Necromantic Cinémathèque #2: CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE
The Vietnam war is often considered to be a horrific time for American soldiers, both for what they had to endure while there and after they came back. There have always been rumors of unnamed biological weapons used against the soldiers and untold atrocities committed against P.O.W.s, but when Director Antonio Margheriti (CASTLE OF BLOOD (1963), HORROR CASTLE (1963), YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983), ALIEN FROM THE DEEP (1989)) introduced the possibility of a cannibal virus that is “some sort of biological mutation due to a psychic alteration” (according to a doctor in the film), all bets were off the table in his 1980 film CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (AKA APOCALYPSE DOMANI and INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS). A breathtaking film in terms of the amount of violence, gore and the breakneck speed at which it belts along, audiences have always been divided as to what the film’s general statement was. Is it a film talking about the horrors of the war and the mental and social hardships of those coming back to society or is it strictly a horror/gore romp that gave the director an excuse to have crazed cannibals create havoc in Atlanta, GA and munch on the ripped off breast of a nurse?
Cannibal films became a very popular sub-genre during the ’70s and early ’80s with films like THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER(1972), JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (1977), THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST(1980), EATEN ALIVE! (1980), CANNIBAL FEROX (1981) and a host of others, but Margheriti managed to fuse a hot button social issue by combining the horrors of the aftermath of the Vietnam War with unrelenting cannibalism. Setting the film in an urban environment (Atlanta, GA) gave the film a fresh look and feel as the majority of cannibal classics often took place in jungles in third world countries; but instead of the cannibals being unrefined non-white savages from primitive cultures he instead has surviving members of the war (that are primarily white) in an urban environment feasting on the flesh of those that get in their way. Critics and fans over the years have struggled to define the merits of the film and what (if any) socially redeeming qualities it may hold, but true to every cannibal film, it ultimately shows that deep down in the darkest recesses of the human soul, even in the most civilized parts of society, our savage nature is always ready to erupt just below the surface.
Margheriti’s vision is captured on film in stunning fashion. As noted before, one of the things that sets the film apart from standard cannibal fare is the fact that the film is taken away from the jungle and placed in the American city of Atlanta, GA. The movie starts off in Vietnam and you see a group of locals being torched by American soldiers while they are attempting to save POWs. You can almost smell the burning flesh and you are shocked when you see the prisoners greedily devouring the remains of one of their captors. Once the film shifts focus and we see these events take place on “civilized” soil, the film really starts running. After a young lady is bitten in a movie theater, a whirlwind of violence showers the audience. There is an amazing shoot-out between the cops and the culprit, a female police officer has one of her breasts ripped off and devoured, a tongue is ripped out and devoured followed by a head bashing with a rock, an angle grinder is used to slice up another victim, a flamethrower is used to dispatch one of the cannibals and there are more shootings. As the film winds down, any arguments over whether this is an excuse for gore or it is actually a social statement are clearly blurred, but the intensity of the action (and the soundtrack) hold your attention all the way through…
While Margheriti’s vision is his own in the film, it could not have been done without the incredible cast and crew for the film. As the writer of the film, Dardano Sacchetti (A BAY OF BLOOD (1971), ZOMBIE(1979), CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), THE BEYOND (1981), DEMONS (1985) DEMONS 2 (1986)) creates an action packed thriller that may be a little light on character development but is strong on action and intensity. The actors however, get to have the most fun as we have John Saxon (ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), BLOOD BEACH (1980), TENEBRE (1982), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)), Elizabeth Turner (BEYOND THE DOOR (1974), THE PSYCHIC (1977)), Giovanni Lombardo Radice (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD(1980), HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1981), CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), THE CHURCH (1989)), Cinzia De Carolis (THE CAT O’NINE TAILS (1971), NIGHT OF THE DEVILS (1971)) serving up the mayhem. We also have the incredible FX work of one of the all time greats, Giannetto De Rossi (THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (1974), ZOMBIE(1979), THE BEYOND(1981), THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY(1981), DUNE (1984), HIGH TENSION (2003)).
In Jay Slater’s “Eaten Alive! Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies” (published in 2002 by Plexus Publishing), Radice mentions a particular scene that cracked him up: “There is a scene in which, while escaping, we stop in a petrol station and kill the owner. At the end of the scene, the prop man gave me a plastic carrier bag that dripped with blood and informed me that it contained body parts of the owner. The very idea of a cannibal picnic made me laugh hysterically, and it was difficult for me to regain posture and continue shooting.” While Radice certainly talks about the more comical aspects of the film, he also states that he was pleased with his performance and that Margheriti allowed him the space to make the character his own: “Yes, beyond the limits of the movie. I was quite pleased with my performance. The character was interesting and I think it was the one Margheriti preferred. He gave me space and care.” This is nice to see as Radice has, at times, been critical of some of the genre films he has been in. But, considering the fact that he has been the whipping boy of Italian horror cinema for years, this should come as no surprise!
While many may not consider this to be one of the better films in the cannibal sub-genre, there will always be things to look back at with this film. Considering the popularity of this sub-genre and the fact that it has seen a resurgence over the years, it should always be remembered as the first film that took the gore and violence out of the jungles and put it right here in our home environment where we often consider ourselves the pinnacle of civilized living. And while the concept of passing on a cannibalistic virus to another person via bite might seem like just another zombie rip-off, it does make you question what soldiers are exposed to in wartime environments. Let us not forget what happened to the soldiers that served in Vietnam and the Middle East, not only for the horror that they experienced in the field, but also for what they have may been exposed to out there for the sake of modern warfare.
FUN FACT: Radice on the cast of the film (again from Jay Slater’s “Eaten Alive! Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies”): “The person I spent the most time with was May Heatherley – an English actress- who was very nice and cultured. We became friends, especially after (John) Saxon and myself convinced Margheriti to cut a cannibal blowjob scene that was in the script. Understandably, poor May did not want to perform such a scene!”
And to think we missed out on this as genital and sexual torture have always been a staple of the cannibal genre!
“Because I am the Dedman, and you are not!”
Michael “Dedman” Jones