This is one of those horror flicks that’s a bit hard to categorise. It’s an Italian “cannibal boom” film in the tradition of Ruggero Deodato’s classic Cannibal Holocaust which came out the same year, as well as earlier efforts such as Deodato’s Last Cannibal World, Joe D’Amato’s Black Emanuelle films, and the one that started the Italian cannibal boom, Umberto Lenzi’s The Man from Deep River. But Antonio Margheriti, using his alias Anthony M. Dawson, turned the genre on its head. The cannibal boom movies were usually set in the jungle, where tribes of primitive savages killed and ate Western interlopers, who richly deserved their fate. In other words, the archetypal colonialist cannibal story with a post-colonial twist (revenge!)
This one starts in the jungle too, but it’s a jungle in Vietnam, and the Western interlopers are American soldiers prosecuting the disastrous and eventually futile Vietnam War. A squad led by super-macho Norman Hopper (John Saxon from Nightmare on Elm Street) lands in a village and torches the place, after getting blown up by a dog (yeah, it gets worse). They find some POWs captured from their squad, Tommy Thompson (Tony King, who is now head of security for the hip-hop group Public Enemy) and Charlie Bukowski – a intertextual reference to the poet Charles Bukowski I guess, although the link seems tenuous. Bukowski (the soldier, not the poet) is played by John Morghen from Cannibal Ferox, an actor who pretty much always dies horribly in every movie he’s been in, and this is no exception.
They have somehow caught a virus (?) which makes them crave human flesh. That makes it sound more like a zombie movie than a cannibal one (think 28 Days Later), but let’s give it a cannibal pass by referencing the Wendigo films like Ravenous or Eater. Or you could claim, as the doctor says to Norman, it’s a “form of rabies.”
No, it isn’t. He really should have gone with Wendigo, a mythical figure – giant, fierce and cannibalistic, who gathers strength from feeding on human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied. He is sometimes protective (like Norman), and sometimes a figure of revenge (like Charlie and Tommy). The Wendigo gets inside people who are weak, hungry, or filled with rage.
Anyway, the squad is using flamethrowers to fight the Vietcong (and their women and small children) and one burning woman falls into the pit where the POWs are confined, making for a cooked meal. No home delivery jokes please.
Back in the States, Norman is having nightmares of being bitten by the POWs as he rescued them from their meaty pit. He realises something is wrong with him (the virus from getting bitten maybe?) and stares in horror and fascination at a bleeding lump of flesh in the fridge. Why is there flesh left to bleed in the fridge – isn’t that a health hazard?
One of the rescued POWs, Bukowski, suddenly phones him – he’s on day release from the “Hospital for Nervous Disorders”, or what the cops call a “loony bin”. Norman can’t meet him because the teenage neighbour is lasciviously pointing a hairdryer at him, and he is drawn to her lower regions, but for someone infected with the cannibal virus, ‘eating her out’ means something different to what she expects. She drops by later to tell him that she enjoyed being bitten. What do you know.
Meanwhile, Charlie has gone to see a war movie, as you do when you’re been treated for months for severe PTSD. It’s Umberto Lenzi’s From Hell to Victory, a lovely in-joke among amici, with lots of explosions and deaths. But no one is watching the war.
In front of him, a couple are doing oral things – exchanging saliva and sucking on boobs, erotic cannibalism, but Charlie joins in by taking a healthy bite of the girl’s neck as she leans back in her seat. He runs, there’s a shootout, he kills and eats a bikie and a security guard – it’s all downhill from here. The Atlanta police chief wants to know about him, not his name (despite it’s fascinating intertextuality):
Is he a subversive, a queer, a black, a commie, or a Moslim fanatic?
No, he’s a clean cut all-American (Italian) Vietnam vet, who wants to eat people.
Lots of people get bitten or scratched – a cop, a nurse, who then bites off the doctor’s tongue, and of course there’s that wanton teenager from next door (what horror film would be complete without promiscuous teenagers?), who was infected by Norman’s bite, even though he thought he could overcome the craving for meat.
Point is, they all have the cannibal virus, and the cannibals end up in the sewers (apparently hoping to hoof it to the airport and hop on a flight back to Vietnam), where they are chased by men with guns and flamethrowers; it’s really just like Nam, but now they have become the enemy.
The movie was one of 39 films to be prosecuted in Britain during the 80s as a ‘video nasty’. The acting sometimes leaves a little to be desired, but the main characters, Saxon and Morghen, are great. The special effects are by the legendary Giannetto De Rossi and are, like most of his work, spectacularly abject. The music is a mix of elevator and disco, creating what TV Tropes calls “soundtrack dissonance” – it’s either disturbing or just annoying, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
In his commentary on the film, the director Antonio Margheriti proudly states that this film was Quentin Tarantino’s favourite of his movies. Tarantino referenced the film a couple of times: in Inglourious Basterds, Donnie Donowitz uses an alias “Antonio Margheriti”, while in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio character goes to Italy in 1969 to star in Spaghetti Westerns and also one Bond-type spy thriller supposedly directed by Margheriti titled Operazione Dyn-o-mite.
But video nasty or not, Cannibal Apocalypse has some interesting things to say about the fallacies and phalluses of war and cannibalism. The cannibal virus comes back to the USA with Vietnam veterans, a group who were sent to fight a vicious and often brutal war, often against civilians, and returned to abuse or neglect, with far more veterans dying from suicide than died in that war. They also brought back with them, on top of their trauma, exotic diseases, drug habits, and acute psychological damage. Many went as conscripts, and came back as severely damaged killing machines, metaphorically lusting for human flesh and spreading the anger and violence to all those near to them. It’s happened over and over in every war – a culture of killing leads to a spiral of violence. Even when you think the nightmare is over and all the cannibals dead, there’s still the teenager and her little brother to consider (hey, it’s been over forty years – where is the sequel this seems to promise?)
The drive to kill and to eat flesh are closely linked in human history. Consider the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer in the forward to the book Vegetarianism, a Way of Life, by Dudley Giehl:
As long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace…
If you think Cannibal Apocalypse sounds interesting but you’re short of time, most of the good (gory) bits are covered fully in the review by Mike Bracken, AKA The Horror Geek (@horrorgeek). Mike’s vodcasts are always very entertaining, but this review had me guffawing out loud, which is a bit weird when you’re watching with headphones, in apparent silence, and pretending to be writing an academic thesis. In fact, Mike’s review is much better than the film, IMHO.