One of the most interesting aspects of the films from the golden age of Italian exploitation cinema, apart from their entertainment value and often sheer lunacy, has to do with the way they incorporate elements derived from a wide range of other recent films. The results are too easily dismissed as mere “rip-offs,” but the reality is that they’re much more akin to what a DJ does with sampling. Ideas, images, themes all get fused together in novel and often revelatory fashion. Consider in this regard co-writer-director Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse.
The original Italian title of the film is Apocalypse Domani, which translates as “Apocalypse Tomorrow,” cheekily indicating its thematic debt to a certain Francis Ford Coppola film. In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard sails up a river into Cambodia to stop a madman’s guerilla war, only to learn that war (and not just the one in Vietnam) is madness and moral rot. But Margheriti’s film suggests that war is also contagious, when a trio of soldiers brings the conflict back home in viral form. What’s more, the very metaphor of conflict-as-disease further aligns Cannibal Apocalypse with films like George Romero’s The Crazies and David Cronenberg’s Rabid.
Cannibal Apocalypse opens in full-on action mode, with Green Beret Norman Hopper (John Saxon) blasting his way through a cadre of Vietcong who are holding a couple of American soldiers as POWs in a pit. But these are no ordinary soldiers; deprivation and torture have turned them into cannibals, evidence of which we soon see in all its gory glory. When Hopper reaches down to offer them a saving hand, he’s promptly bitten for his efforts. This is then revealed to be a dream sequence, albeit one that also serves as expository flashback, which we realize as soon as we see the scar on Norman’s arm.
All isn’t exactly quiet on the home front for Norman Hopper, whose name is a likely nod to Apocalypse Now actor Dennis Hopper. Norman’s marriage to TV broadcaster Jane (Elizabeth Turner) seems at a standstill. As a result, Norman takes a few too many liberties with Lolita-esque neighbor Mary (Cinzia De Carolis). The scene, already hinting at Norman’s cannibalistic urges, queasily conflates the twofold meaning of the word “carnal,” positing Mary as the object of Norman’s appetites, both sexual as well as gustatory. Needless to say, this is a plot development that precious few American films would pursue.
Things are further complicated when one of Norman’s POW buddies, Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), is inexplicably furloughed from a mental ward, having been deemed totally cured. Soon he’s avidly cramming popcorn down his gullet at a movie theater, before taking a large chunk out of a female patron’s throat while she’s making out with her boyfriend. The film blazingly charts a vicious circle of ineffectual treatment and its resultant violence, as Charlie’s actions culminate in a tense standoff at an indoor flea market that ends with his return to the psychiatric facility. The entire sequence in the flea market takes up nearly a quarter of the film’s length, playing out almost in real time. Any resemblance to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is likely not accidental.
After an increasingly infected Norman liberates his two buddies, Charlie and Tommy (Tony King), from the psych ward, and with the help of Nurse Helen (May Heatherly), Cannibal Apocalypse morphs into a chase through the streets and sewers of Atlanta, with the foursome being pursued by the hyperbolically profane Captain McCoy (Wallace Wilkinson). This stretch definitely betrays a family resemblance to the urban-based opening of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, down to the makeup of Norman and his three tagalongs. Except that here the “heroes” are cannibals, and the infection they bear is spreading throughout the city.
Margheriti doesn’t take pains to chart the spread of the cannibal epidemic in the ways that Cronenberg would. Instead, he keeps close to the central foursome and their increasingly claustrophobic plight. Margheriti’s directorial strengths are fully on display throughout the sewer-set climax (clearly shot on a soundstage back in Italy): Clever camera placement and razor-stropped editing wring the maximum tension out of each further development. (Viewer beware, however, there’s some obvious fiery violence done to a live rat or two.)
The downbeat finale has Norman finding his way home to confront Jane, but not before he changes into full Army uniform. More than anything, this is reminiscent of Bob Clark’s Deathdream. Both films grimly highlight the death wish at the bottom of military endeavors. Conflict is a disease and, in the end, the best-case scenario for the couple is to put each other out of their misery, like you would a rabid dog. In its last moments, the film offers a chilling coda involving young Mary that reveals things are far from over with this contagion: Cold comfort comes from a severed arm in the neighbors’ icebox.
Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration of Cannibal Apocalypse looks superb, with lots of fine details in the 1.66:1 image evident throughout, especially when it comes to the numerous sweat-drenched close-ups in the action sequences. Jungle greens, bloody reds, the teal hues of the climactic sewer scenes all register vibrantly, with black levels in the low-lit scenes pleasingly uncrushed. Grain levels are finely calibrated. The two-channel Master Audio mix is sufficiently sturdy, considering all the dialogue was looped in post, and gives suitable emphasis to Alexander Blonksteiner’s often contrapuntally funky score.
Film historian Tim Lucas delivers another exemplary commentary track, packed with information, and just enough breathing room for us to process it all. Lucas covers the backgrounds of the principal cast and crew, the film’s production history, and the location shooting around Atlanta (far more thoroughly than the perfunctory video tour that’s also included on this disc). Lucas does a particularly fine job when it comes to pointing out the myriad generic and narrative influences on Cannibal Apocalypse. The hourlong documentary Cannibal Apocalypse Redux from 2002 features star John Saxon, actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice (a.k.a. John Morghen), and writer-director Antonio Margheriti (who passed away later that year) giving their own take on the production. Both actors describe enjoying their collaboration with Margheriti, even if they weren’t always pleased with the things they were asked to do on screen. The filmmaker discusses his approach to the material, the vicissitudes of shooting in America, and his preference for filming action sequences.
Cannibal Apocalypse suggests that war isn’t just hell, it’s also contagious.
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