If you somehow missed it, horror geeks were given a really cool treat last week: Cannibal Holocaust finally arrived on Blu-ray courtesy of the folks at Grindhouse Releasing. Ruggero Deodato’s film is the crown jewel of the Italian cannibal flicks – a notorious subgenre of Italian exploitation cinema that had a short shelf life, but spawned countless controversies while it was popular.
While Deodato’s film is arguably the most well known example of the form, it was hardly the only Italian cannibal flick to emerge in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Italian filmmakers were quick to latch on to any subgenre that was making money, and the cannibal films were no exception. If you’re new to these kinds of films, today’s feature will help you navigate the dangerous South American jungles to find the best (and worst) this much maligned cinematic subgenre has to offer.
WARNING: There are MINOR SPOILERS ahead and most of these trailers are NOT SAFE FOR WORK...
The Italians certainly didn’t create the cannibal film — there have been movies dealing with the issue of man eating man for many years now, most inspired at least loosely by the story of Sawney Beane (which may or may not be myth) a Scottish man whose family of inbred children were responsible for capturing, killing and eating unwary travelers. Whether there’s any truth to the Sawney Beane story or not, it’s certainly inspired its fair share of ghoulish cannibal tales (including Jack Ketchum’s fantastic novel Off Season and its sequel Off Spring).
However, the birth of the Italian cannibal film doesn’t owe so much to Sawney Beane as it does to the mondo film. Mondo, a distinctly Italian style of documentary (that often plays up sensationalistic aspects of native cultures to draw in audiences and should only be viewed as documentaries in the loosest sense of the term) reveled in going to foreign locales (particularly when the exchange rate for the lire was good) and capturing weird sex rituals and other strange customs of jungle natives.
These films -- starting with Mondo Cane -- so captured the public’s interest it seemed inevitable that Italian filmmakers would begin to use the exotic settings for fictional stories. How would they make them scary, though? By playing on one of mankind’s greatest fears — being eaten alive.
Director Umberto Lenzi would kick-start the Italian cannibal cycle with his 1972 film Deep River Savages. In this title, Ivan Rassimov (one of the mainstays of cannibal cinema) murders a man in Thailand. He flees into the jungle, only to be captured by a primitive tribe of cannibals. However, rather than eat him, they torture him instead (they think he’s a fish man since he’s wearing a wetsuit). Eventually, he gets to marry Me Me Lay (another veteran of the cannibal films) and becomes chief of the tribe.
For a Lenzi film, Deep River Savages is surprisingly good. Lenzi’s widely regarded as something of a hack director, but this film is one of his better offerings. It features some of the graphic gore and staged animal killing that would come to dominate the future cannibal features, but it pales in comparison to some of the other movies we’ll be discussing. It’s well worth seeing.
While Deep River Savages is often regarded as the starting point of the Italian cannibal film (by nature of being the first of its kind), the cycle didn’t really kick into high gear until 1977—with the release of Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (aka Jungle Holocaust, Last Cannibal World).
Deodato’s film tells the tale of Robert (Massimo Foschi) and Ralf (Ivan Rassimov), two oil prospectors checking out their company’s worksite on a small island called Mindanao. However, when they land, the workers have all vanished. Ralf discovers a spearhead, which leads him to conclude that the men who made it are still living in the Stone Age. Before you know it, the cannibals have killed the plane’s pilot (with one of those nifty wooden-spike traps that are so common in these films) and captured Robert. Ralf winds up escaping and hiding out in a hut that looks straight out of Gilligan’s Island. Robert is tortured by the cannibals, but eventually escapes with none other than Me Me Lay.
To pass the time, Robert rapes Me Me for his own enjoyment (just one example of how these films pushed the buttons of polite society) — and to thank him for this, she soon falls in love with him and showers him with fruit. Eventually, they meet up with Ralf and head for the plane — but first, Robert must tend to some unfinished business—proving that he’s not really all that different than the men who imprisoned him.
Ultimo Mondo Cannibale is one of the better offerings in the cannibal canon. Deodato (along with Umberto Lenzi) were the main filmmakers to work in the field, but Deodato’s films are much more accomplished than anything Lenzi’s done.
In many ways, this was a dry run for Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, which is the best entry of the cannibal film subgenre. Ultimo Mondo Cannibale might be a test run, but it’s still almost as good as the masterpiece.
Never being one to miss out on a chance to cash in on a hot genre, Joe D’Amato (aka Aristide Massaccesi) hopped onto the cannibal bandwagon in 1977 with Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (aka Trap Them and Kill Them). The most interesting thing about D’Amato’s film is the way it blends two distinctly different genres — the Emanuelle rip-offs he’d been making with Laura Gemser and the cannibal films of Deodato and Lenzi.
Gemser once again takes the role of Emanuelle, the nymphomaniacal globe-trotting reporter. Convinced that cannibals still exist, she sets off for the Amazon in search of her next big story. Add in some cheesy subtext about a crashed plane full of diamonds, several unpleasant characters, and lots of soft-core sex prior to the cannibal feast at the climax, and you’ve basically got this movie in a nutshell.
Still, despite some poorly lit scenes and some absurd plot twists, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals is an amusing cannibal film. D’Amato wasn’t a great filmmaker, but he certainly made fun movies.
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In 1978 cannibal cinema would get another new film — this one directed by none other than Sergio Martino (who made some really good gialli, including the infamous Torso). Martino’s entry, Slave of the Cannibal God (aka Mountain of the Cannibal God) is an interesting, yet flawed, cannibal film.
Susan Stevenson (Ursula Andress) and her brother Arthur (Antonio Marsina — who bears a bit of a resemblance to David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame) head off to South America in search of her missing scientist husband. After arriving, she meets Dr. Edward Forster (Stacey Keach), a scientist/colleague of her husband. After filling Forster in on their situation, Susan convinces him to lead her and her brother on a jungle expedition to find her man. But, Forster knows something — and while he’s not totally forthcoming about what information he possesses, he tells them that Dr. Stevenson has undoubtedly traveled to a nearby island. Said island is shrouded in thick jungle, and at the center stands the infamous mountain Ra-rami, a mountain said by many, including Forster, to be haunted.
Undaunted by such silly native superstition, our intrepid Europeans set out with Forster and a crew of local natives to explore the mysterious island. While there, they see Darwin’s theory firsthand (lots of animals eating other animals in this film), find a friendly mission, get kicked out, run into the infamous Puka tribe of masked cannibals, pick up another party member named Manolo (Claudio Cassinelli — who looks a lot like Highlander’s Christopher Lambert), endure the trials of the jungle, and eventually wind up at the infamous Ra-rami — where everyone’s real motivations are revealed before we finally get to the cannibal action.
While this film has a much more polished look than Deodato and Lenzi’s cannibal films, a better cast, and Martino attempts to treat the subject matter seriously, Mountain of the Cannibal God just isn’t as much fun as some of the other cannibal flicks. It’s not nearly as inept as Lenzi’s Eaten Alive, but it’s not as intense or harrowing as Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. So, what do we end up with?
A middle-of-the-road safari flick with a few cannibals and some decent gore thrown in for good measure. Is this a bad thing? Not really. If you’re a cannibal film neophyte, this is probably the place to start — most of the standard elements that comprise a cannibal film are present here (nudity, gut munching, animal cruelty, and some gruesome special FX) but it’s all presented in an almost tasteful way (well, tasteful when compared to films like Cannibal Ferox). However, hard-core cannibal flick fans should be prepared for a bit of a letdown. Simply put, this film just isn’t as crazy as it should be.
The year 1980 would be the biggest one for cannibal cinema in Italy — and arguably the best year for the form as well.
Things got off to a great start with Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust
Deodato took everything he’d learned making Ultimo Mondo Cannibale and improved upon it for this film — quite possibly the greatest of the Italian cannibal flicks.
Robert Kerman (who went on to a career in the porn industry under the name R. Bolla) plays an anthropologist sent to South America to find out what happened to a documentary crew who vanished in "the Green Inferno." Kerman’s investigation discovers the crew’s lost footage, which he takes back to New York and screens for network executives. What they see is appalling.
The four documentary filmmakers discover a tribe of natives, and proceed to rape the women, burn down cottages, and commit other atrocities. To pay for their crimes, the tribe reverts back to their cannibalistic ways and devours them all — with all the gruesome details caught on film.
The strengths of Deodato’s films are many, but perhaps none is greater than the fact that he treats the material so earnestly. Cannibal Holocaust isn’t high art, but Deodato approaches his subject matter with a level of intelligence rarely seen in the fields of exploitation cinema. While there’s no denying that the moral message — who are the real savages, us or the cannibals? — is presented in a heavy-handed fashion, it’s still there, which is not something all the other films in the canon can claim.
Part of Cannibal Holocaust’s allure is attributable to its realism. Deodato does a brilliant job with the faux-documentary footage — presenting it in scratchy film stock, occasionally out of sync, and with a real cinema verité style. It’s because of this that many people (even to this day) believe the film is real.
Deodato himself had to endure an obscenity trial in his native Italy —Italian authorities were convinced the actors in the films had actually been killed on camera. Unfortunately for Deodato, he’d made the performers agree to stay out of the spotlight for a year after the film was released, which only added to the idea that the cast members were all dead. The filmmaker did finally round them up, and an appearance on an Italian television program proved that no one really died making the film. Still, this should prove just how intense and harrowing a viewing experience Cannibal Holocaust truly is. If you only see one cannibal film in your life, make sure it’s Cannibal Holocaust.
Not to be outdone by Deodato, Umberto Lenzi came back into the cannibal film fold in 1980 with his film Eaten Alive....
Read the second part of our guide here.
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