As it commonly happens in regards to the Italian horror industry, history is confused on exactly how the fourth "official" Zombi film came to be. The facts are these: Claudio Fragasso had somehow convinced the good folks at Flora Film to put him in charge of a zombie picture right around the same time that his script was being used to turn Zombi 3 into an unaccountably awful motion picture by Bruno Mattei (insofar as any motion picture by Bruno Mattei can be unaccountably awful). Titled Oltre la morte or After Death ("or" here meaning that I'm not certain which title it was released under in Italy), it was yet another gutmuncher set on a tropical island, the de facto setting for Italian zombie pictures. Somewhere along the line, despite Zombi 3 performing not-so-well at the box office and sucking more than the cluster of black holes at the center of the galaxy, somebody at Flora - maybe even Fragasso - retitled the film Zombi 4: After Death, and since Flora owned the Zombi francise, all the many other Zombi 4s out there just had to revert to their original production names.

The unanswered questions in this story: was After Death put into production before or after the release of Zombi 3? Had it yet been released in Italy when Zombi 4 was added to its title? What compelled Fragasso to pitch another zombie film to Flora when the problems on the Zombi 3 shoot were so fresh in everyone's mind, and what compelled the studio to greenlight him? These are mostly questions of limited academic interest, but there is one thing everyone would like to know: would this indeed have been greenlit if anyone knew how fantastically bad it was going to end up being?

The answer that one is almost certainly, "how could they not know," given the general quality level of Fragasso's films as writer and/or director up to that point. And yet here we are with Zombi 4: After Death, a film not quite so dispassionately terrible as its predecessor, but significantly bloodier and zanier, and for those reasons a much greater entertainment, even though virtually all of that entertainment is completely inadvertent. It's a film made with the energy that a sugar-crazed child might bring to bear, which wreaks hell on little things like continuity and story logic and pacing and camera set-ups, but at least that brings along a certain manic throughline missing in Zombi 3.

After a magnificently ponderous voice-over explaining how the secret of immortality yada yada tampering in God's domain, we open in a cave where a crazy-eyed voodoo priest is incanting something while his crazier-eyed wife writhes around dancing, whereupon he kills her by throwing her into a deep hole in the ground. Just then, a group of white scientists bursts into the cave to have some exposition tossed their way. It seems that the scientists, many years ago, came to this particular island to study the cure for death, which they believe to be found in the local voodoo cult's secret herbs. Their experiments, alas, did not cure the death of the natives so much as accelerate their deaths, and the priest has finally had enough of it. He curses the whites with a plague of zombies, and we learn that his wife's death was the sacrifice necessary to seal the curse, right about the time that the priest gets shot by a surprisingly large number of automatic weapons for a group of scientists to be carrying, and the dead wife springs forth from the ground with giant fake pointy teeth and some sort of muddy red bloody scaly skin on her face. She kills the scientists in some terrific POV shots that look like a twelfth-generation Raimi knockoff, with watery red blood getting generally splashed on the actors and the camera lens. The set and the lighting both look they came straight from a late-'70s episode of Doctor Who, the makeup looks like oatmeal and cherry Kool-Aid, the "hole to Hell" effect looks like something you could set up in your backyard, and the whole thing smacks of having been produced by enthusiastic film students on the very first day of school for about $30. It is magnificent, wonderful trash, and it is undoubtedly the most entertaining part of the whole damn movie.

I'd also like to point out that all this makes After Death a significantly better sequel to Zombi 2 than Zombi 3 was. What did we have in Zombi 2After Death? Voodoo and a group of white men whose experiments go terribly wrong. What did we have in Zombi 3? The US (maybe) military and a loose can of bio-weaponry. I'm not saying there's any continuity between the films, of course, but at least there's more of a thematic connection. Not that the relative quality of the films has much do with thematic connections, but in the Italian horror realm, you grab onto any anchor you can find.

After that first scene plays out a bit, we cut to a white man and his wife and their little blonde daughter running through the jungle. We are never given even the smallest hint as to who these people are, or why the zombies chasing them look like bone-white people with bad complexions dressed in black ninja outfits instead of the muddy pointy-teeth zombies who are still killing their way through the scientists thanks to the magic of cross-cutting. Dame Contrivance separates the father from the others, and he gets real dead; the mother quickly presses her little voodoo necklace into her daughter's hands, tells her to run and Mommy will be with you soon, and then it's twenty years later.

No, seriously. It's twenty years later and a group of people whose names and occupations will trickle out erratically over the next 50 minutes. The one who matters for right now is Jenny (Candice Daly), who we quickly recognise as the little girl from the last scene, thanks to the not at all obvious use of several close-ups of the voodoo necklace she's wearing. How did she get off the island alive? We will never find out. What has she been doing for twenty years? We will never find out. Why is she now returning to the island? We will never find out, but selective amnesia has something to do with it. I love Italian filmmakers.

I honestly had a hard time figuring who was who and which actor had which part, but the rest of the film basically consists of: Jenny and her friends (a girl, a guy, and three 'Nam vets who are now mercenaries - you know, that whole kind of sextet) have gone for some insufficiently well-described reason to find the island overrun by the living dead, though I don't think they know about the living dead. Jenny certainly doesn't. Anyways, it's a very remote island far out in the Caribbean or the Philippines or somewhere else, so naturally the adventurers travel there on a little speed boat that probably couldn't stand up to a trip around Lake Superior, to say nothing of the open sea in an archipelago. Meanwhile, three scientists are poking around looking for the old research project and the attached notes on achieving immortality; the first time we see the leader he has John Denver hair and John Denver glasses, and I kept thinking of him as John Denver for the rest of the time he was onscreen, which didn't turn out to be very long. The scientists find a shrine with lit candles (that have apparently been lit for at least 20 years, but we're never told by whom, even though the mysterious candle-lighter will keep it up for the rest of the movie. God, I love Italian filmmakers) and a warning that basically says, "these candles are the only thing keeping the zombies quiet," so clearly John Denver blows out the candles.

Naturally, some gutmunching ensues and the two decimated groups meet up arbitrarily and spend the rest of the movie trying and failing to secure the old research hospital against the hordes of zombies. These are all the shrouded white ninja zombies, not the muddy pointy-teethed zombies. In fact, we never see the pointy-teethed zombies again. If I didn't know better, I'd say that some of that early footage was shot for some abandoned project, and crudely stuck into After Death, but that seems impossible! These are the Italians we're talking about! Long story short, Jenny and the only guy whose name I'm sure of, Chuck the scientist (Chuck Peyton, AKA adult film star Jeff Stryker) end up fighting off a whole horde of zombies alone, and then the least-intelligible ending that I think I have ever seen in a horror film happens. Apparently, mirrors turn you into a zombie. Or something.

Of course I could not help but adore a film as batshit nuts as After Death. It's a zombie film by the director of the evergreen Troll 2, and it's exactly what you'd expect out of that pedigree, except that it's probably even weirder than that high water mark of trashy filmmaking. Unlike Troll 2 or Zombi 3, After Death wasn't actually written by Fragasso, you see; he managed to find someone even worse at the art of screenwriting than himself. Her name was Rossella Drudi, and she was married to Claudio Fragasso, and I think it's safe to say that mere chance cannot describe a world in which the two worst screenwriters ever were both active in Italian horror at the same time and ended up marrying each other. Clearly some force greater than mankind was bringing these two together in the hopes perhaps of creating an offspring whose writing skills would literally destroy humanity. They had no child, though, only After Death and a few other screenplays, which frankly are almost enough to do the job.

It's a brilliant bad movie, and while no moment matches the "flying zombie head in the fridge" scene from Zombi 3, there's plenty of other stuff to make the film more than worthwhile. The kung-fu zombies Bruno Mattei brought to the last film make several more appearances, along with zombies that talk and zombies that shuffle brainlessly and lots and lots of zombies that spit green muck at you. There's one of the least-present plots in a subgenre not noted for tricky storytelling, some of the broadest performances with some of the worst dubbing in any European film of that vintage, and overall, the sense that nothing went right at any point during the shoot. I urge you all to rent it at the first conceivable opportunity.

Reviews in this series
Dawn of the Dead / Zombi (Romero, 1978)
Zombi 2 / Zombie / Zombie Flesh Eaters] (Fulci, 1979)
Zombi 3 (Fulci / Mattei, 1988)
Zombi 4: After Death (Fragasso, 1988)