Zombie 3 (aka, Zombi 3) (Lucio Fulci, 1988) & Zombie 4: After Death (aka, Zombie 4) (Claudio Fragasso, 1989)
I know the standard way to approach these 80’s ‘last gasp’ Italian horror entries, where diminishing budgets, as well as infiltration by less quality filmmaking talents, supplanting the vibrant go-for-broke directors at the heights of their creativity from the previous decade, were choking the last bits of vibrancy and power from the country’s genre efforts, is to stand back, point and smugly laugh at, say, how silly the acting and dialogue are, or how badly the gore gags are executed, but… in this case… I don’t know.
When I contrast the pure visceral pleasure of experiencing the first two “Zombie” efforts — those bold, vibrant and in-your-face visions from two horror legends working at the highest levels of their craft, unapologetically ramming the audiences right in the kisser with their juicily gory, unapologetic dark (and, let’s be clear, entirely auteur-driven) visions, with the original 1978 George A. Romero classic, the colorful zombie-mall-siege film Dawn of the Dead (the first Zombi that started the craze), or Lucio Fulci’s much sweatier and darkly morbid Caribbean Island-set (pretend) sequel from 1979, Zombie (otherwise known as Zombi 2 in Italy, named as such not because it had anything to do with the Romero entry, but – in typical Italo-exploitation style — as an opportunistic cash grab) — with these two later paltry, harried efforts, putting on full display not only the sadly diminishing creative returns from the once mighty Italo-maestro Fulci, but the considerably inferior talents of the types of bar-lowering hacks (namely, the infamous Bruno S.S. Extermination Love Camp Mattei and equally as infamous Claudio Troll 2 Fragasso) happy to shamelessly grind away in the genre that, by that time, was allowing barely any room for creativity, I kinda find it all a bit… well.. depressing.
Not to say these aren’t historical/cultural curios of some interest (and one of the films is certainly better than the other) for a genre-obsessive like myself (with me being of the type capable of discerning quality, yet gluttonous enough to see it all regardless), with both films Philippines-produced (a country where, as a few voices make clear on the Severin bluray extras, the opportunistic westerners came to the quick realization that life and limb are cheap, as the sight of a desperate local unceremoniously carted off with some agonizing broken limb, the dire result of treacherously attempting an unsafe stunt for whatever financial crumbs were dangled before him, immediately replaced by the next temporarily-healthy body willing to put himself in harm’s way, was not a rare one), coming out almost a full decade after the massive international success of Fulci’s grimy masterpiece that arguably single-handedly exploded the international market with an unforgettable gore-strewn Italo-zombie explosion… they are (curios of historical/culture interest, that is)… but, alas, these two particular entries are also a pretty stark indication of the last gasps of the cycle (incredibly cheesy 80’s theme songs and all).
With a catalyst of the ‘zombie’ outbreak coming from the breaking out by an enemy foreign agent (in one of the many scenes of entirely inept action staging) – and ensuing leak — of a top-secret military biological weapon (named, with the same level of subtlety as the rest of the film, as ‘Death One’) lifted directly from 1985’s also Romero-inspired (though with a far more decidedly cheeky and rebelliously comic flavor) ‘zombie’ effort, the mostly (and deservedly) fan-appreciated Return of the Living Dead, Zombie 3 is set on a remote tropical island, sparsely populated by a few scattered Western tourists (enough to gather together and be the stars of the film), a lot of fascistic gun-toting military guys (the non-zombie bad guys) and the local population (the uber-cheap labor, there to perform the limb-breaking stunt fodder when not licking their wounds and dressing up as part of the faceless zombie horde) – Zombie 3 is a non-stop cavalcade of references from other horror films, mostly the more successful (and decidedly better) ones from the 80’s.
A lot like Bava’s Demons
There’s the pus-spewing ‘running ghouls’ (‘Zombies, you say? Running?? ‘Balderdash, I say!’), who with a skin-tear from their claw or a bite from their sharp teeth lead to infection… death… and – presto! – another ghoul, creature derived directly from the titular theater-marauding ones (only without the supernatural angle – that gets added for “4”) out of Lamberto Bava’s revved-up 1985 Demons (to which you can add in the entirely unexplainable demon – sorry, I mean zombie – bursting birth sequence), the growing tension between rationalist scientists and the cardboard cut-out military fascists in their hidden lair straight out of the Romero playbook from his Day of the Dead (also 1985, and my personal favorite of the original Romero trilogy – the one where fx master Tom Savini finally got the zombie-chowing, dark-red blood, juicy wet gore gags right!), while the faceless military swarming in, in white suits and gas masks, carrying rifles, rounding up and openly shooting people openly taps some more Romero – namely, his second bleak post-apocalyptic film (after “Night”) from 1973, The Crazies – and with the ending, of the two survivors (male and female) finding and flying off in a helicopter, leaving one of their own behind, a direct steal from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (though I’m glad they didn’t try the zombie-decapitation bit from “Dawn”, which, while I’m sure fun to see, would have certainly led to the unsettling countings of ‘How many Filipinos does it take to have their skulls lopped off for an Italian zombie production crew to get the helicopter blade/decapitation shot?’
And then there’s the peculiar, random reference to the 1971 existential action film The Vanishing Point, with the inclusion of a similar blind black radio station disc jockey character commenting throughout the movie, with the seeming addition being that the writers, upon realizing relatively no-name actor Deran Sarafian was gonna be in their movie, decided to write in a nod to his director father Richard Sarafian’s cult-classic film (as Deran explains in the actors’ commentary, which, alas, with the thesps leading the talk rather than the creators, are never the most illuminating group discussions, usually leading to a lot of desperate attempts by the actors at endearing themselves, as well as endless ‘the director really knew what he wanted’ refrains, though, to be fair, this one has some decent tidbits, like the one on “Vanishing”, and Beatrice Ring explaining not only did she remember Fulci being there for the whole shoot, but that he was constantly shrieking lots of obscenities at her as a directing method)…
Better imagery in Zombie 4
While it may have all the references, Zombie 3 hasn’t even a crumb of the spirit or creative vibrancy of those other films. It’s got zero atmosphere or mood to speak of — and that’s true no matter how much fog they keep pouring through the sets (while paying no attention whatsoever to continuity from shot to shot with the fog, edited together with the same absurd level of ‘lots of water/little water/no water’ discontinuity as Sharknado) to hide the often indifferent wide/medium-shot shooting style and indifferent staging. It’s awkwardly acted (and the dialogue – I mean it’s gotta be a record for how many times the characters keep stating exactly what we’re seeing – ‘Look, it’s a body!’ ‘It’s bleeding.’ ‘Behind you is another one.’ ‘Wait. Are you sick? You’re changing!’ and on and on). There might be some gore, but it’s all so indifferently executed I found my mind wandering off, including during the flying ghoul head attack that I guess could be argued provides a moment of ‘inspiration’ – or at least an opportunity at a showy laughing fit for one of those smug hipsters to show just how cool they are — if it wasn’t so ludicrously unmotivated – and overall just mentally challenged (then again, might be perfect for the audience hipster).
It’s hard to watch Zombie 3 and not see it as a sad day for Fulci; an aging grand Italo-horror master, with some of the greatest milestones in the genre, now physically unwell and sitting at the bottom of the production barrel, forced to slum with inferior filmmakers (which, if you believe his side of the story of why he left during the production, with the film finished by Mattei and Fragasso, is he just couldn’t take all the cheapness anymore – and for the guy who, when given the resources, brought us such startlingly vibrant delights as the original Zombie, and so many other surreal and unforgettable bits of gore-lathered lunacy? Hell, I don’t’ blame him).
A little of that ol’ Juju added to the mix
With its gaudier lighting, juicier gore gags and bits (including some decently impressive Day of the Dead-like bodies getting pulled apart), a wise (if still goofily executed) decision to crib further from Demons, with a move towards the supernatural as the cause for the rise of the ‘zombies’, introducing a ‘Book of the Dead’ (hell, they took the demons themselves from Bava’s film, why not add a Necronomicon of their own for a few characters to read out-loud from, unwittingly – well, more accurately, dim wittingly — raising the slavering ghoulie creatures), a vengeful black voodoo doctor and his possessed hot-jigging wife (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s all more than a bit racist… but what do you expect? it’s an Italian horror film… an enlightened approach to the subject matter isn’t always expected) and a strangely enjoyable, flesh-melting gooey spectacle of an ending that somehow – perhaps unintentionally (and let’s be clear, nowhere near as well done) – manages some resonant connections to John Carpenter’s most metaphysically adventuresome (while still being gooey) horror film, Prince of Darkness, the follow-up entry “After Death”, while having absolutely nothing to do with any on-going ‘zombie’ lore (let’s face it, this whole ‘Zombie’ franchise thing is a franchise that isn’t really a franchise), brings quite a bit more energy to the telling, and also thankfully a bit less of the second-by-second stupidity in the script-presentation (perhaps due to the additional contributions of Fragasso’s usual writing collaborator, Rosella Drudi… not that that twosome is exactly exalted in any film circles.. at least any not made up of total nutters).
On top of it, in a swarming pool of entirely interchangeable and stiff actors populating these films (other than, say, the recurring handsome presence of Massimo Vanni in both, who doesn’t provide much on the acting front, but is of interest because of his constant connection to the infamous pool of 80’s Italian horror output as an apparently much sought-after stuntman), at least the two leads in “After Death” have something of interest – Candice Daly stands out, not for acting (oh no), but because she happens to be strikingly beautiful (captivating to look at even after the decided pall of learning from the bluray extras that she sank into drug addiction and was reportedly murdered at the tender age of 41)… and then there’s her fellow eventual zombie fighter… none other than porn star, of both gay and straight film alike, Jeff Stryker (as Chuck Peyton), he of immaculate pecs constantly on-display in every scene; no surprise, he’s no better an actor than anyone else around these tropical jungle parts… but at least he provides the most interesting video interview extra on the Severin bluray (and is certainly the only one who had a 12” doll made of himself, one of which sits brazenly displayed in the infamously grimy Severin cellar, which I’ve contemplated stealing).
Hunky Jeff Stryker
So, overall, Zombie 4: After Death? Better.