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 – 1956 roadshow movie Cannibal Island promised much in its sensationalist promotional art, even if the film itself was Gaw the Killer, an anthropological documentary from the 1931, re-edited and re-dubbed, that was notably lacking in anthropophagy, despite the best efforts of the narrator to suggest otherwise.
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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 he bones the natives wore as decoration were not all from animals. 1954’s Cannibal Attack saw Johnny Weissmuller as an adventurer fighting off enemy agents in a cannibal-filled jungle.
The jungles of Papua New Guinea were the backdrop for Lewis Cotlow’s 1961 shockumentary Primitive Paradise. Cinemagoers were promised sights such as “a native mother breastfeeding a baby pig” and “a dehydrated dead warrior who has been smoked and mummified by his widow.”
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 zombie film Hell of the Living Dead (1981) to add verisimilitude. Meanwhile, Ide’s documentary has recently – and somewhat opportunistically – been released on DVD in the USA as The Real Cannibal Holocaust.
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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 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), 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, 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 Laura Gemser goes in search of a lost cannibal tribe.
Quite what audiences expecting sexy thrills thought when they were confronted with graphic castration scenes is anyone’s guess, but the film played successfully across Europe and America, albeit often in a cut form.
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 dull.
Also in 1978, we had the only cannibal film with a big name cast. 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 as well as graphic gore. At heart an old-fashioned jungle adventure spiced up with 1970s sex ‘n’ violence, the most remarkable part of the film is how Italian producers managed to persuade Andress to appear completely naked. Perhaps she just wanted to show off how good her body was sixteen years after Doctor No!
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.
Ahh yes, Cannibal Holocaust. The Citizen Kane of cannibal movies, and the genre’s only undisputed masterpiece, the film would also become the most notorious film in the genre, shocking audiences, and censors alike and even now seen as being about as extreme as cinema can go.
The film began life as just another cannibal film, Deodato hired to make something to follow up The Last Cannibal World. But with the relative freedom granted to him (all his backers wanted was a gory cannibal film), he came up with a movie that critiqued the sensationalism of the Mondo movie makers and the audience’s lust for blood, with his tale of an exploitative documentary crew who set out to film cannibal tribes but through their own arrogance and cruelty bring about their own demise.
Deodato’s film effectively invents the ‘found footage’ style of filmmaking, his fake documentary approach is so effective that he found himself facing a trial, accused of actually murdering his actors! Given that the film mixes real animal killing with worryingly effective scenes of violence, all shot in shaky, hand-held style, it’s perhaps no surprise that people thought it was real – even into the 1990s, the film was reported as being a ‘snuff movie‘ by the British press.
But there is more going on here than mere sensationalism and sadism – Deodato’s film fizzes with a righteous anger and passion and makes absolutely no concession to moral restraint. There’s a level of intensity here that is beyond fiction – certainly, the story of the film’s production and reception would make for a remarkable movie in its own right. Almost imprisoned and seeing his film banned in Italy and elsewhere (in Britain, it was one of the first ‘video nasties‘), Deodato was suitably chastened, and never made anything like it again.
Yet 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’s 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. Not only does the film cash-in 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.
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 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”.
The early eighties also brought us Zombie Holocaust (aka Doctor Butcher M.D.) 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 a similar highlight featuring Ursula Andress in the aforementioned Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978).
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’.
Meanwhile, Devil Hunter is a ridiculous mishmash with a kidnapped movie star, a bug-eyed, big-dicked monster, and cannibals. Franco himself was dismissive of both films, and they are recommended for trash cinema completists only, Devil Hunter has proven to be a surprisingly popular entry on moviesandmania!
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 hanging out in a cannibal-infested jungle. It’s pretty hard work to sit through even for the most ardent admirer of Eurotrash.
Meanwhile, cannibalistic monks cropped up in the 1981 US movie Raw Force (later retitled) Kung Fu Cannibals but they were only one of the smorgasbord element in this exploitation trash and being a ‘religious order’ rather than a tribe merit just a brief mention here.
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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.
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More fun was Massacre in Dinosaur Valley (aka Stranded in Dinosaur Valley and Naked and Savage), a cheerfully trashy affair directed by Michele Massimo Tarantini, with the survivors of a plane crash – including nubile young models 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. Cheekily, and confusingly, in the UK Vipco released the film as Cannibal Ferox II.
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Natura Contro aka The Green Inferno and Cannibal Holocaust II (but unconnected to the earlier film) is possibly the most obscure of the films in the sub-genre. Made in 1988, it is the final film by Antonio Climati, best known for his uncompromising Mondo shockumentary movies of the 1970s. It’s surprising then that this is fairly tame stuff by cannibal movie standards, telling the story of a group of people who head to the Amazon to find a missing professor. 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.
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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.
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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. 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…
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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 and its stronger sequel (featuring a cameo by Deodato), 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 – appears to be a take on Cannibal Ferox.
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. But we can now look back at this most controversial of horror sub-genres and see that they represent a time when cinema was without restraint. As such, they are more than simply films, they are historical time capsules, and for those with strong stomachs, well worth investigating.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA
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