The 1980 film Cannibal Apocalypse begins in Vietnam.
Sgt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon) leads his troops into a Vietnamese village. A dog approaches. One of the soldiers starts to pet it.
“Watch it, asshole!” Hopper shouts.
Too late. The dog explodes and takes the soldier with him. That’s just the first of many explosive events in the film. Minutes after the dog blows up, Hopper discovers two American soldiers being held prisoner in an underground cage. One of them is named Charles Bukowski (yes, I know) and he’s played by the great Italian actor, Giovanni Lombardo Radice. The other one is named Tommy (Tony King).
“Hey,” Hopper says, “I know these guys! They’re from my hometown!” He reaches down to help them out of the cage. Charlie and Tommy promptly take a bite out of his arm….
Suddenly, Norman Hopper wakes up in bed, next to his wife. He’s been having another nightmare. In the years since returning from Vietnam, Hopper has married, started a family, and bought a nice house in Atlanta. He seems to have his life together but he’s still haunted by what happened that day in Vietnam.
Charlie and Tommy are also still haunted. Unlike Hopper, they haven’t been able to get their lives together. Charlie’s a drifter and, when he shows up in Atlanta and calls Hopper at his home, Hopper isn’t particularly happy to hear from him. After talking to Hopper, Charlie goes to a movie where he watches a couple make out in front of him. Soon, Charlie is trying to eat the couple while panicked movie lovers flee the theater. (“What type of cinema is this!?” one man cries out.)
Forced to eat human flesh while being held prisoner, Charlie and Tommy are both cannibals today. However, as the film makes clear, cannibalism travels like a virus. Anyone who gets bitten by Charlie and Tommy becomes a cannibal themselves. That includes Hopper. For years, Hopper has managed to resist the craving but, as soon as he gets that call from Bukowski, he finds himself tempted to take a bite out of his flirtatious neighbor.
With the authorities determined to eradicate not only the cannibalism plague but also those infected, Hopper finds himself forced to go on the run with Charlie, Tommy, and an infected doctor (Elizabeth Turner). Eventually, everyone ends up in the sewers of Atlanta where people are set on fire, one unfortunate is literally chopped in half by a shotgun blast, and the rats turn out to be just as hungry as the humans….
And here’s the thing. You’re probably thinking that this sounds like a really bad movie but it’s actually kind of brilliant. I may love Italian horror but, for the most part, I’m not a fan of cannibal movies. But, thanks to the performances and the energetic direction of Antonio Margheriti, Cannibal Apocalypse transcends the limits of the cannibal genre. Obviously, gorehounds will find what they’re looking for with this movie but far more interesting is Cannibal Apocalypse‘s suggestion that war (represented by the cannibalism that Hopper, Tommy, and Bukowski bring back from Vietnam) is an infectious virus. Once someone gets bitten, it doesn’t matter who they are or what type of life that they’ve led. The infection cannot be escaped.
In an interview that John Saxon gave for the film’s DVD release, Saxon said that making this film actually left him feeling suicidal. It wasn’t just the fact that the film itself presents a rather dark view of humanity. It’s because it upset him to know that there was an audience that was as rabid for violence as Norman Hopper is for human flesh. Saxon said that he had never seen the film and, in the interview, he had to be reminded what happened to Norman Hopper at the end of the film. It’s a bit of a shame because Saxon gives a brilliant performance as Norman Hopper. Saxon plays Hopper as being a sad man, a man who knows that he can’t escape his fate as much as he wants to. There’s a tragic dignity to Saxon’s performance, one that gives this cannibal film unexpected depth.
Also giving great performances are Giovanni Lombardo Radice and Tony King. As played by Radice, Charlie is a living casualty of war, a man who served his country and came home to be forgotten. You understand Charlie’s anger and his resentment. (When Bukowski finds himself in a stand-off with the police, one the cops explains away Bukowski’s actions by dismissively saying, “He’s a Vietnam vet,” a line of dialogue that not only explains Charlie’s anger at America but also calls out America for not taking care of its veterans,) Meanwhile, Tony King gets one of the best scenes in the film when, seeing Hopper for the first time in years, he grins at him and yells, “Remember these choppers!?”
As strange as it may seem to say about a film called Cannibal Apocalypse, this is a film that will bring tears to your eyes. It’s one of the classics of Italian horror.