I didn’t grow up on Westerns, despite how they were often shoved down my throat. I hated Roy Rogers and John Wayne. The idea of The Lone Ranger and Zorro was all right, but I preferred my masked vigilantes a bit more…Batman. I certainly grew up on Clint Eastwood’s films, and I was always excited to watch Dirty Harry shoot the hell out of the bad guys of San Francisco, but his cowboy flicks? Yawn.
Then Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) came out. I found myself going down a rabbit hole, catching up on all Eastwood’s Westerns, which of course, led me to the work of Sergio Leone and opened me up to the world of Spaghetti Westerns. This ran concurrent with me falling in love with the giallo.
I always had a couple problems, though, like getting my hands on the films I wanted in the pre-internet days: Leone’s Fistful of Dynamite (1971) and Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966). Also, simply knowing about the films was an issue. As far as trade magazines went, I would occasionally come across a nugget about Lucio Fulci who is the director of some of the greatest zombie and giallo films ever made: The Beyond (1981), Zombie (1979), The Psychic (1977) and New York Ripper (1982).
Reading Maitland McDonagh’s indispensable deep dive book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds; The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (1991) came with the revelation that the director of such classics as Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) was one of the writers on Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
The giallo and horror films of Italy have for the most part been so much easier to find since companies like Arrow, Blue Underground and Severin have been giving the films of those genres the red-carpet treatment for several years. But recently an amazing cache of Spaghetti Westerns was dumped on Amazon’s streaming service. Films like Cemetery Without Crosses (1969), A Bullet for the General (1968) — all the movies featuring the character Sartana — and Django films have been a bit exciting for me.
If you are a horror/giallo fan looking to complete the filmography of some of your favorite Italian filmmakers, let me start you on your journey into a mythical American West concocted by some amazing Italian directors. Here are three of my favorite films of the genre.
Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
Director: Lucio Fulci
Loosely based on two short stories by Bret Harte, I Quattro Dell’ Apocalisse aka Four of the Apocalypse was a step back into the genre, after having directed Massacre Time aka The Brute and the Beast in 1966, before moving on to giallo films and a historical drama. Four of the Apocalypse is a weird and moving heartfelt story. It is maybe the most empathic Fulci film I’ve ever seen and yet it’s unmistakably Fulci.
Starring Fabio Testi (Contraband) as Stubby, Lynne Frederick (Vampire Circus) as Bunny, Michael J. Polard (Bonnie and Clyde) as Clem, Harry Baird (The Oblong Box) as Bud and Tomas Milian (Don’t Torture a Duckling) as Chaco, Four of the Apocalypse is a Western road movie about four misfit strangers whose lives get intertwined by chance. Stubby arrives in a little town — a gambler looking for action — but before he can even shuffle his deck, the sheriff rolls up and arrests him.
In the cell he meets a pregnant prostitute named Bunny, Clem who is a drunk, and Bud the gravedigger who communicates with the dead. Outside the jailhouse, a group of hooded vigilantes converge on the town and massacre damn near everyone while the sheriff keeps his head down in his office. The next morning, he turns his prisoners loose on a lengthy journey to the next town. The four find each other’s company easy and become fast friends. Everything goes well until a gunman named Chaco joins them and their world descends into hell.
With a folk-rock soundtrack reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), and a scene of psychotropic horror and sexual violence that feels like the dark side of Easy Rider (1969), Fulci had his finger on the pulse of modern cinema/cynicism. Four of the Apocalypse carves out an almost unique spot for itself in the history of Westerns, occupied by only a handful of films that lean into horror like Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973).
It would make an excellent double feature with Apocalypse. Fulci’s sure hand is all over this film: shots of a naked Bud stumbling through a ghost town’s cemetery talking to the spirits that reside there, cannibalism, an opening massacre and a downbeat ending. We see what the Godfather of Gore will eventually accomplish in works of art like The Beyond (1981) and City of the Living Dead (1980), but Apocalypse may actually be Fulci’s strongest, best-looking and most cohesive film.
Earlier, though, I said the movie was heartfelt which is something there is little room for in Fulci’s Lovecraftian epics of the undead. The relationship that develops between Stubby and Bunny is beautifully crafted amongst the creeping tragedy their lives become. In an extended scene, where they finally make it to another town just as Bunny is going into labor, we see a town full of rough necks become a group of loving surrogate fathers to Bunny’s bastard child as Stubby sets off to find and kill Chaco.
In the hands of a lesser director, this scene would have been saccharine. Somehow Fulci makes it endearing and even charming and believable. I would put Four of the Apocalypse up against any Western, spaghetti or otherwise, you want to name. Something I learned from the giallo documentary, Hanging Shadows (2007), was that in Italy if you were a Fellini or an Antonini you were called “maestro,” but if you were a Fulci or Cozzi (someone who made genre films, particularly horror) you were an “artisan.”
Fulci hated that because it said he was just a workman hired for a job and not an artist. It was a classist description and culturally there was no respect for the artisans, at least at the time. Here in the states, we would get these films and see them as artistic, compared to our domestic films, but Fulci never got to experience the respect he deserved in his own country before he died. Four of the Apocalypse is as much a testament to his power in cinema as The Beyond.
A Bullet for the General (1967)
Director: Damiano Damiani
Coming out the same year as Corbucci’s Django, Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and Fulci’s Massacre Time (1968), Damiani’s A Bullet for the General was an overtly political Western, packed to the gills with blood and cynicism. Damiani may be best known to American audiences as the director of Amityville II: The Possession (1982), but he made a number of giallo and crime thrillers through the 1970s and ’80s.
A Bullet for the General stars Gian Maria Volonte (For a Few Dollars More) as El Chuncho, Klaus Kinski (Agguirre; The Wrath of God) as El Santo, Martine Beswick (From Russia With Love) as Adelita and Lou Castel (The American Friend) as Nino. Set during the Mexican revolution, El Chuncho and his brother El Santo — Kinski as a two-fisted monk blowing the hell out of soldiers loyal to the government, is one of my favorite Kinski roles — lead a band of revolutionaries loyal to General Elias who needs guns to topple the corrupt government.
As the team robs a train transporting soldiers, they get some unexpected help from an American who claims to have a price on his head and wants to join up with El Chuncho to make some money. Chuncho calls the youthful American Nino and quickly comes to admire the young man’s brass balls and ruthlessness. But it soon becomes apparent that Nino isn’t exactly who claims to be as he starts to play Chuncho’s top soldiers against each other.
El Chuncho starts off riding high — a hero of the people — and beloved by the people he liberates along the way. But by the time he presents himself to the general with a cache of rifles and a machine gun, he finds that he sold out his beliefs, lost everyone and became the very thing he originally stood up against. And worse, we learn that Nino is an American assassin hired by the Mexican government to assassinate General Elias. And Chuncho led him straight to the hero of the people.
That’s a very straightforward and simplified summary of a very nuanced and layered film. Damiani crafted a sprawling epic worthy of Leone; it’s as pessimistic as Peckinpah. As good as any of the action or the tension-filled third act, is the lengthy epilogue. Chuncho and Nino meet up again and it’s all about class and how much are your convictions really worth. It ends with one of the greatest lines in the history of the Western which is shouted by Chuncho as he runs down a train track: “Don’t buy bread with your money…buy dynamite!”
Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with Damiani’s filmography so, I can’t compare A Bullet to his other work. However, I do — and other critics agree — feel like A Bullet has a very American sensibility. It lacks the artistic flourish on display in Apocalypse or Once Upon a Time in the West, instead going for a more straightforward shooting style. I don’t know if that’s Damiani or the budget/time frame he had to work with, but if Fulci is Thomas Hart Benton then Damiani is Edward Hopper: every bit the accomplished artist, just with a more controlled and deliberate appearance.
Arizona Colt Returns (1970)
Director: Sergio Martino
Sergio Martino was a name I was barely familiar with three years ago. I knew he had directed the proto-slasher, Torso (1973), but it wasn’t until Arrow Video released the double film set of Your Vice is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (1972) with Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981) — the connection is that they are both loose adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” — that I became a fan and started actively seeking out his films (most of which aren’t readily available in the states).
Last year, Severin Films released a restored special edition of his classic All the Colors of the Dark (1972) starring Edwige Fenech. It’s about a woman plagued by nightmares who is invited to a black mass and finds herself plunging into a swirling abyss of murder and madness.
But before his with work in giallo, Martino made Arizona Colt Returns. Ignore the generic title. Arizona is stylish and violent, but it takes its time to really get going. As good as this film is, it’s honestly the weakest of the three. A better title that would fit within the perimeters of the article would be the aforementioned Once Upon A Time in the West since it was co-written by Dario Argento before he made The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970).
But that felt like it would defeat the purpose of the article, delving into such a well-known title. Also, Leone never made a giallo-god, but imagine if he had though! Arizona would fit nicely between Apocalypse and Bullet if you were to binge all three because it certainly wouldn’t be the strongest start or finisher. What makes Arizona worth talking about though, is the third act, which reminded me a lot Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
Arizona Colt Returns is the first of two films (despite the title) and I imagine this may have started off as a franchise like Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy, but Arizona was recast, and Martino didn’t return for the sequel. It stars Anthony Steffon (Few Dollars for Django) as Arizona Colt, Roberto Carmardiel (A Few Dollars More) as Double Whiskey, Aldo Sambrell (Fistful of Dynamite) as Keene and Jose Manuel Martin (A Bullet for the General) as Jose Gonzalez Moreno. We open with two vigilantes hunting Arizona as he has a price on his head.
After Arizona and Double Whiskey take care of them, Arizona heads into town to straighten out this bounty nonsense. It turns out Arizona was framed by his old enemy Keene and has to fake his death to escape town. Meanwhile, Keene and his gang ride into a wealthy man’s villa and massacre men and women alike. The landowner then hires Arizona to kill Keene. Eventually, Arizona catches up to the gang, but gets captured, tied upside down to a large wooden X and tortured. This is the start of where I see parallels to Rambo: First Blood Part II.
After John Rambo is released from prison, and sent on a mission into Vietnam to locate some POWs, he’s captured, hung in an X and dipped into leech infested water before being drug out and tortured by a sadistic Soviet operative. After which, both Arizona and Rambo are saved by a woman who dies for them before going on a one-man vengeance fueled bloodbath.
Rambo: First Blood Part II was directed by George Cosmatos (father of Panos, who directed the excellent Mandy), a Greek filmmaker who grew up in Florence, Italy. He also made my favorite Sylvester Stallone film, Cobra (1986) and the great Kurt Russell led Tombstone (1993). If Cosmatos didn’t have some residual memory of Arizona in the back of his mind when he made Rambo: First Blood Part II, I’ll be shocked.
We’re spiraling down the wrong rabbit hole, though. The third act really is great. It is primarily fueled by Anthony Steffon laying down a template for 1980s action stars. kicking ass with a grin and a wisecrack; Aldo Sambrell is a worthy villain who is properly cruel and fleshed out. It’s not as emotionally devastating as Apocalypse or as smart as Bullet — Martino would go on to make far superior films — but I think a “mediocre” Martino film is still a standout above the glut Leone imitators.