Monday, February 19, 2018

Retro Review: THE LAST HUNTER (1980)

(Italy - 1980; US release 1984)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Dardano Sacchetti. Cast: David Warbeck, Tisa Farrow, John Steiner, Tony King, Bobby Rhodes, Margi Eveline Newton (Margie Newton), Massimo Vanni, Alan Collins (Luciano Pigozzi), Dino Conti, Gianfranco Moroni, Edoardo Margheriti. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Veteran Italian journeyman Antonio Margheriti became synonymous with jungle explosion movies in the 1980s with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK ripoffs like THE HUNTERS OF THE GOLDEN COBRA, THE ARK OF THE SUN GOD and JUNGLE RAIDERS, and a WILD GEESE-inspired commando trilogy with British TV star Lewis Collins (CODENAME: WILDGEESE, COMMANDO LEOPARD, THE COMMANDER), but it was his partnership with New Zealand-born David Warbeck that initially got the ball rolling. Shot in the Philippines on some of the same locations and abandoned sets from APOCALYPSE NOW, 1980's THE LAST HUNTER (belatedly released in the US in 1984 by World Northal) was the first teaming of the director and star and the first of countless Namspoitation actioners to come from Italy throughout the decade. Filmed under the title IL CACCIATORE 2 in response to the Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER being known there as IL CACCIATORE (from Lucio Fulci's ZOMBI 2 to Ciro Ippolito's ALIEN 2: ON EARTH, unofficial bogus sequels were a trend in Italian exploitation at the time), THE LAST HUNTER is more of gritty, down-to-the-basics riff on APOCALYPSE NOW. In January 1973, burned-out Capt. Henry Morris (Warbeck) is given a top secret assignment. Dropped in an area swarming with VietCong, he meets up with a small group of soldiers--Sgt. George Washington (Tony King), Carlos (Bobby Rhodes), and Stinker Smith (Edoardo Margheriti, the director's son and assistant)--who are accompanied by war correspondent Jane Foster (Tisa Farrow) as they make their way toward a destination known only by Morris, who's haunted by the recent suicide of his best friend. They're ambushed by VC along the way, and Stinker is ripped apart by a spiked booby trap, but they eventually find refuge at a rowdy outpost run by the very Kilgore-like Major Cash (John Steiner), who sends daredevil Phillips (Massimo Vanni) on dangerous coconut runs outside the camp's perimeter that are in no way meant to remind you of Lance's surfing during a bombing raid in APOCALYPSE NOW.

Morris' mission is to terminate (with extreme prejudice) a traitorous voice broadcasting anti-American, "Charlie" propaganda over the airwaves in Saigon. The voice is that of an American woman who turns out to be someone close to Morris (making this mission...wait for it...personal) and the embodiment of every enraged, right-wing "Hanoi Jane" caricature you've heard for the last 50 years. Cash complains that the voice is turning his officers against him with statements like "Don't obey your commander...he's only sending you out to die. Go home to your girl, American boy..." while the deeper into the jungle they go, the more Morris and the others start to question why they're even there. It all leads to one of the more downbeat finales in Italian Namsploitation, which was a common theme as these went on. More often than not (Margheriti's TORNADO, Fabrizio De Angelis' COBRA MISSION aka OPERATION NAM), the Italians avoided the revisionist, flag-waving "This time we're gonna win!" mythology of the American Namsploitation movies and went for full-on bleak hopelessness. Of course, in 1980, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris had yet to embark on one-man missions to bring the POWs back home and as such, THE LAST HUNTER is certainly more in line with the grim elements of APOCALYPSE NOW and THE DEER HUNTER, particularly Washington's memorable death scene and Morris' final decision at the end. It's also quite brutal and often incredibly gory, so much so that it earned a spot on the UK's infamous "Video Nasties" list. Margheriti wasn't one to indulge in the graphic gore of his contemporaries like Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi, but 1980 saw him going all in on the splatter. The same year, he directed CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, his lone entry into the Italian cannibal cycle. Also known as CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS and INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS, the film fuses the cannibal subgenre with Namsploitation, as Vietnam vets John Saxon, Giovanni Lombardo Radice ("John Morghen") and THE LAST HUNTER's Tony King return home infected by a cannibal virus, their PTSD manifesting itself as an insatiable craving for human flesh that sends them on a rampage through Atlanta.

Typically, Margheriti would use gore sparingly to focus more on action, of which THE LAST HUNTER--written by frequent Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti--has plenty. Displaying more explosions and firefights than perhaps the rest of Margheriti's filmography combined, THE LAST HUNTER is old-school and has a cut-the-bullshit attitude, especially in the way it shows off the kind of dangerous stunt work that would never fly today (there's one shot of an explosion going off near Warbeck and Farrow that's pretty ballsy on the part of both actors). You can feel the sweltering heat and humidity in the obviously unpleasant shooting conditions. Of course, this being an Antonio Margheriti film, there's also the usual display of Margheriti miniatures as well as some explosions in the opening sequence that's mostly recycled footage from 1978's THE SQUEEZE and 1979's KILLER FISH. But overall, THE LAST HUNTER is one of the great Namsploitation offerings and a masterpiece from the glory days of the Italian Ripoff. It helped set the course for Margheriti's output for the rest of the decade and established Warbeck as an action star in Italy. Known for some UK TV roles and small parts in British horror films like TROG, TWINS OF EVIL, and CRAZE, as James Coburn's doomed friend in Sergio Leone's DUCK, YOU SUCKER, and as the male lead in Russ Meyer's BLACK SNAKE, Warbeck's status as a Eurocult legend would be cemented thanks to his work with Margheriti and Lucio Fulci in the 1980s. Warbeck's star would dim as the Italian exploitation cycle declined in the late '80s, but he did land one major A-list gig with a supporting role in the 1984 Tom Selleck vehicle LASSITER. Code Red/Kino Lorber's new LAST HUNTER Blu-ray (boasting the obligatory Code Red packaging typos as producer Gianfranco Couyoumdjian becomes "Grand Franco Couyoumdjian"--honesty, isn't "Gianfranco" the easy part of that name?) also features an interview with the well-traveled Tony King, who retired from the NFL after one season with the Buffalo Bills in 1967 before drifting into modeling and acting in the early '70s. His standout performance in 1975's underrated REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER should've made him a star, but nothing happened, and by 1980, he was working in Italy, reteaming with Margheriti and Warbeck for 1982's TIGER JOE. He moved into social activism and upon changing his name to Malik Farrakhan in the late '80s, became well-known as the head of security for Public Enemy. King's life and career have gone down some unexpected paths, and he has some good stories about working in Italy, and fond memories of the cast and other films he's worked on, though the interview's most memorable moment is when someone starts banging on his door and shouting "Tony, open the motherfuckin' door!"

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