It could be due to their similar titles, or that they were all on the “Video Nasties” list, but 1980’s Cannibal Apocalypse (known as Invasion of the Flesh Eaters in its censored form) is often lumped in with the rest of the Italian cannibal movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferrox. Before I saw any of them, I had made that association too. When I was a young horror fan, I loved to get catalogs from video bootleggers. In those days before deluxe super ultra limited Criterion 12 disc ultimate directors cut premium special edition DVD’s, video on demand, and torrents, foreign films in their uncut form just weren’t widely available. There were, however, people willing to sell you 5th generation grainy VHS copies of obscure Japanese laser-disc editions or uncensored European cuts. As a 14 year old kid with no money and no way to get these movies, I would read these catalogs with names like Gates of Gore, Video Mayhem, Horror Obscura, and Unearthly Video and dream of these cinematic atrocities I would one day track down. Cannibal Apocalypse, Cannibal Ferrox, and Cannibal Holocaust were always together on the list. I used to call it “the Cannibal trilogy.” When I finally got to see these movies well into my 20’s I realized that Apocalypse has nearly no similarities to the other 2. Only 2 flashbacks take place in the jungle, there are no tribesman with spears, no real animal killings, and it’s far more Cronenberg than Deodato.
John Saxon plays Norman Hopper, a Vietnam vet who leads a mission into a Vietnamese POW camp to save Charlie and Tom. Turns out Charlie and Tom have developed a taste for human flesh, and can spread the cannibal hankering with a bite, and so Tom bites Norman. One year later, Charlie and Tom are in an asylum, while Norman tries to go on with his life. Charlie is released, immediately attacks a couple getting it on in a movie theater, and holes up in a flea market. For all you locals, this was filmed in Decatur, Ga and the Flea Market is the one on Buford Highway. Anyway, Norman talks him into surrendering, but back at the asylum Charlie teams up with Tom to bite some nurses. Why the cannibal nurses never got their own movie is beyond me. Seems like a no-brainer. Norman starts feeling the munchies, springs his army buddies from the nuthouse, and they take to the sewers with the authorities in hot pursuit. As you can see, this “violence as a communicable disease” plot definitely calls to mind some of Cronenbergs early movies like Rabid and Shivers, which is a far more apt comparison than Ferrox or Holocaust.
There are quite a few reasons to love this flick, amongst them the actors and the soundtrack. It’s driven by 3 great performances. John Saxon is, as always, excellent. Giovanni Lombardo Radice, who you might remember from the legendary power drill through the skull scene in Gates of Hell (and coincidentally Cannibal Ferrox), plays Charlie. His creepy menace just radiates out of the screen. He’s also the only person I’ve ever seen in any movie pee on a tear gas canister to neutralize it. Pure Genius. Wallace Wilkinson is Captain McCoy, the most stereotypical 70s foul mouthed tough guy police chief I’ve ever seen, and has all the great lines in the movie. The soundtrack is horrifically dated, but that just adds to the charm. Cannibals fighting bikers to music rejected from Shaft? Count me in. These flesh eaters are downright funky! Watch the trailer below this review. That song at the beginning is playing while the GI’s are storming the Vietnamese camp. No, I’m not kidding.
Also setting it apart from its cannibal brethren is the fact that there are only two, maybe three real scenes that are more graphic than an R rating in 1980 would allow. One is the dismembering of a corpse with a bonesaw, and yes it is pretty meaty. In the other a character gets a big hole blown in their abdomen with a shotgun. There is a great shot where we pan from the actors face, which is still moving, down to the gaping hole, where we see the action taking place behind him through the hole. This would be an amazing practical shot today, and looks better than any cgi would, but this was 1980! That shot holds up better than a lot of special effects from 10 years ago. There’s a pretty good close up eye gouging too, but I’ve seen more brutal (Fulci, I’m looking at you on this one.) Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot more blood and violence (flamethrowers, tongue bitten off, chunks of flesh bitten off), but it’s not enough to warrant this film’s extreme reputation.
The version I got is from the Studiocanal/Image Euroshock Collection, and this is the one to get. It is LOADED with great special features. Of particular interest to Atlanta residents is a featurette where they show you where they filmed many scenes. Or, if you’re into nostalgia, go get one of those grainy vhs bootlegs if you can find one. Long live the old school. Two severed, and probably half eaten, thumbs way up. Nathan says check it out.