Blu-ray Release: December 12, 2023 (as part of the Savage Guns collection)
Audio: Italian and English (hybrid) Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 104:12
Director: Lucio Fulci
Note: This Blu-ray is currently only available as part of Arrow’s Savage Guns: Four Classic Westerns, Vol. 3 collection, which also includes Paolo Bianchini's I Want Him Dead (1968), Edoardo Mulargia's El Puro (aka: The Reward's Yours...The Man's Mine, 1969), and Mario Camus' Wrath of the Wind (aka: Trinity Sees Red, 1970).
A quartet of misfits go from sharing the same jail cell to embarking on a savage odyssey that will lead to torture, rape, and cannibalism. Preyed upon by a ruthless bandit, the foursome fight for their lives – until the time comes for revenge. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
During his long, storied career, Lucio Fulci worked across genres, making his name with Franco & Ciccio commedia all'Italiana, setting a high standard for gialli, and pioneering a brand of gory horror that remains his calling card decades after his death. Along the way, he directed three genuine spaghetti westerns – Massacre Time (Italian: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu... tempo di massacro; aka: The Brute and the Beast, 1966), Four of the Apocalypse (Italian: I quattro dell'apocalisse; aka: Four Gunmen of the Apocalypse, 1975), and Silver Saddle (Italian: Sella d'argento; aka: They Died With Their Boots On, 1978) – and also made a pair of movies based on Jack London’s White Fang (pub. 1906) featuring Django (1966) star Franco Nero that more or less fall under the western banner, entitled White Fang (Italian: Zanna Bianca, 1973) and The Return of White Fang (Italian: Il ritorno di Zanna Bianca; aka: The Challenge to White Fang, 1974).
Each of these films are worth seeing for anyone interested in either the director or the genre in general, but, of the five, only Four of the Apocalypse fully feels like a Lucio Fulci movie. This difference in tone is probably owed to the fact that the film was made at the tail end of the spaghetti fad, when the Leone and Corbucci formulas had run their course and been replaced by even more formulaic comedy westerns and poliziotteschi. Largely free of stringent genre restraints, Fulci was able to make his own brand of revisionist American folktale. All of the spaghetti necessities are present – shoot-outs, Almeria locations/sets, blackhat baddies, and morally torn antiheroes – but things are recontextualized in ways that more closely match Fulci's later Gothic horror. Naturally (some might say “foremost”), this extends to the baroque quality of the violence. All of Fulci’s westerns are violent (Massacre Time has a brutal whipping sequence and Silver Saddle is extremely bloody for an adventure ostensibly aimed at children), but Four of the Apocalypse expresses violence differently, like a trial that must be endured, instead of the end result of an action set-piece. It’s not a splatterfest on par with Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979), but it does include an especially sadistic torture scene and some cannibalism.
Beyond the violence, however, is the film’s unique and insistently dreamy tone. Fulci had experimented with hallucinatory imagery when making his first two gialli, Perversion Story (Italian: Una Sull'altra; aka: One on Top of the Other, 1969) and Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna; aka: Schizoid, 1971), leading up to the nightmarish surrealism of his early ‘80s Gothic horror movies and there’s something special to be said for Four of the Apocalypse’s transitional place in that evolution. You can easily see the seeds of City of the Living Dead’s (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980) dust-swept, cursed village and The Beyond’s (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981) foggy final hellscape in Four of the Apocalypse’s cracked lake beds, slaughtered wagon trains, and hazy ghost towns. It’s worth noting that this was Fulci’s first collaboration with cinematographer Sergio Salvati and composer Fabio Frizzi, who were both instrumental collaborators during his creative peak in late ‘70s/early ‘80s.
Fulci wasn’t the first or last Italian to combine westerns with psychedelia, especially not this late in the cycle. Similar examples included Cesare Canevari’s Matalo! (aka: Kill Him, 1970) and Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma (1976) and, not surprisingly, these are among the only non-Fulci movies to match the singular tone and energy of Four of the Apocalypse. One could argue that they are the Italian equivalent to acid westerns, though I don’t personally think Fulci was directly inspired by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) or even Giulio Questi’s Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot! (Italian: Se sei vivo spara, 1967), which is the earliest example of an Italian filmmaker using the American southwest as a backdrop for blatant surrealism. I tend to assume that he was, instead, borrowing an idea or two from the enfant terrible of American westerns, Sam Peckinpah.
Surprisingly, Fulci isn’t exclusively interested in Peckinpah’s penchant for nihilism and graphic bloodshed, and appears to be, instead, drawing upon the loose, episodic structures and melancholy tones of movies, like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). Outside of the bursting blood squibs of the opening massacre scene, the major idea he takes from the comparatively vicious The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971) is the concept of violence as crucible*. Technically, Ennio De Concini’s script** is based on at least two stories by writer/poet Bret Harte, The Luck of Roaring Camp (pub. 1868) and The Outcasts of Poker Flat (pub. 1869), which somewhat explains the episodic nature of the plot, but not the rambling, borderline dream logic construction of the story. Again, this is less like a Sergio Leone epic, where the runtime is protracted by episodic sequencing, but the actual passage of time can be counted in days, and more like one of Peckinpah’s bittersweet character studies.
Four of the Apocalypse also bucks the The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) themed spaghetti traditions of mercenaries or criminals banding together for the sake of a big score or group revenge (though revenge is the end goal, it’s almost an afterthought). Instead, the film focuses on the idea of a disparate found family unit and their attempts to find peace in an unforgiving environment. Despite clear connections to the gory horrors he’d soon be known for, Four of the Apocalypse is ultimately special not because of its toothsome dark side, but because of its surprising excess of compassion. Fulci ignores most of his nihilistic impulses, opting for genuine sentimentality over miserable irony. Even horrible acts of violence and tragic deaths are couched in empathy. In the end, it’s not only his most affecting film (I assume, not having seen the bulk of those Franco & Ciccio movies), but among the most poignant and humane spaghetti westerns ever made, right up there with Leon’s Once Upon a Time in the West (Italian: C'era una volta il West, 1968) and Duck, You Sucker! (Italian: Giù la testa; aka: A Fistful of Dynamite, 1971).
Four of the Apocalypse was Fulci’s third and final collaboration with maverick, Cuban-born actor Tomás Milian, following the historical drama Beatrice Cenci (aka: The Conspiracy of Torture, 1969) and rural giallo Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italian: Non si Sevizia un Paperino, 1972). It was also the last of a dozen westerns starring Milian and one of the few in which he plays an unambiguous villain, in this case, a sadistic drifter inspired by Charles Manson who feeds the titular Four peyote before subjecting them to cruel S&M games and raping an incapacitated pregnant woman (despite his reputation as a misogynist, Fulci tended to avoid rape, even in his most graphic films, so the assault is mostly left to our imaginations). Co-lead Fabio Testi, who has rarely been better, led Fulci’s sole poliziotteschi, Contraband (aka: The Smuggler, 1980), and was paired with English co-lead Lynne Frederick again directly after Four of the Apocalypse for Joe D’Amato’s Cormack of the Mounties (Italian: Giubbe rosse; aka: The Red Coat, 1975) – a western-esque Canadian adventure made to cash in on the success for Fulci’s White Fang movies (both films and Return of White Fang were produced by Coralta Cinematografica).
The most noteworthy cast member is American Michael Pollard. Pollard was an Oscar nominee and prevalent character actor, who (as far as I can tell) only made one other Italian co-produced western in Christian-Jaque’s The Legend of Frenchie King (French: Les Pétroleuses, 1971). Pollard would’ve been on Fulci's radar for his work on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) – a watershed predecessor to Peckinpah’s brand of slow-motion bloodshed – and possibly for Stan Dragoti’s revisionist western Dirty Little Billy (also 1971). The final member of the titular ‘four,’ Guyana-born Harry Baird, was known for his appearances in a number of Italian westerns, pepla, and adventure films, as well as Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job (1969) and Gordon Hessler’s The Oblong Box (1969). Sadly, he was forced to leave acting directly after Four of the Apocalypse following a debilitating glaucoma diagnosis.
* Four of the Apocalypse and The Wild Bunch also both feature introductory scenes where people are playing with insects. In the latter case, children are pitting ants against a scorpion, signifying an act of carnage, whereas in the former case, bored adults are betting on beetle races.
** Ennio De Concini won an Academy Award for co-writing Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style (1961). Barring technical categories that I’ve overlooked, Fulci worked with a total of three Oscar winners: Germi, actress Sophia Loren (Fulci co-wrote the screenplay for Steno’s A Day in Court [Italian: Un giorno in pretura, 1954]), and composer Ennio Morricone, who scored Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. For the record, he also worked with Oscar nominees John Ireland and, of course, Michael Pollard.
Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci by Stephen Thrower (FAB Press, 1999)
Spaghetti Westerns: The Good, the Bad and the Violent: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Filmography of 558 Eurowesterns and Their Personnel, 1961-1977 by Thomas Weisser (McFarland, 1992)
Four of the Apocalypse never made it to US VHS, which made it a popular bootleg title among fans until Anchor Bay released the first anamorphic DVD in 2001. That same disc was available alone, as part of the Once Upon A Time In Italy: The Spaghetti Western Collection box set, and then from Blue Underground in 2007. The first Blu-ray came from German company VZ-Handelsgesellschaft under their X-Rated Cult banner in 2017 and was re-released several times.
According to specs, this and the three other films in Arrow’s Savage Guns set are restored in 2K from the original 35mm camera negatives. Some sources are claiming that this is a different restoration than the X-Rated release, but, when I took the time to gather screencaps from both discs, I realized that the difference was indecipherable after the images were compressed to JPGs. Even completely uncompressed, they are basically the same transfer with slight timing and compression differences, mainly that the Arrow disc is rosier with less noise, though the differences are so minimal, they might honestly be figments of my imagination.
Comparisons aside, it’s a good transfer that leaves room for improvement someday down the line. The main problem is that, like a lot of Fulci and Salvati’s non-horror collaborations, the image is so heavy with diffusion and fog that it’s almost impossible to avoid digital noise and clumpy posterization while reproducing natural grain and other textures. A 4K scan would likely help matters, but the film looked much worse on DVD, where oversharpening effects magnified the issue. The palette is also strange, for lack of a better word, including some sickly, yellow-greenish neutral hues that have nonetheless stuck with the film through every digital releases. Reds pop effectively without bleeding, black levels are consistent, and wide-angle shots with higher dynamic range look very nice.
Four of the Apocalypse comes fitted with its original Italian and English dubs, both in uncompressed LPCM mono. The English track is technically a hybrid track that defaults to Italian for the few bits that weren’t dubbed in English. As per usual, the film was shot without synced on-set sound, so all language tracks were dubbed (notably, the torture scene). The mixes are almost identical, so I personally recommend the English hybrid track for its slightly louder dialogue and the fact that Michael Pollard dubs his own performance. Lynne Frederick might also be dubbing herself, but I’m not familiar enough with her to recognize her voice. Honestly, all of the English performances are top of the line, even when the lip sync is off (to my eyes, it looks like Testi was alternating between Italian and English on-set, depending on who he was acting against).
Again, this was Fulci’s first collaboration with Fabio Frizzi, whose score doesn’t resemble the droning analog terrors of his horror soundtracks, but is, instead, a combination of similar melodies and narratively-driven, acoustic guitar-heavy folk rock, performed in part by Frizzi himself. I believe that this score counts as another aspect of Four of the Apocalypse that was partially inspired by Peckinpah, specifically Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), which featured similar music by Bob Dylan. I also believe both films inspired Guido and Maurizio de Angelis' even more narration-heavy songs for Castellari's Keoma.
Commentary with Kat Ellinger – The critic, filmmaker, author of All The Colours Of Sergio Martino (Arrow Books, 2018), and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast (with Samm Deighan) explores Fulci’s westerns, how Four of the Apocalypse stands out and anticipates his horror movies, his longer career as a multi-genre filmmaker, the wider careers of the cast & crew, the film’s permeating themes and ways they are subverted, and her take on Fulci’s perceived misogyny as a female fan/critic. She sees Four of the Apocalypse as a more cynical film than I do and backs up her claims with a look into Fulci’s personal life at the time and the autobiographical qualities of his work.
Apocalypse Now (15:16, HD) – A new introduction from Professor of History of Italian Cinema at the University for Foreigners of Perugia (Italy), journalist, and film critic, Fabio Melelli, who compares Bret Harte’s stories to the final script, Charles Manson inspiring Milian’s character, Frizzi’s soundtrack, the larger careers and lives of the cast (with much appreciated emphasis on Lynne Frederick), the Almeria sets and locations, and Four of the Apocalypse as a predecessor to Fulci’s horror.
It Takes Four (35:02, HD) – In this previously unreleased interview, production manager Roberto Sbarigia looks back on his (and his father’s) career, paying his dues as an assistant, working with Fulci on the White Fang films, as well as Four of the Apocalypse, his perspective on apparent arguments between Fulci and Ennio De Concini (he never heard any), casting, the current state of some of the Almeria sets and locations, filming logistics, and Fulci’s professionalism.
Do You See How Lucio Shoots? (42:33, HD) – Critic and author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci Stephen Thrower takes an in-depth look at Four of the Apocalypse, its place in Fulci’s larger career, its tones and themes, its hazy look, its episodic structure, its use of violence, the careers of the cast & crew (including additional collaborations with Fulci), connections between Four of the Apocalypse and New Hollywood revisionist westerns, like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (Frizzi was apparently presented with a rough cut that directly lifted Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” from the latter), additional connections to Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1971), and plot elements taken from Bret Harte’s books and actual American history.
The Rhythm Devils Play (37:11, HD) – Musician and collector Lovely Jon takes a look at Fabio Frizzi’s early life and training, the influence of Bach and Nino Rota on his music, his connections to other Italian progressive rock film soundtracks (including Goblin), his Four of the Apocalypse score and other collaborations with Fulci, and his history with Franco Bixio and Vince Tempera, who were often credited as Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera when working together.
English theatrical trailer
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.