Sharp-dressed gambler Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi) arrives in the western town of Saw Flats, Utah in 1876, looking to make a big score. Instead the local Sheriff (Donal O'Brien) throws him in jail along with a pregnant teenage prostitute named Bunny (Lynne Frederick), a black man by the name of Bud (Harry Baird) who claims he can see ghosts, and drunken misfit Clem (Michael J. Pollard). As things turn out these four prove the sole survivors when masked men working for the so-called 'Citizens' Committee' massacre every miscreant in town. Taking a bribe, the sheriff lets Stubby and his companions leave town on an arduous journey across the barren, unforgiving desert. On their way the misfits meet a friendly Mormon family and narrowly escape gun-toting bandits, only to end up attracting the dangerously unstable Chaco (Tomas Milian).
As the title suggests Four for the Apocalypse is a grim, uncompromising western, tonally not far removed from the zombie films with which Lucio Fulci later made his name. The film belongs to a wave of so-called gothic spaghetti westerns including Enzo G. Castellari's surreal Keoma (1976) and Sergio Martino's similarly apocalyptic Mannaja (1977). Such films were more or less the last gasp of a genre fast-fading towards the mid-to-late Seventies. True to form Fulci ensures the violence herein is bloody and brutal including a torture scene where Chaco pins a sheriff's badge to one victim's bare chest and a shocking cannibalistic twist. Yet rather than a straightforward kill-fest Fulci tries to tell a more contemplative, philosophical story.
The film charts the protagonists' metaphysical journey from despair to redemption. As the titular four traverse the desert they meet different characters who each share their own philosophies about life culminating in Chaco as the Devil incarnate. At first Chaco proves an invaluable ally. He saves them from bandits while his skill as a hunter and sharpshooter ensures they have food. But he turns out to have a real sadistic streak. Chaco gets the group high on peyote, binds Stubby and Bud captive, shoots Clem's knees and rapes Bunny. Of course. She's a woman in an Italian exploitation film – did you expect any different? To Fulci's credit he avoids eroticizing the rape (although the region one DVD allegedly includes a more explicit version of the scene as an extra) but keeps his camera focused on Stubby's rage rather than Bunny's trauma. As if to underline this blow to male pride, Chaco then kicks him in the groin. The characters recover from the traumatic incident with surprising ease and good cheer but with the murder of the Bible folk Fulci implies there is no room for mercy and charity in a world filled with animals like Chaco. This reactionary message goes against the tone of the opening scenes.
Early on the film exhibits the same strong sense of social satire evident in other great Fulci films (e.g. Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) or La Pretora (1976)) as the upstanding residents of Saw Flats don Klu Klux Klan-style hoods and gun down everyone they don't like in the name of law and order. Fulci co-opts the basic underlining theme of John Ford's seminal western Stagecoach (1939) wherein a band of so-called disreputable folk prove far more moral, heroic and admirable than the respectable citizens. However, Fulci's film suffers thematic inconsistencies. He draws the hippie-styled Chaco as an anti-establishment figure and thus muddles the social satire. Yet taken simply on a dramatic level Four of the Apocalypse is in parts poetic, humane and engaging. Fulci even takes a stab at Fordian pathos with an overlong but affecting scene with a town full of surly woman-hating miners charmed by the birth of Bunny's baby.
Handsome Italian action star Fabio Testi ably handles a far broader character arc than the average spaghetti western hero. He pulls off the change from self-serving tenderfoot to impassioned anti-hero through a range of subtle physical and emotional transformations. By contrast cult American actor Michael J. Pollard is sorely underused in a stock role that makes little use of his abilities and Harry Baird's Bud is a borderline ridiculous character. Elsewhere the lovely Lynne Frederick, future wife of Peter Sellers and later David Frost, acquits herself surprisingly well as the tragic teenage prostitute. Another staple of gothic spaghetti westerns were the folk rock soundtracks. Here the trio of Bixio, Frizzi and Tempura supply one of the better examples performed by The Cook & Benjamin Franklin Group (?).
Italian director whose long career could best be described as patchy, but who was also capable of turning in striking work in the variety of genres he worked in, most notably horror. After working for several years as a screenwriter, he made his debut in 1959 with the comedy The Thieves. Various westerns, musicals and comedies followed, before Fulci courted controversy in his homeland with Beatrice Cenci, a searing attack on the Catholic church.