After Death / Zombie 4: After Death / Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 / Oltre la Morte (1988/1990) -**½
Believe it or not, apparently even screenwriter Claudio Fragasso was disappointed with the way Bruno Mattei handled the job after taking over Zombie 3 from an ailing and disgusted Lucio Fulci. Of course, Fragasso being Fragasso, this was due not so much to the completed film being a steaming pile of shit as to Mattei’s decision to scale back the extreme graphic violence called for by the original script. So no sooner was Zombie 3 in the can than Fragasso convinced the bosses at Flora Film to let him do yet another zombie flick, and to put him in the director’s chair this time. This was a pretty bold decision, when you get right down to it. Flora was in financial trouble at the time, and Italian horror films were no longer getting the kind of wide distribution which they had enjoyed up until about 1985. Gut-munching zombies in particular were a threatened species in the dual aftermath of Great Britain’s Video Nasties panic and the mid-80’s Satan scare in the United States; the English-speaking market had long accounted for much of the Italian horror industry’s profits, so the ascendancy of conservative finger-waggers in the US and UK was not a trend Flora could afford to take lightly. Nevertheless, Fragasso got his zombie movie, and though censors in both Italy and Britain gave it a sound working-over (it wouldn’t see wide release in the States until just a few years ago), After Death did indeed turn out significantly bloodier than its predecessor. And fortunately for us, rather than coming out an agonizing celluloid root canal like Zombie 3, After Death is rather entertaining in a clumsy, dim-witted way.
Despite its Philippine locations and the efforts of its English-language distributors to pass it off as an entry in the Zombie series, After Death actually has a lot more in common with Lamberto Bava’s Demons and Demons 2. Certainly the first zombie we see far more closely resembles the possessed undead in those movies than it does the shambling corpses of Romero and Fulci. On a remote tropical island, a team of scientists have set up shop looking for a cure for cancer and other dread diseases. They chose the island in question because some of the herbs used ceremonially and medicinally by the local voodoo cult seemed to offer some promise for their own research. But alas, their experiments have pissed off the island’s voodoo priest, and he first curses the Westerners with some kind of plague before sacrificing his wife in order to open “the Third Gate of Hell,” and unleash an army of the living dead. The scientists arrive on the scene at the witch doctor’s underground jungle hideout to have words with him just after the woman has finished sinking into the earth in a special effect so cheap you almost have to applaud Fragasso’s courage in using it. They’re still having words when she digs her way out again as an inhumanly fast and strong zombie-thing with claws and fangs exactly like those of the monsters in the Bava films, and she makes short work of the whole crew, who accomplish nothing but the too-little, too-late slaying of the houngan.
While all that’s going on, the last of the scientists (who evidently figured he had better things to do than go with his comrades to chew out an ill-tempered sorcerer) is fleeing with his wife and preschool-aged daughter through the forest. What they’re running to is open to question, but it seems safe to say that they’re running from the gang of black-robed zombies who kill and eat the two adults as soon as they pause to catch their breath. Mrs. Scientist has just enough time before the zombies get her to send her daughter off on her own with a special zombie-repelling pendant around her neck.
Twenty years later, the little girl has grown up to be Candice Daly, from Hell Hunters and Liquid Dreams; her name is Jenny, but we won’t be finding that out for close to an hour. As for how she survived alone in a jungle full of carnivorous zombies, or how she found her way back to the safety of civilization, those are both things which we won’t be finding out at all. All we can be sure of at this point is that a friend of Jenny’s named Louise (Adrianne Joseph) has dragged her along on a vacation with her boyfriend, Tommy (Don Wilson, of Alien from the Deep, who should under no circumstances be confused with the man of the same name who used to kickbox professionally, and now makes sorry-ass direct-to-video action movies), and some buddies of his, all of them Vietnam vets who became soldiers of fortune after the fall of Saigon. Hey— at least this means there’ll be a reason for them to get all Ramboed out when they cross paths with the houngan’s zombie army a bit later. As you’ve probably gathered by now, the site of this vacation is none other than the island from the prologue, although what has drawn Tommy, Louise, Mad (Jim Moss, from Future War and Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom), Dan (Jim Gaines, of Enter the Ninja and Opposing Force), and Rod (Nick Nicholson, from Demon of Paradise and Dune Warriors) to it is anybody’s guess.
I’m similarly at a loss to say what the other three lumps of Expendable Meat are doing here. David (Massimo Vanni, from 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Rats: Night of Terror), Chuck (Chuck Peyton, who, under the pseudonym Jeff Stryker, was one of the biggest names in gay porn during the 80’s and 90’s— look for him in Powertool and Santa’s Cummin’), and Valerie are hiking around in search of the ruined old science lab and the voodoo priest’s hideout, but nobody seems to have seen much point in supplying them with any discernable motivation for doing so. Really, they’re just here to do the same job as the film crew in Demons 2, and reawaken the undead through an act of really egregious stupidity— in this case, reading aloud from the witch doctor’s book the magic words which are specifically identified as the formula for raising the dead. (“If you want to open the Gates of Hell today, these four words you must say…” Christ, the two lines aren’t even in the same meter… Worst sinister couplet ever.) This, naturally, leads to the immediate demise of David and Valerie, and it looks at first as though Chuck is a goner, too. He gets bitten up pretty badly, and we’ll be seeing later on that the undead pass on their condition in exactly that way, but luckily for Chuck, Fragasso and screenwriter Rossella Drudi (also Fragasso’s wife, by the way) are such incompetent twits that they soon forget all about his wounds.
Meanwhile, the vacationing mercenaries and their feminine companions have encountered some inexplicable engine trouble aboard their motorboat (which, I’d like to point out, couldn’t possibly have made it to any island deserving of the appellation “remote” unless it was first launched from a much larger vessel which is nowhere in evidence here), and have put ashore, supposedly to fix it. That they in fact do no such thing, but rather wander off immediately into a jungle which began reverberating to the shrieks of the undead the moment they got within earshot of it, is just one of the many, many crimes against Reason which we will lay at the feet of Drudi and Fragasso before this is all over. Anyway, while he and his pals are engaging in this remarkably stupid behavior, Tommy notices that they’re being followed. The highly trained mercenaries, however, do not. Tommy deliberately falls back from his companions, and charges off after their pursuer the next time he spots him through the trees. The highly trained mercenaries don’t see that he’s gone until a good fifteen (movie-time) minutes later. By the time Mad and the boys realize they’re one body short, Tommy has caught up with his quarry, and beaten him senseless with a big rock. However, the black-clad man is really a zombie, and he soon bounces right back and sinks his teeth into Tommy’s neck; only the wounded man’s screams enable the highly trained mercenaries to follow his trail through the woods. The zombie, meanwhile, escapes undetected once again.
And what do you suppose our staggeringly inept heroes do now? Why, they go tramping off to bring Tommy to the ruins of the medical research lab, which they shouldn’t even know exists in the first place! Here, they uncover two important things while looking for some first-aid gear with which to treat Tommy. Rod turns up a crate containing a pair of M-16s and about a zillion rounds of ammunition (he distinctly says two M-16’s, too, even though we later see no fewer than four of the things being waved around), while Jenny finds a small table on which somebody has set about three dozen candles in a semicircular array. Now, considering that she instantly identifies these candles as the setup to an anti-zombie voodoo spell which will be completed if she places her late mother’s amulet (which she still carries) in the center of the arc (and I ask you— how the fuck does Jenny remember all this voodoo shit from back when she was four years old?!), you might ask how it came to be that the candles are already lit. There’s no sign of any natives living on the island anymore, and it hardly seems likely that the zombies cast the spell against themselves when they apparently went into hibernation after killing all the scientists and, presumably, exterminating the islanders. Are we supposed to believe that the goddamned candles have been burning merrily away on that table for the last twenty years?!?! Regardless, Jenny tells her new mercenary homeboys all about the protection spell, and Nobel laureate Rod immediately blows all the candles out.
We will therefore have no sympathy whatsoever for these humongous tools when the zombies surround the lab building that night, or when Tommy dies and comes back to life right in the middle of the initial wave of the attack. Chances are, they’d all have died messy and well-earned deaths right then and there, but Chuck arrives on their doorstep in the nick of time to provide them with the vital piece of intelligence that the zombies can be slain by a shot to the head. How he knows that is beyond me. Jenny, too, makes a discovery at this point, when she re-lights the candles— it turns out the effect of the spell is to immobilize all the zombies. Or at any rate, it immobilizes all the zombies except a few which the filmmakers require as a plot device. Far from being immobilized, those zombies come leaping in through the windows like a bunch of rancid ninjas, battle their way past the mercenaries with some re-animated kung fu, and knock over the table with the candles on it before being destroyed. Henceforth, all concerned will be progressively overwhelmed by the undead, a fate which they take great pains to hasten by behaving as idiotically as possible. What kind of fool turns his back on a man who is both recently dead of a zombie bite and clutching a loaded assault rifle?!?!
You know, it seems almost fairy-tale appropriate that Claudio Fragasso, one of Europe’s worst screenwriters, would end up marrying a woman whose writing is even worse than his. And it seems comparably fitting that Fragasso would leave the set of Bruno Mattei’s worst zombie flick and turn right around to direct one of his own that is in many respects even more imbecilic. The difference is that Fragasso as a director brings a degree of energy to After Death that was entirely missing from Zombie 3, and while he hired some awful, awful actors, they at least did their jobs with more panache than Deran Serafian and Beatrice Ring. At no point while watching After Death did I have to restrain myself from throwing things at my television, and the film left me in a better mood than that in which I started. Knowing Fragasso as I do, I realize that there is nothing to be gained from asking any more of him.
Because you can never have too many putrescent corpses shambling about chewing on people, the B-Masters Cabal has decided to join Cold Fusion Video in dedicating the month of October to zombies, zombies, and more zombies. Click the banner below to drop in on Undead Central.