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.


  1. Nice write-up! I love this movie. It's a great mash-up of various genres that the Italians loved to exploit. John Saxon has always been one of my favorite genre actors, and he's great here.

    I'll reserve other comments about the film when my write-up goes live in a couple of days.

    I really enjoyed this, Michael. I hope you'll do another one if you have time!

  2. This was gruesomely entertaining to read. I feel kinda weird about giggling over canabalism, but that chop off a leg as take out was pretty funny.

  3. Kevin: Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. I'm not the most prolific writer, but I'll do my best!

    Crissy: Thanks! I know, it's hard to imagine cannibalism being funny, but many Italian horror films somehow manage to make us laugh at atrocious things!