Last Hunter (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers takes a second look at Italy's answer to Apocalypse Now...
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 features The Deer Hunter, First Blood, and Apocalypse Now were especially popular 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 my personal favourite film of the Italian cannibal cycle, though the film shares little in common with other sub-genre releases, The usual genre narrative sees 'civilized' Americans somehow loosing themselves in the 'savage' land of cannibals, who eventually eat them alive. Cannibal Apocalypse has more in common with First Blood (which didn't come out in movie form until 1982, though the novel had already been kicking around for ten years), and is basically about the post-traumatic stress of soldiers returning from the war, the twist here being that these particular soldiers have also been infected with a rabies like disease that makes them 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.
Farrow at first seems only to fulfil two of the basic tenements of Italian exploitation: the need for a recognizable American actress in what probably should be an all male story, and the need of 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 Last Hunter is noticeably lacking in truly graphic violence. Sure there's some guts, squibs, and missing limbs here and there, but nothing as graphic as modern studio blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. Despite the film's cash-in roots and small budget, Margheriti actually manages to create 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 Last Hunter is unmistakably crude, but the Margheriti's grasp of action sequences actually rivals that of some the big-budget American releases of the era. The action isn't non-sequential either - it actually 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 it's hard to distinguish one from another, but each manages to feel real enough to accept, and sometimes 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.
I wished for an American DVD company like Anchor Bay or Blue Underground to get their hands on this movie when I reviewed the grimy Vipco UK release, and my prayers were answered by still relatively new company Dark Sky. I was planning an all out comparison review, but it proved unnecessary when I pulled my first comparison cap. There's zero contest between the transfers.
The Vipco release wasn't just non-anamorphic, but it was incorrectly framed at about 1.85:1, rather than 2.35:1. This release is both correctly framed and anamorphically enhanced (the only such version in the entire world). Artefacts and film grain are present, but not nearly as intrusive as the Vipco release. Details are pretty sharp for an older flick, but not at the risk of edge enhancement.
My problem with the transfer, even when compared to the trashy Vipco release, is its dullness. The contrast levels aren't high enough—blacks are often too light and highlights too dark. The jungle landscapes should be lush and green, but they're more washed-washed out and brown. This isn't a huge deal, and I still recommend the disc heavily for Italian action fans, but it could've been amazing.
If the video quality is no contest, then the audio comparison isn't even part of the same competition. The Vipco release was awful, like a broken record. This release is clear and relatively clean. The audio hasn't been remixed into an aggressive 5.1 attack, but that probably isn't necessary, and when the bombs go off there's plenty of kick for a Mono track. The Mono itself is a little flat, but not garbled, and distortion is minimal.
Besides a few trailers and text bios, no previous The Last Hunter release has had any extras. This disc isn't exactly overflowing with special features, but it's still more than you're likely to find anywhere else. The extras come down to a brief but interesting featurette hosted by Margheriti's son Edourado. Eddy, as I've decided to call him, lets us in on his father's legacy, takes us on a tour of his favourite locations, and covers bits of several movies made throughout the maestro's career.
The featurette walks hand in hand with a trailer, some stills, which include some super poster art, and a few other Dark Sky release trailers.
The top of the DVD box reads 'The Antonio Margheriti Collection'. Collection being the key word for this Italian grindhouse fan. Today we have too few of the man's films available on DVD, and the more is the merrier. The Last Hunter is actually a pretty good place to start for those unfamiliar with the man's filmography, though these folks should keep in mind that Margheriti, like Fulci, was capable of dealing with many genres and styles, and that this isn't the top and bottom of his career
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 24th June 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Featurette, Trailers, Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Antonio Margheriti
Cast: David Warbeck, Tisa Farrow, Tony King, Bobby Rhodes, Margit Evelyn Newton
Genre: Action and Adventure
Length: 96 minutes
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