“What I’d like to know is, what this is all about, this contagious cannibalism or whatever you call it?!” asks one of the many confused characters in “Anthony M. Dawson” / Antonio Margheriti’s CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980), an entertaining—albeit harebrained!—hybridization of Vietnam-themed war pictures and Italian cannibal gut-crunchers. Notwithstanding the film’s heavily-marketed horror tropes and extravagant bits of über-violence, Margheriti’s film is, first-and-foremost, a briskly-paced action flick, one that doesn’t even attempt to inject any real pertinent ‘social commentary’ on the lingering aftereffects of the war. In what might possibly have been lost in the transition from script to screen, the film even brushes-off the epidemic of cannibalism as the fault of some virulent strain of rabies, in-part caused by a (quote) “biological mutation due to a psychic alteration” (!?!?), which is about as vague and unconvincing an explanation as you can get. Nevertheless, Margheriti understands his target audience and provides them (i.e., us!) with plenty of no-frills action and memorably over-the-top violenza. So, in that respect, at least, it succeeds admirably.
Noteworthy for its oft-censored splatter scenes—executed with panache and pizzazz by Italo gore guru Gianetto De Rossi—CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE first became available in the U.S. and Canada via Vestron Video’s bowdlerized 1984 Beta / VHS videocassettes as INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS (“There are some things worse than death…”), which is just one of the film’s many alternate titles. Prior to Image Entertainment’s uncut, extras-laden 2002 DVD edition (as part of their pioneering Euroshock Collection), the best—and possibly only—way to appreciate the film during those days of analog antiquity was through Pack-In Video’s uncut Japanese VHS tape. But thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ substantial licensing deal with Studio Canal, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE finally gets a truly superb HD upgrade, and comes with a whole gutful of worthy extras to boot.
Capt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon) is a decorated ’Nam vet who—no thanks to being left severely shell-shocked from combat duty (a condition that would nowadays be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD)—is suffering from a number of all-too-real nightmares, all of which involve Charlie Bukowski (“John Morghen” / Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Tommy Thompson (Tony King), a pair of soldiers from his former unit who, after being cruelly starved whilst kept in captivity as POWs of the ’Cong, were forced to resort to cannibalism for sustenance. Presently about to get his first leave out of the (quote) “booby hatch”, Bukowski attempts to reconnect with his former captain, but Hopper is reluctant to meet him, as he too is beginning to feel the same inexplicable cannibalistic urges his former comrades-at-arms had experienced during the war; a fact which becomes readily apparent during one of the film’s more uncomfortable scenes, when his pubescent next door neighbours’ daughter Mary (“Cindy Hamilton” / Cinzia De Carolis) comes to visit him. Of course, Bukowski’s compulsion for human flesh inevitably gets the better of him when he takes a bite out of a girl at a movie theatre. This inappropriate ‘snack-attack’ not only causes the expected panic, but leads into a lengthy stand-off with the fuzz when he holes-up at a local flea market. At the behest of cantankerous Captain McCoy (Wallace Wilkinson), who is full of memorably tacky one-liners (e.g., “He’s gonna be singin’ through his asshole when I get through with him!”), Hopper tries to negotiate with Charlie. As he too succumbs to the ‘virus’, however, he eventually finds himself ‘reunited’ more than ever with his former unit, who cause further havoc for the local populace before escaping into the city sewers for a final bloody showdown…
As with most Italian horror movies of the period, Margheriti and screenwriter “Jimmy Gould” / Dardano Sacchetti pinch ideas from a wide variety of filmic sources, including David Cronenberg’s far-more-apocalyptic RABID (1977) and George A. Romero’s hugely-influential DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). The grim fatalism of Richard Compton’s WELCOME HOME SOLDIER BOYS (1971) is also recalled, and, for the film’s typically-plagiaristic Italian marketing campaign, it was cheekily titled APOCALYPSE DOMANI (“Apocalypse Tomorrow”) in reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Heavily reliant on its cast to inject any real substance into its half-baked scenario, the film’s headlining name, the ever-dependable John Saxon adds a great deal to the proceedings as the tormented Vietnam veteran trying to come to grips with his affliction. At the same time, the seasoned ‘tough guy’ actor delivers all the necessary machismo required by the part as well. In what also amounts to one of his stronger roles, fan favourite “John Morghen” goes way off the deep-end herein, allowing viewers to savour his always-entertaining oddball charisma, whereas Tony King (who went on to appear in Margheriti’s more faithful APOCALYPSE NOW rip-off THE LAST HUNTER  alongside David Warbeck) provides plenty of abrasive shouting and grinning as the psychotic, shotgun-blasting Tommy. Also along for the ride is a newly-contaminated nurse (May Heatherly), a female cast inclusion which nicely completes the film’s obvious homage to DAWN OF THE DEAD.
Shot in Atlanta, Georgia during the winter of 1980, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE tries its absolute darnedest to hide its Euro origins. Atypically for an Italian/Spanish co-production, much of it was shot using direct sound for all the film’s English-speaking actors, whereas a number of European bit players are either hiding behind anglicized pseudonyms or go completely uncredited. Far outweighing its apocalyptic ambitions, Margheriti nonetheless energizes things with a number of economic-but-enthusiastic action sequences, including the opening Vietnam-set skirmish and a rather intense, impressively-staged climax down in the sewers of Atlanta which also includes a bravura gory set-piece, which was extensively highlighted in much of the film’s promotional materials.
Here making its worldwide HD debut, CA comes to Blu-ray in a (quote) “brand new 4K restoration”, which is pin-sharp and quite stunning (barring some of the conspicuously mismatching stock footage used during the opening credits). While much of the film does have a somewhat nondescript ‘TV’-style look to it, Spanish DP Fernando Arribas nevertheless manages to convey some notable atmosphere, that is especially evident in the finale’s catacomb-like sewer system, which almost makes it seem like one of Margheriti’s earlier Gothic horror entries. The DTS-HD 2.0 master audio track on the whole also sounds excellent, but keen listeners will notice an uptick in audio fidelity during many of the film’s direct sound recordings, whereas Alessandro Blonksteiner’s wholly unique score, which blends plenty of enthusiastic saxophone and ’Seventies-style pseudo-funk into a heady mix, plays well in juxtaposition with the schizophrenic storyline.
For Kino’s new Blu-ray, author and film historian Tim Lucas provides a brand-new audio commentary, which is full of his usual detail and insight into many of the film’s personnel, production, locations (including rural Manziana, Italy, which doubled for Vietnam [!!!]), and many of its very loose connections to its filmic sources, including a missed opportunity to make a closer, more coherent variation of Coppola’s legendary ’Nam film. He also discusses how script-scribe Sacchetti became involved in the film and his excitement to (quote) “conflagrate” genres, and in the case of said film, brought everything together in a (quote) “timely collision of impressive influences”, including the surprise ending, which resembles a certain Mario Bava classic. Of course, he also discusses Margheriti’s career at length and how well-liked he was by everyone involved. It’s yet another excellent, well-researched commentary that not only comes highly-recommended, but is actually the highlight of Kino’s new Blu-ray. In Cannibal King (10m01s), the disc’s other newly-produced extra, actor Tony King discusses his career with an equal amount of nostalgia and delight at the opportunities that were presented to him from the very beginning via a small walk-on role in Jerry Schatzberg’s THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971), and his eventual migration to Rome later in the decade.
For those of you of who own Image’s long-out-of-print Image DVD, there’s no need to fret, as Kino have thoughtfully included all of that disc’s extra features as well. For the record, these include the retrospective documentary Cannibal Apocalypse Redux (54m11s), featuring interviews with Margheriti, Saxon and Radice; a brief tour of the film’s Atlanta locations (6m40s), the alternate opening title sequence (taken from Vestron’s old VHS tape); the lively theatrical trailer (sourced from Venezuelan VHS, which includes burnt-in Spanish subtitles as SOBREVIVIENTES DEL APOCALYPSIS / “Survivors of the Apocalypse”), and a very cool Japanese teaser trailer. The disc also includes trailers for some of Kino’s other available horror films as well as reversible artwork, which also features some of CA’s rather deceptive, zombie-like artwork. Order it from DiabolikDVD or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.