CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE: Taking Italo-Shock Horror To American Streets

The 1980s, particularly their first half, were a golden era for Italian genre productions. It was a time when a modestly-budgeted project could get a name star or two from overseas and cover a hefty spot of on-location shooting in the United States plus some handsome soundstage shoots back in Rome. The resulting production could be passed off as “almost American” to countries around the world, the U.S. included.

This led the country’s genre journeyman to crank out a slew of films that staged baroque Italian storylines in American settings, creating a fascinating cultural disconnect on celluloid where casts of mixed national heritage enacted a funhouse mirror  reflection of what Italian filmmakers imagined life in the United States to be like. The reality-bending Troll II is probably the most famous example of this but Schlockmania’s favorite is Cannibal Apocalypse, a staggering mixture of action, shock-horror and a bizarro world version of American city life anchored by a straight-faced performance from the great, much-missed John Saxon.

Cannibal Apocalypse starts like gangbusters with a cost-conscious but well-staged Vietnam War prologue in which commanding officer Norman Hopper (Saxon) attacks a village and discovers a couple of his soldiers, Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Thompson (Tony King). Unbeknownst to Hopper, they’ve been infected by a cannibal virus and this comes to light when one of the men puts the bite on him.

Cut to: the present day. Hopper is sleepwalking through his life with newscaster wife (Elizabeth Turner). The sleeper awakens when he gets a surprise call from Bukowski, whom he must rescue when his day pass from a mental hospital goes wrong. Old memories are resurrected along with the effects of the virus and Hopper finds himself drawn into a bloody reunion with his former subordinates. They mayhem they commit causes the cannibal virus to spread through the streets of Atlanta as a grizzled cop (Wallace Wilkinson) tries to track them down.

The resulting film is as energetic as it is weird. The script, penned by director Antonio Margheriti with Italian genre veteran Dardano Sacchetti, crossbreeds the “Vietnam vets return home” genre with the zombie/cannibal horror so popular in Italy around this time as well as the action that Margheriti was fond of. The science of the “virus” never gets beyond a comic book level but you won’t care: it’s merely a device designed to kickstart a barrage of setpieces where horror effects and atmosphere are spliced into action setups. 

Here’s a few stunning examples of the films action-goes-horror concepts in action: p.o.w.’s cannibalizer a villager who falls into their pit, an impromptu cannibal attack that prompts a chase and shootout and, best of all, a fight between the antiheroes and a biker gang where they punch their foes and then bite chunks out of them!  These are frequently accented by show-stopping gore FX, the most unforgettable being one unlucky soul who gets a bowling ball-size hole shot out of his abdomen with a riot gun (of course, the camera then tracks the scene’s subsequent action through that hole).

The side-benefit here is the twisted vision the creators have of life in the United States. In this film’s version of America, it’s an everyday occurrence for biker gangs to harass and feel up female joggers passing through a shopping area and a guy to take his best girl to see a war movie so he can pull down her top and go right to first base. That said, the best example is the family unit who lives next door to Norman: there’s an angry aunt (Joan Riordan) who constantly yells at her niece and nephew over anything they do and a legwarmer-clad teenage seductress (Cinzia De Carolis) with the hots for Norman.  All their scenes have that funhouse mirror weirdness in their depiction of suburban U.S. life and they even get to play a role in the film’s denouement.

If the above combination of elements sounds like a combustible hothouse of schlock creativity to you, that’s exactly what Cannibal Apocalypse delivers thanks to Margheriti’s direction.  He does the only thing worth doing with such a wild premise: he plays it totally straight, letting the inherent wildness of his narrative speak for itself and concentrating on putting it all across the plate in a full-throttle style. There’s a comic book vibe to the framing by cinematographer Fernando Arribas as well as a jittery quality to his frequent handheld camerawork. The energy is intensified by snappy editing in the setpieces from Giorgio Serralonga and it’s all put over the top by a catchy, disco-tinged score by Alessandro Blonksteiner that could be accurately described as “Ennio Morricone meets the theme from Charlie’s Angels.”

The final element of fun for Eurotrash fans here is the cast. The most crucial element, of course, is John Saxon. He was a veteran of Italian productions by this time and he’s the calm in the eye of the film’s storm that holds it all together. He follows each crazy turn of the plot and every weird line of pseudo-American dialogue without missing a beat, bring an old pro’s sense of gravitas to the proceedings and never condescending to the material. He admitted to being embarrassed by this film later in his career but he’s got nothing to be ashamed of as his solid craftman’s touch is that core that keeps this from drifting off into the ether.

That said, it’s worth noting that Saxon has some very entertaining backup here. Most notable are Radice and King. Radice has a ball camping it up to create a showy version of a mentally disturbed vet: look out for the moments where he improvises new, Vietnam War-themed lyrics to “Yankee Doodle” and “California, Here I Come.” In contrast, King offers convincing, uncut intensity: when he growls a threat or unleashes a primal roar, you feel it in your bones.

You also get a great turn from Atlanta local Wilkerson, who digs into every tough cop line of dialogue with southern-accented machismo.  Elsewhere, it’s a who’s who of Eurotrash genre players: De Carolis is the little girl from Cat O’ Nine Tails all grown up, Ventantino Ventantini from Gates Of Hell pops up as a cop and May Heatherly of Pieces fame is a mental institute nurse who goes cannibal.

In short, Cannibal Apocalypse is both a thoroughly entertaining action/horror hybrid and a fascinating time capsule of the “on location in the U.S.” glory days of Italian genre fare. It’s also a testament to what a consummate professional Saxon was. Add in a hefty dollop of Video Nasty gore and you’ve got a must-have for any Italian horror fan’s movie shelf.

Blu-Ray Notes: Kino Lorber picked this one for blu-ray and turned in a stunning new transfer that shows off how handsomely shot the film is. All of the excellent supplements from the old Image DVD are carried over, including a fantastic hour-long retrospective with Saxon and Radice, and new extras are added as well.

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