Although it might be tempting to lump Cannibal Apocalypse in with similar gut munching genre films from the 70s and 80s it is both different from and much more entertaining than many of these. Director Antonio Margheriti keeps the action moving but also focusses as much on character as on grue, John Saxon creates a sympathetic lead, and the premise has some surprising symbolism about post traumatic stress disorder.
A platoon of US soldiers lands in a Vietnamese village on a search and rescue mission led by Captain Norman Hopper (John Saxon). Hopper finds two POWs trapped in a pit, munching on the flesh of a villager, and as he reaches out to rescue them, one (the distractingly named Charles Bukowski, played by genre legend John Morghen) bites him. Cut to a few years later, back in the US and Bukowski is released from a psychiatric hospital, but he still has a taste for human flesh, a craving caused by a virus contracted in Vietnam. Hopper starts to realise that Bukowski may have passed the virus on to him - and to anyone else that he can get his teeth into.
Margheriti does not skimp on the gore, such as the football sized hole that a shotgun blast leaves in somebody's guts, and it will not be too much of a suprise to hear that this film made the British Government's infamous Video Nasty list in the 1980s. Nevrtheless, Cannibal Apocalypse has several elements that lift the film above the more grim, cheerless and tiresome horror efforts that were also being made at the time.
Firstly the script is both straightforward and fast moving, and gives John Saxon the opportunity to build a likeable and sympathetic leading character, an every-man thrust into a bizarre situation that gradually slips out of his control.
The polar opposite of Hopper is his former comrade-in-arms Bukowski. He is brilliantly played by Morghen, an actor who seems here as in the likes of Cannibal Ferox and House on the Edge of the Park, to be typecast as some of the most grubby and unwholesome characters in cinema history.
The most fascinating part of the film is the symbolism of the virus that causes them to turn to flesheating. Unlike the zombies or cannibals of other contemporary horror films, these characters do not become mindless killers, but, although slaves to their new appetites, remain seemingly sentient, more like high functioning addicts. Another interpretation stems from where the characters originally contracted the virus, their wartime experiences. This, like Post-traumatic stress disorder, is something that they bring back to civilian life, and, like PTSD, can sit dormant for years, but if untreated, eventually begins to have a detrimental effect on the veterans, as well as their families and friends, and, eventually, their fellow citizens.
One accusation that could be placed at both Vietnam and Cannibal genre films is racism. The North American or European protagonists are, even if cruel and degenerate, still the "normal" people that the audience relate to, and the Vietnamese / Cannibals are savage, exotic, mysterious and "foreign", even if the action takes place for in their own country. Cannibal Apocalypse overcomes these by placing most of the action in urban America, and making the Americans the cannibals. The flesheating is never implied to be a part of Vietnamese culture, just something that the war has driven the Americans to acting out.
Of course there are some of the usual things present in low budget exploitation filmmaking, such as clunky dialogue, underwritten supporting characters and badly matched stock footage, but none of this detracts from a distinctive, and unsettling slice of 80s horror.