Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cult Movie Trash/Margheriti Madness: CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980)

(Italy/Spain - 1980; 1982 US release) 

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti).  Written by Jimmy Gould (Dardano Sacchetti) and Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti).  Cast: John Saxon, Elizabeth Turner, John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), Cindy Hamilton (Cinzia de Carolis), Tony King, Wallace Wilkinson, Ray Williams (Ramiro Oliveros), May Heatherly, Joan Riordan, Luca Venantini, Venantino Venantini, Paul Costello.  (Unrated, 96 mins)

Throughout his long career, journeyman Italian genre master Antonio Margheriti dabbled in everything from sword & sandal epics, sci-fi, gothic horror, giallo, spaghetti westerns, action flicks, family comedies, to whatever YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE is.  1980's CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE was his only stab at the graphically gory, extreme Italian horror made famous by the likes of Lucio Fulci in the wake of George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).  He didn't really care for that style of horror, and CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE reflects that by trying to go for something a little different than the post-DAWN zombie flicks and the flesh-munching jungle cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi.

Released to US grindhouses and drive-ins in 1982 by Almi Pictures under two different, equally lurid titles (CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS and INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS), and cut by several minutes, losing a lot of the really gory bits, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE has Vietnam PTSD manifesting itself in the form of a cannibal virus infecting a trio of Atlanta-based Vietnam vets:  Capt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon), and crazed sergeants Tom Thompson (Tony King) and the improbably-named Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, dubbed by Larry Dolgin) can no longer resist the urge to eat raw human flesh, and Hopper comes to Bukowski's rescue after the latter bites a young woman in a movie theater (showing Umberto Lenzi's FROM HELL TO VICTORY, from the same producer as this, conveniently enough) and instigates a police standoff in a flea market.  When Bukowski is arrested, Hopper, who's already put the bite (and probably more, offscreen) on the aggressively flirty, underage girl next door (Cinzia de Carolis) in a scene that can best be described as "sleazily uncomfortable" even though little is shown (some of Margheriti's crasser contemporaries would've left nothing to the imagination), busts Bukowski and Thompson out of the mental ward, taking an infected nurse (May Heatherly) with them on a cannibal rampage through Atlanta.  In pursuit are Hopper's wife Jane (Elizabeth Turner) and her doctor friend (Ramiro Oliveros, dubbed by Ted Rusoff) who makes no secret of his love for Jane and is constantly trying to goad her into ditching Norman.  Plus, an irate, foul-mouthed, trenchcoat-wearing detective (local Atlanta actor Wallace Wilkinson) who barks orders at everyone and, upon hearing Bukowski singing "Yankee Doodle Boy," says things like "He'll be singing out of his asshole when I'm through with him!"

Despite the horrific elements and the obvious zombie/cannibal influence, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE actually fits more in the post-TAXI DRIVER, "crazed Vietnam vet" subgenre popularized by ROLLING THUNDER, THE EXTERMINATOR, and FIRST BLOOD, and any number of lesser B-movie actioners.  Like those other films, we have soldiers returning from combat, unable to re-adjust to civilian life, cast aside, and, for varying reasons, going on a rampage.  Cannibalism is a rather extreme metaphor for the turmoil felt by shattered combat vets, but it shows some more thematic ambition than is generally seen in such exploitation films of the time.  But, as Roger Corman and others have noted for decades, exploitation films are where filmmakers can sneak in the hardest-hitting messages, because nobody's looking for it amidst the blood & guts and the T & A. 

But CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE doesn't disappoint if you're just looking for gore.  From flesh-munching to tongues being ripped out to eyes being gouged out to one hapless victim's limbs being buzzsawed off to the scene filmed through the gaping hole in one character's shotgunned belly, Margheriti, however reluctantly, delivers the goods.  On the uncut Image DVD (which still looks quite nice and held up very well for being a decade old), Saxon mentions that he was going through a very rough period in his life while shooting CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE.  He was in the midst of a divorce and wasn't aware (or so he claims) of just how gory the film was going to be, and was ignorant of the whole Italian cannibal subgenre (and in his defense, the original Italian title was APOCALYPSE DOMANI, which translates "Apocalypse Tomorrow."  I can't imagine what influenced that title).  Between his divorce and being stuck in a film he didn't want to do, Saxon's performance is surprisingly believable and very effective.  He's always been a better actor than some of his career choices would indicate, and whatever pain he was going through in his personal life had a profound impact on his work here.  It's one of his best performances, buried in something that drive-in audiences saw as INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS.

John Saxon and Giovanni Lombardo Radice in an Atlanta flea market in 1980...

...and reunited at a 2008 horror convention!
(photo from Pauraprod.com)

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