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To many he was the Godfather of Gore, responsible for no less than three video nasties, the ultra-sleazy New York Ripper and one of the many adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. Yet before he embraced his taste for carnage Lucio Fulci had already carved out a prolific career experimenting with every conceivable genre in his native Italy, from screwball comedies and musicals to erotic thrillers and westerns. The latter would result in a trio of underrated motion pictures that focused on betrayal and vengeance, two common themes of the wild west. And although he would fail to become one of the more recognised auteurs of the western cycle, his subsequent international success with cult horror classics Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Beyond would eventually lead to fans discovering much of his long-forgotten work.
The spaghetti western had first had gained popularity in the mid-1960s after the worldwide success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the archetypal revenge thriller that many of the films that followed in its wake would attempt to emulate. With rising costs in America forcing producers to search for locations outside of the United States to shoot their movies many would relocate to Italy and Spain in the late 1950s where they would be able to develop more ambitious projects on a relatively modest budget. This would feed money into the local studio system and before long Rome had become a the independent alternative to Hollywood. Thus an array of genres would gain popularity at the hands of the Italian film industry, with the sword and sandals cycle and historical epics becoming two of their biggest exports and as the western cycle lost popularity in America it would be reinvent in Europe as something far more brutal.
‘Spaghetti westerns were predominantly Italian productions, or Italian/Spanish co-productions; the directors were usually Italian and the technicians Spanish,’ explained author Howard Hughes in his book Once Upon a Time in the Italian West. ‘The cast were headed by an American star (or a European user an anglicised pseudonym), with multinational cos-tars and supporting players. If the French or West Germans invested money they would want one of their own stars in the cast to ensure popularity in their home market. For UK/US audiences the craze was delayed until, 1967, when distributors like United Artists, Avco Embassy and Columbia began buying the rights to Italian westerns that had already been successful in Europe and releasing them in the UK and US. The Italian western output of 1964-67 quickly swamped cinemas, sometimes at the rate of two or three a week, with the entire oeuvre of some actors being condensed internationally to a few months.’
Fulci’s first western was released in 1966; at the height of the genre’s popularity in its native country and the same year that Leone would produce his masterpiece The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Tempo di massacro – more commonly referred to overseas as Massacre Time – marked a transition for Fulci, which saw him move away from the lighter tone of his earlier films and towards the more sadistic and bleak style of his later work. This was in part due to Fernando di Leo, who had contributed to the screenplays for A Fistful of Dollars and its loose sequel For a Few Dollars More. His story for Massacre Time would feature many of the standard spaghetti western plot points, specifically the stranger riding into town and challenging the corrupt local authorities.
By the time that Fulci had begun to entertain the notion of directing a western, the Italian film industry had fully embraced the genre. While Leone would gain the most acclaim for his so-called Dollars trilogy, other filmmakers producing notable works included Sergio Corbucci (Minnesota Clay), Duccio Tessari (A Pistol for Ringo) and Ferdinando Baldi (Texas, Adios). Fulci, who at the time was just thirty-eight, had enjoyed modest success through his collaborations with comedian Totò but had since begun to flirt with more adult material, as had been evident with his 1964 feature The Maniacs. His pairing with di Leo was perfectly timed as the writer had already gained experience within the western genre with not only Leone’s features but also Tessari’s underrated The Return of Ringo.
The part of the hero – often a morally ambiguous term when discussing the protagonist of the spaghetti cycle – would go to Franco Nero, who at the time was riding high on the recent success of his starring role in Corbucci’s ultra violent Django. Born Francesco Sparanero, Nero’s interest in acting had begun with theatre, before gaining further exposure in a variety of b-movies for cult filmmaker Antonio Margheriti. Although the role had originally been conceived for Mark Damon, whom Corbucci had worked with on Johnny Oro a few months earlier, scheduling conflicts had forced the filmmakers to search for a suitable replacement and twenty-three-year-old Nero had proved to be an ideal choice. Despite this, the actor had little interest in appearing in a western, considering the genre to be beneath his aspirations, yet he soon took to the role and was transformed into a star overnight.
Massacre Time followed on the heels of Django and was distributed under a variety of alternative titles, including Colt Concert and The Brute and the Beast. As would become a common aspect of the Fulci western, a popular musician of the time was hired to sing the theme tune, in this case being A Man Alone (Back Home Someday) by Sergio Endrigo, who had enjoyed modest success on RCA Records during the early 1960s. Following its release Fulci continued to produce forgettable comedies until 1969, when he directed two controversial pictures; the historical drama Beatrice Cenci and erotic thriller Una sull’altra. Bizarrely, at one time or another both films were released under the title Perversion Story, although the latter would also be distributed as One on Top of the Other. This signalled the beginning of Fulci’s thriller period, which would result in the acclaimed A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling. Reuniting with Nero, Fulci directed an adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel White Fang, which proved so popular with audiences that a sequel was immediately rushed into production.
‘During those ten years from 1965 through to 1975 the European filmmakers would churn out hundreds of these hot-off-the-press spaghetti western films,’ stated writer James Prickette on the eventual demise in popularity of the genre. ‘Entertaining, some were but unfortunately others were bad copies of others and the genre became extremely repetitious after a while as it began to fade by the early ’70s.’ Although the western cycle had shown signs of slowing down during the early 1970s, they still proved popular enough that Fulci eventually returned to the genre almost a decade after his first effort. Teaming up with producer Edmondo Amati, whom he had previously worked with on several productions, Fulci chose to adapt two short stories by nineteenth century writer Bret Harte. The task of developing the screenplay fell to Ennio De Concini, a regular collaborator of both Dino De Laurentiis and Pietro Germi, who took key plot points from Harte’s stories and created a script strong on character and emotion, something that much of Fulci’s work would be criticised for lacking.
The first half of De Concini’s screenplay, entitled I quattro dell’apocalisse (Four of the Apocalypse), took its central concept from Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat, in which gambler John Oakhurst is banished from a town along with a drunk, a brothel owner and a young woman who works in a saloon. The protagonist of De Concini’s story would be renamed Stubby Preston. Stubby had been the name of a character from The Luck of Roaring Camp, which would also provide the basis for Four of the Apocalypse, while Preston was taken from Preston Foster, who had starred in an adaptation of The Outcasts of Poker Flat in the 1930s. His accomplices would be changed to a pregnant prostitute and a crazed black man who claims that he talks to the dead, although the screenplay would ultimately retain the character of the town drunk. The title of the script was a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation, although ‘conquest,’ ‘war,’ ‘famine’ and ‘death’ were changed to ‘gambler,’ ‘whore,’ ‘drunk’ and ‘insane.’
Taking its name from Poker Flat, the film opened in the small town of Salt Flat, Utah in 1873. Suave and handsome gambler Stubby steps out of a wagon and is immediately confronted by the sheriff, who confiscates his marked cards and, despite Stubby’s best attempts to bribe him, is thrown in prison for the night. In his cell he meets three fellow outcasts; Bunny, Bud and Clem but no sooner have they become acquainted the town is overrun by masked bandits. The following morning, the sheriff takes the four outside to witness the aftermath and explains how the plan had been to clean the town of the troublemakers, with the assailants wearing masks allowing him to plead ignorance. Stubby and his companions are ordered to leave the town and are given a wagon in exchange for the thousand dollars he had attempted to bribe the sheriff with the night before.
The role of Stubby would go to Fabio Testi, whose early work as a stuntman had led to Coca-Cola commercials and an uncredited appearance in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. This would be followed by several acclaimed projects, most notably a part in the Academy Award-nominated The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Inheritance with Anthony Quinn. Whereas most spaghetti westerns would feature an antihero as the lead character, who wanders into a lawless town and turns the rival gangs against each other for his own profit, Stubby is nothing more than a petty con artist and it is his journey from a selfish gambler to avenger that is the central focus of the story. An unexpected emotional element is given through his relationship with Bunny, which starts off as animosity but eventually develops into love.
Twenty-year-old English beauty Lynne Frederick would take on the sympathetic part of Bunny, the emotional centre of the picture. Frederick was prompted to audition for a soap commercial while still in high school and was soon cast in the drama No Blade of Grass, in which she was raped by a ruthless gang of bikers. Distributed by MGM, the film brought Frederick to the attention of producers and offers soon followed, resulting in Henry VIII and His Six Wives, Hammer’s Vampire Circus and the science fiction horror flick Phase IV. Following the release of Four of the Apocalypse, Frederick was cast alongside Malcolm McDowell in the Second World War drama Voyage of the Damned but, having married comic Peter Sellers in 1977, decided to retire from acting. But after the death of her husband three years later Frederick struggled through two marriages and alcoholism, tragically passing away in 1994 at the age of thirty-nine.
The filming of Four of the Apocalypse would see Fulci returning to Elios Til Studios in Rome, where he had shot Massacre Time many years earlier. The production would also make its way to Cinecittà, which had become the studio of choice for many filmmakers. In the decade since its opening countless westerns had been filmed there, including A Fistful of Dollars and Corbucci’s The Hellbenders. Unlike many similar pictures, Fulci decided not to use southern Spain as a suitable replacement for the Mexican border, despite Almería had become a common location for Italian and American productions due to lower costs. To help achieve the look of the wild west Fulci was assisted by production designer Giovanni Natalucci, having recently together on The Return of White Fang. Through his work in Rome, Natalucci would later forge a relationship with independent producer Charles Band, resulting in such 1980s cult classics as Troll and Ghoulies II.
Having been ordered out of Salt Flat, Stubby suggests that they travel two hundred miles to Sand City where they will be safe and have a chance to make money. Clem informs Stubby that Bunny is pregnant but by this point the two have begun to clash; Bunny perceives Stubby as selfish and only interested in himself, while Stubby considers her a liability. On their travels they come across a parade of wagons belonging to the Joyful Church of the Living Christ. Stubby and his companions are invited to spend the night at the camp and Stubby and Bunny are mistaken as a married couple, forcing the two to continue the charade until morning. The first sign that a bond is developing between the group is when they celebrate Bunny’s nineteenth birthday with fish and water, prompting Stubby to raise a toast.
But the festivities are cut short when gunshots ring out across the camp. From out of nowhere a figure appears with strange markings on his face who is revealed to be Chaco, a dangerous mercenary who invites himself into the group with promises of fresh meat. Although he brings them food Stubby senses that there is something dangerous about him. When they are followed by gunmen Chaco manages to kill all but one of them, taking the survivor and tying him up, before slicing pieces of flesh from his stomach. Later that night they set up camp and Bunny expresses sympathy for Chaco, telling Stubby how he was once rich but had lost everything, to which a cynical Stubby replies, ‘Maybe that’s why those guys who beat him and stole everything left him with all those guns.’
As with most spaghetti westerns, Fulci knew that he needed a ‘name’ to sell the picture and so cast Tomas Milian in the role of Chaco. Born Tomás Rodriguez, the son of a Cuban general during the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, Milian moved to America in the mid-1950s and enrolled at the University of Miami in Florida, where he first developed an interest in acting. Having been discharged from the Navy due to health issues he enrolled at the prestigious Actors Studio in New York, which led to a role in an Off-Broadway production. Following his discovery by playwright Jean Cocteau, Milian was cast in two movies by director Mauro Bolognini, but it would be after his performance as a Mexican bandit in The Ugly Ones in 1966 that would bring him to the attention of European audiences. Thus, over the following decade he appeared in the likes of Django Kill… If You Live Shoot!, The Big Gundown and Face to Face. In preparing for the role of Chaco, Milian had studied pictures of Charles Manson and, inspired by the Swastika that the convicted killer had tattooed on his forehead, suggested that his character should have symbols painted across his face.
Four of the Apocalypse took a dark turn when Chaco drugs his friends with Peyote, although the suspicious Stubby spits it out when his back is turned. Chaco then begins to taunt and humiliate Clem by forcing him to crawl around on the ground and beg for whiskey like a dog. Chaco and his co-star, Michael J. Pollard, improvised the majority of the scene, with Chaco taking a swig and spitting it into his mouth. Pollard, who had also studied at the Actors Studio, had gained a reputation as an intense character actor through roles in The Wild Angels and Bonnie & Clyde, the latter of which he had received an Academy Award nominations for. Although he is perhaps most recognised for his role in Scrooged alongside Bill Murray in 1988, as well as other pictures of the era that would include Tango & Cash, Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland and Dick Tracy.
Having gained Clem’s loyalty Chaco instructs him to tie up his friends in return for more whiskey. A coherent Stubby is forced to watch as Chaco rapes Bunny before turning his attention to Stubby, asking if he enjoyed watching as he took his wife and then crushing his groin with his boot. The treatment of his friends finally sobers Clem, who covers Bunny up in an effort to preserve her dignity and then picks up a rock but as he approaches Chaco from behind he is shot in the leg. They are left alone to die in the desert with no horses or food but eventually manage to cut themselves free, allowing Stubby to nurse Clem’s bullet hole. They make their way across the desert, carrying a wounded Clem on a stretcher but are forced to hide in the mountains when Chaco and his bandits pick up their trail.
Although Fulci had yet to become immersed in the horror genre he had already begun to employ graphic violence and gore in his movies. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling and even White Fang had all proved shocking in some respect but Four of the Apocalypse would be the most explicit of all his pre-zombie films. During the opening massacre a man’s back explodes from a gunshot, one is shot in a similar fashion in the stomach and another is pushed through a window with a rope tied around his neck, causing it to snap before he hits the ground. The scene in which Chaco tortures the man by slicing into his stomach and peeling back the skin would cause issues with the censors and foreshadowed his subsequent gore films, specifically 1979’s Zombi 2, released in the United Kingdom as Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Following the discovery of the Joyful Church members having been slain by Chaco and his men, Stubby and his friends carry Clem through the heat and rain until they eventually arrive in a small town, where Clem finally succumbs to his wounds. Soon afterwards Bud brings in a large piece of meat, claiming to have caught an animal, but Stubby later discovers that it was cut from Clem’s leg. Cannibalism was a theme that the Italian film industry would become fascinated with and, although Fulci would choose to not embrace this in his subsequent work, it was still an important aspect of his zombie films. Having realised how truly insane Bud is, Stubby and Bunny decide to leave him behind and continue on their journey. In the role of Bud was Harry Baird, whose first appearance had been in Carl Reed’s A Kid for Two Farthings, although it would be his work in Tarzan the Magnificent and The Italian Job that he is most remembered for.
On their journey they meet Reverend Sullivan, an old friend of Stubby’s from his days as a gambler, but Bunny soon becomes sick and so they are led to a nearby quiet town, populated only by men. This aspect of the film was inspired by The Luck of Roaring Camp, in which a male-dominated town are left to bring up a baby. Although he is not the real father Stubby has taken on the role of both father and husband, yet feels helpless as his ‘bride’ struggles to give birth to their child. Outside the men argue over whether or not the presence of a baby and its mother will disrupt the balance of the town, with one stating, ‘This is a man’s country. When we need a female we get a whore in Sand City.’ Eventually one of the men, Lemmy, who has been married three times and thus the most qualified, is volunteered to help deliver the baby, while the others wait outside in the snow.
Although the majority of Four of the Apocalypse was shot on studio sets in Rome, this sequence was filmed in a small village in Austria, where temperatures reached as low as minus-twelve. During one scene Fulci ordered Testi to head out away from the camera and wait with his horse until he was called for. Due to the harsh conditions Testi remained in bed for several days with a fever, causing delays in filming. Despite this incident and Fulci’s occasional contempt towards his actors, Testi would respect his director and the two would work together again on the violent thriller Contraband in 1980.
While the town had been nothing more than a collection of strangers, the arrival of new life brings hope to the men, prompting one of them to create a census so all of the their personal details are documented. Soon interest turns to gambling and they begin to make wagers whether or not the child will be a boy or a girl. But suddenly Bunny’s screams echo through the town, moments later followed by the cries of a newborn baby. The men, excited at the second chance their town has been given, fire off their guns in celebration. But unable to cope with the pain of childbirth, in part due to brutal rape at the hands of Chaco, Stubby is forced to watch as Bunny takes her last breath. With the mother gone and Stubby unable to take the responsibility of becoming a father figure the town adopts the child, which they name Lucky. This is another reference to The Luck of Roaring Camp, with the child in the story having been named Thomas Luck.
With the townsmen donating a horse and supplies Stubby says farewell and sets out to take revenge for the death of Bunny. Tracking Chaco and his bandits down to a barn, he kills the two men but allows Chaco to live long enough to taunt him. Holding up a crucifix he had taken from the Joyful Church, Chaco screams, ‘I want to send it to your wife, to pay for the roll in the grass.’ Stubby, unable to hide his anger, finally shoots him dead. Despite Chaco being featured on the artwork for the movie, Milian would only be present on the set for ten days, which would consist of his earlier scenes and the finale. Yet by the time Four of the Apocalypse was released the European western had begun to loose popularity and the movie failed to generate the same kind of interest as many of the earlier entries in the cycle.
Much as he had done with Massacre Time, Fulci featured a theme tune that would be played several times throughout the movie. Written by composers Franco Bixio, Fabio Frizzi and Vince Tempera and performed under the title Cook and Benjamin Franklin Group, the track Movin’ On would be the most prominent piece of music used in the film, even appearing once again during the end credits. Released as a single by Cinevox Records, the song would feature vocals from Rink Groeneveld and Peter Kok, who for a short time performed together under the banner Greenfield and Cook. Fulci would return to the western genre a third and final time in 1978 with Sella d’argento – released internationally as Silver Saddle – a stylish and violent revenge thriller that would ultimately lack the emotional impact of Four of the Apocalypse.
Also known as They Died with Their Boots On, the movie starred western regular Giuliano Gemma as Roy Blood who, at the age of ten, had shot the man who murdered his father. Now a bounty hunter but still haunted by the tragedy Roy is determined to hunt down those who were responsible for his death. Co-starring frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator Geoffrey Lewis, the movie was one of the last westerns to be produced by an Italian studio. By the time of its release in 1978, Europe had become immersed in the giallo cycle, while cannibalism and mondo films also performed moderately well at the box office. Following the film’s mediocre performance, Fulci was hired to direct a zombie movie that was designed to capitalise on the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. This marked the end of the Italian western, as over the next decade the studios would produce an endless slew of zombie and cannibal pictures. For the remainder of his career Fulci focused on the living dead, the supernatural and explicit violence. Four of the Apocalypse would eventually be rediscovered, however, when it was finally released uncut by Anchor Bay in 2001.