Hard to Stomach
Primitive rituals and plasma-spillage galore informed the Italian cannibal movie. 88 Films looks back at some of the best...
By Calum Waddell
Back in the swinging seventies the Italians created a unique cinematic trend of their very own - one that came to prominence in the UK during the early days of VHS and caused controversy all across the globe. That genre was the cannibal movie and, if you have never seen one, then prepare yourself for a vile viewing experience for, alongside the expected innards-eating, is rape galore, un-faked animal cruelty and even the odd bout of sexual mutilation...
However, for the sake of some context, turn the clock back to the heyday of that other ferociously graphic form of Italian filmmaking: the mondo movie (see elsewhere in this magazine). With its newsreel footage of human mortality and oft-staged, but nonetheless genuine, scenes of animal expiration, the mondo aspired to a new sense of cinematic realism in the name of horrifying curious spectators. Thus, when journeyman director Umberto Lenzi (then struggling along with 007 rip-off spy thrillers and the occasional awesome police shocker and giallo effort) was sent to Thailand to make The Man from Deep River in 1972, little did the unassuming filmmaker realise that he was about to instigate yet another Italian institution...
Introducing the viewer to a London tourist (played by Euro-exploitation regular Ivan Rassimov) who gets into an impromptu bar fight in Bangkok in which, drunkenly, he stabs his aggressor to death, The Man from Deep River boasts some spectacular widescreen photography of Thailand's bustling capital and natural forestland. Not that this footage is the film's raison d'être; rather when Rassimov is captured by some natives whilst snorkelling near the Burma border (after being mistaken for a fish-man thanks to his wet gear) the poor chap is subjected to some savage forms of sadism. This includes being blow-darted, poked with spears, dehydrated for 48 hours in the blazing sun and even having monkey brains forced down his throat. This (and other) moments of creature carnage brings The Man from Deep River firmly into mondo movie territory - the poor primate receives a swift machete swipe to the skull in an attempt to add some lame authenticity to the various actors in loincloths pretending to act like primitives. Unbelievably, this sequence made it through the BBFC for the 88 Films release in 2016!
"I only did The Man from Deep River for the money," Lenzi would later remember. "It was a very challenging job to make a movie in Thailand back then and that only added to the pressure. As for the onscreen animal deaths - well, people still eat steaks and hamburgers. In order to feed that desire we need to kill animals. People are just not used to seeing it happen."
The Man from Deep River actually does not feature any onscreen cannibalism until the final reel - rather it devotes its running time to a love story between Rassimov and a beautiful native babe played by Me Me Lai (who actually grew up in England and is, puzzlingly, clad in black eye liner throughout). The film concludes with Rassimov showing loyalty to his new home by helping the tribe rebuild their village after a furious battle against some local head-hunters.
"The Man from Deep River was a huge flop in Italy," maintains Lenzi. "But it made a lot of money in America where it was released as Sacrifice. In Britain it was banned under the name Deep River Savages, although I hear it did very good business on video."
Also a hit in Asian territories, Lenzi was asked to return to the genre for a follow-up flick entitled Last Cannibal World (released in 1977 and debuting in America as The Last Survivor). However, when he opted out another journeyman director was called in to fill his place - namely Ruggero Deodato, the monsieur-of-mayhem most synonymous with the meat-munching boom that proceeded The Man from Deep River...
"The producer of The Man from Deep River wanted to make a new, but similar, kind of movie and held over the stars from Lenzi's film including the actress Me Me Lai," recalls Deodato. "Unfortunately, since making The Man from Deep River she had gone for breast implants and you could easily tell this on the screen - not so good for a tribal woman! Ivan Rassimov was also back and he was a very good actor. I filmed Last Cannibal World in Malaysia, in very dense, green jungle - it was extraordinary. I loved it but to get to the set it took seven hours by boat so the crew wanted to strangle me [laughs]."
Last Cannibal World might just be the crowning achievement of the entire Italian cannibal genre. With wondrous sequences shot inside caves, and also outside in the sparse Malaysian rainforest, this is one of the best looking jungle adventures to ever grace the screen - in or out of Hollywood. The plot itself is largely inspired by the fish-out-of-water theatrics of The Man from Deep River: a plane filled with oil prospectors crash lands in the rainforest and the survivors are stranded and stalked by a native tribe. Ivan Rassimov is washed down a ravine (only to reappear at the film's end) whilst bearded leading man Massimo Foschi gets captured by the locals, urinated on by the tribal children and masturbated by the newly breast-enhanced Me Me Lai. He escapes with the genre's favourite femme only to be cornered by the entrails-eating clan. Thankfully after killing one of the leaders, and proving his primal-instincts by eating the slain savage's still-steaming intestines, he is let go. No such honour befalls poor Me Me Lai, however, who is slit open and cooked on hot coals.
"We worked with a group of genuine aboriginal people," insists Deodato. "The most incredible thing was that they had no language. They never spoke or gestured to each other so communicating with them was very difficult. I also gave them wigs to wear, which made their heads itchy. I was asked by the producers to kill animals for Last Cannibal World but I refused. At the time, I did not want to do this, however the producer said the Asian market responded well to this aspect of the films. I still said no so he filmed them himself."
Consequently, Last Cannibal World (which is also known as Jungle Holocaust) features a crocodile being skinned alive and a giant python being bashed across the skull. Although not as extreme as The Man from Deep River, this footage still interrupts an otherwise palpable pot-boiler which, with its moments of claustrophobia and carnage, and Deodato's inspired direction, even manages to be surprisingly scary.
"Last Cannibal World was successful in Italy," smiles Deodato. "It was sold all over the world and in New York it was released to 86 theatres. It was the film that opened the doors for me to go on and do lots of other projects. Other directors also copied the idea - right after my film Sergio Martino also made a cannibal movie..."
Indeed, after Last Cannibal World, which played UK cinemas in a heavily cut form, the genre was in full swing. Martino's Sri-Lanka-set Prisoner of the Cannibal God (1978) also made it to Britain, albeit in a truncated version, and featured high production values alongside such well known actors as ex-Bond babe Ursula Andress and Stacey Keach. Unfortunately, despite its visual shine, the long, rambling tale of expeditionary explorers searching for a missing man is a bit of a chore - although the ever-ugly animal cruelty remains present (in the film's most controversial moment, a monkey is slowly devoured by a giant python - with an off-screen 'stunt arm' clearly pushing the helpless beast into the reptile's jaws).
"Maybe looking back at this film today, it might have been better not making it," relates Martino. "The sequence with the python.... it was a shame for the little monkey but nature is like this. It is the survival of the fittest; the law of the jungle. The producers of these movies wanted scenes like this. But I feel that Prisoner of the Cannibal God is remembered for far more than just the scene with the monkey and the snake. I think the atmosphere and the violence have a certain credibility, for instance..."
Following Prisoner of the Cannibal God, another Rome-resident, Joe D'Amato (perhaps most famous for his video nasty Anthropophagous the Beast), got in on the act with his ridiculous Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, a softcore sex romp with added flesh-feasting. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, Deodato's Last Cannibal World was effectively remade as a cash-strapped calamity called Primitives (released to UK video as Savage Terror), whilst even Spain's Jess Franco jumped on the bloody bandwagon with Cannibals and The Devil Hunter (both unleashed to uninterested audiences in 1980).
Predictably, it was up to the Italians to nurse their cranium-crunching creation back to health...
"I had been asked for years to do another cannibal movie," continues Deodato. "Finally, I put together the story for Cannibal Holocaust. The basic premise is that these four young American documentary-makers set off to the Amazon to get this big scoop about a cannibal tribe but they don't find anything sensational. So they create their own news instead..."
Unveiled to ample controversy, and effectively kicking off the entire video nasty debate in Britain, 1980's Cannibal Holocaust is an unapologetically unlikeable guts and gore epic. A veritable symphony of slaughter, the onscreen ugliness is enlivened, somewhat, by a sublime soundtrack (composed by Academy Award nominee Riz Ortolani), convincing acting performances and startling jungle-shot footage of Amazonia itself. Otherwise, the nonsensical plot is effectively based around native people doing horrible things to one another (rape with a stone dildo, primitive abortions, rape in general, bludgeoning women to death, more rape) before the American journalists enter the frame and do equally horrible things to the locals. Exactly what sort of 'documentary' they are seeking to make is never made clear given that the white protagonists consistently film themselves committing murder. Regardless, eventually they are overpowered and eaten. Inbetween this nastiness is an (endangered) yellow spotted river turtle being dismembered and cooked, the death of a piglet, a coatimundi being stabbed through the neck and a monkey having its skull sliced open. Much of the most macabre material in Cannibal Holocaust is presented as 'found footage', a distinct concept (at the time) which was likely influenced by the mondo movie and Peter Watkins' superior Punishment Park (1971). Whilst Deodato's use of the format adds to some sense of unease, the fact remains that classic examples of horror cinema do not need to show four minutes of a turtle being sliced and diced in order to make their impact...
"Ruggero got himself indicted for animal cruelty in Italy," maintains Robert Kerman, the star of Cannibal Holocaust. "They also thought that he might have killed the actors. He had to bring the cast over from America, take them into court and prove that they were alive. I cursed the film you know – I told Deodato he would really regret killing animals and it came to fruition. The production was fined lots and lots of money for what happened."
Deodato's benchmark blood-fest, which escaped an American release until 1985, was a big enough seller in some territories to warrant a new slew of jungle-set shockers. First up was the return of Umberto Lenzi, who reunited with Ivan Rassimov and Me Me Lai for Eaten Alive (1980). Proving imitation is the finest form of flattery, Lenzi even added Cannibal Holocaust's main man Robert Kerman (a former porn star) to the mix. The end result is a sometimes hilarious hodgepodge of badly faked gore effects, a surreal story based around jungle occultists (itself inspired by the real-life Jim Jones massacre in Guyana) and animal-slaughter footage cribbed from pervious genre pot-boilers such as The Man from Deep River. Lenzi did, however, claw back some commercial credibility with 1981's Cannibal Ferox - re-titled Make Them Die Slowly in America. Using the same locations as Cannibal Holocaust, and a couple of the same actors, this is nowhere near as barbaric - despite the usual round of mammal and reptile sacrifice - and, at times, actually manages to be quite good fun. Perennial Italian horror hero Giovanni Lombardo Radice, in particular, gets to meet a most memorable screen demise - having his private parts lopped off and chewed upon by a badly-bewigged tribal chief. His female compatriot, meanwhile, is hung up with spikes through her breasts in what remains one of the genre's most iconic images.
"I have only one regret about Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox and that is that I even shot these horrible movies in the first place," grunts Lenzi. "To my amazement they were both very successful all over the world. In the end that was very good for me because I got to direct other kinds of films. It just goes to show you that often it is the shit that produces the gold [laughs]."
Post-Cannibal Ferox, however, and the genre was more or less dead. Between the two of them, Deodato and Lenzi had effectively exhausted every instance of disgusting animal and human death imaginable and, no doubt, the poor people of Colombia were becoming increasingly fed up with Italian filmmakers sticking wigs on them and expecting them to eat raw livers for the camera. Consequently, the last of the cannibal capers - which include such enjoyable jaunts as 1984's Amazonia and 1985's Massacre in Dinosaur Valley - are comparatively inoffensive man vs. nature epics. That said, thanks to 88 Films we have been able to re-appreciate both - and Amazonia (also known as White Slave) is soon to gain a brand new life on BluRay. It is a welcome addition to any HD library given its often effective visuals and sense of a civilisation out of step with the rest of the world. Its more fantasy-based theatrics certainly return it to the comparable sense of whimsy that informed The Man from Deep River.
"I did another jungle film in 1985 called Cut and Run," states Deodato. "The producer had it in his mind that it would be like Cannibal Holocaust - even with some animal deaths - but I refused. Cannibal Holocaust was a one of a kind movie. I would never do that again. So Cut and Run became something very different. Now directors such as Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino tell me they are big fans of Cannibal Holocaust."
There was also Cannibal Holocaust 2 in 1987 - a strange oddity that has yet to really receive any serious critical or scholarly consensus but a film which rather intriguingly reverses the set-up of the original film. Also known as The Green Inferno, the 'sequel' has a group of students and journalists go deep into the Amazon jungle in search of a missing anthropologist whilst all the time bemoaning animal and outside interference in the everyday lives of the natives.
And for further proof positive of the genre's lasting legacy one need only check out Welcome to the Jungle (2007), a virtual remake of Cannibal Holocaust - complete with the "found footage" arc and some annoying Americans being eaten by a pack of hungry New Guinea head-hunters. The film was produced by no less a Hollywood heavyweight than Gale Anne Hurd, the woman behind The Terminator, Aliens and The Walking Dead. Meanwhile, Eli Roth gave us his Peruvian set gut-muncher The Green Inferno in 2013- a loving homage to one of terror's most stomach-turning titles.
As strange as it seems, then, the genre that was once subjected to censorship and critical disdain has lived to eat into further generatons...
- 88 Films