THIS REVIEW IS DEDICATED TO MY FRIEND JAMES “DOC TERROR” HARRIS, WHO WAS ALWAYS A CHAMPION OF ITALIAN HORROR. MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
It’s hard to believe that nearly two years have passed since James “Doc Terror” Harris left us. While I still miss my friend (and our late night brainstorming sessions), I find comfort in knowing that I’ll never forget him.
Between all of the fantastic Blu-ray releases that have been coming out (e.g. Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition of CREEPSHOW – James’ all-time favorite horror flick) and various 35mm film festivals (particularly Exhumed Films’ 24-Hour Horrorthon – his favorite cinematic event), I’ve been saying “Jimmy would have loved this” quite a bit! And now it’s once again time to pay tribute to the dearly departed Doc Terror by continuing his annual tradition of celebrating Italian Horror. My contribution for 2019’s ITALIAN HORROR WEEK is a look at Antonio Margheriti’s flesh-munching masterpiece, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE!
I first stumbled across this film sometime in the late 90s during a VHS liquidation sale at a Video King Superstore. As I combed through mountains of videotapes, I came across a movie called INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS. Perusing the back, I saw that John Saxon was in the oddly-titled film and instantly decided that it was worth the five bucks. I watched it shortly after my purchase and I recall enjoying the film all those years ago, but I never had taken the time to rewatch it…. until now.
CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE begins with stock footage of the Vietnam War that segues into a seek and destroy mission. American soldiers led by Captain Norman Hopper (John Saxon) clear out a system of caves using machine guns and flamethrowers to oust enemy troops. Once the battle has ended, Hopper and his men discover two POWs caged within a deep pit. Peering in, Hopper recognizes one of the prisoners as his pal Charlie (Giovanni Lombardo Radici) and reaches out a helping hand, only to be attacked and bitten. Norman then snaps awake from his nightmarish ‘Nam flashback, understandably shaken.
It turns out that several years have passed since the end of the Vietnam War. Hopper is still grappling with his experiences (as well as a long-dormant, but inexplicable urge that seems to be growing within him), but he’s fared much better than fellow vets Charlie Bukowski and Tom Thompson (Tony King). They’ve been locked away in a hospital under the care and observation of Dr. Phil Mendez (Ramiro Oliveros), and haven’t been able to rejoin the civilian population. However, Dr. Phil feels that Charlie has been cured and allows him to leave the clinic one afternoon.
Charlie immediately calls Hopper and wants to meet up and have a beer, but is rebuffed by his former commanding officer. (Partially because the lolita from next door is throwing herself at Norman.) Upset, Charlie goes to the local cinema to see a war film (is that really a good idea?) and is suddenly overcome with a cannibalistic urge as he watches the young couple ahead of him engage in some heavy petting. Charlie snaps and takes a big gory bite out of the young woman’s shoulder before fleeing to a nearby flea market where he arms himself, murders two people, and holds off the authorities.
After receiving a phone call from his wife, Norman rushes to the scene and manages to talk his friend down. The police take Charlie into custody and return him to Dr. Mendez’ clinic, where it is eventually discovered that a bite from either Charlie or Tom passes on a virus that turns people into cannibalistic killers. Norman, fearing that he may have the virus and could be a danger to others, agrees to have his blood tested at the hospital. While he waits for the results, he ultimately gives in to his murderous urges and teams up with his fellow “Viet Con-nibals.”
Joined by an infected nurse named Helen (May Heatherly), the quartet of flesh-eaters escape in a stolen ambulance. In an attempt to throw the cops off their trail as they flee Atlanta, Hopper and friends ditch their vehicle and steal a station wagon. But their plans are dashed when they are accosted by a “biker gang” that’s has an axe to grind against Charlie. A bloody street fight erupts between both groups, and after the bikers are defeated, Hopper leads his rabid followers down into the sewers to evade law enforcement. This turns out to be a poor tactical decision as the police manage to cut off their escape and flood the sewers with men.
Armed with guns and flamethrowers, the cops carry out a brutal seek and destroy mission under the city streets. (Which in retrospect is a bit ironic, seeing as how Norman was combing through a system of tunnels to kill the Viet Cong in the opening of the film.) Though they fight back, one by one each of the infected meets a messy end (especially Charlie, in what is definitely the film’s most notorious sequence) until only Norman is left. Wounded and cornered, Norman Hopper manages to find an exit and returns home, leading to an oddly tragic climax to this insane cannibal epic.
Atonio Margheriti’s CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE was shot in Atlanta, Georgia during the 80s “cannibal craze” (which also saw the likes of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, CANNIBAL FEROX, and MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY), and utilizes a cannibalism-causing virus as a metaphor for the psychological trauma experienced by veterans coming home from Vietnam. Much like many of the actual soldiers who were drafted and sent over, Charlie, Tom, and Norman were never quite the same after the war.
The fictional virus that they carry also symbolizes the fear and rage that is pent up within them: These men were largely forgotten and did not receive a hero’s welcome upon their return from ‘Nam. They feel completely alone and are compelled to bite others to add to their numbers, because if there are more of their “kind” then suddenly the world doesn’t seem so lonely anymore. (As the saying goes: “If you can’t beat ’em… eat ’em.”) I guess you could also say that their cannibalistic urges are a manifestation of their desire to “bring the War home” so that others can fully understand how they feel.
This kind of makes sense because Norman and friends develop an almost instant camaraderie with newly minted cannibals. It’s almost as if they now all have this shared experience of being outcasts that are treated with (murderous) disdain by their fellow countrymen. In essence, they kind of become the very thing they were fighting against years earlier or… well… maybe not quite so literally. To be honest, I’m probably putting more thought into this than the film’s screenwriters (Margheriti and Dardano Sarchetti, who also wrote the screenplay for MONSTER SHARK!), but CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE is a movie that is certainly open to interpretation.
Indeed there are definitely some intriguing concepts at play here, they are greatly overshadowed by the exploitation elements in CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE. And let me tell you, the movie wastes absolutely no time in getting to its promised violence and gore. In the opening moments of the film a dog and unlucky U.S. soldier explode, plus people are stabbed, shot, immolated, and devoured! And that’s just during Norman Hopper’s nightmare sequence!
As the film continues, makeup f/x artist Gianetto De Rossi (ZOMBIE, DUNE, CONAN THE DESTROYER), and special effects coordinator Bob Shelley (THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING, ZOMBIELAND) up the ante with some truly jaw-dropping moments. Chunks of flesh (and a tongue) are bitten off by the film’s resident cannibals, and an angle grinder is used to slice tasty strips of flesh from a dead man’s leg.
But the real cherry on the top is the gruesome fate of Charlie, who has a hole blown clean through his midsection with a series of shotgun blasts! It’s a truly memorable gross-out moment that showcases some impressive effects work: As Charlie’s innards exit his body, the shot zooms in on the mortal wound, then cuts to Charlie’s final reaction before slowly moving back down to the gaping hole and focusing in on the police as they continue firing at the other fleeing cannibals! (A rare case of a person making a better window than a door!)
The cast of CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE is led by the always awesome John Saxon, who plays the conflicted Norman Hopper. Out of all of the “flesh hunters” in the film, Norman is the only one who seems to have any control over his homicidal tendencies. He struggles with his bitey urges (though he does slip up once, leading to a little twist at the end), and even attempts to get medical assistance. But eventually (perhaps out of duty to his men?) Norman sides with his fellow infected.
Former Buffalo Bill Tony King energetically portrays the overtly aggressive Tom Thompson who seems to have less control than his compatriots. In contrast, fellow man-eater Charles Bukowski (not this guy), is a much more calculated skin-snacker. Played by genre favorite Giovannia Lombardo Radici (making his big screen debut), Charlie is easily the most memorable character in the film, both for his cannibalistic antics and the way he checks out during the climax.
CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE was ably directed by the late Antonio Margheriti (who also helmed YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE!) at the tail-end of his career. He keeps things moving along at a good pace and doesn’t shy away from putting the gore front and center. But his film wouldn’t be nearly as good without the outstanding score by Alessandro (aka Alexander) Blonksteiner. Though he spent the bulk of his career as a conductor, Blonksteiner composed the music for CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE.
His soundtrack offers up a wide range of styles, from an eerily beautiful “love theme” to catchy disco-funk music (with stringed accompaniment) that kicks in during action sequences, and it is just so decidedly…. Italian! (Listen to it here.) Sadly Blonksteiner passed way in 1985 after composing music for a handful of films (including THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF ROBIN CRUSOE and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY), robbing him of the chance to join the ranks of other well-known genre composers like Stelvio Cipriani, Fabio Frizzi, Riz Ortolani, and Pino Donaggio.
Upon revisiting CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, I have to say that it has rapidly become one of my favorite Italian Horror films: Margheriti does a fantastic job of balancing the action, drama, and horror elements, and delivers a solid (and truly unique) entry into the cannibal subgenre that was popular at the time. Though it may stumble a bit thematically, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE makes up for it with a great cast, superb soundtrack, and first-class gore! This film easily gets a recommendation from yours truly, and has earned itself a respectable rating of: