by Steve Habrat
At the height of the Italian zombie and jungle cannibal craze, exploitation director Antonio Margheriti (yes, you heard his name in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) came up with the idea to mix the two splatter subgenres together, add a dash of Apocalypse Now and The Warriors, and replace real jungles for concrete ones. The result of this strange brew is Cannibal Apocalypse, a hit-or-miss grindhouse zombie extravaganza that features some impressive gore for a low budget Italian exploitation effort, some mildly entertaining action sequences, gratuitous nudity, and, yes, even a bit of senseless pedophilia. Cannibal Apocalypse could also have been a fairly solid exploration of the traumas of war and early on it seems like it is threatening to get a bit psychological, but after the first twenty minutes or so, the film abandons any sign of something substantial. In its place is the same old clichés that we’ve seen before set to the same synthesizer scores that played over countless other Italian zombie and jungle cannibal movies before it. The only difference is there is a hilarious saxophone playing over those pulsing synths. Make no mistake; this is an exercise in sleazy short-term thrills that goes great with a few Pabst Blue Ribbons. There is no long-term meditation and reflection over a glass of Chardonnay.
Cannibal Apocalypse begins with a rip-roaring flashback to the Vietnam War, with Norman Hooper (played by John Saxon) and a group of commandos storming an enemy bunker where two other commandos, Charlie Bukowski (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Tom Thompson (played by Tony King), are being held prisoner. Much to Noman’s horror, his two buddies have developed an insatiable hunger for human flesh and are in the process of devouring the charred body of a Vietnamese woman. While trying to help his friends, Tom suddenly lunges at Norman’s arm and he tears a big chunk right out of it. Several years later, Norman appears to be living a normal, happy life in an Atlanta suburb with his wife, Jane (played by Elizabeth Turner). Despite the happy face he puts on, Norman is still haunted by the horrors that he witnessed during the war and he even finds himself being seduced by the teenage girl next door. To make things worse, he finds himself craving human flesh. One day, Norman gets a call from Charlie, who has been recovering in a local mental hospital, about grabbing a drink and catching up. At first Norman turns down Charlie’s offer to get together, but after Charlie goes berserk in a local movie theater and rips open a girls throat, Norman is forced to reconnect with his friend and convince him to give himself over to the authorities. While in custody, Charlie meets up Tom, who is also still craving human flesh. As Charlie and Tommy bite more and more people, the cannibalistic cravings begin to spread and madness begins spilling into the streets.
The opening twenty minutes of Cannibal Apocalypse are fairly impressive and well spoken, as the camera is trained on the seriously disturbed Norman and the traumas that haunt him. He suffers from terrible nightmares and he squirms every single time he sees a piece of raw meat sitting in his refrigerator. Things really boil over when the young neighbor girl seduces Norman and he proceeds to take a chunk out of her hip. It is creepy in more ways than one and frankly unnecessary. From here on out, the filmmakers are more interested in showing bare breasts and giving the audience extreme close-ups of teeth tearing into chunks of meat rather than exploring the mental slip that these characters are experiencing. The gore just continues to escalate and you should know that the effects are pretty jaw dropping for a cheap Italian cannibal flick. One scene finds a doctor having his tongue ripped out by an infected nurse after he mistakes her attacks for seduction. Just to make things even more disgusting, the nurse then spits the very realistic tongue onto the floor and proceeds to bash the doctor’s head open. In another standout moment, our group of cannibals huddle around one victim’s leg and then saw it open with an electric saw, all while the camera zooms in on the mutilated meat. Yet the king daddy of gore shots comes when one character has a hole blown through their stomach with a shotgun. Just to make sure we understand that there was a hole blown through the character’s stomach, Margheriti cuts to it multiple times and even shows an extreme close up of it.
While the artier spurts may be the true stars, Cannibal Apocalypse contains some surprisingly passable performances from the actors. Saxon is convincing enough as the mentally unstable Norman. It rumored that Saxon really hated making the movie and that he has refused to see it. You’d never guess he was miserable though, as Margheriti never catches him sleepwalking through a scene. Then we have Radice, who you may remember from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. For those who don’t remember him, he is the guy who gets the drill right to the temple. Radice is in full crazy throughout much of Cannibal Apocalypse and he seems to be relishing every second he is in the film. If you think Radice is gonzo, wait until you get a load of King’s gnashing and thrashing Tom, who chomps, rants, and raves all while blood drips from his gums. He is so outrageous that he surpasses bad and just dives right into hilarity. Turner meanwhile is forgettable as Norman’s suspicious wife, who doesn’t even seem moved when he tells her he was fooling around with the girl next door. May Heatherly is also on board as Helen, a poor nurse who gets bitten and turns into a robotic cannibal with a craving for human tongues. She joins the pack of flash eaters near the end of the film as they dash around in the sewers, but she is mostly there to get gunned down by gas masked police officers.
Heavily inspired by Fulci’s Zombie and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Apocalypse never reaches the extreme highs of either film it is attempting to emulate and it certainly never taps into the satire that Romero did in 1978. Margheriti does manage to deliver a few action sequences that will hold your attention, especially the climactic chase through the hazy and rat infested Atlanta sewers. There is also an unintentionally hilarious brawl with a group of bikers in a seedy alleyway that looks like something ripped right out of The Warriors. The unintentional laughs will continue when you hear the wildly inappropriate disco score that accompanies most of the carnage. Overall, Cannibal Apocalypse is far from scary and it squanders every single opportunity to explore the impact that war has on our troops, but as far as inexpensive exploitation films go, it does have some stomach churning violence. This is only for those people who have worn out their copies of Zombie and Dawn of the Dead and are craving a lesser-known cannibal flick.
Cannibal Apocalypse is available on DVD.