Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fight for Your Life + Cannibal Apocalypse

(R, William Mishkin Motion Pictures, 86 mins., limited release date: Nov. 1977)

Looking back at the Video Nasties outrage via the two Severin Films DVD packages I belatedly reviewed, I find it to my eternal amusement just how seriously the watchdogs of public morale took some phenomenally low-rent, dreadful movies. Even from the clips on show in the trailer reels and documentaries, that something like Snuff could trigger extensive media pearl-clutching is boggling to my mind. It was all based on the fear of depravity and corruption in children and never about the quality of so many of these films being skid row deficient. God knows that if there were discussion of the filmmaking merits of Snuff or any handful of titles charged with obscenity, a real discussion would be held and the whole furor would be exposed for the self-righteous farce it was. The argument was never about the seams showing in these films, and similar seams in the parliamentary crackdown on Video Nasties were effectively quashed by a self-serving deference to "morality."

One of the movies I staved off watching for the longest time until those two write-ups were completed was Fight for Your Life, which is unique in the history of the DPP 72 in that it has endured as a craw-sticker since being denied cinema certification in England back in 1981. It has not been released on UK video ever since the pre-classified tapes were seized by police, and Stephen Thrower's enthusiasm for it has gone unheard in the age of DVD. In this case, as with I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, the combination of low-rent production and down-and-dirty subject matter has awarded the film a shelf life beneficial to any cult cinema gawker in the mood for the disreputable.

But unlike Meir Zarchi's bloodthirsty "take back the night" saga of retribution nor Wes Craven's implicating if frustrating knock on Ingmar Bergman, Fight for Your Life taps a grindhouse theme wholly uncommon to its vilified brethren: racial prejudice. Though director/producer/editor Robert A. Endelson and screenwriter/associate producer Straw Weisman ladle on child endangerment and sexual assault for that extra dose of queasiness, much of the harshness pertains to wall-to-wall verbal abuse and the demeaning reinforcement of stereotype at gunpoint. Whereas Krug Stillo felt compelled to demand Phyllis Stone piss herself in Craven's flick, Jessie Lee Kane (William Sanderson), the alpha psycho of Fight for Your Life, gets cross-country mileage out of the many ways the epithet "coon" can be used against the middle-class black Turner family.

Kane's particularly obsessed with breaking down the paterfamilias, reverend Ted Turner (Robert Judd). Though he bandies about "Deputy Dawg" and "Aunt Jemima" in regards to mother (Catherine Peppers) and granny (Lela Small), Kane's ire for "Martin Luther Coon" is fiery enough to demand Ted do a Stepin Fetchit shuffle, firing off bullets at his feet in the manner of a Wild West gangster. Ted, a devout Christian who sermonizes "the meek shall inherit the earth" almost every time at the pulpit, is even brutalized with his own good book by Kane, who tests the "turn the other cheek" philosophy to its depraved extremes. Kane's hard knock life is the source of some psychologically-deep impotence, which is how Ted and Grandma Turner dish out their own spiteful retorts in the fog of Kane's bigotry. In a more polished movie, a genuine battle of wills could emerge in the way Ted is enabled to act on his primitive rage only to push his virulent captor that one step further over the edge.

The only polish Fight for Your Life receives is from the fine folks at Blue Underground, who've remastered the film to a rather distressing sheen. I got the feeling that DVD is not the ideal way to view a movie like this, which cries out for thick grain, frequent projector stutters and a rowdy crowd willing to receive the pervasive invective for its ultimate reward. From its awkwardly-looped first scene, where a pimp dutifully shakes down one of his clientele for heroin, to the show-stopping duel between Kane and Ted, facilitated by a feeble police squad who undergo their own compromising of principle, Fight for Your Life is downtown gristmill fodder all the way.

As his behavior should make obvious, Jessie Lee Kane is indeed an extremely dangerous fugitive, who takes advantage of the police truck transporting him nearly getting fender bended by cold-cocking and then shooting the officer who decides to check on him. His accomplices on the run are the Hispanic thug Chino (Daniel Faraldo) and scar-faced Asian bogeyman Ling (Peter Yoshida), and the trio make off in said pimp's ‘76 Mercury on a violence-dotted run for the border. A liquor store robbery is witnessed by Corrie Turner (Yvonne Ross), Ted's daughter, whose captivity by the trio results in the ultimate appearance of these convicts at the Turner household.

Lt. "Rulebook" Reilly (David Cargill) commandeers one of the least-interesting manhunts ever, grating against the lax local jurisdiction of Captain Hamilton (Richard A. Rubin), while Kane and friends make themselves at home under the Turners' roof until sundown. Two family friends are sacrificed in the process, done in by the hulking Ling. Karen (Bonnie Martin), the white girlfriend of slain soldier son Val Turner (Ramon Saunders), is chased off a cliff while fleeing the rapist's pursuit of Ling, who then bludgeons preteen Floyd Turner's (Reginald Blythewood) best bud and blood brother Joey (David Dewlow), who also happens to be the son of Captain Hamilton.

Perfunctory and deadening rather than unpredictable and relentless, Fight for Your Life isn't as distressing as Last House on the Left or the similar invasion terrors of Straw Dogs and The Desperate Hours. A sequence in which Kane decides to "teach a lesson" to one of the Turner women with some rope and a tree peters out sans any truly disturbing lynching correlations, thus Endleson and Weisman fall back on the gang rape of poor Corrie as the breaking point for the family. The aforementioned beating of Ted with his Bible is presented in fast-motion POV that ridiculously undercuts the brutality of the moment. And the film's narrative momentum is so hokey that when the Turners pick up knives during one moment of convenient revolt, it also comes off an inconsequential despite further aggravation of the main baddie.

Robert Judd, whose only other acting credit was in Walter Hill's Crossroads (released in the same year Judd died), is the one relative unknown performer whose ascension to vengeance is natural enough to give them film a needed edge of vérité. But the main draw of Fight for Your Life is character actor William Sanderson in his screen debut as Jessie Lee Kane. In 1982, Sanderson's career picked up steam thanks to roles in Blade Runner, Raggedy Man and on TV's Newhart, but until then he was counted on to provide hillbilly menace in films like this and David Paulsen's Savage Weekend, filmed in 1976 but shelved for three years until The Cannon Group salvaged it. Sanderson's performance is equally as rough as Judd's if not more so, and Robert Endelson doesn't capitalize on those "sad eyes," to borrow a phrase which Granny uses to taunt Kane. There's more pathos in J.F. Sebastian's silent elevator ride to doom than there is any moment Kane grouses about his lost manhood.

There's also rougher justice meted out to Krug and Co. in Craven's Last House than there is to the criminals in Fight for Your Life. By the time the tables have turned for good, one of Kane's accomplices is shot in the groin and another flies out of a window to be impaled on a shard of glass. The basic purpose of these exploitation pictures is to watch cruelty reciprocated by the victims with rabble-rousing urgency followed by stone silence, yet between the rainbow coalition of hostility indoors and the worthlessness of the cops who arrive as Corrie is plainly being raped, Fight for Your Life is the kind of nihilism which indifferently shrugs it off by saying "You get what you pay for."

(R, Eurocopfilms/Almi Cinema 5, 96 mins, U.S. theatrical release date: Sept. 18, 1981)

Find some comfort food, improbable as it may seem, in a movie called Cannibal Apocalypse. Despite its title being censoriously taboo for the British government, this isn't another indigenous Italian melee of animal snuffing, barbaric torture and "are we the real savages?" philosophy. Antonio Margheriti begins in the jungle, but takes us instead to Vietnam with a passel of stock footage that eases us into the ensuing wartime mission. Sgt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon) comes upon an ambush, replete with surprise use of plastic explosive, but blasts his way out and locates a couple of POWs, including his hometown friend from Atlanta, GA, Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice). The captive soldiers, alas, have developed a taste for human flesh, and burly black prisoner Tony Thompson (Tony King) decides to take a nibble from Hopper's outstretched hand.

Such is the recurring nightmare/flashback Hopper endures in domestic life, and things get worse once Bukowski is granted a temporary leave from psychiatric hospice and tries in vain to rendezvous with his former superior. The rebuffed veteran decides on a matinee screening of From Hell to Victory only to suffer a lip-smacking relapse while observing a couple making out, necking the young woman quite literally. Fleeing the scene, trailed by a biker gang hankering for vigilante justice, Bukowski holes up in a flea market and takes arms against the marauders. Hopper is called to negotiate Bukowski's surrender, but he and his cannibalistic malady refuse to be contained much longer.

Perhaps the purest action director in the gut-bucket genre lorded over by Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei, Margheriti tempers the grisly chaos with energetic set pieces such as the opening 'Nam  attack and Bukowski's civilian battle, humming a twisted "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as he feasts on one of the bikers. Having gotten the most bang for his buck, Margheriti suitably deploys some top-notch FX work from Giannetto De Rossi (of Fulci's Zombie and The Beyond fame) as the virus circulates, with an infected nurse locking and chomping tongues with Hopper's blood analyst and another of the rabid survivors getting a hole shotgun blasted through his stomach. The way it is filmed, the camera panning the victim's face down to the open wound and then back up again, is the most indelible money shot I've ever seen in a proudly Italian gorefest.

Margheriti also borrows from Fulci the scriptwriting services of Dardano Sacchetti (in a movie full of Anglicized credits, his is "Jimmy Gould"), who tries to incorporate some vague biological rationale for the cannibalism as well as frame Hopper's torment within concerns of betrayal on account of his wife, TV news reporter Jane (Elizabeth Turner). It seems that Dr. Phil Mendez (Ramiro Oliveros) was a former beau of Jane's, and the good doctor even goes so far as to say "You should've married me instead." A tragic story of renewed love is paid off, despite wobbly characterization that has Hopper succumbing out of nowhere to the childish advances of the teenage tart next door, Mary (Cinzia De Carolis). This tryst is meant set up something more ironic for the last reel.

At least Johns Saxon and Morghen (Mr. Radice) command the screen no matter the war zones. Saxon was vocal about his soul-crushing disappointment towards the cannibal subgenre in a documentary included on Image‘s DVD (which I ridiculously reviewed on once upon a time), but it doesn't show in his performance. And while I prefer Dario Argento's Tenebre, in which Saxon was a mere supporting star, Saxon is credible despite the material. Radice, however, looks the part of a boyish case of shell shock rather uncannily and acts with crazed vigor. To rightly contrast their playing styles, just watch the scene where Hopper talks Bukowski (love that literate name) into deflating a tear gas canister with urine. Radice is no stranger to Video Nasties, thanks to appearances in Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox and Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park (he was also memorably drill killed in Fulci's City of the Living Dead, but that somehow escaped the Brits‘ attention).

Given the low-key plague scenario as well as the original Italian title being Apocalypse Domani (translation: "Apocalypse Tomorrow"), Cannibal Apocalypse tries to find some inspiration outside of George Romero, conjuring Cronenberg‘s Shivers & Rabid as well as Francis Ford Coppola. Margheriti is too pulpy a filmmaker to realize such a fascinating mash-up, but compared to Fight for Your Life and many of the sluggishly sleazy Video Nasties I'd just as soon forget, it's not a total detriment. If you want to read into it a particularly lurid translation of post-traumatic stress disorder, with electric saws grinding up human goulash in loving close-up and Saxon fitting himself back into his old Vietnam War uniform to accept his fate, you wouldn't be off-base. Personally, I embrace Cannibal Apocalypse for what it most resembles: a large pizza Margherita with double the cheese and tomato.

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