Friday, May 29, 2009

Cannibals: Rabid and Shellshocked

I like it when a genre takes over because everybody throws their two cents in. Antonio Margheriti isn’t someone I’m terribly familiar with, so its fun to see what he does with the cannibal movie. Having seen his entry I wouldn’t call him a good director, but one things for sure, he keeps things lively. Margheriti was hugely into the Vietnam war (almost obsessed) and spent much of the 80s making Rambo-type films with everyone from David Warbeck to Donald Pleasence. Today’s film could be seen as the catalyst for all that because before then he had pretty exclusively made below average Gialli, Westerns, and Sci-Fi. His 1980s war films were also below average and so is this but this is most definitely the film he’s best known for and as cannibal films go this one is at the very least a lot of silly fun and at best morally sound.

Cannibal Apocalypse
By Antonio Margheriti
Ah, nothing says Italian quite like a historically inaccurate ‘nam flashback and Giovanni Lombardi Radice. Giovanni is actually secondary to the real action. He and Tony King are POWs and the squad that’s been sent to get them is led by none other than John Saxon (he's also carrying a Thompson submachine gun which the Army hadn't issued since the Korean War, but historical accuracy isn't really why we're here, is it?). Saxon is the king of the 80s character actors; he was in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Tenebre and he directed Zombie Death House. He’s one of those people who’s always in shit but he’s ten times better than all of his co-stars, but it may just be because everyone like seeing them in bad movies. Michael Ironside and Lee Van Cleef are the same way. Anyway, Vietnam. So Saxon plays Captain Norman Hopper and the carnage we see his platoon inflict in order to save the two POWs may or may not have actually happened because when Hopper tries to help them out of their tiger cage, one of them bites his hand. At this point he wakes up from a dream at home in bed with his wife in Atlanta, Georgia. The dreams seem to be recurring and one gets the feeling he’s fighting something internally; why else would he look ever so longingly at that raw meat in the fridge?

Hopper isn’t the only vet with issues in the greater Atlanta area. Those two guys he rescued from bondage (Charlie Bukowski and Tommy Thompson are their names, Radice and King respectively, and sweet god do they like to overact) are also pretty close to losing it. Bukowski calls his old Captain up on the phone one day and suggests they get together to swap war stories; Hopper wisely declines. With both of their afternoons now free Hopper bites a neighbor girl who comes over to sleep with him (she looks about 15, by the way; I don’t know what the hell that’s supposed to mean, but it does become sort of relevant. The girl! Not her age). Anyway, if you think that sounds like fun, just wait and see what Charlie does with his lunch hour. He goes to a movie theatre and watches a couple make out for what seems like an hour before biting the girl on the throat. He tries to flee but a biker gang sees him and assuming he must be guilty of something chases him into a thrift store. Charlie gets ahold of a gun, kills one of the gang member, the rent-a-cop on duty, and then the police show up. Hopper comes down when his newscaster wife calls him and says one of his old platoon mates is about to make the news thinking he might be able to talk Bukowski down. He goes in and they share some cryptic words before Charlie surrenders but not before taking a bite out of one of the arresting officers.
When they get Bukowski to the psych ward he bites one of his nurses after seeing Tommy struggling to get to him. Tommy is already interred in the ward; one wonders what he did to get there? Anyway they’re isolated in their own little room until the doctors can figure out what in Christ is wrong with them. They’re there just long enough for that cop who got the bite to flip out and kill some people down at police headquarters. The nurse goes cannibal next and then frees Tommy and Charlie. Norman, too, has embraced his inner gut-muncher and gone to meet his old friends down at the hospital; he gets there in time to drive the getaway car. They don’t get too far because that biker gang that Charlie shot at earlier, they show up and they want revenge. Do you think a bunch of doughy white guys or some cannibals with absolutely nothing to lose is going to come out on top? That’s what I thought. The police arrive just after the fight stops and the four cannibals escape into the sewer where it’s cat-and-mouse until credits. Oh, and there’s a last minute zinger.

Yeah, this isn’t really a good film, but hell I had fun. Cannibal Apocalypse, rather than sticking to the run-to-the-jungle-and-die formula of the preceding cannibal films, falls nicely in line with my favorite breed of late 70s, early 80s exploitation film: the Youths-Gone-Wild film. I’ve coined this phrase and it is in a sense an extension of 50s problem child films like High School Big Shot and The Violent Years and late 60s/early 70s drug films like The Trip and Gas-s-s-s; movies that tried desperately to capture the money of kids by pretending to know what they liked to see. The movies of the 50s were way too complicated to have a shred of truth and those of the 60s were too aimless and weird; gimme the 70s/80s anyday. Movies like The Warriors, Escape From New York, and 1990: Bronx Warriors (which shares screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti with this film) tried to capture the zeitgeist of youth culture in order to impress and increasingly non-consuming audience and all of them failed spectacularly. These movies are basically good for a laugh; they don’t have the first clue about what youths do in their spare time. Cannibal Apocalypse is one such film and its even better because it’s a generation removed in that its made by Italians trying to impress American teens. That means we have a vet named Charles Bukowski and a biker gang who look like they just rode off the set of Martin. In other words, a bunch of loaded but ignorant gestures. I don’t think punks in 1980 were reading Bukowski (or even riding motorcycles). There’s a chance Dardano Sacchetti was still trying to rip-off Dawn of the Dead as he did in his Zombie script (Sacchetti was an insanely prolific writer of bad Italian movies. He also wrote House By The Cemetery, Demons and its sequel, The Beyond, and Cut & Run). Sacchetti in all probability just loved motorcycles; almost as much as McG, I’d wager. Anyway, believe me when I say this film misses its target audience by about ten years. I have a theory that this was really his Dawn of the Dead remake because Zombie didn't quite give him the chance he wanted as the plot was wildly different (it actually adheres more carefully to the cannibal movie formula than the zombie film formula, actually). I feel like this was the film he really wanted to make: a Romero tribute instead of a bastard sequel.

Notice that despite my not-exactly glowing review of the film, see all the connections I was able to make? That’s really half the fun of a film like this; its historically lucky. It represents the coming together of a dozen elements that are easily more interesting than the film itself. On its own, the film has its craziness to offer, some inspired gore set-pieces (there’s a bit where one of the cannibals is shot and Margheriti frames the next shot through the hole in his stomach) and the fact that Sacchetti turned the genre inside out by starting in the jungle and returning to the city. If he were a better writer, he’d really make something of this point. Anyway, the fact that cannibalism is treated like a virus puts this movie halfway between a zombie film of the Romero school and those of the off-shoot North American school (I’m thinking I Drink Your Blood and The Crazies specifically; hence its militaristic themes and its American location). If you were attempting to study the admiration that Italians had for American culture, you could do worse than to start here. I can think of no other phenomena (with the exception of Japanese rockabilly gangs and manga) which is so curious. Consider: a movie about the effects of the Vietnam War on American veterans set in Georgia made by Italians whose original title translated to Apocalypse Tomorrow (instead of Apocalypse Now, I guess. And while that doesn't really mean anything in and of itself, neither does half the shit Italians do in the name of the film industry). Now if that isn’t misplaced hero worship, I don’t know what is. I can also think of no other movie which claims so many influences. Cannibal movies, zombie movies, Vietnam movies, youth culture, American urban/suburban living, the list goes on.
So while it isn’t a cannibal film in the strictest sense, and it is really quite silly, it sure is fascinating from an academic standpoint. Anyway, it's a hell of a lot better than Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City and hey, it could have been worse. It could have been Umberto Lenzi’s last cannibal film…

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