Friday, 5 October 2018

Exploito All’Italiana / October Horrors # 3:
Cannibal Apocalypse
(Antonio Margheriti, 1980)

AKA ‘Invasion of the Flesh Hunters’, ‘Cannibals in the Streets’.

Readers who have been keeping up with my reviews of Italian exploitation films over the past few years will probably not need to be reminded that I am not a fan of the Italian cannibal sub-genre. Notwithstanding ‘Cannibal Holocaust’s allegedly subversive political message, I find the socio-cultural context of these films deeply uncomfortable, whilst their execution is generally shoddy and mean-spirited, and their inclusion of genuine animal cruelty footage is absolutely abhorrent.

So, not a fun time in order words, at least for those of us who can tear themselves free from the tangled webs of prurience and nostalgia that drive so many film fans to obsess over the damn things. If schlock masterworks like Zombi Holocaust have taught me anything however, it is that the weird interzone wherein cannibal movie tropes intersect with more fantastical elements (well, zombies, anyway) is, by contrast, almost always a whole lot of fun - but just tread carefully out there folks, and keep a close eye on the wildlife.

It was in this spirit that I recently found myself sitting down to watch Antonio Margheriti’s ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’, and I am thrilled to report that I found it to be perhaps the very best entry in the rarefied sub-sub-genre of cannibal/zombie cross-overs, and, in fact, one of the most wonderfully demented ‘80s Italian horror films I’ve seen to date.

Despite the redundancy of its blunt, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’-aping title, Margheriti’s film is a deeply eccentric affair (interestingly, it was released in Italy as the more quizzical / humourous ‘Apocalypse Domani’ – ie, ‘Apocalypse Tomorrow’). Scripted by the ubiquitous Dardano Sacchetti and shot at least partially in Atlanta, Georgia, ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’ entirely ditches the cannibal film’s usual “WASP assholes meet a sticky end in the jungle” formula in favour of a storyline that takes the Vietnam flashback anxieties of Bob Clark’s ‘Deathdream’ or John Flynn’s ‘Rolling Thunder’, the urban virus outbreak paranoia of Cronenberg’s ‘Rabid’ and the no-fucks-given combat zombie mayhem of Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Nightmare City’... then hits max power on the blender, with deliriously exhilarating results.

Things do at least begin in the jungle – or at least, in one of those versions of the Vietnam War recreated using potted plants and gel lighting on a small soundstage – wherein Sergeant John Saxon (YES) is leading his boys in an ambush against a deeply entrenched cell of Viet Cong guerrillas (an enjoyable away-day for the staff of the Chinese restaurant nearest to De Paolis Studios, presumably).

Once the waiters have been defeated, Saxon’s G.I.s do a quick recon on their hideout, and find two of their MIA buddies cruelly imprisoned in a hole in the ground topped with a bamboo cage. (One of them is played by pasty-faced Italio-gore regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice, and the name of his character is – I kid you not - Charles Bukowski.)

Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong with Charlie and his fellow prisoner (Tom, played by blaxsploitation regular Tony King) – well, besides the obvious, I mean. That they are chewing on some suspiciously human-looking bones is perhaps forgivable given their grim circumstances, but the two men are also foaming at the mouth and seem entirely deranged and unable to sensibly communicate. Once they are released furthermore, they display a worrying tendency toward biting people, beginning with Sgt Saxon. Uh-Oh.

Now, if you’re awaiting some insight into the nature or origins of this cannibal/zombie plague, don’t hold your breath. The possibility that the Viet Cong infected the men with the virus for some reason seems rather distasteful, but nothing in the film specifically suggests this (although I suppose we might wonder why they were kept alive by their captors given that they’re obviously such a menace). It’s equally likely however that they just ran into a cannibal in the jungle, or perhaps they were exposed to some sort of chemical, or were bitten by an infected monkey, or, well... I don’t know! Your guess is as good as mine, as Margheriti and Sacchetti certainly give us sweet F.A. to work with here. These guys are just weird, demented cannibals now, alright? What more do you need to know?

Anyway, whatever subsequently happened in ‘Nam, stays in ‘Nam, as Saxon (I should switch to using his character name I suppose – NORMAN HOPPER, folks) wakes up in the traditional cold sweat, and we flash forward an unspecified number of years to find him back at home in the States, shakily readjusting to civilian life. Hopper’s wife (Elizabeth Turner) is a local TV news reporter, and they have a handsome, white timber period property in what looks to be a quiet, leafy suburb. He has nightmares and feels a bit funny sometimes (the glossy photos of war crimes and exploding huts he keeps pinned to the wall probably don’t help), but he’s basically doing ok.

As you might imagine, Charlie and Tom are doing considerably less ok. Confined to a high security mental institution, Tom has shown little sign of improvement vis-a-vis his feral, flesh-eating condition, but Charlie has managed to recover to some degree, and has in fact been granted a release from the hospital – which is quite an achievement, given that he basically looks clinically dead.

I’m unsure whether or not it was a conscious element of Dardano’s script, but there is definitely a strong class dynamic in play here re: the very different circumstances in which Norman and Charlie find themselves after their return from ‘Nam. This makes the scene in which Charlie (who is clearly destitute, and presumably homeless) calls up his former C.O. from a payphone to ask whether he wants to meet up for a beer feel extremely uncomfortable.

Obviously not relishing the prospect of chugging bud-lite in some dive whilst swapping “hey, remember that time you found me trapped in a hole gnawing a human thigh bone?” type stories, Norman turns Charlie down cold, but immediately feels guilty about his decision – and rightly so perhaps, in view of what goes down next.

Given the bums rush by Norm, Charlie does what any lonely, traumatized Vietnam vet would do, and goes to see an Umberto Lenzi war movie which is playing down the block. Distracted by the enthusiastic necking of the couple in front of him however, our boy soon snaps and decides he fancies a chunk of that neck for himself.

This prompts an extraordinary series of events that see Charlie fleeing the cinema, blood dripping from his lips and a crowd of outraged / terrified patrons in close pursuit, at which point he attacks another woman and gets involved in a ruckus with a gang of dirt bike-riding “punks” (what?). Fleeing for his life, he soon finds himself under siege inside what appears to be a large indoor market that has closed for the day.

This being Georgia, the market naturally boasts a fully-stocked gun shop, and, one or two shotgun-blasted bikers and a security guard later, the cops are outside in force, as an irascible detective with a cowboy hat and a delightful “fuck you” attitude loses patience with the bullhorn / talk-him-out approach and prepares to get busy with the tear gas.

To break out of “plot synopsis hell” for a moment, I think it was at around this point that I first paused to shake my head and exclaim “wow, this movie is AWESOME”. Perhaps the paragraphs above don’t quite convey this awesomeness, making the film instead sound like a grim, violent trudge, but seriously – all this chaotic, hap-hazard action is a pure joy, and more than anything I think, it’s the incongruous mixture of berserk Italio-exploitation mayhem and ‘70s Deep South thriller vibes (cf: ‘Macon County Line’, or the aforementioned ‘Rolling Thunder’) that really won me over.

Anyway – as soon as Norman hears of all this hullaballoo on the TV news, he rushes straight down to help out, infiltrating the market using his superior Commando Skills™, and defusing the situation by persuading a tearful Charlie to come out with his hands up.

Thereafter however, Norman’s fragile mental stability swiftly begins to collapse. He starts sweating and grasping his head, and feels an inexplicable hunger for…. well, you guessed it. In a bizarre turn of events, the frumpy teenage girl who lives next door picks this moment to pop over with the intention of seducing Norman, and, uh….well, as he confesses to his wife that evening in a fit of remorse, “it’s not what you think - I just felt an uncontrollable urge to BITE her..”. (So that’s fine then.)

You can probably imagine the general drift the story takes after this, although ‘drift’ feels too mild a word to really describe the raging whirlwind of cannibal hospital breakouts, high velocity ambulance hi-jacks, gory-drenched flesh-eating, random jump-scare virus outbreaks and public hysteria that comprise the final act of ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’, all climaxing with Norm, Charlie and Tommy reunited along with a cannibal-ised female doctor in the sewers beneath Atlanta, heavily armed and gearing up for a fight-to-the-death against flamethrower-wielding cops, in a finale that appears to wish to pay tribute to – of all things – ‘The Third Man’. (1)

Man, what a movie. I confess, I didn’t think old Antonio had it in him, but he really knocked it outta the park on this one.

As dedicated Italian horror fans will be aware, Antonio Margheriti was well known in the industry through the ‘60s and early ‘70s for his then innovative multiple camera shooting technique, which, as I understand it, saw him filming entire scenes as master-shots taken from several different angles, then cutting the results together later to give the illusion that multiple camera set-ups had been used.

Though undoubtedly efficient, this method had the unfortunate effect of making much of Margheriti’s work feel flat and rather bland in comparison to that of his more stylistically daring peers in Italian genre cinema, and his reputation has suffered as a result, despite the wealth of extremely effective moments scattered through his filmography.

I’m unsure whether or not Margheriti was still using his multiple camera technique by the time he got around to ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’ (the profound tedium of The Squeeze would tend to suggest it was still in full effect in the late ‘70s), but either way, he sure put a rocket under it this time around, resulting in a hyper-energised, highly original movie whose “literally ANYTHING could happen next” atmosphere makes it, for my money, the director’s most rewarding film since 1964’s ‘Castle of Blood’.

Riding hard on the heels of Lenzi’s ‘Nightmare City’ and Deodato’s ‘Atlantis Interceptors’, ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’ is one the wildest action-horror rampages of its era, and as such comes highly recommended.

Unfortunately however, John Saxon himself thinks otherwise, and has spent many years deriding this film as a disgusting travesty and claiming that he was more or less hood-winked into appearing in it under false pretences – all of which makes me very sad.

I mean, if he’d found himself top-billed in ‘Make Them Die Slowly’ or ‘SS Experiment Camp’ or something, I could understand his position, but, besides the title, there’s really very little here to cause offense to anyone comfortable with the idea that violent horror movies exist – never mind a guy who happily turned up every morning to make Blood Beach, and directed a movie named Zombie Death House a few years later.

Sure, it made the ‘Video Nasties’ list in the UK, but so did ‘The Werewolf and The Yeti’ ferchrissakes. There is no animal cruelty here, minimal sexual violence, and the gory bits are pitched more or less at the level you’d reasonably expect of an early ‘80s horror movie with this kind of subject matter. So c’mon John, what’s the deal? Lighten up a bit.

[DISCLAIMER: If it turns out John Saxon is simply holding a grudge because he never got paid or something, I will respectfully withdraw the above criticism and take his side. I know it’s been nearly forty years, but keep bad mouthin’ these muthas ‘til they pay up John! We’re with you all the way!]


(1)As with the film’s refusal to bother even trying to explain the origins of its cannibal/zombie virus, I enjoyed the vast, plot convenience-defined variations in the time the virus takes to manifest itself; John Saxon apparently exhibits no symptoms for actual YEARS after he is bitten in ‘Nam, whilst supporting characters infected later in the movie flip out and start biting people in a matter of minutes.


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Another one I’ve a lot off time for :) I watched this whilst recovering from a fit of long fever and it was just the sort of sanity busting ride for the state I was in.

Naturally, I followed it up with Murder Rock

Ben said...

Thanks again for your comments Maurice - glad that we're agreed on things so far re: these October reviews! : )

I remember really enjoying 'Murder Rock' too actually -- I've never understood the bad rap that one gets; definitely one of Fulci's more entertaining post-'82 films...