“There were once a group of men who believed they could solve the mystery of mysteries... death itself.” Mm-hmm... How many times has that worked out for the best, eh? And so it goes on a mysterious tropical island as a ranting, robed voodoo sorcerer sics his zombie wife (?!) on a group of gun-toting interlopers. The sole survivor of the resulting massacre is a little girl entrusted with a curse-breaking magic amulet by her parents, shortly before both become zombie chow. Years later, sheer coincidence draws pretty Jenny (Candice Daly) back to the island along with Chuck (gay porn star Chuck Peyton!) and a gaggle of (supposedly) hard-bitten mercenaries whose beer guzzling, drug-snorting antics with tag-along floozies Louise (Adrianne Joseph) and Valerie make them seem more like aging heavy metal rockers. Our dopey heroes discover a group of equally inept scientists have accidentally exacerbated the zombie problem. Miami Vice-styled Tommy (Don Wilson) is the first to fall to the zombie bite before his friends grab their guns and do battle with hordes of springy, dribbling, kick-boxing, surprisingly chatty living dead.
By 1990 the Italian zombie genre had come to resemble one of its own shambling, decrepit corpses. Its leading light, Lucio Fulci, failed to halt the decline with his utterly inept Zombie 3 (1988), but this did not stop that film’s screenwriter Claudio Fragasso from giving the undead one last bite at the entrails. Fragasso had been a regular collaborator with infamous hack-of-all-trades Bruno Mattei, serving as his general dogsbody in scripting, special effects, second unit work and occasionally co-directing the likes of Zombie Creeping Flesh (1981) a.k.a. Virus. His own output as director had been spotty at best, including Monster Dog (1985) - a werewolf movie starring rock legend Alice Cooper - and the horrendous Troll 2 (1989), although he later scored a surprise critical hit with his accomplished crime thriller Palermo Milano (1996). Leading lady Candice Daly later found brief stardom on daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless, after roles in cult films including the erotic science fiction thriller Liquid Dreams (1991) and Hell Hunters (1986), a Nazi zombie movie co-starring former Bond girl Maud Adams and aging matinee idol Stewart Granger. Sadly, Daly was found dead in her apartment in 2004, at the age of forty-one, in supposedly shady circumstances.
On a visceral level, After Death (sometimes billed as Zombie 4) ranks alongside Beyond Darkness (1990) as one of Fragasso’s more accomplished horror films. He mounts his zombie attacks with some verve. Garish lighting imparts a lurid comic book tone while close-ups relish Franco di Girolami’s gross and gooey makeup effects. In keeping with the increasingly eccentric depiction of the living dead, post-Zombie 3, these zombies are a wacky bunch of pranksters who leap and cackle and occasionally deliver heartelt soliloquys to lull victims into a false sense of security (“Join us. It’ll be a new experience for you”). Some of them shoot rifles while others can be subdued with judo moves.
Few Italian zombie film directors were ever able to stage an emotionally engaging scene (and yes, that includes Lucio Fulci), and Fragasso upholds this lacklustre tradition. His direction wavers between slapdash and striking. While the film has a nightmarish quality, it too often uses simplistic fatalism to paper over an inconsistent plot. The last five minutes are particularly nonsensical, violating even its own internalized logic unless one accepts the mad sorcerer’s opening rant that “no-one can escape the voodoo” (Bwah-ha-ha!). Even so, his doom-laden warning would be a lot scarier were he not simultaneously caressing his own ample man-boobs.