chickens out when it comes to uttering the four words that will once more open Hell’s Third Doorway and bring the dead back to life. But David, ever the scientist, must see the experiment through to the end. And sure enough, once he’s done uttering the words, the ground shakes and cracks open all over the island, disgorging its contents, and the dead once more walk the earth, bellies empty, ready to feed...
In the run up to making the long awaited sequel to his cult classic Zombie (1979), director Lucio Fulci made no secret that he openly despised the script for Zombie 3 (1988) penned by the husband and wife team of Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi -- later of Troll 2 (1990) infamy. What happened to Zombie 2, you ask? Hang on, we’ll be addressing that in a bit. Oh, and bring a pencil and paper. You’re gonna need them for notes. Trust me. There's gonna be a quiz.
And so, while filming on location in the Philippines, Fulci essentially chucked the script and made things up as he went along -- which Fragasso took personally. And to add injury to this insult, as the production dragged on and Fulci grew fed up with all the promises his producer, Franco Gaudenzi, had made but failed to deliver on, budget wise, the director essentially half-assed it, turning in a finished movie whose total run time was dominated by the main characters rowing a canoe around as a middle finger to all those broken promises.
Thus, a panicked Gaudenzi had to salvage the film somehow and keep Fulci’s name in the credits. And so, he charged Fragasso to write a new wraparound story they could then plug Fulci’s finished footage into -- sans the canoeing. And to direct this new footage, Gaudenzi recruited Bruno Mattei, who was already in the Philippines shooting Strike Commando 2 (1988) for the producer, who had already shot some second-unit for Fulci on the zombie picture. A little resentful over not being picked to direct Zombie 3 from the get go, Mattei still took the assignment and did his best under trying circumstances as he and his old partner Fragasso tried to salvage things.
Yeah, this wasn’t Mattei and Fragasso’s first rodeo together. No, these two notorious filmmakers first met in the late 1970s, when Fragasso was working as an assistant editor and screenwriter on a couple of cops and crime capers for Mario Bianchi -- Napoli 5 Della Squadra Speciale (1978), Don't Trust the Mafia (1979), where the two hit it off over their mutual love of genre films, launching over a decade of collaboration starting with a duo of nunsploitation flicks: The True Story of the Nun of Monza (1980), a tale of carnal depravity, and The Other Hell (1980), which Fragasso described as Carrie (1977) in a convent.
Both films were shot simultaneously at the same convent and shared both cast and crew to save money. And while Fragasso wrote both scripts he would later claim to have co-directed both films; but Mattei contested this, and always maintained Fragasso only mopped-up with the second unit.
Their next film, Hell of the Living Dead (1980), which was also released as Night of the Zombies in the United States and, later, staked a claim on video along with many others on the title Zombie 4, meaning Fragasso made a Zombie 4 twice. (Again, more on this nonsense in a second.) This also marked the first time Fragasso co-wrote a script with Drudi after the couple were married in 1978. And they would team up again on Women's Prison Massacre (1983), which was a follow up to Mattei and Fragasso’s earlier women in prison romp, Violence in a Women's Prison (1982).
Then, after the post-apocalyptic / nature’s revenge flick Rats: Night of Terror (1984), Fragasso, perhaps a little bitter over Mattei hogging the spotlight, struck out on his own and teamed up with rock-star Alice Cooper and a pack of wild canines for Monster Dog (1984), which he co-wrote with an uncredited Drudi and, finally, took sole directing credit for. After that, it was back to the typewriter as things shifted to the Philippines for a series of action thrillers and zombie flicks for Mattei and Fulci -- Strike Commando (1987), Double Target (1987), and the totally bonkers, Robowar (1988), which mashes up the Predator, Rambo and Robocop and then goes nuts in the jungle. And, of course, Zombie 3.
Now, as his filmmaking career kinda stalled-out working on these genre pictures, Fragasso always blamed this lack of traction on not having the right connections or any family “ins” in the business, which he maintains prevented him from directing both Hell of the Living Dead and mopping things up on Zombie 3 on his own. And it’s not that he didn’t like genre films. Quite the opposite, actually, and he especially loved splatter films, and the more gorier the better in his book, saying, “They were very important to me. The Italian spirit compels us to exaggerate."
Which brings us to the film After Death (1989), which Fragrasso later claimed to be his “personal revenge” on Gaudenzi and Flora Films. See, while mopping up Zombie 3 and Strike Commando 2, Fragasso agreed to make another zombie movie on his own, his way, finally, in the Philippines for half the budget being spent to fix Fulci’s movie. Taking some notions she had on fast-moving zombies that could still function, talk, and shoot guns, Drudi centered the script on an isolated medical experiment on a remote island gone wrong, making their creatures less of a zombie and more of a mutation.
And so, as the legend goes, due to budget constraints that forced them to use the same camera, while Mattei shot the needed pick-ups for Zombie 3 during the day, Fragasso shot After Death at night. But this legend doesn’t hold up as the film plays out, as the first half of the movie takes place during the light of day as those marooned boaters head inland, looking for fresh water, unaware of what’s happened in the catacombs as only Chuck manages to escape while his two companions are caught and consumed.
Meantime, more zombies start to unearth themselves around the island. And one in particular starts spying on this group of castaways. And as these environs start to unsettle Jenny a bit, having felt she’s been here before, as if in a dream, Tommy spots the spy and gives chase, finally running it down near a bubbling sulfur pit. And upon closer inspection, Tommy fears they’ve stumbled upon a leper colony until the disfigured zombie recovers and bites off a good chunk of his neck.
When the others catch up, the zombie is gone and Tommy is mortally wounded. Here, Jenny’s repressed memories have solidified enough to remember the medical outpost where she and her parents had lived. Sharing this info with the others, they haul Tommy there, hoping to find some needed medical supplies. When they arrive at the abandoned compound, Jenny notes all the graves surrounding the site are open and empty.
Inside, they essentially find a crime-scene miraculously still intact these 20-years later (-- Drudi strikes again). But along with all the blood coating the walls, they do find enough material to treat Tommy and Dan finds a cache of automatic weapons, ammo, and several grenades because sure. Meantime, Rod and Jenny find a makeshift altar of candles on a table, all lit, and the girl remembers if she places her amulet in the center of the circle it will prevent the dead from rising.
Arming up, the group of mercenaries start blasting the zombies, who are knocked down by their barrage only to get right back up again. And as the shit really hits the fan, luckily for all involved, Chuck stumbles onto the scene, who discovered during his earlier escape from the catacombs that the only way to stop these creatures is to destroy the head.
Meanwhile, as the firefight rages on, Tommy dies, turns, and attacks Louise. Meantime, Jenny is at the altar trying to relight all the candles Rod blew out. And once they’re all burning, she places the amulet in the center. Sure enough, it works and the zombie swarm freezes in place outside. But inside, for whatever reason, Zombie Tommy is not affected by this juju and destroys the shrine.
And after this brief respite, the zombie attack begins anew. And when Mads is forced to put Zombie Tommy down, an enraged Rod goes berserk and charges into the mass of living dead, where he lasts long enough to let his guard down when he runs into Louise, not realizing she has been turned, too.
And with those two now taking the point of the zombie vanguard, the others manage to start a massive bonfire to keep them at bay long enough for Jenny and Chuck to recap the plot thus far. And once everyone is caught up, Jenny realizes their only hope to get out of this alive is to return to the catacombs and use the amulet to close that Third Doorway to Hell for good.
Well, easier said than done as the night wears on and Mads is drawn out by Zombie Rod, who promises his old friend all it takes is one bite and it doesn’t hurt much -- not much of a price to pay for immortality, he says. But this was all a distraction as several other zombies try to sneak up behind Mads. But he kills all of them, only to be shot by Rod and then bitten.
And in a fairly smart move, Zombie Rod leaves Mads behind as kind of an infected Judas Goat / infectious timebomb for the others to fuss over. Here, Mads makes Dan swear that he will kill him before he turns into one of those things.
Alas, Dan tarries too long, Mads turns and shoots him. And while Chuck and Jenny manage to escape, a mortally wounded Dan draws Zombie Rod, Zombie Louise, Zombie Mads, and the rest of the horde into the hospital proper, where he crawls to that weapons stash, pulls out a grenade, primes it, and then blows them all to kingdom come. But he didn’t get all of them, as Chuck and Jenny must fight their way through the stragglers and escape into the jungle.
They survive the night, and as the sun rises they make their way back into the catacombs, where they find things tidied up after the last massacre and the Book of the Dead right back in the circle of candles. Here, after consulting the book, Jenny removes her amulet and tosses it into the gaping maw in the rock, praying it will close the portal.
But these prayers go unanswered as a zombie springs from nowhere and punches his fist through Chuck’s stomach, killing him, as Jenny’s face slowly disintegrates as she looks into the mouth of hell as the last survivor of the medical colony joins the ranks of the living dead at long last.
In later interviews Fragasso stated After Death was made “under extreme duress” during the shoot in the Philippines, where he remained awake, pulling double-duty, through the entire two-week shoot of the film. And with one final middle finger to Gaudenzi and Flora Films, Fragasso turned over his rough-cut of After Death knowing full well it fell well short of the standard feature length, just like Fulci had done on Zombie 3, forcing the producer to film additional scenes to shore up the feature’s running time.
This explains away the opening sequence in the catacombs with the voodoo priest and the scientists, which don’t even come close to matching the environs we see later as these scenes were shot in Rome on the sets built for Michele Soavi’s The Church (1989), which began life as another sequel to Umberto Lenzi’s Demons (1985) and Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2 (1986). And I’m guessing they also borrowed some make-up effects from the other film, which explains why the initial monster resembles a fanged demon-infected host with a drooling problem than the zombies we see later in the film. In fact, I’m not sure they were supposed to be zombies at all but mutated plague victims. Have I mentioned Drudi’s script is a little vague on the details?
Most of the cast were promoted stuntmen with two notable exceptions. Candace Daly got the part of Jenny only because her boyfriend, Brent Huff, missed her badly. See, Huff was the lead actor in Strike Commando 2, and when he got wind of what Fragasso was doing he suggested Candace for the role in After Death to get her to the Philippines for a reunion. Despite theconstant 99-degree temperatures and 99-percent humidity, in a later supplemental interview Daly claimed it was an overall fun experience and enjoyed her time in the gruesome make-up for the finale. Sadly, after a lengthy stint on the daytime soap The Young and the Restless, Daly was found dead in her apartment of an apparent drug overdose, though the case remains open according to several sources.
And then we have “Chuck Peyton” who was really the legendary gay porn actor, Jeff Stryker. Describing himself as “sexually universal” Stryker refused to define his sexual orientation. And after tiring of the porn scene he made an attempt to go legit with Joe D’Mato’s Dirty Love (1988) and After Death. Apparently, there was a bit of a language barrier on set. In a later interview, Stryker hilariously referred to Fragasso as Francis Ford Fragasso in reference to Coppola’s time in the Philippines shooting Apocalypse Now (1979). A lot of the Filipinos who worked on both films worshiped Fragasso because he treated them with respect unlike Coppola. These extras were paid $1 a day, $3 if they pulled off a stunt, and $5 if they would set themselves on fire.
When it was finally slapped and dashed together and dubbed over, Oltre la morte / After Death was released in Italy in 1990. But it wasn’t until its release on DVD in 2002 before it was reclassified as Zombie 4: After Death, joining a myriad others in staking a claim to that dubious designation.
Now, myself and many others have tried to explain the convoluted history of the Italian zombie movie oeuvre. For, thanks to a quirk in Italian copyright law, which allowed anyone to pass anything off as a sequel to an existing film without getting sued out of existence, compounded by video companies also trying to cash-in, the official unofficial count of sequels to Fulci’s Zombie, which was an unofficial sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) -- and more specifically, Dario Argento’s cut, which was released as Zombi, which technically makes Fulci’s film Zombi 2, later released as Zombie in the States, which is why the sequel to Zombie was labeled Zombie 3 even though there never was a Zombie 2, and … Wait. Where was I going with this?
Confused? Me, too! Man, trying to keep all that straight really makes my head hurt. And it gets worse, as the point I was trying to make is over the years no less than 14-films staked a claim to being a sequel to Zombi 2 / Zombie: Andrea Bianchi's Burial Ground (1981) was released on video as Zombi 3: Nights of Terror; and Marino Girolami's Zombie Holocaust (1980) used both aliases of Zombi 3 and Doctor Butcher M.D; and José Luis Merino’s The Hanging Woman (1973) also later passed as Zombie 3: Return of the Living Dead; and as I mentioned earlier Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead circulated as both Zombie 3: Zombie Inferno AND as Zombi 4. Not to mention Jess Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), also, you guessed it, released as Zombi 4.
Other notable films claiming to part of the franchise: Zombi 5 -- Revenge in the House of Usher (1982), Killing Birds (1987); Zombi 6 -- Absurd (1986); Zombi 7 -- Anthropophagus (1980), Zombie 90: Extreme Pestilence (1990). You get the idea. Basically, take the number 14 and multiply it by six and you’ll finally have the true scope of the number of films somebody claimed to be part of this franchise over the years.
Circling back to Zombie 4: After Death, I freely admit I am not the biggest fan of Fragasso and find his films uniformly awful -- and not in a so bad they’re good way. I had heard nothing but terrible things about this film, which is why I kinda avoided it over the years until finally taking the plunge for you all this year. You're welcome. But I have to say, aside from that blundering transition at the beginning, this wasn’t THAT terrible of a film-watching experience. It’s a little too repetitive for its own good in spots, and that pisser of an ending kind of missed the mark and has no real emotional impact because the characters are barely ciphers. But, there were some interesting ideas at play here, the grue is fine and dandy, and the action blunt but engaging, making Zombie 4: After Death the notable exception that proves the rule when it comes to Fragasso doing his usual Fragasso thing in my book. Go figure. Me? I’ll chalk it up to the lack of sleep. His, not mine. Or maybe both. I don't know, it's been a really long month.
What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! And that is THAT! 26 films up, 26 reviews down! Hope you enjoyed the reads, Boils and Ghouls. And until we meet again, Happy Hallowe'en!
Zombie 4: After Death (1989) Flora Film :: Severin :: Shriek Show / EP: Mimmo Scavia / P: Franco Gaudenzi / D: Claudio Fragasso / W: Rossella Drudi / C: Luigi Ciccarese / E: Maurizio Baglivo / M: Al Festa / S: Jeff Stryker, Candice Daly, Massimo Vanni, Jim Gaines, Don Wilson, Adrianne Joseph, Jim Moss, Nick Nicholson, James Sampson