Color, 1980, 96 mins. 27 secs.
Directed by Antonio Margheriti
Starring David Warbeck, Tisa Farrow, Tony King, Bobby Rhodes, Margi Eveline Newton, John Steiner, Massimo Vanni
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Dark Sky (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The first and easily the most popular of the brief Italian wave of action films about the Vietnam War, this large-scale look at the horrors of combat cemented cult filmmaker Antonio Margheriti as one of the country's premiere action specialists. The director had tried his hand at action films before, including the previous year's Killer Fish and 1978's The Squeeze, but from this point on (including an even bloodier 1980 'Nam offering, the war/horror hybrid Cannibal Apocalypse), he would turn out one accomplished shoot 'em up after another well into the '90s.
After his best friend and fellow solider completely snaps and commits suicide during a violent night at a Vietnam brothel, Captain Henry Morris (Warbeck) is sent on a secret mission into the heart of combat during the chaotic final year of the war. His mission: to take out a radical American female radio announcer who's urging U.S. soldiers to disregard commands, drop their weapons, and go home. To fulfill his mission, Morris teams up with war photographer Jane Foster (Zombie's Farrow) and two other soldiers (Demons' Rhodes and Cannibal Apocalypse's King) for a long slog through the jungle where they encounter ambushes, plenty of dead bodies, and the raving Major Cash (Tenebrae's Steiner) who sends his men on deadly coconut-gathering runs through enemy fire. However, that's nothing compared to what Morris finds when he reaches his target.
In true Italian exploitation style, this film tips its hat openly to recent American films including The Deer Hunter (which obviously inspired the title), Apocalypse Now, and even a bit of Coming Home-style PTSD. However, you'd be hard pressed to call this film a rip-off since it has plenty of original ideas all its own. In addition to a very heavy amount of violence (there's gunfire and bloodshed roughly every eight minutes), the film makes no attempt at sentimentality or jingoism and works all the better for it. The real ace up its sleeve is Warbeck, a fine actor best known at the time for headlining one of the better British '70s T&A comedies (The Sex Thief) and Russ Meyer's box office disaster Black Snake, as well as turning up in supporting roles in Duck, You Sucker and Twins of Evil. He turned out to be a first-rate action hero able to handle the conflicted nature of his character while running through explosions and wielding various firearms, something that served in well in what would turn out to be a lucrative Italian career thanks to The Beyond, The Black Cat, and more Margheriti projects with The Hunters of the Golden Cobra, The Ark of the Sun God, the nutty miniseries Treasure Island in Outer Space, and another 'Nam film with Tony King, Tiger Joe. Not to be overlooked is the catchy, diverse music score by the great Franco Micalizzi, which carries over some of the unexpected funk from his masterpiece the previous year, The Visitor.
Released in U.S. theaters by World Northal over three years after its run in Europe, The Last Hunter became one of the most popular early VHS titles from Vestron Video and stayed around on video shelves for years. Unfortunately it's also one of the label's worst transfers, almost entirely devoid of color and so murky and heavily cropped it's almost impossible to tell what was going on. Much better is the 2007 Dark Sky DVD, taken from a hybrid Italian-French print and featuring both a closer approximation of the correct aspect ratio and improved (but still lackluster) color. That disc also features "Margheriti and The Last Hunter" (22m52s), shot at De Paolis Studios with the director's son and frequent assistant director, Edoardo Margheriti, chatting about his dad's career and the significance of this particular film. The English export trailer and a still gallery are also included.
That brings us to the film's debut on Blu-ray from Code Red, which improves radically in every possible way over the DVD. Skin tones are finally natural and consistent, the jungle actually looks green, and a vast amount of detail is now visible that wasn't even hinted at in prior transfers. There's also a significant amount of additional image info on all four sides, and since this is taken from a different source (with English-language opening credits), you'll see some very minor little editorial differences as well. This version runs 20 seconds longer than the Dark Sky DVD, with little variations popping up during the in and out points of some shots (check out the helicopter attack during the main titles for one of the more noticeable examples). The DTS-HD MA English mono track sounds very good and the clearest representation of the track so far; it's worth noting that the film was shot entirely in English with some pretty expert looping done afterwards (even on Steiner, whose British accent was presumably unconvincing for the role); only Hell of the Living Dead's Newton comes off poorly with the slipshod looping done on her character, who thankfully only speaks for a couple of minutes.
If you ever wanted to learn more about Tony King, you'll want to take a look at a pretty astonishing new interview featurette (19m54s) as the former pro footballer chats about his co-stars and director, the odd circumstances behind his early speaking part in The Godfather, and his memories of the "firm" Ruggero Deodato. Incredibly, the camera keeps rolling for an insane interruption outside the room just before the 15-minute mark, too, resulting in one of the more outrageous editing choices you'll see. Next up is a new John Steiner interview (8m57s), recorded at his usual real estate office and finding him in a cheerful mood as he recalls shooting in the Philippines and the "family affair" feel on being on a Margheriti set. For some reason the camera's placed right up against Steiner's foot on the desk, which makes for a very odd viewing experience -- especially during another inept editing decision as he takes a phone call! The theatrical trailer is also included, plus bonus ones for The Fury of the Wolfman, The Mummy's Revenge, Seven Blood-stained Orchids, Almost Human, and The Violent Professionals.
CODE RED (Blu-ray)
DARK SKY (DVD)
Reviewed on February 19, 2018