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.
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