Last Hunter, The (UK - DVD R2)
Gabe Powers goes to war Italian style, and ponders whether war really is Hell...
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Antonio Margheriti was one of the true unsung heroes of Italian exploitation cinema. He was a true director for hire, but always managed to squeeze out some solid craftsmanship even when confronted with entirely asinine Italian brand cash-in scripts. Although not as visually vibrant as say, Bava or Argento, Margheriti (usually billed as Anthony M. Dawson) knew how to use a camera to tell a story. Best known among cineastes for his work on The Virgin of Nuremberg and Castle of Blood, Margheriti's most famous work ended up tied in controversy, insuring he never received any credit. I am referring to his work on the Andy Warhol produced, Paul Morrissey 'directed' Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein, both of which may or may not have been ghost directed by Margheriti due to inexperience on Morrissey’s part.
Italy, if you didn't know already, used to have a thriving film market, most of which was flooded with knock offs of popular American films, though sometimes the Italians were content to rip each other off. In the late '70s and early '80s, the hottest commodities in the grindhouse were zombies, cannibals, and Vietnam vets. American films The Deer Hunter, First Blood, and Apocalypse Now were two especially popular films in the region. In 1980 Margheriti would direct three films, and two of them would be Vietnam War themed, Cannibal Apocalypse and The Last Hunter.
Cannibal Apocalypse is easily my personal favourite film of the Italian cannibal cycle, but I admit the film shares little in common with the sub-genre's usual narrative, which sees 'civilized' Americans somehow loosing themselves in the 'savage' land of cannibals, only to be eaten alive. Cannibal Apocalypse has much more in common with First Blood(which didn't come out in movie form until 1982, though the novel had already been for ten years), and basically about the post-traumatic stress of soldiers returning from Vietnam, the only twist being that these particular soldiers have also been infected with a rabies like disease that causes them to crave human flesh. The original Italian title was Apocalypse domani, which literally translates to Apocalypse Tomorrow, making the title an obvious play on that of Francis Ford Coppola's film.
The Last Hunter is a play on the title of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, but the film itself ends up foreshadowing the continued adventures of John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (the one written by James Cameron, not the one where Stallone fights alongside the Taliban). Fulci favourite David Warbeck (a man who sadly missed out on the American B-career of contemporary John Saxon, who he shared a lot in common) plays Captain Henry Morris, a man filed down by the horrors of war who's sent to destroy a Viet-Cong radio tower broadcasting discouraging words to already discouraged American soldiers. Morris is dropped in enemy territory and meets up with his special squad of tough-guys, who are joined by American photojournalist Jane Foster, played by Italian grindhouse fav and sister of Mia, Tisa Farrow.
Foster at first seems only to fulfil two of the basic tenements of Italian exploitation, the need for a recognizable American actress in what well should be an all male story, and the unexplained need for some kind of reporter or photojournalist, which is a sort of unexplained Italian screenwriter’s obsession of the era. Between Warbeck and a slew of surprisingly entertaining character actors, I didn't expect much from Farrow in the role, especially considering her normally flat acting. Somehow Margheriti manages to both make her an important character to the story, and pull a decent performance out of the usually sub-par performer. But this wasn't the only surprise The Last Hunter had in store for me.
Any fan of Italian exploitation can usually expect two things out of the best of these films, decent cinematography and some juicy, if not crude gore effects. My exposure to Italian action cinema is sorely lacking, and considering the film's notorious reputation for graphic violence I was game for the viewing. The first thing I noticed was the lack of truly graphic violence. Sure there's some guts, squibs, and missing limbs here and there, but nothing as graphic as say Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. Despite the films cash-in roots and small budget, Margheriti actually managed to make a dramatic and surprisingly realistic account of what life in the jungles of Vietnam may've been like. As the film progressed I found myself more interested in the plot than the promise of icky gore effects.
The film is unmistakably crude to be sure, but the director's grasp of how to shoot an action sequence actually rivals that of some the big-budget American releases of the era. The action isn't non-sequential either; it furthers the plot in most cases. Around the middle point Morris and his motley crew take refuge in a cave outpost run by an old fashion Major played by Argento alumni John Steiner. Steiner's crew is full of wartime stereotypes, and are hard to distinguish from one another, but manage to feel real enough to accept, and even root for. This second act offers Margheriti and screenwriter Dardano Sachetti a chance to relax on the action and deal with some of the social and psychological issues facing soldiers during a lost war, and adds some actual weight to Morris' quest to destroy the radio tower, as some of Steiner's men are listening to the propaganda station. Whether such stations were actually a problem during the war is inconsequential.
Of course everything is oversimplified to a degree, and the allegories are heavy handed as all hell, but when you go into a film expecting little the stuff you come away with can much more rewarding. The Last Hunter isn't what any realistic critic would call a classy film, but there's enough action (including some breathtaking helicopter stunts), wacky, sideways camera angles, and actual plot here to keep most of us interested for the entire ninety-two minute runtime. My best advice is to watch it back to back with Cannibal Apocalypse, as it could be seen as a thematic prequel.
According to the best darn collection of DVD comparisons on the internet, DVDCompare.net, this is the only official English language release of The Last Hunter (I've found some cover scans of what appear to be 'budget' releases). Unfortunately, only the Germans get anamorphic versions of the film. If you speak German, seek out either of their German language only releases. If you're like me, you're stuck with this Vipco release.
The video quality isn't awful, but it's definitely not anything to write home about (‘Dear Mom, you've got to see this DVD transfer. It's the bomb. Love, Your Son’). First off, it's not anamorphic, which is an automatic bummer. The print itself is damaged, housing a variable cornucopia of artefacts. The overall image quality is acceptable as detail levels are high enough to tell what's going on, though sometimes action still disappears into blackness. Some care was put into this transfer, obviously, or else it'd look like a VHS tape, but there is a definite lack of quality, and a lot of room for improvement.
The real problem with this disc isn't the video transfer, but the soundtrack. As the film begins the soundtrack kicks in with such a distorted and poppy thud that it almost sounds like a needle being dropped on a three decade old record. Things get better after that, but only just. A surround track would've been unnecessary, but this mono track is shockingly flat and muddled. Voices reverberate and sound as if they've been pitched up a half octave (perhaps due to PAL speed-up). Things never get so bad that one can't understand the dialogue, but the popping rarely lets up.
The relatively bare-bones disc includes a full filmography of the three top American actors and Margheriti, some trailers for other Vipco releases ( Cannibal Holocaust, Mountain of the Cannibal God, Psychic Killer, and Shogun Assassin), and a image gallery.
I watched The Last Hunter expecting enjoyable garbage, but underestimated exploitation king Margheriti, who crafted an effective Vietnam action adventure. There's some decent acting, some clever dialogue, more explosions than the average Italian cash-in, and best of all, an intriguing plot. This is B-grade filmmaking, and money was the sole motivation, but fans of exploitation flicks will eat it up. Hopefully Anchor Bay or Blue Underground will get the rights for a region one release sometime in the near future.
You can purchase this, and other Margheriti films from my friends at Xploitedcinema.com
Review by Gabriel Powers
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 17th June 2002
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono English
Extras: Trailers, Filmographies, Still Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Antonio Margheriti
Cast: David Warbeck, Tisa Farrow, Tony King, Bobby Rhodes, John Steiner, Margit Evelyn Newton
Length: 92 minutes
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