The story of anthropophagy on screen, from Dr X to The Green Inferno.
The 1970s saw many old cinematic taboos falling away, and few horror film sub-genres benefited from the relaxation in censorship more than the cannibal film. In fact, this is a genre that scarcely existed prior to the Seventies. Sure, horror films had long hinted at cannibalism as a plot device – movies such as Doctor X (1932) and others portrayed it as an element of psychosis without ever being overly explicit.
Overt intimations of human flesh-eating would continue into the 1970s with films such as Cannibal Girls; The Folks at Red Wolf Inn; The Mad Butcher; Warlock Moon; Frightmare and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – but no one had really explored the idea of the act explicitly (and it was usually cooked, not raw). Some things were just too tasteless, and cannibalism was something of a no-no with most censorship boards around the world.
Yet the idea that remote tribes in the Amazon or on islands like Papua New Guinea were still practising cannibalism was a common one at the time, thanks to a conflation of suspicion, colonialist ideas, misunderstanding of tribal rituals (such as head-hunting / shrinking) and old-fashioned racism. And, if we are to be fair, these beliefs were not entirely without validity, as some cultures still did practice cannibalism, albeit not as determinedly as was often made out.
Certainly, the subject was exploited – the 1956 roadshow movie Cannibal Island promised much in its sensationalist promotional art. But the film itself was actually an anthropological documentary from 1931, re-edited and re-dubbed, and notably lacking in anthropophagy, despite the best efforts of the narrator to suggest otherwise.
Elsewhere, cartoons and comic books perpetuated the idea that any great white hunter who was captured by natives was bound to end up in a cooking pot, and Tarzan movies hinted that the bones the natives wore as decoration were not all from animals. 1954’s Cannibal Attack saw ex-Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller as an adventurer fighting off enemy agents in a cannibal-filled jungle, though the actions of the cannibal tribe were left to the imagination.
Future Hell Night (1981) director Tom De Simone’s terrible movie Terror in the Jungle (1968) had a small boy captured by a cannibal tribe and only saved by his ‘glowing’ blonde hair (worship of blonde white people would be a recurring theme in later, trashier cannibal movies too). Even the children’s big game hunting Adventure novel series by Willard Price had a Cannibal Adventure entry. But notably, none of these early efforts actually went the extra mile – the natives in these films may have been cannibals, but we had to take the filmmakers and writers word for that – no cannibalism actually took place on screen.
In the 1960s, the Mondo documentary would also take an interest in bizarre tribal rituals, and these mostly Italian films would subsequently come to inform the style of the cannibal films that emerged later. Certainly, later shockumentaries such as Savage Man, Savage Beast, This Violent World and Shocking Africa were closely related to contemporary films such as Man from Deep River and Last Cannibal World, with their lurid mix of anthropological studies and crude sensationalism.
One such mondo movie was 1974 Italian/Japanese Nuova Guinea, l’isola dei cannibali directed by Akira Ide. Tribal scenes from this production – which also includes footage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip on a Royal visit to the island (!) – were later inserted into Bruno Mattei’s trash classic Hell of the Living Dead/Zombie Creeping Flesh (1981) to add verisimilitude. Ide’s documentary has – somewhat opportunistically – been released on DVD in the USA as The Real Cannibal Holocaust.
The cannibal exploitation film as we know it now began in 1972, with Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio, also known as Deep River Savages, The Man from Deep River and Sacrifice! It was directed by Umberto Lenzi, who would spend the next decade playing catch-up in a genre he pretty much invented with scriptwriters Francesco Barilli and Massimo D’Avak. This film essentially set many of the templates for the genre – graphic violence, extensive nudity, real animal slaughter and the contentious culture clash between ‘civilised’ Westerners and ‘primitive’ tribes.
The film is, essentially, a rip-off of nasty American western A Man Called Horse, with Italian exploitation icon Ivan Rassimov as a British photographer who finds himself stranded in the jungles of Thailand and captured by a native tribe. Eventually, after undergoing assorted humiliations and initiation rituals, he is accepted within the community, who are at war with a fierce, more primitive cannibal tribe.
Co-starring Mei Mei Lai (who would become one of the sub-genre’s stock players when not working as a British TV game show hostess), the film is set up more as a grim adventure story than a horror film, but the look and feel of the story would subsequently inform other cannibal movies, and the scene where the tribe kill and eat a native certainly sets the scene for what is to come.
Arriving in 1976, Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (Last Cannibal World; Jungle Holocaust) also had the feel of an old-school jungle adventure, though Deodato expanded on what Lenzi had started – this tale of an explorer (played by Massimo Foschi) who is captured by a cannibal tribe features a remarkable amount of nudity (Foschi is kept naked in a cage for much of the film, teased and tormented by the tribe) and sex – including an animalistic sex scene between Foschi and Mei Mei Lai (Rassimov also co-stars).
Deodato’s film also featured more graphic gore and the real onscreen killing of animals – the latter would become the Achilles heel of the genre, something that even its admirers would find hard to defend. Even if the slaughtered animals were eaten by the filmmakers, showing such scenes for entertainment still left a bad taste with many, and over and above the sex and violence, would be the major cause of censorship for these films. Last Cannibal World proved to be a popular hit around the world (it even played UK cinemas as Cannibal, albeit with BBFC cuts) and sparked a mini-boom in cannibal film production.
In 1977, Joe D’Amato continued his bizarre mutation of the Black Emanuelle series – which, under his guidance, had evolved from softcore travelogue to featuring all manner of depravity – with Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (aka Trap Them and Kill Them), a strange and uniquely 1970s mixture of softcore sex and hardcore gore, as intrepid nymphomaniac reporter Emmanuelle (played, as ever, by Laura Gemser) goes in search of a lost cannibal tribe after stumbling upon a case in a mental hospital. Along the way, she has assorted softcore couplings in a plodding travelogue before the cannibal action eventually kicks in.
It’s a curious mishmash – part erotica, part horror, never quite deciding which side to come down on. D’Amato had form with these strange hybrids – his other films include Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust, and other movies in the Emmanuelle series featured everything from fake snuff movies to hardcore sex to pseudo bestiality, so his name on the credits was probably something of a warning to viewers. Still, quite what audiences expecting sexy thrills thought when they were confronted with graphic castration scenes and scenes of graphic cannibalism is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they simply didn’t care – the film played successfully across Europe and America, proving that the lure of Emmanuelle had not faded.
D’Amato returned to the genre in 1978 with Papaya – Love Goddess of the Cannibals, with Sirpa Lane. Despite its title, it features no cannibals, and although it mixes gore and softcore it still manages to be rather a rather dull effort.
By 1978, the genre had become so established that it could attract name actors. Mountain of the Cannibal God (aka Slave of the Cannibal God; Prisoner of the Cannibal God) saw former Bond girl Ursula Andress stripped and fondled by a cannibal tribe as she and Stacey Keach search for her missing husband.
The starry cast didn’t mean that director Sergio Martino wasn’t going to include some particularly unnecessary animal cruelty (and, in some cuts, snippets of bestiality!) as well as graphic gore. At heart, though, the film is an old-fashioned jungle adventure spiced up with 1970s sex ‘n’ violence, and the most remarkable part of the whole affair is just how Italian producers managed to persuade Andress to strip naked for gratuitous scenes of white goddess worship by the cannibal tribe.
That same year saw an Indonesian entry in the genre with Primitives, also known as Savage Terror. This was essentially a rehash of Last Cannibal World, but with less gore and no nudity, which resulted in a rather plodding jungle drama. This one is definitely for genre completists only and proved to be a major disappointment when released on VHS to a cannibal-hungry British public by Go Video in the UK as a follow-up to Cannibal Holocaust.
Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is the very definition of Controversial Cinema. The film that saw its director hauled through the courts accused of killing his cast, one of the original Video Nasties in the UK and a cause celebré pretty much everywhere it played (or was banned) thanks to a heady mix of cine verité realism, ultra-violence and authentic animal killings (of which more later). I first saw it as a kid in 1982, and was genuinely distressed by the experience; it would be years before I could bring myself to watch it again. The sheer power of the film to disturb, shock and split audiences has rarely been matched, and it remains as potent an experience now as it was in 1980.
I’d imagine most of you are familiar with the story by now – four documentary filmmakers vanish in the Amazon rain forest, and a university professor (Robert Kerman, aka R. Bolla) manages to track down their footage. On returning to New York, he soon discovers that the unedited film shows the crew committing assorted atrocities against the tribespeople of the Amazon, only to meet retribution at the hands of cannibals.
While not the first faked documentary, Cannibal Holocaust certainly invented the ‘found footage’ genre that has since been popularised in films like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and others. While the framing structure is very much a standard feature film – albeit one with some pretty brutal imagery – the found footage, shot on 16mm and dirtied up, looks pretty damned authentic, thanks to a combination of improvised performances (shot in English, which means no dubbing to distract), surprisingly good special effects, hand-held camerawork and that troubling animal slaughter. While the credits, the framing scenes and the fact that the film was released by United Artists should’ve been enough to show that this wasn’t some ghastly snuff movie, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that ignorant trading standards officers were still claiming the footage to be real well into the 1990s in the UK. And of course, Deodato carefully muddies the waters – genuine documentary footage from war zones is announced as fake while the animal killings are clearly real; given this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that people were confused.
There’s no questioning the fact that this is a very well made, very effective and fiercely intelligent piece of film-making – unquestionably the high spot of both the cannibal movie sub-genre and Deodato’s career. The film is remarkably fresh feeling – only the film scratches, now a commonplace gimmick, feel dated. It will certainly continue to upset many viewers, even those hardened to ultra gore cinema. But if you can take it, the film is a potent, powerful, challenging masterpiece.
Despite the bans, the legal issues and the outrage, Cannibal Holocaust was enough of a sensation to spawn imitators. Umberto Lenzi returned to the genre he’d more or less invented in 1980 with Eaten Alive! (Mangiati Vivi; The Emerald Jungle; Doomed to Die), which managed to mix cannibal tribes, nudity and gore with a story that exploits the recent Guyana massacre led by Jim Jones.
This tale of a fanatical religious cult leader had a cannibal movie all-star cast – Ivan Rassimov, Mei Mei Lai and Robert Kerman who had starred in Cannibal Holocaust were joined by Janet Agren and Mel Ferrer in what is a textbook example of a cheap knock-off that is cashing in on current trends. Not only does the film riff on earlier movies and recent news events, it actually ‘cannibalises’ whole scenes from other films, Lenzi’s own Man from Deep River amongst them. Yet despite this, it’s fairly entertaining stuff, being a combination of lightweight adventure, extensive nudity and graphic violence.
Lenzi followed this with Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly; Let Them Die Slowly), a more blatant imitation of Cannibal Holocaust. Kerman again makes an appearance (albeit a brief one), while Italian cult icon John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) headlines a fairly ham-fisted tale of an anthropology student who sets out to prove that cannibalism is a myth, only to find she’s very, very wrong. Directed with indifference by Lenzi (who clearly had no interest in these films beyond a paycheck), the film features more gratuitous animal killing and some remarkably sadistic and mean-spirited scenes, such as two castrations and a woman hung with hooks through her breasts, that invariably ensured that the film would be “banned in 31 countries”. There are those who would now tell you that Cannibal Ferox is a better film than Cannibal Holocaust – usually people who struggle with the idea of a film having more meaning than chunk-blowing excess – but ignore them. This is the least interesting of all Lenzi’s films.
The early eighties also brought us Zombie Holocaust in which producer Fabrizio de Angelis opportunistically livened up this imitation of his own Zombie Flesh Eaters by adding a mad doctor, cannibals, and nudity to the mix. Furthermore, the scene where Alexandra Delli Colli is anointed as a naked blonde goddess is a rip-off of a similar highlight featuring Ursula Andress in the aforementioned Mountain of the Cannibal God. Released in the US with a lurid ad campaign as Dr Butcher M.D. (Medical Deviate), the film is a lot more enjoyable than it really ought to be.
Another Italian film that used cannibalism as a plot device at this time was Cannibal Apocalypse, which blended elements of action, infection horror and Apocalypse Now in an entertaining tale of Vietnam vets who return from the war with a taste for human flesh. Antonio Margheriti’s film is only a peripheral part of the Italian cannibal boom, owing more to George Romero than Ruggero Deodato, but the mere title shows just how popular the genre was at the time.
Jess Franco entered the genre in 1980 with Cannibals (aka White Cannibal Queen) and Devil Hunter (aka Man Hunter), but the visceral crudity of the cannibal movie oeuvre was unsuited to a director more at home with surreal, erotic gothic fantasies. Cannibals is the more interesting of the two – Franco’s intense close-ups and slow-motion during the cannibalism scenes add a bizarre, almost dream-like edge to the proceedings, in a tale that mixes a one-armed Al Cliver and an often naked Sabrina Siani as the blonde goddess worshipped by the ‘cannibal tribe’. At times, the film almost comes close to the inspired strangeness of his gothic work, though the film’s more prosaic nature always pulls it back into an ugly reality. Still, the film is better than many people have claimed.
Meanwhile, Devil Hunter is a ridiculous mishmash with a kidnapped movie star, a bug-eyed, big-dicked monster, and cannibals. The film is not without its moments of entertainment in the form of bizarre dubbing, ludicrous dialogue and some of the most Eurotrash moments you’ll ever see with the frequently-naked Ursula Buchfellner. Franco himself was dismissive of both films, which were done simply for money, and Devil Hunter is certainly one of his more forgettable movies.
Similar to the Franco films (coming from the same producers and featuring footage from Cannibals) is the generally tedious Cannibal Terror, a French/Spanish effort that sees a bunch of kidnappers hiding out in a cannibal-infested jungle. Shot in the wilds of… erm… Benidorm, this Eurocine film shows how comparatively good the Franco cannibal films are – while trashy, they are never boring, unlike this effort. There’s a certain talent involved in making a film that has unconvincing natives, ludicrous music, gratuitous nudity and gloopy gore boring, but director Alain Deruelle rises (or descends) to the task, ensuring that most of the film is taken up with the tedious kidnappers and their associates hanging around in the ‘jungle’ doing very little, while the sex and violence that audiences presumably were looking forward to is short supply – this film briefly made the British Video Nasties list before someone got around to actually watching it and realised that, even by the censorial standards of the day, this was pretty lame stuff. But while not a gruelling goriest, the film is pretty hard work to sit through for all but the most forgiving admirer of European trash cinema.
Meanwhile, cannibalistic monks cropped up in the delirious 1981 US movie Raw Force, but they were only one of the many elements in this exploitation masterpiece that also features topless starlets, martial artists, zombies and piranha attacks and more. It’s an extraordinary, gleefully trashy film that needs to be seen to be believed, and the cannibals are just one ingredient in a smorgasbord of trash.
After this flurry of activity, the genre began to fizzle out, exploitation filmmakers moving on to the next big exploitation cinema thing (i.e. knock-offs of Conan and Mad Max). It wasn’t until 1985 that we saw a revival of the jungle cannibal film with Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story, aka White Slave and – in some territories – Cannibal Holocaust II, directed by Mario Gariazzo (The Sexorcist; Play Motel).
A strange mix of revenge drama and cannibal film, the plot is a gender-reversal of Man from Deep River, with Elvire Audray as Catherine Miles, brought up by a cannibal tribe after her parents are murdered in the Amazon. Despite some gore and nudity, it’s, unfortunately, a rather uninspiring affair. It should not be confused with Ruggero Deodato’s Cut and Run, also sometimes called Amazonia but which – despite the setting and some gruesome moments – was not a return to the cannibal genre for the director.
More fun was Massacre in Dinosaur Valley (aka Stranded in Dinosaur Valley and Naked and Savage) from the same year, a cheerfully trashy affair directed by Michele Massimo Tarantini, with the survivors of a plane crash – including nubile young models who struggle to stay dressed and Indiana Jones-like palaeontologist Michael Sopkiw – battling slave traders, nature and cannibal tribes (but not dinosaurs) in the Amazon. Gratuitous nudity, splashy gore, bad acting and a ludicrous series of events ensure that this one is a lot of fun. It feels like the end of an era – the once-prolific Italian exploitation cinema was on its last legs by 1985 and although films continued to be made for the rest of the decade, they rarely reached the excessive and outrageous levels of what had gone before.
Natura Contro aka The Green Inferno and Cannibal Holocaust II is possibly the most misleading entry in the sub-genre. it was, of course, unconnected to Deodato’s film. Made in 1988, it is the final film by Antonio Climati, best known for his uncompromisingly tough and impressive Mondo shockumentary movies of the 1970s such as Savage Man, Savage Beast and This Violent World, two of the best (if most challenging) films of the genre. It’s surprising then that this is fairly tame stuff, telling the story of a group of people who head to the Amazon to find a missing professor. The film plods along without ever really getting anywhere, and is notably lacking in cannibal tribes – it’s more an action-adventure that is set in the jungle, even though it does make the occasional nod to the films that went before it (the search for a missing professor is a turnaround of the Cannibal Holocaust narrative, and it references movies like Fitzcarraldo along the way too). Oddly, given Climati’s earlier, unrestrained work, the film is depressingly coy – there is little nudity and even less gore, which are generally the main selling points of this sort of film. Of course, by 1988, both the Italian exploitation film and the cannibal genre were breathing their last, and the excesses of a decade earlier were no longer commercially viable – the mainstream audience for such films had dwindled considerably, while censorship had tightened up. Even so, Natura Contro feels like a film that is all mouth and trousers, failing to deliver on the promises that it builds up. It’s not entirely uninteresting, and if you simply want a jungle-based adventure film, you might even find it mildly enjoyable, but anyone buying this because it was called Cannibal Holocaust II would be very disappointed.
It would be another fifteen years before we saw the return of the jungle holocaust film, and then it was hardly worth it. Bruno Mattei, a prolific hack since the 1970s, had someone managed to keep making films, and in 2003 knocked out a pair of ultra-low-budget, almost unwatchably bad cannibal films.
In the Land of the Cannibals (aka Land of Death and Cannibal Ferox 3: Land of Death) and Cannibal World (aka Mondo Cannibal and Cannibal Holocaust 2) were slow, clumsy and turgid attempts to cash in on his minor cult reputation – a couple of years later, he’d also make two similarly dismal zombie films. Cannibal World is an unofficial remake of Cannibal Holocaust, a painting-by-numbers rehash of the plot with Mattei showing little interest in the material; In the Land of the Cannibals is slightly more original, with a group of commandos sent into the jungle to rescue a politician’s daughter – it essentially devolves into Predator, with the alien replaced by uncorking natives. The film also lifts from Franco’s Cannibals as well as other examples of the genre, and manages to make them look like works of art in comparison. Needless to say, despite the obvious attempts of dodgy distributors to hoodwink audiences, these are not official sequels to either Holocaust or Ferox and seemed to be the final nail in the sub-genre’s coffin…
However, with the reputation of Cannibal Holocaust continuing to increase, and a general return to ‘hardcore horror’ in the new century with films like Saw and Hostel, the cannibal film has seen a slight revival. Although Deodato has talked many times about making a sequel to Cannibal Holocaust, the new films have been American productions, even though they are informed by the Italian films of the past.
Jonathan Hensleigh’s Welcome to the Jungle, made in 2007, channels Holocaust with its found-footage format as a group of remarkably annoying treasure hunters heads to New Guinea in search of the missing Michael Rockerfeller, hoping to cash in on his discovery. Instead, their bickering attracts the attention of local cannibal tribes, who stalk and slaughter them. There’s an interesting idea at play here, but the characters are all so loathsome that you’ll struggle to make it to the point where they start getting killed.
The latest attempt to revive the genre comes from Eli Roth with The Green Inferno. The film takes its title from Cannibal Holocaust (one of Roth’s favourite films) and the plot – student activists travel to the Amazon to protect a tribe but find themselves captured by cannibals – is a riff on Cannibal Ferox. The film is not without interest, and is certainly one of the most brutally gory films to emerge from Hollywood in recent years, but Roth doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre – his love of the earlier films is evident, but that isn’t really enough to make a film that holds your interest. And invariably, the film was condemned by many critics as insensitive and racist – the portrayal of primitive tribes killing and eating white westerners was no longer the sort of thing that was going to be accepted by liberal film critics, even those in the horror community who somewhat hypocritically give a pass to the films of the 1970s and 1980s – the films that were already established as ‘classic horror’ before many of the more Woke writers were even born.
Certainly, we are unlikely to see anyone making a film quite like Cannibal Holocaust again – there are laws in place to stop it if nothing else, and attitudes have hardened even more since Roth’s film, ensuring that only the most foolhardy provocateur would try to make anything so incendiary today. But we can now look back at this most controversial of horror sub-genres and see that they represent a time when cinema was almost without restraint. As such, they are more than simply films, they are historical time capsules, and for those with strong stomachs, well worth investigating.
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