What was the first monster? The first fearsome horror that lurked in the shadows and made our ancestors huddle closer to the campfire as they told stories of the unseen creatures that lurked just outside its light? In all likelihood they did not have to dig deep into their primitive imaginations to find the answer. It has only been relatively recently in our existence as a species that we have occupied a safe position within the food chain. Being eaten, the fate of most living things, is no kind of fun, but it’s even worse when the one doing the eating is one of your own kind. It’s adding insult to the very worst kind of injury.
Anthropologists debate on just how common actual cannibalism has been, with theories ranging from “extremely rare and only for symbolic purposes” to “pretty much like going to Waffle House after a film shoot.” Who knows? Hunger does terrible things to people and it isn’t like they had Snickers bars to calm them down.
Even if the reality of cannibalism was overstated, the idea of it has always held a deep fascination for us. Cannibalism is what elevates your run of the mill serial killer, inbred backwoods family, or primitive jungle tribe into something that lasts the passage of time.
It was pretty much the idea of cannibalism that early filmmakers played with, often for comedic effect (the old explorer in the giant metal stew pot gag), though occasionally there was the hint of actual menace. An interesting example was Five Came Back (1939) where a storm damaged airplane lands in a jungle full of headhunters. Twelve survive the crash but…well, do the math.
It was two films that did not feature cannibalism that really got the ball rolling. The Naked Prey (1965), from the criminally underrated Cornel Wilde, featured what would become the staple conceit of the genre — the civilized man thrust into a primitive world stripped of his technological advantages, forced to survive at the most primal level. It’s a great film but it is best remembered for an early sequence where an unfortunate group of big game hunters get a little tribal justice, including one unforgettable sap who is covered in mud and baked over hot coals with a horn in his mouth so his screams can serenade the locals, for whom this is clearly high entertainment.
Even more influential was A Man Called Horse (1970), where an English aristocrat is captured and enslaved by the Sioux and eventually gains their respect by being hung up on hooks and enduring the initiation rites of the tribe. At least that’s what they told him. The film was a huge hit in Italy and when you were a huge hit in Italy in the 1970s that could mean only one thing. Lots and lots of imitations.
With the release of Eli Roth’s long delayed The Green Inferno (2013 – but released 2015), let’s take a look at some of the more interesting entries in the small but influential cannibal genre.
10: Man From Deep River (1972) aka Deep River Savages aka Il paese del sesso selvaggio
Umberto Lenzi starts the ball rolling just two years after A Man Called Horse with his 1972 feature, Man From Deep River, which is generally recognized as the first of the cannibal film genre. This despite the fact that there is precious little cannibalism in the movie.
What we have here is essentially A Man Called Horse updated to modern times, as a British photographer (Ivan Rassimov, who probably was able to put his kids through college with these roles) is captured by a primitive rain-forest tribe and must endure the painful tortures of their initiation rites…hey, maybe these folks are just playing with the white guy. “Sure, Ivan, you can join the club, just let us shoot darts at your ass for a few days.” Toss in some gratuitous animal torture, a mainstay of the mondo films that had achieved massive popularity at the time and a climactic battle between the “good” tribe and their neighbors, the cannibals and you have the ingredients for a grind-house hit. The elements for what would follow are all here, though this will seem mild for anyone who has watched the movies that came in its wake.
9: Jungle Holocaust (1977) aka Ultimo mondo cannibale aka Last Cannibal World aka Cannibal aka The Last Survivor
When Lenzi could not come to terms on a followup film, the producers hire Ruggero Deodato as director. It proves a wise choice, given where he would ultimately take the premise. Jungle Holocaust is a definite step up in the genre, with graphic scenes of cannibalism and even more animal torture, which was rapidly becoming a defining feature. Another luckless white guy and his friend (Ivan “It’s me again” Rassimov) finds himself the prisoner of a stone age tribe that intends to eat him, though not before a lot of humiliation and torture.
The film has more nudity than most porn and you have to hand it to Deodato — his cannibals genuinely look like they could be jungle dwellers. Frankly, I think the story of how these films got made might be more interesting than the films themselves, you sure want to pay your translator well when he’s explaining how bullet squibs work.
One intriguing element is that the protagonist is not entirely likeable, even going so far as to rape a native girl. The idea that the westerners are not inherently better than the primitive cannibals is a good one, but it does mitigate our ability to empathize with the characters.
8: Eaten Alive! (1980)
Umberto Lenzi returns for what should have been a more interesting take on the cannibal film, combining what has come before with the addition of some Jim Jones suicide cult fun. In a new twist, our protagonist is a woman searching for her sister in the jungle but don’t expect any feminist perspective — it’s just an excuse to make this an especially “rapey” entry.
Cannibalism takes a backseat to the antics of the Jim Jones character, played by Ivan “Hey, did they pass a federal law saying that I have to be in every one of these?” Rassimov. The male lead is played by Robert Kerman, better known under his nom du porn R. Bolla. He did the Debbie that did Dallas and we shall hear from him again shortly. Oh, yes.
7: Hannibal (2001)
Insufficiently loved upon its initial release, the third movie in the Hannibal Lector trilogy (after Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs) takes the virtually unfilmable book by Thomas Harris and films it. They are really swinging for the fences here, with scenes of gastronomic perversity that make favoa beans and chianti look like last week’s Dinty Moore in a can. Anthony Hopkins chews the scenery as the cultured cannibal, now elevated to near supervillian status. Opposing him is an even more over the top adversary — Mason Verger, (an uncredited and unrecognizable Gary Oldman) the hideously scarred pedophile, eager to get his revenge on Lector by feeding him to specially trained pigs. Guignol has never been grander.
The climactic scene where Ray Liotta is fed his own brains set a new standard for mainstream gruesomeness and was the catalyst for the late, lamented Hannibal TV show, where the creators had to reach deep to top it on a near weekly basis.
6: Raw Meat (1972) aka Deathline
1972 sees this little seen gem of a film from director Gary Sherman (Dead and Buried, also neglected) dropped onto a mostly unimpressed public. It has pacing issues and only truly comes alive in the last third but it remains an unforgettable tale of an inbred survivor of a Victorian plague living in London’s underground, snatching the occasional unlucky grocer to serve as a meal for the dwindling members of its tribe.
The film could have used a bit more cannibalism and bit less of the uninteresting leads, who are completely overshadowed by Donald Pleasence in a fantastic performance as the detective trying to make sense out of the various carnage. Christopher Lee shows up for a scene that might have taken all of 3 minutes to shoot, despite his prominent billing. Pleasence is so good you wish this had been the beginning of a series, with the Donald as a sardonic British Kolchak.
The cannibal is, for once, played for sympathy, less an evil monster than a victim of circumstances, a monster to be more pitied than despised. Watch for a brilliant 360 degree tracking shot of the cannibal lair; this movie should have catapulted Sherman to the big leagues. Mind the doors!
5: Make Them Die Slowly (1981) aka Cannibal Ferox
Umberto Lenzi strikes again in the nastiest of the Italian cannibal craze. One learns to be wary of lurid posters and empty promises but when this movie claimed to be “The most violent film ever made!” and Banned in 31 countries! They are probably on the up and up.
Three American youths travel to the Amazon to prove the theory that cannibalism is a myth. Ho, ho, boy is THIS going to end badly! NEVER tempt the goddess of irony like that! And it isn’t like you can prove a negative anyway. What you CAN do is get suspended by your breasts on giant fish hooks or have your head split open so the hungry natives can enjoy heaping handfuls of your still warm brains. And these were the lucky ones.
In a twist that would reach it’s full glory in Deodato’s next effort, the westerners are (in some cases) richly deserving of their fate. John Morghen could always be counted on to play a sleazy creep with conviction and he ramps up the charm here, tormenting the protagonists and cannibals with gusto. The latter manage to do something about it–by the time he is put out of his misery he is missing his hand, dick and much of his dignity.
4: Shriek of the Mutilated (1974)
Shriek of the Mutilated is a cheap cheap cheap looking Yeti/cannibal movie from Michael Findley and Roberta Findley, the team behind Snuff and a lot of grind-house classics of varying quality. This one falls somewhere in the middle, with a number of interesting ideas and sequences sandwiched between shoddily lensed and badly acted sections that go on and on and on…
Basically a Scoobie Doo plot with more blood and fewer talking dogs (though that would have helped), the film concerns a team of college kids searching for a white Yeti. In New York. I know, I know, believe me, that’s the least of the problems. There’s an inexplicable sequence where a drunk tries to kill his wife and gets a toaster tossed into his bath for his troubles. It’s a the best scene in the movie, if you ignore the requirement for a 400 foot extension cord to make it work. It also feels like it came from a different movie. For that matter, a flashback to an earlier yeti encounter feels like it came from a different universe, with the film suddenly turning into a negative. Why? I don’t know. What do you want from me?
Just as it’s obvious to even dim children that Scoobie Doo and the gang are not chasing a real ghost, it becomes obvious very early on that there is no Yeti and the whole thing is a ruse being out on by cannibals, intent on getting the flavor of meat that only death by fright can achieve. Oh yeah, spoiler alert…well, too late now.
What a great title though. This one really deserves a remake, with a better yeti costume. This would not be much of a challenge.
3: Ravenous (1999)
What an odd little movie. Reportedly a troubled production, with the original director being replaced after a few weeks of filming and the new one not any happier with the interference from the studio, Ravenous is somewhat mis-marketed as a straight-out horror western when it is actually the blackest of black comedies. Or, maybe, it’s just me.
Set in the cold Sierra Nevada mountains during the Mexican American War, an isolated fort rescues the sole survivor of a an expedition that went all Donner Party as the snows set in. They go looking for survivors. Bad things happen. It’s funny.
Kudos to the writer for bringing some nice Wendigo myth into the cannibal genre. The film is expert shot and has a score that is interesting enough to forgive its intrusiveness. Not a complete success but you have to appreciate a film that tries for something more than the usual tropes.
2) Zombie Holocaust (1980) aka Zombie 3 aka Doctor Butcher MD
Boy, this 1980 film has it all. Cannibals! Zombies! Mad Doctors! Ok, there are only a couple of zombies and no holocaust but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
After a hospital morgue worker is discovered eating his customers, the film’s protagonists do the only logical thing — stay as far away from whatever hellhole the guy came from as they can. No! That’s what I would do! THEY decide to lead an expedition to his islands, islands where they have every reason to believe there are cannibals. And indeed there are! In fact, the cannibals really put the zombies to shame, snaring helpless victims in horrible bamboo spike traps so they can take turns drinking from arterial sprays, while the zombies just sort of plod along and walk into outboard motors with their faces.
There’s also a subplot involving the female lead becoming the Queen of the Cannibals which forces the filmmakers to supply copious amounts of nudity, even if they did not want to. Art is all about compromise.
As if the movie didn’t already seem to be stitched together from other films, they took about 2 minutes from an unfinished anthology film and slapped it on the title sequence, as well as swiping the electronic score. Look, the film is a mess, let’s face it and it would STILL be playing on 42 Street if they hadn’t cleaned the place up. For all the good THAT did.
1: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Was there ever any doubt?
So, I’m with Paul Cardullo and Alan Watkins at the Carolina theater RetroFantasma series for the can’t miss combo of Suspiria and Cannibal Holocaust. After our eyes have readjusted to the normal hues of reality after the technicolor assault of Argento’s masterpiece, the announcer came out and asked “So, how many people have not seen CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST?” A smattering of applause indicated about a quarter of the audience was seeing it for the first time.
The rest of us laughed. It was not a kindly laugh.
Cannibal Holocaust occupies a unique place in horror films. It is one of the most influential films in the genre. It is expertly made. On a technical level is it near flawless. The soundtrack is brilliant. It is arguably the film that launched the “found footage” genre.
It is near indefensible.
Deodato’s ingenious concept splits the film into two parts. Robert Kermen plays an anthopologist tasked with trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to a missing trio of American filmmakers who had gone into the jungle to film a cannibal tribe. Gee, I wonder if they found them? Kerman makes contact with several tribes, none of whom seem to have enjoyed their experience with the missing filmmakers. Eventually they come into contact with a genuine cannibal tribe and the remains of the missing documentarians.
And several reels of film.
And it is then that Deodato unleashes his full genius. Most of the second half of the film consists of Kerman back in New York, watching the developed film with some TV executives, revealing the film crew as a murdering, raping gang of sociopaths, willing to do whatever it takes to get good footage and richly earning the truly terrible fate that awaits them, as they film themselves being raped, dismembered and eaten by the justifiably pissed off cannibals.
The animal torture scenes are the worst ever filmed. Fans argue whether it’s the turtle scene or the muskrat scene that most deserves a kick in the nuts for everyone involved. These are the scenes that have caused the most controversy but take them out (which can be done on the DVD by playing what is amusingly called the “cruelty free” version) and you still have a film that is rapey in the extreme and would be a great argument for the cleansing bright light of an asteroid impact.
And yet…brilliance. From the first frame, with Riz Ortolani’s gentle and catchy main theme disorientingly out of place to the oh so cynical final line, this movie is the perfect distillation of the cannibal genre. Deodato was put on trial when some claimed that the movie was an actual snuff film and for years there have been rumors that the iconic image of a woman impaled on a pole was NOT and effect but something the filmmakers stumbled across in the jungle (unlikely, though it is expertly filmed in such a way as to make that plausible.) He beat the rap but almost everyone involved in the film has disowned it. It’s a film that every true horror fan needs to see…but I can’t recommend it. How many films can manage THAT trick?
Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno cannot hope to match it, which is not a bad thing. As a premise for a horror film, the idea of regular folks thrust into a primitive world for which they are woefully unprepared has a great deal of potential but as a genre it is hard to imagine much future. In these politically correct times, any jungle cannibal movie is bound to offend many people. Actual animal killing is anathema. The Cannibal film burned brightly for a few years and then flamed out, a victim of its limitations and the fact that a small group of creators were able to take it to its full potential, leaving nowhere else to go.