The film opens in Vietnam with an extended action sequence that sees Norman Hopper (John Saxon) and his men undertake a search and destroy mission against a Vietcong base. Having dealt with the enemy Hopper is shocked to discover two GI's in a pit, feasting on the still-warm flesh of an unfortunate VC. What makes it all the worse is that he knows one, Charlie (John Morghen), from his home town. Moving to help them out of the pit, Hopper is bitten on the arm by the other man, Tommy (Tony King)...
And some woodland outside of Rome?
The image momentarily turns pixellated and black on white, as Hopper wakes up in his bed, next to his wife Jane (Elizabeth Turner), back in Atlanta.
Another Vietnam flashback, but the war – or more specifically the consequences of Tommy's bite – is about to come back in a major way.
Going to the kitchen, Hopper finds himself drawn to the raw, bloody meat in the fridge. In the morning he feels compelled to bite the next door neighbour's jailbait daughter (Cinzia de Carolis) after she gives him the come on, though since she takes it in her stride it was presumably more a gentle nibble than anything else.
Hopper gets bitten
When Charlie, just released from mental hospital with a clean bill of health phones up to see if Hopper wants to go for a drink, he understandably hesitates.
This merely delays the inevitable encounter, however, as Charlie bites a chunk out of a woman's throat in a movie theatre and kills one of a cycle gang before holing up in a flea-market where he picks up a convenient shotgun.
Hearing about the incident from his wife, who phones to check that he is not the one involved, Hopper races to the scene and persuades the captain into letting him bring Charlie out without further shooting.
Charlie is taken back to the hospital, but not before a few others have been bitten or otherwise infected with virus.
Even worse, by the time the authorities realise that this particular strain of cannibalism is contagious, Charlie, Tommy and Hopper have all been re-united and, along with a recently infected nurse, escape from the hospital in search of more flesh on the city’s streets...
A classic Morghen image
Charlie enjoys the breakfast of champions, in yet another piece of unauthorised J&B product placement
If there was one thing Antonio Margheriti knew how to do it was turn out efficient, unpretentious filone films. A good example of this are the trio of Vietnam films he made in the early 1980s: this one, The Last Hunter and Tiger Joe.
Whereas The Last Hunter takes its title from The Deer Hunter and its plot wholesale from Apocalypse Now, here we start off in Apocalypse Now territory – the Italian title literally translating as Apocalypse Tomorrow – before quickly shifting into something more reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead.
The Dawn of the Dead influence is particularly evident in the composition of the cannibal group, comprising three men, two white and one black, and one white woman, exactly the same as that in Romero’s film. Similarly, that the group has another run in with the gang of bikers seems to be little reason other than that Dawn film also has this.
Hitting the bullseye, as an infected cop fails to obey orders to “put it down son”
Elsewhere Rabid and The Crazies emerge as closer models in other respects, including their emphasis on spurious scientific explanations and living human monsters rather than the living dead – particularly the typhoid Mary figure of Rose in Cronenberg's film with her horrified awareness of what she has become and must do to survive and repeated cries of “I'm still me.” It must, however, also has to be borne in mind that these earlier films had not had the same wider influence outside as Dawn.
While one could no doubt attempt to draw a line of descent here from Night of the Living Dead itself as a film 'about' the Vietnam war, made when it was still ongoing and a more direct critique of US policy was difficult if not impossible for the film-maker there – we can here also note in passing that Apocalypse Now's late 1960s genesis lay in the idea of shooting a film guerilla style in Vietnam itself – the truth is that Margheriti and screenwriter Jimmy Gould / Dardano Sacchetti were less concerned with social comment than commerce. Combining the Vietnam war and zombie horror genres was first and foremost a move motivated by box-office potential: if doing something sullo stesso filone A attracts X viewers and something sullo stesso filone B Y viewers, then why not combine the two filone and their potential audiences?
That the film's inspiration lies in the zombie film means that it's more comfortable viewing than other Italian cannibal titles, being less harrowing than Deodato's work and less unpleasant than Lenzi's.
Though there's a moment of animal killing, as some unfortunate sewer rats get flambé-d with a flamethrower, it’s hardly representative of a desire to go further and further in this direction when we recall that 1964's Castle of Blood and its 1971 remake Web of the Spider had both included the casual decapitation of snakes.
This is not to say that Margheriti skimps on the blood and guts, however. Rather, there are plenty of scenes of those afflicted with the cannibal virus biting chunks out of hapless victims; a Fulci-esque eyeball gouging; the use of a circular saw to cut chunks of flesh out of one victim’s leg and a spectacular demise by shotgun as one character has a large hole blown through his belly. If Margheriti here draws his inspiration from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, it’s still an impressive set-piece shot.
The location for the Vietnam scenes looks suspiciously like the outside of the cave complex used as a base by the US troops commanded by John Steiner in The Last Hunter. While not entirely convincing as the Vietnamese jungle and not quite matching the stock footage that its integrated with (although later films would see Margheriti and other Italian directors making use of Philippines location shooting in the manner of Apocalypse Now itself) Margheriti keeps the action flowing such that it doesn’t really matter too much, except for to the sticklers for authenticity who one can’t imagine would be watching the film in the first place.
In this regard, John Saxon has frequently indicated in interviews that he accepted the project because he believed it to be a serious commentary on the plight of returning Vietnam veterans. It’s a tough one to swallow unless he didn’t read the script and accepted the role sight unseen, all the more given that his long experience in Italian crime films during the previous decade must have provided him with a working knowledge of how the country’s rough-and-ready exploitation movie industry operated.
As evidence that the filmmakers weren’t taking it all that seriously themselves and just intent on providing their target audience with a fun 90 minutes consider the surname of Morghen’s character – Bukowksi – in a possible nod to the American drunk / poet; that it’s Alberto Di Martino’s war movie From Hell to Victory he watches in the movie theatre scene; or the frequently over-the-top tough guy dialogue and one-liners with their own distinctive, almost self-parodic poetry:
“Do you know who he is?”
“His name's Bukowski, Charles Bukowski”
“I don't mean his name, dumbass, I'm talking about his background. Is he a subversive, a queer, a black, a commie or a Muslim fanatic?”
Whatever Saxon's feelings about the finished product, his performance as Hopper is credible, feeling less about collecting the paycheck as wanting to say something about Vietnam. Morghen and King take a different approach more in tune with their one-dimensional crazy comic-book characters, mugging for the camera and generally hamming things up. Not surprisingly it works.
Elsewhere the likes of Venantino Venantini, Elizabeth Turner and Cinzia de Carolis, almost unrecognisable from her Cat o' Nine Tails days, provide reliable support in the smaller roles; Venantini’s son Luca plays de Carolis’s brother with he and his father obviously conveniently in Atlanta for this and Fulci’s City of the Living Dead at around the same time.
Alexander / Allesandro Blonksteiner's score is a bit hit and miss. It works when he does synth sweeps and atmospheres – some sounding suspiciously like cues from Giuliano Sorgini's Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue to my ears – less so when providing funky action themes that come across as a bit lightweight and out of place.