The Italian cannibal film can be divided into two categories: zombies (Zombie, Night of the Zombies – the latter not to be confused with the Nazi zombie film of the same title), and non-zombies (Make Them Die Slowly, Grim Reaper).
Invasion of the Flesh Hunters features non-zombie cannibals – mortals compelled to eat human flesh by a virus that's contracted when one is bitten by an infected cannibal. Much like spreading lycanthropy, vampirism, or the murderous nymphomania in Cronenberg's They Came From Within (aka Shivers, Frissons, The Parasite Murders).
Invasion of the Flesh Hunters opens in Vietnam with the prolific John Saxon leading an assault on the enemy (NVA or VC, I'm not sure). A cheesy battle scene with extras running about aimlessly, flinging their guns while dying theatrically amidst fiery explosions. One enemy woman is set aflame in her cleanly pressed pajamas. All enemy pajamas look cleanly pressed and many things are set aflame, but mostly leaves. I don't think grenades can set tropical leaves aflame, but they seem to here, although there's also a flamethrower. Some of Saxon's troops carry M-16s, but Saxon holds what looks like an Israeli Uzi. The Vietnamese jungle looks like a Temperate Zone forest, and there's even a cave. The battle culminates when Saxon discovers two American POWs trapped in a pit – eating an enemy woman.
Saxon wakes up, nightmare over. It's been many years since the war ended. So why his persistent hunger for human flesh? Saxon's nightmare turns real when one of the POWs in his dream (and his former subordinate) phones with a request that they meet. Seems some vets contracted a cannibal virus in 'Nam, they're beginning to devour civilians, and soon the body count mounts.
The simple storyline follows Saxon's struggle to resist succumbing to his disease while aiding his infected comrades, all amidst the spreading rampage of flesh-hungry vets and civilians. Plot holes abound. Why does the cannibal nurse unstrap the cannibal vets rather than eat them in their state of helplessness? They're not zombies, after all; their flesh is still fresh albeit infected. And as in so many zombie films, one wonders why the cannibals only appear nibbled upon – why weren't they consumed more thoroughly when previously attacked? Nor is it ever clear where Saxon intends to lead his men, or why they're traversing the sewers. They certainly never get anywhere.
The film ends with a familiar scene. The veteran calmly dons his old but pristine uniform before a mirror. His chest covered with medals. Finally, he polishes and loads his gun, preparing either for suicide or carnage.
Invasion of the Flesh Hunters is another horror film about the men ruined by Nam, returning home to inflict their pathologies on the civilians who sent them abroad, then discarded them. In Spaghetti Nightmares, director Margheriti expresses his own personal distaste for screen violence, and explains, "My initial intention was to make a film which carried a sociological, anti-war message. I wasn't aiming at making a 'splatter' at all, but, in the end the producers, who wanted to copy the popular trend launched by Romero's Dawn of the Dead, had the last word."
Margheriti works an old but reliable metaphor. The first explicit entry in this Vietnam horror subgenre, and a superior film, was 1972's Deathdream (aka, The Night Walk, Dead of Night, The Night Andy Came Home, The Veteran). Romero's Night of the Living Dead has also been interpreted as such, but its message was implicit. And in Jacob's Ladder the vets alone suffered the war's aftereffects, they themselves inflicting no harm on the civilian population.
It's always curious to see foreigners portray Americans in foreign films. The 1982 Italian futurist film, 1990: Bronx Warriors, is laughably entertaining for its incongruous juxtapositions, featuring white South Bronx gangstas mouthing lengthy Euro-existentialist speeches. Likewise, while Invasion of the Flesh Hunters is set in the US (it was filmed in Georgia and Italy), its biker gang dresses like trendy Euro-trash.
This being a European film, there is an illicit affair subplot and some trashy but bland music. John Saxon performs well, as do the supporting cannibals and shapely actresses. The jungle battle was cheesy, but the crazed-vet-in-a-stripmall-shootout (shades of Dawn of the Dead) and cannibal feasts should please gorehounds.
A respectable entry in Italy's cannibal cinema oeuvre.