Cannibal Apocalypse / Cannibal Massacre / Invasion of the Flesh Hunters / The Cannibals Are in the Streets / Cannibals in the Street / Cannibals in the City / Savage Apocalypse / The Savage Slaughterers / The Slaughterers / Virus / Apocalipse Domani / Apocalipse Cannibal (1980/1983) ***
Cannibal Apocalypse/Invasion of the Flesh Hunters/etc. is probably the number-three Italian cannibal movie in terms of notoriety-- after the legendary but very rare all-time champion Cannibal Holocaust/Holocosto Cannibal (which has sometimes been mistaken for a genuine snuff film), and the easier to find but only slightly less brutal Make Them Die Slowly/Cannibal Ferox. This film is far and away the least formulaic of the genre, but by standing the usual formula on its head, it sometimes does itself more harm than good. Whereas most cannibal flicks begin in a major Western city (usually New York) and then move to a remote jungle setting, Cannibal Apocalypse begins in the jungles of South Vietnam before changing venue to an unnamed city that I am told is Atlanta, Georgia.
Norman Hopper (John Saxon, whom you might remember either as Heather Langenkamp’s father in A Nightmare on Elm Street, or as the evil space warlord in Battle Beyond the Stars) served as a captain in the Vietnam War, and like many veterans of that particularly nasty conflict, he is haunted to this day by some of the things he experienced. In particular, he is troubled by memories of a search-and-destroy mission on which his company serendipitously rescued a pair of American POWs from captivity. (The film, perhaps deliberately, leaves it unclear whether this mission involved a raid on a known V.C. campsite, or a My Lai-style massacre of a village in which the V.C. happened to be present-- notice how few of the Vietnamese are wearing the usual black pajama outfits.) When Captain Hopper discovered the POWs, they were in the process of eating a Vietnamese girl who had fallen into their pit after one of Hopper’s troops turned his flamethrower on her. As Hopper reached into the pit to help them climb out, one of the men bit him on the arm. As we learn about fifteen minutes in, Hopper continues to relive the event in his dreams.
In the grand scheme of things, Hopper actually got off pretty lightly with recurring nightmares. The two POWs-- named Charles Bukowski (!) (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, from The Gates of Hell and Stage Fright) and Tommy Thompson (Hell Up in Harlem’s Tony King, who appears to have been cast solely on the basis of his extraordinarily large teeth)-- have spent the ten-plus years since they returned from the war in a mental hospital, under the care of a certain Dr. Mendez (Ramiro Oliveros), who, it turns out, also happens to be an old acquaintance and romantic rival of Norman Hopper’s. And by another remarkable coincidence, the day of Bukowski’s long-awaited release arrives just as Hopper begins having nightmares about ‘Nam again. Believe me, by the time this is over, Hopper will be wishing for bad dreams.
You see, nightmares aren’t the only thing Hopper starts having. One day, while he is at home and his wife, Jane (Beyond the Door’s Elizabeth Turner), is at work (she’s the host of some cheesy TV show), the oversexed teenage girl who lives next door (Laura Dean, I think) comes over “to borrow Mrs. Hopper’s blowdryer.” Yeah, Gina, whatever you say... Anyway, while Gina puts the moves on him, Hopper is overcome by a sudden urge-- not to have sex with her, but rather to bite her. Gina, of course, thinks it’s some kind of kinky sex thing, so she doesn’t mind at all. But old Norman knows better. His libido had nothing to do with that particular craving, and seeing as he spent the night before dreaming about cannibal GIs, the whole thing has him sort of spooked. And to make matters still worse, while Hopper was trying to fend off Gina’s attempts at seduction, who should call him on the phone but his old buddy Bukowski, looking to meet up somewhere, have a couple of beers, and reminisce about the time Hopper saved Charlie from Charlie. Yeah, Hopper doesn’t think that’s such a good idea, either.
But you know, the poor guy just can’t win today. Hopper ends up seeing Bukowski after all, under circumstances that make the prospect of trading cannibal stories over Miller Lite seem positively charming. After getting blown off by Hopper, Bukowski heads downtown to catch a movie. In the theater, he notices the couple in front of him making out. As the camera lingers lovingly over the girl’s silky, outstretched throat (cutting every couple of seconds to an increasingly agitated Bukowski), we know exactly what’s coming. And sure enough, Charlie leans over and gives her a good, sound chomp, right in the sternocleidomastoid. Well, you don’t just bite some random chick on the neck in a crowded theater without attracting attention, even if you are in a movie called Cannibal Apocalypse, and before you know it, Bukowski is running down the street with an angry mob on his heels. He ducks into a massive and apparently closed thrift store for cover, but is followed in by a guy named Carlos, who is inexplicably riding a dirt bike. (Directors of Italian horror movies seem to have an inordinate fondness for dirt bikes.) Bukowski finds the guns and ammo section of the thrift store (hey, man, it’s Georgia), and kills both Carlos and the lone security guard, who comes running when he hears the first shot. (What, the fact that somebody was clearly riding a dirt bike around in his store wasn’t enough to get his attention?!) Next thing you know, Charlie is eating the guard’s face, Atlanta’s finest have the store surrounded, and Hopper arrives on the scene to volunteer to try to talk Bukowski into coming out. Hopper’s wife and the news team from her TV station arrive just in time to see Hopper and Bukowski emerge from the store. Bukowski is packed up and sent back to the hospital, but not before he takes a bite out of the arresting officer’s hand.
Bukowski is no better behaved at the hospital. He attacks a nurse (biting her, of course), and manages to start a full-fledged riot among the patients with the help of his old pal Tommy Thompson. The authorities regain control fairly quickly, and the two cannibal GIs are strapped down and sedated, but it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that all these people getting bitten is somehow more significant than it looks. Meanwhile, Hopper is trying to talk to his wife about how he bit the girl next door (she isn’t exactly sympathetic) and how he can’t shake the feeling that both his mysterious urge and Bukowski’s motiveless rampage are connected.
And then all hell breaks loose. First, the cop Bukowski bit flips out, shoots one of his partners, and starts eating the other. Then the nurse at the hospital (Cinzia de Carolis, from Cat o’ Nine Tails and Night of the Devils) chows down on her doctor boyfriend, and goes to the observation unit to free Bukowski and Thompson. Finally, Hopper too hears the call of the wild, and heads off to the hospital to hook up with is old army pals. Seems we have a veritable epidemic of cannibalism on our hands, a potential Cannibal Apocalypse, if you will (heh-heh). Yeah, but why? Bukowski, Thompson, and Hopper, sure-- they were all in ‘Nam, Charlie and Tommy actually ate some people over there, and Norman at least got to see them do it-- but the cop? The nurse? Fortunately, our old friend Dr. Mendez has a theory. (And this is where the film finally shows its true colors-- red, white, and green.) Mendez believes that the psychic disturbance that Bukowski suffered in Vietnam so deranged his system as to actually mutate his genes, so that contact with Bukowski’s saliva is like contact with the rabies virus; Charlie bites you, and you turn cannibal. I shit you not, the man actually says this.
The rest of the film has the four surviving cannibals (the cop was killed shortly after he went psycho) prowling around the city’s streets and sewer system, trying to make their way to the airport, while the police close in on them. The airport? Well, Hopper and company naturally want to return to Vietnam, where they will presumably be able to eat people unmolested. Makes sense to me... Along the way, there’s a fight with the dirt bike gang from the thrift store scene, a whole lot of shoot-outs, some of them involving flamethrowers, and what looks to have been some top-notch extreme carnage. (The version I saw, under the title Invasion of the Flesh Hunters, was cut up pretty badly-- by which I mean both that a lot of footage appears to have been excised, and that those excisions were very poorly executed-- but enough was left in to hint at the delights that a less extensively edited version might hold for the true meat-lover. Nobody does eyeball-gouging like the Italians. Nobody.)
On the whole, Cannibal Apocalypse is slightly disappointing. The first two thirds of the film are awfully slow-moving, it lacks the intense loathsomeness that one comes to expect in an Italian cannibal movie, and most importantly, the overall tone of the film is conspicuously American. On the other hand, the acting is much better than I generally expect, and all of John Saxon’s dialogue was in English to begin with, so he stuck around to do his own dubbing (you’d be surprised how much that helps). And then, there’s the wonderful trick ending, which should surprise no one, but which is handled so well as to almost completely erase the bad aftertaste of boredom left over from the first half (the chewing is such a nice little touch). What actually is surprising is that, when Cannibal Apocalypse finally gets good, it’s good for more than a laugh.