Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cannibal Apocalypse

This blog post is part of The Italian Horror Blog-a-thon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Be sure to check out the other posts!

Making the world safe for democracy. And cannibalism.
As any connoisseur of Italian horror films knows, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw an explosion of films that graphically showcased flesh eating of one sort or another. Most of the films in question were either zombie films, in which the dead return to life to devour the living, or cannibal films, which typically featured American or European explorers running afoul of peckish natives in the jungles of Asia or South America. The zombie films, of course, were all derivatives of George Romero's 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, which was a big hit in Italy, while the cannibal films were a sort of ultraviolent mutation of the mid-70s Italian adventure film Man From Deep River, which was itself inspired by the Richard Harris western vehicle A Man Called Horse. Whichever camp they fell into, these films reveled in the same types of gruesome sights: hunks of bloody flesh being bitten out of people, limbs being severed and gnawed on and gobs of entrails being pulled out of torsos and devoured. One film took elements of both zombie and cannibal films and mixed in yet a third: the Vietnam War action-drama, in vogue at the time thanks to such high-profile Hollywood blockbusters as Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. The result was Antonio Margheriti's opportunistically titled Apocalisse Domani (translation: Apocalypse Tomorrow), directed under his well-known pseudonym Anthony M. Dawson. Like most films of its type, it acquired a number of alternate titles, including Cannibals in the Streets, Invasion of the Flesh Hunters and the one it's now generally known by, Cannibal Apocalypse. While the film is far from a classic, it's actually a cut above many of its contemporaries, thanks to some decent acting, relatively complex characters and a couple of showstopping gore effects. There are spoilers ahead, but do you really care?

Are you gonna eat that?

Like a number of other Italian horror films made during the same period, Cannibal Apocalypse was partially shot on location in the United States; in this case, Atlanta, Georgia. The inimitable John Saxon stars as Colonel Norman Hopper, a Vietnam veteran. The film opens with a flashback to the war, in which Hopper and his unit commence an assault upon a Vietnamese village. Discovering two American soldiers being held captive in a pit, he is horrified to realize that they are feasting upon a Vietnamese woman who tumbled into the pit after being burned by a flamethrower. While he's temporarily frozen with shock, one of the men bites Hopper on the arm, at which point he awakens from his nightmare. This opening sequence betrays the film's obviously low budget, as all of the helicopter scenes are grainy stock footage, and we don't see any of the actual actors until after the characters have disembarked from the chopper. Nevertheless, Margheriti handles the action scenes with flair, and the scenes of the soldiers eating the woman gets things off to a suitably gruesome start.

John Saxon, not phoning in his performance
Hopper is troubled by his recollections of the incident in the pit, while his wife, Jane (Elizabeth Turner), a local television host, struggles to support him. In the midst of rebuffing a clumsy attempt at seduction from Mary, the teenage girl next door, Hopper receives a call from fellow veteran Charlie Bukowski, portrayed by instantly recognizable Italian actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen). Anyone who's seen more than a few Italian horror films of this vintage will know that Lombardo Radice's mere presence gurantees the inevitability of some extreme gore. Bukowski, of course, was one of the two cannibalistic soldiers in the pit; along with the other soldier, Tom Thompson (Tony King), he has been doing time in a psychiatric facility, oh-so-conveniently located in Atlanta. Bukowski has received a weekend pass, which will later turn out to be a poor choice on the part of his doctors, and he wants to hook up with Hopper for a few beers. Hopper, while initially enthusiastic, flashes back to Bukowski and Thompson chowing down on the poor Vietnamese woman and changes his mind pretty quickly. He then decides that Mary looks pretty fine after all in her multicolored tights and proceeds to get busy with the young lass, apparently biting her in the process (she just thinks he's being kinky).

If they were still in the military, this would be considered insubordination
Bukowski, upset by Hopper's dismissal, decides to take in a movie by himself. A young couple sits in front of him and embarks upon a ludicrously over the top makeout session (they practically have sex right there in the theater). Bukowski, apparently unsatisfied with his buttered popcorn, can't help himself and bites a chunk out of the woman's neck; a melee ensues. Escaping from the theater, he finds himself holed up in a nearby flea market. A motorcycle gang, whose path he had previously crossed, decides to go all vigilante and pursues him through the flea market on their bikes, smashing the place to smithereens. Stumbling upon a gun dealer's stall, Bukowski arms himself and blows away one of the bikers. A security guard, who apparently missed the fact that motorcyclists were destroying the flea market, is alerted by the gunfire and is himself shot by Bukowski. Eventually, the police arrive, under the command of the hilariously foul-mouthed Captain McCoy (Wallace Wilkinson). The captain drops such eloquent witticisms as "He's gonna be singin' out his asshole when I get through with him" seemingly effortlessly. Eventually, Hopper finds out about the situation and comes down to the scene. He talks Bukowski into turning himself in, but Bukowski bites a cop's finger in the process of being arrested. He's taken not to the police station, however, but back to the hospital. As he's being readmitted, a fracas erupts and a female doctor is bitten by Thompson.

He wouldn't put down the boob
It should be obvious at this point that Bukowski and Thompson picked up a virus that causes cannibalism while they were POWs and transmitted it to Hopper via the bite on his arm. I know - a virus that causes cannibalism? The movie attempts a half-assed explanation of this nearly incomprehensible concept with a hilarious exchange between Jane and her friend, who also happens to one of the doctors treating Bukowski and Thompson. It goes something like this:

Jane: "What I don't understand is how a social phenomenon like cannibalism can become a contagious disease."
Doctor: "By means of some sort of biological mutation due to a psychic alteration."

OK then, there's your explanation, let's move on. They also don't explain why the virus took so long to surface in Hopper, while everyone else seems to become infected pretty damn quickly. Then again, these films aren't known for their airtight logic. As the police realize that the bodies of Bukowski's victims were partially eaten, the cop who was bitten turns cannibal shortly after returning to the station. He attacks a female officer, rips off her breast and starts eating it, leading to the all-time classic line from Captain McCoy, "Oh my god, put it down, son!" Needless to say, the confrontation doesn't end well.

When she said, "slip me some tongue," he didn't fully grasp what she meant
Meanwhile, Hopper is persuaded to have himself checked out at the same facility where Bukowski and Thompson are being detained. The female doctor who was bitten by Thompson turns cannibal and bites off her boyfriend's tongue before smashing his head in with a paperweight. She then frees Bukowski and Thompson. As an orderly is about to call for help, Hopper kills him. Realizing they're all in the same flesh-eating boat, the four of them team up and hit the road in a stolen ambulance. At a gas station, they kill the attendant and use an electric saw to cut off one of his legs as a sort of takeout meal. Of the hundreds of gory special effects I've seen in films of this nature, I've always found this one to be one of the most realistic and revolting. It goes on for a good long while and really does its best to sicken the viewer with its nauseating detail. I'm not sure if the incongruously jaunty disco music that plays over the scene makes it better or worse.

Come on down to the sewer - we'll have a (shotgun) blast!
Stealing a car, the cannibal gang gets into a scrape with the remaining members of the motorcycle gang, decimating them in short order. With the cops hot on their trail, they take to the sewer, where they're hunted down one by one and exterminated like the rats who are their subterranean companions. The female doctor is shot to death first. Bukowski's death is the stuff of legend; when he's unable to make it through a set of bars in time, the cops blast his guts out with a shotgun, allowing the camera to peer through a gaping hole in his midsection (a stunning practical effect that would be done badly with CGI nowadays). In an echo of the film's Vietnam opening, Thompson is incinerated with a flamethrower. Only Hopper makes it out, but he's gravely wounded. He exits the sewer and makes his way home, where he encounters Jane and her doctor friend, who's been infected. The doctor bites Jane, Hopper shoots the doctor and then he and Jane have a tender moment before ending things with a mutually agreed-upon murder-suicide. The police show up just in time to mop up, leaving Captain McCoy to declare that "this fuckin' nightmare is over." It isn't, of course. Remember Mary, she of the multicolored tights? Hopper infected her with his love bite, she apparently infected her little brother (not going there), and the penultimate shot of the film is of their bitchy aunt's bloody arm sticking out of the fridge. Despite leaving the (refrigerator) door open to the possibility, however, there was never a sequel, which is astonishing, given the fact that the Italians took it upon themselves to sequelize films they never made in the first place. It's worth noting that, unlike several of his peers, Margheriti never made another film that featured flesh eating; indeed, this was essentially his last horror film, although he continued to direct for many more years. Most of his earlier horror films had been of the gothic variety, with castles, crypts and Barbara Steele; it's almost as if this foray into modern, explicit horror soured him on the genre for good.

Jane, stop this crazy thing!
Cannibal Apocalypse delivers everything that's expected of an Italian exploitation film, including a goofy plot, a groovy score, some ludicrous dialogue and of course, some serious gore, but it goes the extra mile and actually becomes a reasonably effective film, thanks in large part to John Saxon's performance. Reportedly, he thought the film was a piece of crap and only accepted the role to pay the bills, but you wouldn't know it from his convincing portrayal of the tormented Colonel Hopper. Really, though, has this man ever phoned in a performance? Also giving a respectable performance, despite having had his English performance dubbed by another actor, is Giovanni Lombardo Radice as the ill-fated Charlie Bukowski. Lombardo Radice's notoriety as the star of several of the most gruesome death scenes in Italian horror film history (he had his head ventilated with a huge drill in Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead and he had several rather important appendages lopped off before having his skull converted into a bowl of brains in Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox) means that his acting style is probably best remembered as screaming and grimacing, but he actually brings some depth and sensitivity to the character of Bukowski. In particular, during their scenes together in the flea market, he holds his own with Saxon. When the cops launch tear gas canisters into the building (only to have them Bukowski deactivate them by urinating on them after Hopper reminds him of this solution), you assume they're the cause of the tears streaming down Bukowski's face, until you realize that Hopper's not crying. It's a nice touch. There's also another great scene in which the female doctor has turned cannibal and is advancing on her doctor boyfriend in the lab. He thinks she's just horny, but she's got something else entirely in mind, and it's pretty creepy. Actress Elizabeth Turner is lovely and sympathetic as Hopper's wife Jane, and their final scene together is actually pretty emotional as far as these things go.

Are they going to hire us for Cannibal Apocalypse 2?
Another thing that makes this film more interesting than most of its type is the blurred line between the heroes and the villains. Clearly, we're meant to sympathize with Hopper and his band of misfits, even though they perpetrate some pretty awful crimes against innocent people throughout the film. Somehow, we're able to overlook these atrocities and continue to root for them, perhaps because we know they're driven by a biological compulsion and can't help themselves. The other ostensible protagonists of the film - the police and the medical professionals - are either portrayed as unsympathetic or clueless. It's interesting to note that the central figures in this film exactly mirror the demographics of the heroes of Dawn of the Dead: two white men, an African-American man and a white woman. Both groups are doing their damndest to survive, but while the heroes of Dawn are mostly fighting against mindless zombies (and, not surprisingly, a biker gang), the "heroes" of Cannibal Apocalypse are generally pitted against "normal" society.

Leftovers again?
If I haven't mentioned the Vietnam angle that much, it's because the film doesn't seem too concerned with it, either. It's essentially a plot device, as well as another way to imitate popular films of the time to sell tickets. If you wanted to read more into it, you could look at it a few different ways. The cannibal virus could be seen as the worst possible form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; Western society's punishment for ignoring its veterans and/or fiddling about in the affairs of other countries. Conversely, it could be a stand-in for the evils of Communism, brought back from Vietnam to infect our Capitalist society. It's hard to imagine that the filmmakers were thinking about things that deeply, though. In the end, Cannibal Apocalypse is not much more than an entertaining piece of junk that, despite its derivative origins, lingers in the mind a little longer than most.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon's Jugular - Friday The 13th Uncut

It's funny how things change over time. Twenty-five years ago, an uncut Friday The 13th would have been at the top of my must-see list. At the top of a different list, the one having to do with shit, would have been the MPAA, whom I held personally responsible for my inability to watch Friday The 13th and other films of a similar nature in their unadulterated form. You kids nowadays have no idea what I'm talking about, but believe it or not, filmmakers used to have to cut all of the gore out of their movies or they'd be threatened with an X rating. What's an X rating? Do I have to explain everything? Fine.

Long ago, an X was the only rating higher than an R. It was initi
ally created to apply to films that were considered too mature for children of any age to see. Several well-respected films received the X rating, including the 1969 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy. Eventually, though, the X was appropriated by the adult film industry and became irrevocably associated with porno. (Now, of course, its counterpart is the NC-17 rating. What? You've never heard of that one, either? Kids these days...)

While the MPAA never forced anyone to edit their films, the X rating became the kiss of death for a mainstream movie, as most theaters wouldn't show movies that were rated X and most newspapers wouldn't accept advertising for them, so if the MPAA said "lose this scene here and that scene there or you'll get an X," the studios did what they were told. A few independent films, such as Dawn Of The Dead, were brave enough to bypass the MPAA and go out unrated, but by and large, the MPAA effectively neutered the American horror film for quite some time.

This little history lesson leads us back to Friday The 13th. As an avid reader of horror film magazines at the time, I was painfully aware of the elaborate gore effects that were concocted by talented FX artists for films like Friday the 13th and its sequels, but inevitably, they would be drastically trimmed or cut out altogether by the time the films were released. This was long before the days of special unrate
d DVD releases, so horror fans like myself could only sit there and stew, cursing Jack Valenti's name in our frustration. I even wrote a paper trashing the MPAA for a college writing class. Although he gave me an A, the professor remarked in his notes, "Your tone seems a bit hysterical." I'll never forget that.

Finally, in 2008, the uncut version of the original Friday was released on DVD. You'd think after all these years, I'd have jumped at the chance to finally see it, but as I said before, things change, and it just wasn't a priority at the time. About a month ago, out of the blue, I had an urge to see it, so I checked out a copy from the library. (If you'd have told my younger self that the uncut version of Friday The 13th would one day be available on a disc the size of a CD at my local library, I'd have shit a brick.)

So, was it worth the wait? I'd say yes. While Friday The 13th is not a particularly good film, it is a fun one. As inexperienced as they may have been, the filmmakers made a few wise decisions. They hired Tom Savini to create the gruesome special makeup effects. They added a now legendary shock to the end of the film that still makes people jump, even when they know it's coming. And perhaps most importantly, they hired Harry Manfredini to compose the score. I can't imagine the film being nearly as effective without its superb musical accompaniment. As much as I love John Carpenter's chilling synthesizer score for Halloween, nothing adds a layer of class to a film such as this like a symphonic score, and Manfredini's iconic music is still great. As far as the uncut version goes, it was fun to see the extra few seconds of blood squirting out of Kevin Bacon's neck, and the restored axe-to-the-face effect was pretty cool, too, but in all honestly, the first film made it through the ratings process relatively unscathed, and the film is just as effective either way. Anticlimactic? A little, yeah, but it's always good to have the version of the film that someone told you you weren't supposed to see. Take that, MPAA.

One last thing. Watching this film again made me wonder how is it that the killers in these movies manage to string up the dead bodies so that they'll come flopping down right when someone is running by. Is there some sort of special knot? A triggering mechanism? Do they teach these things in slasher school?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon

OK, it's official: the Summer of Sam series is dead. It's October, for God's sake. I guess I bit off more than I could chew, given all of the time I've had to devote to work and school lately, and I started way too late on top of everything else. I would still like to tackle it at some point. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, though, I will be posting some other horror-related stuff (it is Halloween month, after all), including a few entries in the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon over at Kevin Olson's blog, Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. Keep watching this space.