John Saxon Stars in Italian Virus Gorefest, Looking Great on Blu-ray.
DIRECTED BY ANTHONY M. DAWSON (ANTONIO MARGHERITI)/1980
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 17, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
An off-kilter mashup of sensibilities both sleek and scuzzy, director Antonio Margheriti’s somewhat notorious Cannibal Apocalypse (aka Apocalypse domani, Cannibal in the Streets, Invasion of the Flesh Hunters, Virus… the list really does go on and on) has gotten a keen facelift with a nice side of bonus features on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics. If Italian horror films were roast beef sandwiches, this would be a moderately beefy one with an abundance of misplaced red sauce. Affordable but not nourishing, its seriously undercooked meat may or may leave one with a case of unpleasant indigestion.
The venerable John Saxon plays Captain Norman Hopper, a Vietnam veteran who, during a harrowing flashback, rescues two of his men from a jungle prison cage. Inside the cage, both men are seen eating bloody charred flesh of a recently torched-to-death compound-worker woman. Desperate to help them amid this botched operation, he reaches out to pull them to freedom. His valiancy is met with a horrific bite to the arm.
Smash-cut to Hopper now living in suburban Atlanta (the city where much of the film was shot). PTSD of the incident haunts him, though he’s clearly gotten on with life as best he can. Yet his newfound peace, such as it is, will be shattered all too quickly. After an uncomfortable moment of inappropriate shenanigans with the lusty teenage neighbor girl goes awry for the married Hopper, he soon learns that the very cannibalistic men he saved in the war, Charles Bukowski and Tom Thompson (the writers obviously spent a ton of time concocting those names; played by Italian horror mainstay Giovanni Lombardo Radice- here credited as John Morghen- and busy character actor Tony King) are now up to ugliness right there in town. The confrontation with Bukowski turns fatally lethal before things escalate as the movie goes on, revealing that the cannibalism they were converted to while taken prisoner is actually a communicable virus… and it’s spreading.
So, besides being a fairly pointed metaphor for how war breeds a feeding frenzy of aggression in the world, we also have the additional timely stumbled-into angle of an unknown virus ravaging a major city. Surely if Margheriti had known that this film would carry any said weight that the previous sentence is attempting to credit it with, he’d have steered more into those notions and less into the rote chases and gratuitous gore that instead dominate Cannibal Apocalypse. The look of the movie is somehow both competent in its framing and camera moves but half-assed in its locations and wardrobe. An ugly film is to be expected in genre cases like this (one might even say it’s part of the perverse appeal), but this one teeters particularly oddly in its low-budget gross-out zone.
Italian horror expert and all-around great film historian Tim Lucas is on hand with a feature-length audio commentary track. Lucas immediately takes the curious angle of comparing and contrasting it to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s not a comparison that’s terribly likely to occur to many beyond the film’s titles and their shared use of Vietnam-as-horror, but it’s an interesting take, for sure. Lucas, himself a veteran of well over one hundred such Blu-ray commentaries, is at this point an expert in filling time with fun little tangents, many of which are barely applicable to the film at hand. For example, a quick shot of extras being hurled in slow-motion by a bomb blast gives way to a truncated bio of Sam Peckinpah. A prop magazine that another character quickly thumbs through gives Lucas the opportunity to share the years which said periodical was in publication. As thorough as he is about these things, he’s all the more thorough about Cannibal Apocalypse itself. “So, what we have here is an impressive collision of timely influences: Coppela, Romero, Deodado, Fulci, Savini, and Cronenberg”.
Cannibal Apocalypse is a notable if not at all essential film of its time and place. Kino Lorber’s utilization of a new 4K restoration is a revelatory thing, making this otherwise rather trashy effort shine with a fresh veneer. Besides the Lucas commentary track, there’s a bloody smorgasbord of other extras to be consumed on the disc. The biggest is a previously available one-hour documentary retrospective from a 2002 Image Entertainment DVD called Cannibal Apocalypse Redux, featuring John Saxon, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, and director Antonio Margheriti (who went by the pseudonym Anthony M. Dawson for certain films). This piece is noteworthy as it not only digs into these individuals memories of making this film, but it also isn’t afraid to veer into other directions, such as bits devoted to director Lucio Fulci (who maybe the documentarian wishes had directed Cannibal Apocalypse?) and Radice’s part in the even more controversial 1981 Umberto Lenzi film, Cannibal Ferox.
Actor Tony King has an interesting ten-minute interview (“Cannibal King”), and there is also an eighteen-year-old mercifully brief video tour of the Atlanta locations on which the film was shot. These locations had already changed greatly since 1980 when this piece was made; surely it’s changed all the more since. In any case, it’s a rather amateurish six-minute clip. Things are rounded out with some trailers and an alternative opening sequence used in the U.S.
Though Cannibal Apocalypse has its fans (what doesn’t?), it can’t be labelled a film of upstanding quality. Even within the cult-driven niche of Italian gore-sploitation, this one is an uneven ride. Between Margheriti’s preferred place as an action/adventure director and Saxon looking to maintain his well-earned dignity, the movie can’t hope to aspire/descend to the visceral heights/depths of Lenzi or Fulci. But for what it is, this Blu-ray has got it in spades. Fans of Cannibal Apocalypse will no doubt eat it up with bloody relish.