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Cult Classics Revisited: CANNIBAL FEROX (1981)


(Italy - 1981; US release 1983)

Written and directed by Umberto Lenzi. Cast: John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), Lorraine De Selle, Bryan Redford (Danilo Mattei), Zora Kerova, Robert Kerman, Venantino Venantini, John Bartha, Walter Lloyd (Walter Lucchini), Meg Fleming (Fiamma Maglione), "El Indio" Rincon, Perry Pirkanen, Dominic Raacke, Jake Teague. (Unrated, 93 mins)

The Italian cannibal genre is always a touchy subject. Its origins are in 1962's MONDO CANE and the subsequent mondo documentaries of the 1960s and into the 1970s by Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi and others. There's also the influence of the 1970 Richard Harris hit A MAN CALLED HORSE, which spawned Umberto Lenzi's 1972 Italian ripoff THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER. In HORSE, Harris is an English aristocrat abducted and treated like an animal by a Sioux tribe until he eventually comes to earn their respect, abandons his privileged upbringing and ultimately becomes the tribe's leader. THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER took a very similar concept--with Ivan Rassimov as a British wildlife photographer in the jungles of Thailand--but steered it in a Mondo direction that a Hollywood film wouldn't dare venture. THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, a fixture in American drive-ins throughout the 1970s under various alternate re-release titles (DEEP RIVER SAVAGES, SACRIFICE!), offered sparse but still graphic depictions of cannibalism, sex and rape involving subgenre mainstay Me Me Lai, and brutal animal killings, and though it's rather tame compared to what would come later, it's almost universally considered the first Italian cannibal film.

While Lenzi is generally credited with creating the Italian cannibal genre, it was Ruggero Deodato who established it as a legitimate craze with 1977's THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD, released in the US in a cut version in 1978 as THE LAST SURVIVOR, but best known today as JUNGLE HOLOCAUST. A far more graphic riff on THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER and featuring Rassimov in a supporting role, THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD stars Massimo Foschi as an oil prospector stranded in Mindanao after a plane crash. He's abducted and humiliated by a cannibal tribe and eventually resorts to cannibalism to earn their respect. Allegedly based on a true story, THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD raised the bar for what the Italian cannibal genre was willing to depict. Here was the more aggressive barrage of flesh-eating, graphic rape, Foschi and Lai (again as a tribe girl/sex object) completely nude for a good chunk of the film, and on-camera animal slaughter, hands-down the most troubling element of the genre. Sergio Martino hopped on the cannibal bandwagon with 1978's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (released in the US in cut form as SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD), which got a minor boost in class thanks to the presence of Ursula Andress as a socialite venturing into the jungles of New Guinea to find her missing husband, and Stacy Keach as the experienced guide she hires, traumatized by his own experiences being abducted by a cannibal tribe years earlier. MOUNTAIN's really foul elements, including a monkey obviously being thrown into a snake's mouth, a borderline pornographic cannibal orgy that showcases gratuitous masturbation involving a female cannibal, and one really unpleasant depiction of simulated bestiality with a cannibal and a water buffalo, are mostly confined to the climax, don't directly involve Andress or co-star Claudio Cassinelli, and happen long after Keach's character is killed off, a certain indication that Martino pulled a CALIGULA on his cast and shot the really vile stuff when they weren't around.

If THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD got the ball rolling on the cannibal craze, it was Deodato's infamous CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) that really caused the movement to explode. One of the key films in the genesis of found-footage that was used so effectively nearly 20 years later with 1999's THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and became practically standard after 2009's PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is a horrifying and intensely disturbing experience--go to a midnight showing of it with a snarky audience that's ready to mock it MST3K-style and you'll see them grow silent about 25 minutes in as the shell-shocked crowd starts really thinning out by the one-hour mark. It remains one of the very few irony-proof films that separates the players from the pretenders when it comes to cult hipster fandom. You don't simply watch CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST--you survive it. Deodato's handling of the found-footage element--the second half of the film consists of a professor (Robert Kerman, better known at the time as porn actor R. Bolla) watching increasingly damning footage left behind by a documentary crew who vanished while investigating the existence of cannibals in the Amazon--has yet to be equaled by any of its countless faux-doc/found-footage offspring. Deodato's film was so believable that Italian authorities actually thought he made a snuff film and he had to prove he didn't kill off his unknown actors. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has legitimate statements to make about the comparisons between the stone-age jungle and modern civilization, evidenced in the way that the tribes are generally peaceful but only end up turning on the documentary crew when the raw--no pun intended--footage shows the crew (civilization) acting like sociopathic assholes and goading them into acts of increasing savagery and abhorrence. One of the film's most telling moments involve two of the crew raping a tribe girl, who's later punished in one of the film's iconic images: impaled on pole that enters her vagina and exits her mouth. Lead filmmaker Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) is smirking and visibly amused at the horrific punishment until one of the other guys says "Watch it, Alan...I'm shooting," at which point he turns serious and melodramatically declares "Oh, good Lord!  This is horrible!" CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is an intelligent film with moments that remain prescient today in an era when there is no depth to which the media won't plummet to sensationalize or outright manufacture a story. But any indicting aspirations it has to being the NETWORK of Italian cannibal movies is negated somewhat by Deodato also wallowing in the same exploitation and sensationalism that he's criticizing, whether it's turning his camera on the gruesome slaughter of a helpless animal (the turtle scene is arguably the most revolting thing ever filmed for a commercial movie, and co-star Francesca Ciardi's vomiting is real) or playing up the graphic exploitation elements.

Giovanni Lombardo Radice and Umberto Lenzi
on the set of CANNIBAL FEROX
Even with its ultimately heavy-handed message ("I wonder who the real cannibals are," muses Kerman's pipe-smoking professor), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST was as smart as the genre ever got. After that, there was nowhere to go but down, and Umberto Lenzi was happy to oblige. A veteran journeyman who went wherever genre trends took him (he really found his niche with 1970s polizia), Lenzi returned to the cannibal genre he helped create with EATEN ALIVE (1980), which fused the cannibal craze with the then-topical Jonestown massacre, with yet another wealthy young woman (Janet Agren) hiring a guide (Kerman, again) to find her missing sister (Paola Senatore), who's run off to Sri Lanka and fallen in with a religious cult led by the insane Jonas (Rassimov, again). EATEN ALIVE is grimy, trashy, and cheap, with animal slaughter scenes pilfered from MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, ears and breasts being sliced off, perpetual subgenre abuse object Me Me Lai being gang-raped, Senatore being sodomized by a cannibal, Rassimov inducting Agren into his cult by penetrating her with a venom-dipped dildo, and a seriously slumming Mel Ferrer, no doubt questioning the state of his career while appearing in his second movie in three years titled EATEN ALIVE, as a professor dropping exposition to a NYC detective (gay porn star Gerald Grant) about how cannibal tribes still exist.

Lenzi quickly followed EATEN ALIVE with CANNIBAL FEROX, the most infamous Italian cannibal film after CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and one of the most notorious films ever made.  HOLOCAUST at least had something to say and broke new ground, but EATEN ALIVE and CANNIBAL FEROX are pure exploitation all the way. Abandoning any illusions of restraint and not about to be told "Don't go there!" Lenzi goes all-in with CANNIBAL FEROX as NYU anthropology grad student Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle), her brother/research assistant Rudy (Danilo Mattei, billed as "Bryan Redford"), and her friend Pat (Zora Kerova) venture deep into the Amazon to prove cannibalism has never existed. Of course, they're wrong, but cannibals aren't their only problem: they soon fall in with Mike Logan (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, using his "John Morghen" pseudonym) and Joe Costolani (Walter Lucchini), a pair of on-the-run, small-time NYC lowlifes who ripped off $100,000 from a mafioso (John Bartha) and fled to South America to make their bones in the cocaine business. It doesn't take long for Mike to expose himself as a dangerous psychopath whose actions only stir up the natives who, in true CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST style, turn on the white interlopers. Whether it's animal killings or cannibal mayhem, Lenzi holds nothing back in CANNIBAL FEROX, with the most horrific punishment reserved for the much-deserving Mike, who's paid back in kind after he ties up a tribesman, gouges out his eye, and chops off his penis. Since Lenzi goes for maximum tactlessness, Mike is given the further indignity of having his dick not only chopped off but devoured by a cannibal in loving close-up. Mike's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day continues when he gets his hand hacked off before being restrained under a table with his head poking through and locked in place has the top of his skull is macheted off and his brains picked at like hors d'oeuvres at a dinner party. And then there's one of FEROX's iconic images: Pat's punishment for her part in Mike's murder of a native girl by being strung up with hooks through her breasts.

Where Deodato tried to make a statement with CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, Lenzi just unabashedly goes over the line time and again in ways not telegraphed by the film's opening theme that's so "'70s cop show" that you almost expect to hear an announcer intone "Previously on CANNIBAL FEROX..." (Lenzi opened EATEN ALIVE with a similarly incongruous Budy-Maglione number). CANNIBAL FEROX was acquired by Terry Levene's Aquarius Releasing--the company behind the cannibal/zombie crossover ZOMBI HOLOCAUST's transformation into DOCTOR BUTCHER, M.D.--and released in 1983. under the instantly legendary title MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, advertised with Levene's typically hyperbolic hucksterism ("Bizarre Human Sacrifices! The Most Violent Film Ever! Banned in 31 Countries!"). A grindhouse and drive-in staple well into the fall of 1984, MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY became a fixture in video stores and scarred many budding gorehounds in those mid-1980s glory days of PMRC outrage and Satanic Panic. We knew slasher movies and zombie movies, but the Italian cannibal films were another beast entirely. To those who cut their teeth on horror in that era, MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY and its ilk were as far as grossout cinema could possibly go, which of course, was part of its charm (plus, grindhouse gorehounds in America saw it before most of the others: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and EATEN ALIVE, the latter as both DOOMED TO DIE and later on VHS as THE EMERALD JUNGLE, didn't turn up in the US until 1985).  Of course, CANNIBAL FEROX is garbage. Of course it's indefensible and utterly reprehensible. But it has its charms and it left its mark. In many ways, it's the ultimate exploitation movie: it's trashy, sleazy, sloppily-dubbed; has some incredible late 1980 time capsule NYC location shooting (DIVINE MADNESS, HOPSCOTCH, FAME, and THE EXTERMINATOR all playing at one NYC theater!); a pointless Manhattan mob subplot that Lenzi simply abandons; gratuitous nudity; delirious overacting by Radice; supporting roles for NYC-based porn actors (Kerman is present once again, this time as rumpled cop Lt. Rizzo in scenes shot at the same precinct Lenzi used for Ferrer and Grant's scenes in EATEN ALIVE), over-the-top violence, ridiculous dialogue ("Hey bitch, where's your stud?" and one of the greatest lines of all time as a starved Pat is tempted by a piece of meat: "No! Stop! It might be Rudy!"), and one of the most unforgettable and effective retitlings ever, even utilized by Rob Zombie for an early, pre-fame White Zombie album. You remember a movie called MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, even if it has a trailer as unappealingly narrated as this one:

After CANNIBAL FEROX, there was really nowhere else for the cannibal subgenre to go. By this point, they were all following the same template and audiences quickly grew fatigued with the repetitive mayhem. Joe D'Amato tried to get into the act with the softcore/cannibal fusion jams EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (1977), released in the US in 1984 as TRAP THEM AND KILL THEM, and PAPAYA, LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS (1978), and Jess Franco inevitably chimed in with DEVIL HUNTER (1980) and CANNIBALS (1980), both borrowing Lucio Fulci regular Al Cliver and Sabrina Siani for Italian legitimacy purposes but nevertheless exhibiting Franco's tendency toward amateur hour and his expected lack of attention to detail, whether it's a cannibal sporting a visible wristwatch or another with a disco perm, porn 'stache, and sideburns. There were a few later stragglers, like Michele Massimo Tarantini's MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985), Mario Gariazzo's AMAZONIA (1985) and Antonio Climati's dubiously titled CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST II (1988). Italian hack Bruno Mattei tried to restart the cycle with a pair of 2004 shot-on-video atrocities, MONDO CANNIBAL and IN THE LAND OF THE CANNIBALS, both of which shamelessly rip off CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and Jonathan Hensleigh (THE PUNISHER, KILL THE IRISHMAN) directed the justifiably little-seen 2007 American found-footage dud WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, with two dipshit couples encountering cannibals while on a get-rich-quick plan to retrace the journey of Michael Rockefeller before his disappearance in New Guinea in 1961. Eli Roth's long-delayed THE GREEN INFERNO, shot in 2012 and finally due in theaters in fall 2015 after some distribution snafus, is purported to be an overt homage to the entire Italian cannibal subgenre.

MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, opening in my hometown of Toledo, OH on 9/14/1984

the Liberty in Times Square
The legend of CANNIBAL FEROX has grown over the years, and is cemented by Grindhouse's recent Blu-ray release, which is without question the definitive edition. Packed with extras, including Calum Waddell's feature-length documentary EATEN ALIVE: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ITALIAN CANNIBAL FILM, and the instant-classic commentary with Lenzi and Radice--recorded separately--ported over from the 1997 laserdisc and later DVD edition. The commentary is one for the ages, with Lenzi's repeated defending of the film alternating with scorn and derision from Radice. The actor is known for his early '80s horror film work and being on the receiving end of the legendary drill scene in Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), but whose first love has always been the stage, more or less admitting that he took these roles for the money. He doesn't hold back on the commentary, whether he's dissing Lenzi or repeatedly declaring that he's ashamed of CANNIBAL FEROX, citing it as the only film he regrets making.  Radice also appears in a new interview segment, as do Zora Kerova and Danilo Mattei (Lorraine De Selle, retired from acting since 1988 and now a successful producer for Italian TV, is MIA). Grindhouse's two-disc Blu-ray set gives this landmark bit of drive-in scuzz the veritable Criterion treatment. CANNIBAL FEROX obviously isn't for everybody, but as Eli Roth points out in the Blu-ray's accompanying booklet of essays, "Lenzi's film was reviled for many years but for many of us, the film is a treasure." It's also a snapshot of a bygone era when something as vile as MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY could play in American movie theaters and drive-ins, a time when impressionable young fans were devouring everything they could find at the holy sanctuary that was the video store. It's an era that's passed and the likes of which we'll never see again. It's more about sentiment than quality, especially since it's not even the best of the cannibal subgenre, but Grindhouse's CANNIBAL FEROX brings those memories and images and that sense of discovery back in all its sleazy, offensive, gut-munching HD glory. You'll probably need to shower after watching CANNIBAL FEROX, but that's not a criticism--that means it did its job.

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