Monday, January 25, 2021

“I’ll Come Looking For You to Feed on Your Intestines” - Zombie 4: After Death (1989) - Film #196

At the risk of covering only Claudio Fragasso films in order to pay appropriate tribute to the master, let us turn to Claudio Fragasso's Zombie 4: After Death (1989), part of the film "series" originated either by Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2/Zombie/Zombie Flesh Eaters (1980) or George Romero's Dawn of the Dead/Zombi (1978). As always, Mr. Fragasso and his wife Rosella Drudi effortlessly put their own stamp on a film that might be considered constrained by the expectations of the genre.

Some critics are uncharitable about Mr. Fragasso's film (one might even jump to the conclusion that critics are biased against Mr. Fragasso). For example, reviewer alanbill1074 writes, "Having been a huge fan of the original Zombie Flesh Eaters, this film was a bitter disappointment, bearing absolutely no connection to the first film. The acting and direction are below par, even for low budget horror, and the 'zombies' are laughable." Reviewer Maciste_Brother writes, "Anyway, it's only worth seeing if you're a horror completist, enjoy Euro horror or are a zombie freak. No one else should see this abomination." And reviewer RashaTheGreat writes, "This movie represents the absolute lowest point in Italian Zombie cinema."

Read on for the truth about Zombie 4: After Death...

As the titles appear, a narrator (purported to be the master himself, Claudio Fragasso, speaking in what appears to be native English), explains, “There was once a group of men who believed they could solve the mystery of mysteries. They were scientists, experts in chemistry, biology, and physics, students of alchemy and of the arcane principles which govern the very equilibrium of our universe. These men established a small research center on a remote tropical island where they proceeded with their humanitarian mission, a task linked to the fundamental principles of our very existence. Their aim was to conquer mankind’s first, oldest, and greatest enemy: death itself.”

The film begins in a cave system, where a hooded black man performs a ceremony next to a black woman dancing in a red dress. A group of white men waving guns and flashlights runs through the cave, but they are too late to stop the ceremony, which ends when glowing white lines emerge from the man’s holy book and enter the woman’s mouth.

This supernatural occurrence causes the woman to vomit and slip down into the earth. When the white people finally arrive, they accuse the black man of causing problems (and they explain more of the situation as well, though their explanation contradicts what the narrator said earlier): “It was you, wasn’t it? You who started the epidemic, the evil that is wiping out our community. You raised the dead to feed on the living. You planned it. Answer me, damn you!”

The black man replies, in a manner reminiscent of kindergarten, “You were the ones who started it.”

The leader of the white people explains that the black man’s daughter died because she had cancer, not because the scientists opened a gateway to hell or something like that. Another of the white people threatens to shoot the black man because of his voodoo spells, to which the robed man replies helpfully, “Go ahead. What are you waiting for? Aim here. But remember, I’ll persecute you after I’m dead. I’ll come looking for you to feed on your intestines. I’ll be in your nightmares.” After uttering a few more catchphrases, he adds, “This island is destined to become the island of the living dead.”

The white leader says eloquently, “You’re wrong. You’re mad. Some of us have already managed to get away. Thanks to them, your macabre plans will be defeated!”

“No one can escape the voodoo spell. No one can escape his destiny.”

The other white man shoots the robed man with a machine gun. “Come back to life now if you can, bastard!”

Immediately, the woman, now in a demonic toothy form, erupts from the earth and kills some of them gruesomely before a handful escape.

Outside, another group of survivors—a man, a woman, and their little girl—runs through the jungle, stalked by black-hooded zombies who move somewhat like ninjas, jumping over fallen trees and then freezing to track their prey. One even jumps out of a tree to bite the father on the neck.

Back in the caves, two of the expendable survivors find a stone gate, but they are quickly and bloodily expended by the female zombie. She also kills another survivor, leaving only a woman. 

Outside, the mother gives her daughter a necklace and tells her to run by herself through the jungle. “If you’re obedient, Mother will join you later.” Seconds later, of course, Mother is killed by the robed ninja zombie cultists (not, unfortunately, by her dead husband).

After this 20-minute prologue, the film cuts to a new group of protagonists, four men and two women riding on a boat to the island. The sole black man lights a pipe with some drugs, saying, “This is it, kids. This is the answer to Colombian gold.” The men, a scruffy bunch, explain they make a living as mercenaries (“Of course, we only work for the good guys, if they can afford our lifestyle.”)

One of the women, Jenny, reveals herself to be the little girl from the prologue. “The sort of thing I used to dream about,” she says about the island. “There was an island like this one, full of zombies. The living dead. They were horrible.”

“I wouldn’t be concerned,” says one of the men. “We’re headed for the harbor.”

“I still hate it. But maybe it’s fate.” She shows them her necklace and explains, “It’s a key. To keep the door to Hell closed.”

Unfortunately, the boat’s engine dies and they are forced to land at a small pier rather than the harbor. They also hear the voices of the dead in the jungle around them.

Yet another group of characters—two men and a woman—backpack through the jungle, where they are hiking to a volcano. 

When Jenny and her mercenary friends get off the boat, they hike randomly through the jungle. One makes a joke I confess I don’t understand: “You know what happened to Red Riding Hood in the woods, don’t you? The wolf pinched her ass.” After that, one of the mercenaries—Tommy, played by Don “The Dragon” Wilson—sees a strange figure and chases it through the jungle. He catches up to the figure and uses his martial arts skills to subdue it, only to discover it’s a grotesque zombie. Another zombie surprises him, which of course makes his martial arts skills moot, and bites him on the shoulder.

Meanwhile, the backpackers reach a clearing in the jungle, which is apparently the volcano they were looking for. They see a small cave opening above them and theorize about the island. “The diary,” one man, David, says. “The community’s book. It mentioned the damned souls who killed everyone on the island, destroyed the settlement.”

“I don’t want to go on,” says the woman, Valerie.

The other man retorts loquaciously, “Don’t be stupid. We’ve already come this far. In my opinion, we ought to go the whole way and find out what the truth about what really happened among those researchers.” (The speaker, played by adult film star Jeff Stryker, walks around with his shirt open and is noticeably sweatier/more greased up than his companions.)

“That’s all very well, Chuck,” she replies, “but frankly, I don’t want to die on this island.”

The discussion finished, all three climb up to the opening, where they find helpful torches just inside the tunnel.

Elsewhere, Jenny and the mercenaries find an abandoned village with a large number of open graves suspiciously close to an abandoned house. Commenting on the empty graves, one of the mercenaries quips, “They didn’t pay their rent.” In order to fully explain the joke for maximum comedic effect, he continues: “They got evicted.”

They enter the house and find not only a medical clinic and a stash of military weapons but also a room filled with burning candles that Jenny explains is “The Circle of Satan. It’s the door of Hell. A voodoo ritual. It prevents the dead from rising. You have to put the amulet in the center like this.” (It is fortunate she had the amulet/key to Hell around her neck the whole time.) However, her skeptical mercenary friend blows out the candles (potentially stopping the ritual from preventing the dead from rising, though since the dead have already risen its effectiveness must be questioned).

Inside the cave system, the backpackers find a similar Circle of Satan. “If the island’s uninhabited,” Chuck asks sensibly, “who lit all these candles?”

David finds The Book of the Dead lying around. Despite Valerie’s plea not to read from the book because “it might release evil forces,” Chuck reads a passage that conveniently explains how to open the door to Hell with the incantation of four words: “Anathanul Zombie Baratan Zombie.” (Again, it seems somewhat redundant to perform these rituals to wake the dead when the dead are already roaming the island.) Of course, the dead appear and attack the backpackers, some using judo. Chuck is the only one who escapes.

After nightfall, presumably influenced by the incantation, we see more zombies emerge from graves. The group in the house does not see the new zombies, though they post guards, allowing one of the men to flirt with a woman by saying the immortal words, “When a man’s afraid he’s gonna die, there’s nothing he wants more than a woman by his side. And I want you.” (Ironically, she will soon become a zombie, creep up next to him, and eat him.)

They are suddenly attacked by a zombie, whom they shoot, but who climbs to his feet, then jumps at three of the mercenaries, knocking them over as if they are bowling pins. Then Chuck arrives to save everyone by picking up a weapon and yelling that the zombies can only be killed by blowing their heads off (something nobody, including Chuck, has discovered, but something that proves to be effective).

As they are wont to do, the zombies lay siege to the house by shambling slowly toward it.

Chuck and the mercenaries use the automatic weapons from the medical clinic to shoot the zombies while Jenny attempts to re-light all the candles of the Circle of Satan. At the same time, nobody has noticed that Don “The Dragon” Wilson has turned green due to his bite wound; he bites the other woman and then attacks Jenny. She fends him off by plunging scissors into his shoulder and he runs away, though another zombie appears seconds later, inexplicably jumping toward her in slow-motion as if he is a low-level professional wrestler. 

After the zombies have been taken care of, the filmmakers include a long sequence in which the survivors toss the zombies’ corpses into a fire in slow-motion. After this, Chuck tells the story of the book he and his now-dead friends found. “I know what they want,” Jenny says. “They want me.”

One of the survivors asks, “Why do you think you’re the only one they want.”

“I know, because I’ve been on this island before, 20 years ago.”

Chuck deduces, “Then your folks must have taken part in those experiments. But why didn’t you say something then, when I was telling everyone about it?”

“I’d forgotten,” she explains. Despite this lapse of memory, she suddenly blurts out the whole backstory, which involves scientists trying to find a cure for death by using natural medicine and voodo. However, the experiments resulted in a plague, though Jenny was saved by her mother, who gave her the key amulet. 

At sunrise, one of the mercenaries sees his dead comrade outside the house. The comrade laughs and then turns and walks away. The mercenary gets his gun to follow the zombie. 

In a chapel, the zombie says, “It doesn’t hurt...bad.” He tries to convince the living mercenary to join him in death, but the living one refuses. Then a group of zombies with guns shoots the living mercenary and his comrade attacks him. When his friends find him, he begs them to shoot him, to which they quickly agree. (However, when he does die, they simply cover him with a blanket instead of shooting him.)

The film then generously provides another scene where zombies emerge from their graves, caused by nothing in particular.

In the final stand against the zombies, the mercenary they left for dead inside the house picks up a gun and starts shooting them. 

“There’s no way out,” says Jenny.

“There’s that window,” says Chuck. He and Jenny escape the house, running to another house where they walk across the beams meant to support an unfinished floor, for some reason. After zombies overrun this house, they run to a cemetery, where there are still more corpses to be reanimated, and eventually they reach the cave system. Jenny reads from The Book of the Dead, turning to the page that says if you’re willing to sacrifice yourself you can close the door to Hell. She takes off her amulet and, oddly, tosses it into a fiery pit, upon which a zombie rips Chuck’s heart out and Jenny’s eye becomes bizarrely removed.

The film freezes on Jenny’s deformed, mutilated face.

Uh, The End.

Claudio Fragasso must be commended for expanding the strict boundaries of the Italian zombie film while at the same time paying homage to the tropes of the genre. His introduction of nimble ninja-esque hooded and robed zombies who attack from trees and jump like gymnasts through walls and windows is a wonderful expansion of the zombie repertoire, and the director does not fail to incorporate the chilling sequences audiences expect from zombie films: the graveyard erupting with corpses, the bitten friend dying and coming back as a murderous zombie, the candle-strewn voodoo rituals conducted apparently at random. The introduction of a child with the key to Hell is another innovation that should be explored further, perhaps in a prequel explaining what was happening in this film.