Read part one of our very thorough history of Italian cannibal movies here.
WARNING: SOME OF THESE CLIPS ARE NSFW
Not to be outdone by Deodato, Umberto Lenzi came back into the cannibal film fold in 1980 with his film Eaten Alive.
The film opens with some really groovy disco music followed by several scenes of a Polynesian assassin killing white guys in major cities — with a blowgun! After taking out a target in NYC, our assassin finds himself on the wrong end of a human/truck encounter, and promptly dies. The police discover that he’s using poison darts dipped in cobra venom — and that he’s conveniently carrying a strip of film. The film shows some weird fertility rite with guys getting strung up by hooks. Unsure what the film is, the cops pass it on to Mel Ferrer’s character (Ferrer’s clearly here in order to make a few bucks, just like his role in Lenzi’s City of the Walking Dead) who in turn shows it to Sheila Morris (Janet Agren). Morris views the film and spots her missing sister in the middle of the action (man, talk about strokes of luck).
It seems that some nut job named Jonas (Ivan Rassimov in yet another cannibal film) has started a cult called the Purification Sect (basically just think of the Amish, then add more sex and nudity). Jonas (notice the similarity to Jim Jones—Lenzi gives us no credit) has loaded up his followers (including Morris’ sister Diana, played by Paola Senatore) and taken them to the wilds of New Guinea to start a utopian society.
Sheila, ever the dutiful sister, decides she must go and rescue her wayward sibling, so she recruits rogue adventurer Mark (cannibal film regular Robert Kerman) to guide her through the jungle.
However, they’re soon lost — and surrounded by a tribe of Stone Age cannibals who still think eating human flesh is a good thing — until they stumble upon Jonas’ jungle retreat. They infiltrate the sect, find Sheila’s sister (who realizes it was a mistake to follow Jonas) and meet up with a local woman named Mowara (Me Me Lay again) who also wants to escape, and make a run for it — contending with both Jonas’ overzealous followers and the flesh-craving cannibals of the jungle.
From the plot synopsis, Eaten Alive sounds like a really good film. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Lenzi’s film is a mess. Perhaps the most heinous thing about Eaten Alive is that Lenzi steals footage from other cannibal films. I don’t mean he steals ideas and reshoots them, I mean he actually cuts out footage and edits it into his own film! Footage from Slave of the Cannibal God, Ultimo Mondo Cannibale, Lenzi’s own Deep River Savages, and several mondo documentaries all turn up in Eaten Alive. This is easily one of the most disappointing cannibal films out there and should be avoided unless you’re a completist.
By 1980, the cannibal film craze was already starting to be pushed aside in favor of a new horror staple—the zombie film. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead inspired a wave of Italian zombie films (starting with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie) that threatened to push the cannibal films out of the spotlight.
However, Marino Girolami had a better idea. If cannibals and zombie films were both selling tickets, then why not make a film that featured both? This idea led to the creation of Girolami’s hilarious Zombi Holocaust.
The film opens up at a hospital in a major metropolitan area. It seems there’s been a rash of corpse mutilations down in the morgue — hands going missing, vital organs ripped from body cavities, stuff like that. Dr. Lori Ridgway (Alexandra Delli Colli) and a colleague are baffled by the crimes, so they begin an investigation — which eventually leads them to the culprit, an orderly from an island in southern Asia who’s consuming the body parts he’s stealing. Busted, the cannibal dives from a window and splatters on the pavement below. While examining the corpse, Ridgway notices that he has a strange tattoo on his chest — a tattoo that just happens to match the symbol found on a ceremonial dagger that Ridgway obtained during her childhood on the island of Kito and has now been stolen. Coincidence or not? You be the judge.
During the course of the investigation, Ridgway (who’s also conveniently an anthropologist) is consulted by investigator Peter (Ian McCulloch), who’s putting together an expedition to investigate the happenings on the island of Kito. So, Peter, Ridgway, mouthy newspaper reporter Kelly (Sherry Buchanan) and guide George (Peter O’Neal) set off for the mysterious island.
Once they arrive, they meet the noted surgeon Dr. Abrero (Donald O’Brien). When one of the party wonders aloud why a noted surgeon like Abrero would spend his time on the jungle-covered island, one’s tempted to quip that it’s because here he doesn’t have to deal with the pesky American Medical Association — but I’m getting ahead of myself. Obreru outfits the party with supplies, a guide, and some local islanders to help carry all the white folks’ stuff and sends them on their way. Soon, out in the jungle, the party encounters flesh hungry cannibals—and something even worse: zombies.
Zombi Holocaust is a largely campy affair with very little cannibal action. Zombies tend to take center stage in the film, but the mere presence of some flesh-eating savages is enough to get this film included in the cannibal-film collection.
It should be noted that Zombi Holocaust was originally reedited and released here in America as Dr. Butcher, M.D.. Zombi Holocaust is the uncut and original version of the film.
Antonio Margheriti would make his contribution to the cannibal film cycle in 1980, as well. However, rather than make another jungle flick, Margheriti decided to set his Cannibal Apocalypse in Atlanta, Georgia.
Perennial Italian whipping boy John Morghen (aka Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and veteran actor John Saxon star in the film as Vietnam vets who come home with a strange taste for human meat. In a nod to the zombie films, Margheriti has his character spread the cannibalistic tendencies through biting their victims — in much the same way that those who are bitten by a zombie soon wind up a zombie themselves. Morghen and Saxon take their cannibal show on the road while the police try to stop them before everyone becomes a gut-munching ghoul.
Much like Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Apocalypse is a rather thoughtful film for a cannibal movie. Margheriti’s crafted a weird parable about the aftermath of the Vietnam War that doesn’t always work, but gets points for trying.
If Zombi Holocaust and Cannibal Apocalypse prove anything, it’s that the Italian cannibal film was mutating. That mutation would continue with the release of Joe D’Amato’s Antropophagus, which merged cannibalism with the slasher film.
Luigi Montefiori stars as the psycho cannibal stalking a group of people on a deserted Greek island. Montefiori picks them off one by one (including an infamous scene where he rips the unborn fetus out of a woman’s stomach and devours it) until the inevitable climax where he takes a pickax to the gut and begins consuming his own intestines.
Antropophagus is not so much a cannibal film as a slasher flick, but the mere inclusion of Montefiori’s predilection for devouring his victims gets this one included in the cannibal film archives.
By 1981, the zombie film had eclipsed the cannibal movie in terms of popularity at the Italian box office. The once flourishing subgenre was already falling out of favor with horror fans. After the large number of cannibal films released in 1980, 1981 saw the release of only one.
How fitting is it that the one cannibal flick of 1981—essentially the last important Italian cannibal flick of all — would be directed by Umberto Lenzi, the man who basically started the whole movement nearly a decade earlier?
Lenzi’s film is the infamous Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly). Really little more than a sleazier version of Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Ferox is a fitting summation to the cannibal film chapter of Italian cinema history.
Lorraine de Selle plays a graduate student who heads to South America in search of cannibals (along with a male companion and Zora Kerova). While exploring the jungle, they run into Mike Logan (John Morghen), a coked-out madman who’s looking for diamonds. Needless to say, they find a peaceful tribe of natives, but Logan angers them by raping their women and killing some of the men (there’s a particularly brutal castration scene in the film). As is to be expected, the natives get mad and revert back to their uncivilized ways—devouring their prisoners and torturing Morghen in some of the most brutal ways imaginable.
Cannibal Ferox is easily the most violent and repugnant of the Italian cannibal films, but that’s part of its charm. Reportedly banned in 37 countries (which is doubtful), Lenzi’s film is the zenith of cannibal cinema. Because it pushes the boundaries of taste as far as they can go, it’s rather fitting that this was the last of the cannibal films. After Cannibal Ferox, what’s left to say?
There were at least two more Italian cannibal films after Cannibal Ferox, including Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story and Massacre in Dinosaur Valley (both released in 1985) but by this point, the cannibal craze was long since dead and both of these films have been consigned to cinematic obscurity. Tracking them down is not really worth the effort.
And so we arrive at the conclusion of the cannibal-film cycle. Love them or hate them (and there are many horror fans who won’t go anywhere near these films because of the violence and animal cruelty) there’s no denying that the cannibal film was one of the more important subgenres in the history of Italian horror cinema.
With Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno set to pay homage to the classic jungle flicks later this year, maybe we’ll see a cannibal film renaissance. If that comes to pass, these titles will have you ready to guide your friends and family though the dangerous Amazonian landscape.
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