Zombie 4: After Death

"A U T O" - B I O G R A P H I C A L
N O T E:

On November 19, 2003, as I was on my way to work, a vehicle in the oncoming lane decided to come and pay me an unexpected visit. Thanks in no small part to the Nissan Motor Company, who made both cars involved, neither I nor the driver of the other car were seriously injured. The same could not be said for the cars:

The wreck of my car... note the bumper where the wheels used to be.

If this seems like a blatant ploy for reader sympathy... it is. But allow me to get to my other points:

They say in cases like this, where you have a moment before imminent disaster, that your whole life flashes in front of your eyes. Well, mine didn't. The only thing that flashed before my eyes was my airbag. In the split-second before the impact, the first thing that came to my mind was: "This just can't be happening," followed in quick succession by two other fleeting thoughts: "There is absolutely nothing I can do to make this situation any better", and "What a rotten inconvenience." Then there was a dull, undramatic THUD, completely different from the impact sounds you hear in the movies, followed by the whine of an engine tortured beyond repair and clouds of thick smoke. I stumbled out into the rain, fully expecting to find myself broken somewhere, amazed that I wasn't yet in any pain. But through some miracle, I was only bruised and dazed.

They also say that after an event like this, people tend to re-evaluate their lives and their priorities. They resolve to do the things that are most meaningful to them and stop wasting precious time. Me? I couldn't wait to get back to watching awful horror movies. Instead of going out and living life to the fullest, I intend to celebrate my return from the clutches of death with -- appropriately -- a zombie film. Actually, this is a double resurrection: during my week-long recovery from the immediate effects of the trauma, I stumbled across a half-written review which has served as the basis for this one. I'd abandoned the review a year ago, figuring the movie was just too stupid to bother with. But if there's one thing I've learned from my experience, it's to cherish the dumb things in life... to stare in wonder and amazement, like a child, at the sheer variety and scope of human stupidity. So it's my pleasure to present to you a movie that does for logic and coherent narrative what a car going too fast on a wet hill-road nearly did to me.

Anyone who has seen the Lucio Fulci/Bruno Mattei film Zombi 3 can tell you that the film has some severe problems. Even scriptwriter Claudio Fragasso knew this was true, though he tended to blame many of the problems on Fulci's unsympathetic direction and on budgetary restraints, rather than on any flaws in the original screenplay itself. Still, you have to wonder what was going through Fragasso's mind when he got the chance to make After Death, a.k.a. Zombie 4, using leftover time and resources from another film he had just finished directing... because he and his wife, Rossella Drudi, came up with a movie that was far, far worse than its predecessor. Evidently they felt the biggest problem Zombi 3 had was that it made too much sense, so they took great care to remove anything coherent from the unofficial Episode 4.

If Zombi 3 announced the imminent demise of the classic zombie film, Zombi 4 was the bullet to the brain of the subgenre. If anyone wanted proof that nothing further could be done with the 80's style Zombie Chomp Massacre, here it was. The fact that the producer decided to cut out all the gore before releasing it, and the fact that nobody went to see the movie anyway, just gives further evidence that the trend had run its course.

The movie opens with the most ridiculous, unconvincing "voodoo ritual" you could ever imagine. It takes place in a cave that looks remarkably familiar (it's actually the crypt set from Michele Soavi's La Chiesa, brightly lit). A distinguished-looking houngan mumbles words from a book, while his wife does a preposterous disco snakedance. Their costumes look like the Halloween outfits you see advertised in cheap sewing-pattern books. Suddenly the "ceremony" is interrupted by a band of "scientists" who look like refugees from Hell of the Living Dead. They confront the houngan, and a long, incoherent argument ensues. It's the sort of thing where the writers obviously hadn't thought out their characters positions very well, so the argument loses its focus very quickly. It's apparently about how the well-intentioned scientists had come to this obscure island with promises of medical miracles... but the houngan's own child had not been cured. Thus the wizard has put a curse on the scientists. Or something. Eventually, a "rational" "scientist" pulls a Plan 9 and attacks the houngan, but by this time his wife's been swallowed up by the earth and spit back out again as a refugee from Lamberto Bava's Demons series. There's a long, unexciting chase through the catacombs until all the "scientists" are killed.

As it happens, there are three people from the research group who were not down in the catacombs when all hell broke loose: we see a couple with a small daughter fleeing through a forest. Pop gets devoured by black-clad zombies, only a few feet away from where Mom looks on with what might be described charitably as Mild Concern. The cannibal feast goes on long enough for Mom to have a long, tender moment with her little girl. Then Mom tells the kid to run away alone, which she does... slowly and haltingly, as you'd expect from a toddler like this. Perhaps this strategy isn't as dumb as it appears: Mom's idea was probably to let the zombies be attracted to her daughter as easy prey, while she slipped away unseen. But since this movie, like most of its ilk, takes place in the Stupid Universe, Mom just stands there looking after her slowly-receding daughter, until a whole crowd of zombies jumps her and tears her to bits.

And somehow, the little girl manages to stumble her way to safety. Ummmm... yeah.

Next, without fanfare or transition, we find ourselves some 15 years later. There's a little power boat chugging down a tropical river...

Whoa, hold on a minute there! Where did the boat come from?

It does look a little small to have gone across the open ocean, to this Dangerously Remote Island in the Middle of Nowhere... but that's not important. What is important is that the little girl from the previous scene, all grown up, is now on the boat.

Huh? What is she doing here?

Uhhh, well... I don't know, really. Her visit isn't intentional: she doesn't remember anything about her childhood, or the loss of her parents. She's with a group of other people who just happened to end up here...

What are they doing here?

Oh: well, a couple of them are mercenaries, and there's a girl who's sort of the mercenaries' moll... and then there's another guy who's, umm, along for the ride. Just like the girl. And anyway, they...

Wait a minute: mercenaries pick up hitchhikers?

Well, yes. I guess. Anyway, they're not really here as mercenaries. They're... uhh... mercenaries on vacation.

With hitchhikers.



Where was I?

Oh yes. There we were, in a little boat, motoring down a river with the girl and some mercenaries, when suddenly everything goes strangely silent and the engine dies.

Hold it: you say, "there we were"... but where the heck are we?

Hmm. That's a tough one. We might imagine from the opening scene that we were somewhere in the Caribbean. But it sure doesn't look like the Caribbean. And one we get a look at the zombies, it'll look even less like the Caribbean. Fragasso says he was influenced in the style of his zombies by the local (for which read Philippine) burial customs: his living dead wear shrouds that -- accurate or not -- make them look like really cheap ninjas. But if this is East Asia, why was there a Haitian-style voodoo priest in the opening? Was it part of some cultural exchange project gone wrong?

When the mercenaries et al. go ashore, they find themselves being watched by some of the ninja-suited zombies. Bear in mind they don't know that these are zombies... they might just be local residents as far as they know. Yet they immediately decide to go on the offensive. One of the mercenaries chases a black-clad figure through the jungle, finally catching up with him and beating him unconscious. His friends catch up with him slowly... hilariously, as they file by the camera and each of them passes his or her mark, they turn to the jungle and shout "TOM!" like clockwork. "Tom", in the meantime, has turned his back on his unconscious quarry, which is always a bad idea in a zombie movie... the zombie pops up behind him and bites a chunk out of his shoulder.

Meanwhile, on another part of the island, a team of three researchers (two men and a woman) are looking around for evidence of what happened to the "scientists" all those years ago. We immediately suspct their credentials as researchers when they evince surprise that the climate here is hot. One of the men complains that it's uncomfortably like being locked in a steam bath. When he said this, standing there posing in his fashionably unbuttoned shirt, I head the distant voice of Tom Servo calling: "Yeah, his nightmare is not leaving the door open..." in an obscure reference to Andy Milligan's Vapors. This reaction turned out to be oddly appropriate: I later found out the guy playing this character is actually gay porn star Jeff Stryker, appearing for the first time under his own name.

These "researchers" stumble on a cave full of burning candles (usually a sign that someone's been there recently, but this subtle detail is lost on our party). Here, they discover a mysterious book, which contains instructions for opening the gates of hell couched in high-school-yearbook doggerel:

"If you want to open the Gate of Hell today,
Then these words you must say..."

When the lead "researcher" reads the words aloud (as he is required to do by the rules of these movies), they turn out to be surprisingly simple:

Anathanatum... Zombi.
Baratom... Zombi.

(Apropos of nothing, "barátom zombi" is Hungarian for "my friend is a walking corpse".)

This incantation produces the results you might expect: the Egotistical Lead Researcher Who Scoffed at the Local Superstitions® and the Token Pretty Female Assistant® become part of the zombie buffet, while while our hero manages to escape with his life (because gay porn star or not, he's still the Big Name Actor in the cast). All of which begs the issue... if the gates of hell have just been opened, what were all those other zombies doing there? Was the gate merely ajar for the last fifteen years? And why is the mysterious ruined temple different from the set used in the opening? Is narrative coherence really such a bad thing?

Our Hero goes running for his life through the jungle, where he will eventually (and luckily) run into the other band of intruders on the island. He'll run into them in the middle of their struggle with the zombies, but as usual, the two sides manage not to kill each other in the heat of the moment. This shows judgment which neither side displays at any other point in the film. But before the two -- dare I call them "plot threads"? -- come together, the mercenaries and Our Heroine bring their wounded comrade to a deserted medical clinic.

I say "deserted" because, of course, the island itself has been deserted and the medical project abandoned for 15 years. There's an ominous sign of recent visitation, though: there's a freshly-opened bottle of blood dripping into the sink. Oh, wait: did I say "ominous"? I think what I meant to say was "stupid": that 15 year old blood should have spoiled and dried by now. And even if the blood was somehow miraculously preserved, what kind of zombie cracks open a cold one and then leaves it hanging over a sink? There are lit candles similar to the arrangement in the cave, a fact which also seems to suggest somebody's been here. Our Heroine starts to put the pieces together and remember things from her childhood (which, considering she was about 4 at the time, and a member of the apparently-skeptical research team, makes little sense): when she insists that the candles are a talisman to keep away the zombies, the Lead Macho Mercenary blows them all out. Naturally.

At least when the mercenaries stumble across the obligatory cache of high-power weapons, they have an onvious reason to want to use them right away. That's a tiny step better than Zombie 3, where the heroes are provided with their stash of guns before they even know they need them. But later, it turns out that the weapons might not have been such a fortuitous find after all, since these guys are too dumb to be entrusted with firepower...

True, people always do dumb things in zombie movies, but you'd really have to try to be any dumber than this bunch. Once Tom, the guy with the badly-bitten shoulder, dies and comes back as a zombie, you'd figure the mercenaries would have a pretty good idea what to do when anybody else on the team dies. But later on, when a wounded team member is dragged dying back to the compound, they not only go through the "oh my god he's dead but I just can't bear to shoot him" bit, they also leave his body unattended... and still armed. Thus, in the middle of a zombie attack from outside, up pops Dead Buddy from behind them, with his AK-47 (or whatever weapon this is). Surprise!

Perhaps what's most surprising about this situtation is that a zombie can actually handle a machine gun. But here's another instance of Fragasso not thinking through his story well enough. Fragasso likes to put half-baked political messages in his horror flicks, but it often happens that the messages his films convey are different from the ones he stuffs into his characters' mouths. In this case, the implication is that the local native zombies are dumb, shambling brutes, while the Europeans become talking, thinking zombies after they die: not a very progressive message for someone who means his zombie films as a protest against the exploitation of the Third World by industrialized nations.

So in short, Zombie 4: After Death is a bad joke. Whether or not you think it's a joke worth the telling probably depends on your reaction to the punch-line; that is, the ultra-icky ending, which comes out of nowhere and leaves nothing resolved and everybody dead. The poor hero gets it from behind, with a zombie pushing his entire arm through his body... just another day's work for Jeff Stryker, in other words.

(Good grief; did I just write that? You see what ths movie has reduced me to?)

After Death was never "officially" part of the Zombie series, which was never quite legitimate itself. To recap: Zombi was the European title of George Romero's hit Dawn of the Dead. The totally-unrelated Zombi 2 was made and titled to cash in on the success of Romero's film, though some people (like me) think it stands pretty well on its own. Since Dawn of the Dead was called, er, Dawn of the Dead in the US, Zombi 2 was retitled Zombie for American release... until it showed up on video, at which point some releases referred to is as Zombie 2. Years later, a different producer decided to make Zombie 3, relating it to its immediate predecessor by hiring director Lucio Fulci to shoot it. Fulci, who wasn't well at the time, hated the script and left the production with only an hour's worth of footage in the can. Fragasso and his long-time partner in crime, Bruno Mattei, finished up the picture. Fragasso's later After Death was only retitled Zombie 4 when it appeared on Shriek Show's DVD release. Shriek Show has apparently decided to go the way of T-Z Video and others in artificially extending the Zombie series: they've also released Aristide Massaccesi's Raptor: Killing Birds as Zombie 5. At least After Death has as reasonable a connection to Zombie 3 as 3 had to 2. And at least the new title contains a pun, which -- stupid as it is -- is about as clever as the movie itself ever gets:

Zom -- B-4; After -- Death.

Heh. Are we entertained yet?