DVD. Region 1. Dark Sky. Unrated.
David Warbeck had already starred on several occasions in the land of the big boot (most notably in Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! aka A Fistful Of Dynamite, 1971) but his reign as transplanted king of Italian action trash commenced in earnest with this characteristically violent, action packed Vietnam War epic courtesy of indefatigable spaghetti exploiter Antonio Margheriti. Margheriti had spotted Warbeck while directing second unit on Leone’s elegiac epic and later recalled thinking: “What a fabulous face – I have to have it in my own films.” Almost a decade later, he got his wish.
Just as Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse, lensed the same year, is so much more than the Deodato-wannabe it was hyped as (comprising instead an allegorical examination of the alienated war veteran’s plight, matched only for aching poignancy by Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock, 1986), so this supposed Cimino / Coppola copycat, which was actually announced as “The Deer Hunter 2” (“starring Jack Nicholson”!) works on more levels that the one played up the by the poster artist. Indeed, this 1980 Margheriti brace could serve as a paradigm of Kim Newman’s indispensable aphorism that the better Italian bandwagon jumpers are “… surprisingly sophisticated mixes of imitation, pastiche, parody deconstruction, reinterpretation and operatic inflation.”
So sure, Margheriti trots out the required elements from Apocalypse Now (Warbeck is on a mission to terminate, with extreme prejudice, those responsible for “Tokyo Rose” type broadcasts that are sapping GI morale; he encounters a crazy colonel – John Steiner – who sends his men on coconut runs down sniper’s alley, in lieu of any waves to catch… incidental nicks centre on soul brothers Tony King and Bobby Rhodes, who wile away the war with dope and Hendrix) and The Deer Hunter (Russian roulette and rat cages, disillusioned idealism and sexual betrayal, a protagonist who opts to stay in the inferno that is war because he has become so alienated by its rawness from the superficialities and uncertainties of the life he previously knew… shades of All Quiet On The Western Front… etc…
But these are essentially pegs for the publicity department to hang a campaign upon. In The Last Hunter, Margheriti goes native, essentially remixing themes from a peculiarly Italian genre… this, so much more than Cannibal Apocalypse, is Margheriti’s true, albeit disguised, contribution to Cinecitta’s man-eating cycle, unfolding in a booby trap laden jungle strewn with ravaged human remains… a setting indistinguishable from that of any Lenzi, D’Amato, Martino or Deodato gut crunching saga. Meanwhile Margheriti muses obsessively on the iconic screen presence of Warbeck (looking much better here in a greasy vest than Bruce Willis has ever managed) and scours the emotional labyrinth of a menage-a-trois that unfolds through the same flashback structure by dint of which Warbeck’s character comes to haunt Duck, You Sucker!!
“Tokyo Rose” turns out to be Margit Evelyn Newton, who was was Warbeck’s youthful collaborator in anti-war activism and the girlfriend he shared, in an ambiguous “open relationship” (again, the spectre of Duck, You Sucker!) with the doughboy whom we saw blowing his brains out in the film’s pre-titles sequence. Warbeck’s agonising about whether or not he’s sold out doesn’t stop him from giving Margit an all-American sock-on-the-jaw , but at least she’s spared the astonishing dismemberment she undergoes at the conclusion of Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh (1981). His patriotic duty now done, we expect Warbeck to fly off into the sunset with Tisa Farrow’s pert, freckle-faced photo journalist (a sort of distaff Tim Flynn.) Instead he elects to stay in the vicious jungle that now mirrors his devastated mental terrain. The film’s closing helicopter zoom, with our hero receding into the distance amid encroaching napalm blooms, looked kinda cheesy when I first saw The Last Hunter, but would be given the kind of poignancy that Margheriti was aiming for (indeed, it’s now almost unbearably poignant) by the revelation that cinematographer Riccardo Pallotini died in a ‘copter crash while supervising precisely such a shot for Margheriti and Warbeck’s next collavboration , Tiger Joe (1982) and by the subsequent, scandalously premature loss of Warbeck (who never quite hit the heights in his film career, but was indisputably a top-drawer human being.
During the initial “video nasty” witch hunt in the UK this film was released by Inter-light and later by Intervision in a very similar sleeve that omitted previously featured shots of Warbeck undergoing fiendish tortures at the hands of the Vietcong. Why bother? The Last Hunter still ended up on Section 3 of the DPP’s nasty list and anyway, as the star himself once told me (he was paraphrasing Lucio Fulci): “Real life is more horrible than anything anybody could ever dream up for a film”… an observation vindicated by the tragic events surrounding participants in Antonio Margheriti’s The Last Hunter.
Dark Sky’s 2.35:1 anamorphic wide screen transfer looks pretty good though of course the grainy nature of some of the combat stock footage herin is accentuated in the digital format. Extras include a theatrical trailer and and a winning, 20-odd minutes featurette by David Gregory in which Margheriti’s son and assistant, the agreeable Eduardo, acts as our guid on a sentimental trip around Rome’s De Palis studios, where Margheriti (and many of his exploitation peers) shot most of the “jungle exteriors” for their films in the ’70s and ‘80s. He indicates the sound stage where the climactic sewer scenes of Cannibal Apocalypse were acted out, and relates how the ‘Nam flashbacks in that one clinched for his father the job of directing Last Hunter in the Philippines on sets left over from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Edo expounds on the beauty of that country (to which he, his father and star Warbeck would return on several subsequent occasions) and also the difficulties of working in its oppressive heat. His thoughts returning to De Paolis, he indicates the clumps of trees that were often pressed into service to provide linking shots from the Philippine jungle and the water tank in which Warbeck fought off various rats and snakes.
Edo reminisces about working with Warbeck and John Steiner, his own small role in The Last Hunter (as “Stinker Smith”) and the pleasure his father apparently took in devising grisly demises for him… also Margheriti’s love of the special FX work for which he was world renowned; the cheap and cheerful, make-and-match spirit under which these films were crafted (Edo remembers how Margheriti and Luigi Cozzi raided each other’s props when shooting Yor and Hercules respectively on adjacent sound stages); and their shameless opportunism (“We put a “2” behind the title of a lot of successful American films”)… a joyful memoir of the golden age of Italian exploitation (from somebody who actually lived it) in which David Warbeck participated so conspicuously.
The Warbeck Weekender continues here at houseoffreudstein.wordpress.com tomorrow night with a look at David’s leading role in Russ Meyer’s er, idiosyncratic Black Snake aka Slaves (1973.) But first, some important messages from our sponsors…