Vietnam vets and cannibals: CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (Antonio Margheriti, 1980)

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?)

Probably not.

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.

“The most violent film ever made” – CANNIBAL FEROX (Lenzi, 1981)

The US distributor of this film (where it was renamed Make Them Die Slowly) made the claim that it was the most violent film ever made, and had been banned in 31 countries.

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Both claims are highly dubious, but it is certainly one of the nastiest of the so-called “cannibal boom” movies that came out of Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. These films depicted a savage world in which the primitive natives were merciless cannibals, while the white victims were mostly corrupt and exploitative thugs, who invariably brought on the savagery by their own greed and violence (this one involves eye-gouging and penisectomies as well as brain and intestine munching). They deserved to be killed and eaten, especially since they were aware that all primitive people are cannibals. This from the civilisation that brought you Christopher Columbus, who coined the term “cannibal” and demonised the diverse nations of a whole continent.

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Lenzi’s film was made a year after the most famous of the Italian cannibal slashers, Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. Although Cannibal Ferox seemed to be a rip-off of Deodato’s magnum opus, let us not forget that Lenzi started the boom back in 1971 with Man From Deep River. That in turn was lifted from the Mondo films like Mondo Cane, films which showed the disturbing violence within nature and primitive societies, and pointed out that such dark forces still swirled within the well-dressed breasts of modern, cosmopolitan Europeans.

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Look, I’ve been kinda avoiding reviewing this one, not because I  thought you couldn’t handle it (you are reading a cannibal blog fergoodnessake!) but more because I was wondering if I could. More gratuitously violent than Cannibal Holocaust, the scenes of torture are really all that this one is remembered for (certainly not for the plot or acting). Make up artist Gianetto de Rossi created the realistic special-effects, most infamously remembered for the scene where a woman is hoisted in the air by hooks through her breasts. De Rossi had previously worked on Emanuelle in America and Zombie II, the latter becoming famous as the goriest movie ever made.

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There’s a convoluted plot that you can follow on Wikipedia if you want, or even watch the movie if you must. It involves drugs, the Mafia, cannibals growing drugs for the Mafia, and cannibals eating greedy and vicious, or stupid and naïve, white people. The interesting part of the plot, from a Cannibal Studies point of view, is that the stupid, innocent Westerners who find themselves being caught up in all this (and tortured and eaten) are there on a fool’s errand – one of them, Gloria, is writing a thesis that is going to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist and never existed. Her thesis is entitled “Cannibalism: End of the Myth”. [Holy excreted humanflesh; that’s kinda what I’m doing!] Radical as this thought is, it had actually been presented in an academic form by William Arens two years before this movie, in his book The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Don’t you love coincidences like that? Wanton violence, abusive sex, torture, cannibalism and academic dishonesty – an honest portrait of the PhD process. Then there’s the invariable PhD curse – half way through your research, someone sits down with a bowl of intestines and screws up everything you’ve written.

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Cannibal Boom movies cannot be accused of involving any sort of academic rigour, concentrating instead on slaughter, torture, exploitative female nudity (and more torture) and cannibalism, as well as the totally gratuitous filming of real animal abuse. Italian cannibal directors love to put real footage into their stories of fake violence. Look, they say, a real animal suffered and died, so now you’ll accept that the actors were also killed. Actually, that sort of worked for Deodato, who was almost tried for murder,until he was able to get his Cannibal Holocaust actors to appear in court, to prove they were still alive.

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The German version was called “Revenge of the Cannibals”

Cannibal Ferox is torture-porn – it didn’t invent the genre, but it took it to new levels and laid the foundations for some of the grindhouse horror that was to follow. For example, the scene of a skull being opened and the brains eaten from it had already appeared in Deranged (Gillen & Ormsby) in 1974, and was perfected in Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001).

Cannibal Ferox managed to scrape together a 40% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, from only five critics, one of whom summed up that “it both feeds and condemns our desire for the taboo sensations promised by its title”.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you can’t be bothered watching the whole thing but would enjoy some highlights, this video review by “The Horror Geek” is hilarious!

“Cannibal Ferox” means fierce cannibals. In the US, it was renamed “Make Them Die Slowly”, and in Australia “Woman from Deep River”. Not sure if that reveals some sort of cultural distinction right there.

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