‘Their rabid lust for human flesh created an epidemic’
Cannibal Apocalypse – original title Apocalypse domani ‘Apocalypse Tomorrow’ – also known as Cannibals in the Streets and Invasion of the Flesh Hunters, is a 1980 Italian horror film directed by Antonio Margheriti [as ‘Anthony M. Dawson’] from a screenplay co-written with Dardano Sacchetti.
John Saxon (Tenebrae, A Nightmare on Elm Street), John Morghen [Giovanni Lombardo Radice], Cinzia De Carolis, Elizabeth Turner, Tony King, May Heatherly and Wallace Wilkinson.
The horrors of war take on a whole new meaning for Vietnam vet Norman Hopper (Enter the Dragon‘s John Saxon), whose quiet domestic life in Atlanta is shattered by the return of Charlie Bukowski (!), a combat buddy who dredges up terrifying flashbacks of flesh eating and bloodshed in the war-torn jungles.
Now on the run from the law, Charlie begs Norman to help him get out of town with another fellow veteran, Tom (Shaft‘s Tony King). Soon, the ragtag team of cannibals are fighting for their lives, spreading a deadly contagion through the city before heading into the sewers for a gut-wrenching climax…
A delirious mash-up of Richard Compton’s Welcome Home, Soldier Boys (1971), David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), the hyper-grisly Cannibal Apocalypse is a consummate exploitation shocker, with bags of energy, plenty of wit and some creditable performances amid the grue.
Antonio Margheriti, whose early Gothic extravaganzas The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963), The Long Hair of Death (1964) and Castle of Blood (1964) are second only to Mario Bava’s, may have abandoned his roots for this movie, but with a script by Lucio Fulci’s regular associate Dardano Sacchetti, and lots of lovely Gianetto De Rossi gore, the ghostly wails and elegant tracking shots of yesteryear are scarcely to be missed.
One has to say, however, that Cannibal Apocalypse completely garbles some potentially serious themes. The film’s depiction of urban violence perpetrated by Vietnam vets suggests a ‘bringing it all back home’ chastisement of US foreign policy and a critique of the social exclusion experienced by soldiers whose congressmen were unwilling to underwrite patriotism with social-care dollars.
Yet, the ‘gooks’ in the opening sequence are as faceless as ever in exploitation war movies, and there’s a suggestion that the soldiers’ cannibal urges actually have their roots in maltreatment by the Vietcong, a blame-the-victim formula that would result in the racist revenge fantasies of Rambo: First Blood Part II a few years later.
Meanwhile the film’s metaphysics are as scrambled as its politics: cannibalism is ‘transmitted’ through biting, like rabies or vampirism, and the hero is ‘infected’ even though the specific trauma that caused Charlie and Tommy to consume human flesh in the first place didn’t affect him.
Basically, the story merges the ‘zombie bite as infection’ idea from Romero’s living dead films with the third world cannibalism motif popular in Italian horror at the time, without ever managing to convince us that they really belong in the same film (even Marino Girolami’s cannibal-zombie bloodbath Zombie Holocaust is more plausible, which is not a word one would use to describe that film very often.)
Incoherent though Cannibal Apocalypse may be, it really doesn’t matter in the end, in fact this fast and furious action-horror outing is one of Margheriti’s best. The film is peppered with gruesome vignettes, with destructive revelry used as colourful digression from the traumas of the unhappy leads (as in the early novels of James Herbert).
When Norman, Charlie, Tommy and Helen take to the streets in a stolen ambulance with the police in hot pursuit, the film abandons all pretence of social commentary; we are invited to embrace the subsequent bloodletting with the same manic glee as the perpetrators (if Margheriti was asking for anything other than vicarious enjoyment from the audience, he rather misjudged the overall tone). Tony King’s chuckle directly into camera when he sees that his one-time commanding officer is now addicted to human flesh is a cue, for this viewer at least, to abandon all moral considerations and simply enjoy the ride.
Although at times a little slack with exposition, Margheriti is gratifyingly energetic during the numerous scenes of violence, and support is at hand from soundtrack composer Alexander Blonksteiner, whose brisk, funky score brazenly hypes the irresponsible fun of it all.
Incidental amusements proliferate; for instance, Norman has a framed photograph of an explosion in a Vietcong village on his kitchen wall (no wonder he’s having nightmares!); the attempted seduction of Norman by teenage jailbait Mary is a hoot from start to finish; the Baker Street saxophone playing while Charlie slices meat from a garage mechanic’s leg with a circular saw has to be the most inappropriate scoring in Italian horror; and we even see Charlie go to a cinema showing Umberto Lenzi’s war film From Hell to Victory (1979) which incidentally stars May Heatherly, Cannibal Apocalypse’s Helen! Speaking of Heatherly, she’s absolutely hilarious here, exuding a wonderfully camp sincerity as the doctor who develops a taste for human flesh and bites out a co-worker’s tongue.
The weird camaraderie that develops between the cannibal quartet is one of the film’s most striking features (note the symmetry with Dawn of the Dead’s reluctant heroes; two white men, a black man and a white woman). In fact the set-up is so much fun that it’s a shame it’s flawed by misogyny; despite all four of them being set upon by the authorities, Tommy and Charlie still feel the need to denigrate the ‘bitch’ in their midst.
A constant stream of borrowings from Romero and Cronenberg ‘flesh out’ the drama; the sequence in which Charlie is hounded by a motorbike gang through a department store explicitly quotes Dawn of the Dead, whilst echoes of Cronenberg’s Rabid can be discerned in Norman’s struggle to suppress his craving for human flesh, the attack scene in a cinema, and an eruption of shocking violence between doctors in a hospital. But while Cannibal Apocalypse commits daylight robbery it riffs creatively too, for instance by choosing to dwell upon the cityscape panic that Dawn of the Dead curtails after its first half-hour.
With his quiet strength and underlying sadness John Saxon makes a compelling lead, bringing a restrained, thoughtful quality to a role that could have been flat and conventional. Saxon is quite the sex symbol here; a short but compact man, in peak physical condition, he spends several scenes half-dressed, wandering around in boxer shorts, answering the phone draped in a bath-towel, and generally sending out more pheromones than the female cast, who remain largely clothed throughout. In a film about eating human flesh it’s interesting that the most vivid depiction of human corporeality should involve a homo-erotic dwelling on Saxon’s muscularity.
Giovanni Lombardo Radice’s showier turn as the psychotic ex-soldier plays well alongside Saxon’s measured presence, and black actor Tony King stands out too – his alarming homicidal rages are vividly conveyed by cameraman Fernando Arribas during the prolonged scenes of Cronenbergish pulp at the sanatorium.
Ending with a jovially sinister coda implicating a child in the cannibal craze (Luca Venantini aka ‘John-John’ in Fulci’s City of the Living Dead), Cannibal Apocalypse is one of the most vigorously entertaining films to come out of the Italian gore explosion of the early 1980s. If ever a horror film cried out to be watched with friends in a party atmosphere, it’s this one; just make sure you have some raw steak in the fridge for afters.
Stephen Thrower, MOVIES & MANIA
John Saxon, known best in the horror genre as Nancy’s dad in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, was cast due to his initial interest in the unusual story twist. Unaware it was an Italian exploitation movie on cannibalism, he soon lost interest when made aware but had already signed and committed to the picture. He has claimed never to have watched the movie and was fine with its banning in the UK, claiming it was foul and in bad taste. It is also claimed that Saxon’s subdued performance in the picture was due to his recent divorce and financial strain thereof.
Cannibal Apocalypse was initially uncut on UK video back in the early 1980s, but found its way onto the government’s notorious ‘video nasties‘ list, and the distributors were successfully prosecuted for obscenity. The film was finally re-released in the UK in 2005, but missing a brief 2 second shot during the ‘sewer shootout’ in which a rat gets splattered with burning napalm, as the BBFC felt this was in breach of the Cruelty to Animals Act.
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“Margheriti’s film is hugely enjoyable, packed full of memorable moments and rounded off with a super-groovy soundtrack. Italian exploitation flicks don’t come much better than this. But don’t expect high production values or stunning dialogue. This is simply Italian cheese at its finest – nothing more, nothing less.” CJ, Digital Retribution
” …contains enough blood and gore to make Eurocult fans happy, including some graphic flesh munching, a French-kissing scene that will scare the hell out of you, and a shotgun blast that has to be seen to be believed.” Danny Shipka, Perverse Titillation
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“Unusual in movies like this, the gore (which, for the record is both excellent and extreme in equal measures) takes second place to the action. From beginning to end, the excitement barely lets up, with explosions and fighting almost constantly … Cannibal Apocalypse is also very well made, with interesting characters, a tight plot and great camera work, putting it head and shoulders above many similar movies.” Wayne Southworth, The Spinning Image
“Although the film has been maligned by critics, who claim Margheriti disinherited his adeptness at the gothic by meddling in the vulgar genre of high-gore, the sympathies he evokes for perversion as at turns tragic pathology and strange alternative desire, the disdain with which he represents hyperreal examples of ‘normal’ male sexuality and the extraordinary versions of human flesh he presents for our pleasure, a pleasure which compels us into a world of perversion and desire beyond the palatable, are all continued thematically if not stylistically in this film.” Patricia MacCormack, Senses of Cinema