Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Animal Cruelty: Mondo Movies & The Cannibal Connection

Disclaimer during the opening moments of MONDO CANE (1962)

***WARNING! This article contains images of a sensitive and cruel nature. This piece is meant to be a serious discussion on the inclusion of animal cruelty in films of the 60's, 70's & 80's***

Since the 1960's Italian cinema has jumped on the bandwagon of making countless imitations of popular and big moneymaking Hollywood productions. They've seldom (if ever) been subtle in their approach to mimicking, or outright ripping off a mainstream American picture. Nearly every genre has its special movie, or series of movies that were highly influential resulting in an upsurge of Italian clones. Some of these styles became signature and notable Italian styles of cinema that in turn, were later imitated by their innovators. Some styles, though, were strictly Italian creations and carried with them, a dark cloud that looms to this day.

The most notorious scene of animal cruelty in that a poorly realized optical effect hides a rod that pushes this poor monkey into the grip of a huge snake. From MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978)

The one cycle that Italian filmmakers can lay claim to (or be blamed for depending on ones interpretation) for the most part are the Mondo Shockumentaries and the subsequent Cannibal films they ultimately gave birth to. More akin to a cinematic abortion, the Italian cannibal films were a nasty bunch of movies made by an ambitious motley crew of outlaw filmmakers who had dabbled in all, or most of the various genres mentioned above. Having found themselves knee deep in mud and hot, humid climates bereft of modern comforts, these filmmakers became savages themselves taking on an almost animalistic approach to "getting the required shot".

The most painful sequence in Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX (1981)

I am referring to the countless, nauseatingly captured scenes of animal cruelty that acts as the geek show equivalent of the fake violence perpetrated to the human cast of characters. Whereas the latter is presented in the most disgusting manner possible, showcasing the most sadistic forms of bodily destruction and defilement, the animal violence is additional 'Shock & Awe'. Stripped of even the most remote human emotions, what led these filmmakers to do such things to innocent little animals? But if one were to get technical, violence towards animals has been featured on nature shows, sportsman programs and national past times for years.

Singapore troops decapitate bulls during a celebration in MONDO CANE (1962)

Finger pointing has always been popularly directed at the Italian productions in reference to the live displays of animal deaths onscreen. One should take a few steps back and look to the infamous Mondo movies which were extremely popular throughout the world during the 1960's and well into the 1970's. From here, the mondo genre became increasingly more violent and grotesque. Popularized through the mysterious and savage lens of documentarians Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, MONDO CANE (1962) purported to thrust the weird and wild rites, rituals and the totally bizarre into the faces of the unknowing, but curious public. Accompanying strange customs from around the globe were a proliferation of animal cruelty. Sometimes this footage was animal against animal and other times, it's man against animal.

Malaysian fishermen lose arms, legs and lives to the carnivorous sharks who make their livlihood difficult. The fishermen respond by...

...exacting revenge by capturing sharks and stuffing sea urchins down their throats! Despite what the narrator says, the "fishermen" shown catching the sharks are not Malaysians. Perhaps this is another sensationalism set up?

While such films as the ones in question display a high amount of real animal deaths, one should remember that such scenes can be seen on a daily basis all day and night on such popular mainstream networks as Discovery, or Animal Planet. On these channels they frequently air programs that showcase the animal kingdom in all its unbridled gruesome glory where only the strong survive. Accompanying the visual diary of various critter behaviors and food patterns are a narrator who explains everything to the viewer. This is all in the same fashion of the mondo movies of old. Only on these nature programs, there's no one shown personally putting an end to the critters.

An Anaconda swallows a rather large monitor lizard in LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (1976)

On these shows, we witness animals in their natural habitats and often seen being consumed by their natural predators. How long did the cameraman have to remain stationary to get that shot? The mondo movies were often accused of staging such things and in many cases that argument carries a great amount of weight. For years, it seems perfectly normal to indulge in television that depicts the ferocity of the animal kingdom and their struggle to survive in a bloody showcase of the strong overcoming the weak. Because it's the natural order of things.

Two years later, a monitor lizard regurgitates a big snake in MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD from 1978

The Italian "documentaries" and most especially the Italian cannibal movies have come under a lot of scrutiny for their depictions of violence against animals; violence that doesn't always appear to be "the natural order of things".

Absolutely the most gut wrenching animal sequence of all time. The whole bit is expertly handled, if in bad taste. From MONDO CANE (1962).

In MONDO CANE, there is a painfully bleak sequence wherein a turtle attempting to find the ocean is blasted by the blazing sun. Supposedly the result of "Atomic Contamination", the turtles deteriorating mental faculties keep it from reaching the safety of the sea. The scene in question goes to great dramatic pains to show us the creature blindingly crawling AWAY from its watery home instead heading towards the vastness of the grassy inland. The camera quickly pulls back so that we see the skeletal remains of another sea turtle backed by the tear jerking, ominously dramatic score by Nino Oliviero and Riz Ortolani.

Near death, the great turtle flaps its flippers wildly one last time believing it has finally found the cooler climates of its domain. The next shot we see the animal has now ended up on its back(?!) for its excruciatingly painful final moments. This sequence lasts around three minutes and it's easily one of the most depressing, disheartening pieces of footage anyone is ever likely to see. I defy you to watch this one scene and not fight back the urge to release a tear or two. Why did the filmmakers feel the need to shoot such a scene? For the sake of showing us the result of alleged atomic contamination? Even if this scenario were true, how did that sea turtle end up on her back? Just as in the Italian cannibal movies that would later follow, that creature died for the camera. It died for dramatic effect, not for food. It died to illicit a response in the viewer. It died so that we could visualize the hardships man's cruelty has brought to those who have inhabited the Earth long before man was born. But was it necessary?

A man is eaten by a fake crocodile in MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978)

In our own mainstream documentaries about the animal kingdom we see the same dire things only without the bombastic ambiance of an orchestral composition, or even a seemingly out of place musical cue. What with all the staged antics that have surfaced over the years regarding the mondo movies, Warner Brothers released their own mondo movie with ANIMALS ARE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE (1974).

But then a real crocodile is slaughtered for food by a cannibal in LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (1976)

This film utilizes all the ploys of their Italian brethren such as setting up scenes to make them appear "authentic" and a classical score to beef up its theatrical effect. Several years in the making, it's an enjoyable film and far less savage than its European counterparts.

A popular restaurant in Taipei whose specialty is dog meat. For about 15 years the consumption of dog meat has been banned in Asian territories that allowed it. It apparently still goes on in places such as Korea and Vietnam.

Over the last decade, we have seen the proliferation of another style of "documentary"--"Reality" TV. And yet, these programs are about as far from reality as you can get. Scenarios are devised for the viewers enjoyment and to ensure they tune in the following week. How much is real and how much is scripted? These programs are proof positive that reality is really boring and a lie is much more fanciful. The multitude of "reality" shows share a kinship with Ruggero Deodato's scathing and brutally fascinating assault against journalistic sensationalism, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980). Deodato's movie, a controversial study that many could argue as either exemplar, or just exploitation, is even more resonant now than upon its initial release.

A crocodile is butchered by a native in Lenzi's inaugural savage adventure, THE MAN FROM THE DEEP RIVER (1972).

This now brings us to the Italian cannibal cycle. Umberto Lenzi was a director of action and fantasy films prior to his intriguing adventure in the wilds of Thailand with THE MAN FROM THE DEEP RIVER (1972). Showing an assured hand at handling films on a grand scale, Lenzi has worked with an incredible amount of name actors from both America and Europe. This particular adventure film would take its cue from Elliot Silverstein's A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970). while being very similar to that motion picture, Lenzi's film presented certain elements that would formulate and accentuate one of the most reviled cinematic sub genres ever.

Just as Rassimov and the natives prepare to partake in the monkey brains on offer, Lenzi would revisit this death device in CANNIBAL FEROX nearly a decade later, but with a human trapped inside this contraption. From MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972).

Scenes of bodily destruction and consumption are the selling points of these movies. But there's one "contribution" that often raises far more debate than any fake violence perpetrated on screen. That would be the shockingly casual scenes of animal mutilation. Why would directors incorporate this kind of footage into their films? As already mentioned above, this type of "entertainment" is a holdover from the mondo movies that prospered ten years prior to DEEP RIVER's release. Cruelty to animals would continue to be a major curiosity factor for both styles of film well into the 1980's. Lenzi's film is liberally padded with such scenes. No doubt the tribes featured in the film did this on a regular basis, it's just a bit jarring to see so much of it in a movie, especially one that strives for a lot of drama.

The cruel documentarians prepare for a turtle feast in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980). If you're a turtle or a crocodile in Italian exploitation movies, you will surely end up as a geek show set piece before the film ends.

But why not create a special effect if such a scene is needed? In recent years, directors in interviews have refuted their participation in shooting such scenes often laying blame on a "producer" either having the footage shot, or purchasing it from another source. Regardless, others have come forward and contradicted such claims. In relation to a line spoken by Gabriele York in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, "It's the strong overcoming the weak." Some of those involved with these pictures simply didn't care about the heartless and cruel use of the animals in them so long as some additional shock value was accrued.

A hunter gloats over his "skills" in bringing down this elephant. From AFRICA, ADDIO (1966)

Who is going to care about some insignificant little creature of the forest? There are countless others to take its place, right? Even today, people are careless when it comes to animals. When a rabbit, squirrel, or other small critter crosses into the road, do you slow down so it may get across, or do you just plow right over it? A great many people would simply run over it claiming it shouldn't be in the road in the first place. A similar arguement could be levied at those who ritualistically paint themselves up to hunt and kill the animals out in wooded areas. Many later boast of their catch by showcasing the head of the animal on their wall as a trophy! You can argue that hunting is done out of necessity, but is it really? Unless there's a total economic and societal breakdown, it seems more out of fun than anything else.

Sometimes the beasts get the best of man, even if just momentarily. Matadors get gored in MONDO CANE (1962)

This type of behavior isn't too far removed from what was done in these Italian movies from the 60's and 70's. The only technical difference is that one was done for sensationalism and the other was done for the hell of it. Is one more careless than the other? Why is one deemed unacceptable and the other is not? Animal violence was shown to depict the savagery of the jungle, but how often was such things shot in the moment and not set up as such? Is seeing the sight of man's inhumanity to nature onscreen any more damnable than the more privatized act of hunting creatures for sport in our own woods?

African tribes savagely bring down an elephant in AFRICA, ADDIO (1966)

In AFRICA ADDIO (1966), the filmmakers were accused of actually setting up executions and murders (of humans) for the "authenticity" of the scene in question. This controversial allegation later formed the basis of a shocking plot point in Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. In watching a documentary called 'The Green Inferno', Robert Kerman is informed, "That was no enemy army approaching. Alan paid those soldiers to do a bit of acting for him." But then Deodato's film grossly sets up animals to be killed for the purposes of "art", just as they appear to be in J&P's shockumentaries. Deodato is guilty of partaking in the very violence he is clearly and expertly protesting. Granted, the animals killed in this and some other movies were going to be used as food, but the glorification of such acts makes it all a bit much to stomach regardless. Still, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST poses some brilliant and thought provoking questions. The best line in the film is the last as Robert Kerman exits the NYC studio and says to himself, "I wonder who the real cannibals are?"

A dead baby elephant is pulled from the body of its dead mother. From AFRICA, ADDIO (1966). Even with its many scenes of animal violence, there are a few scenes showing animals being treated and taken care of by animal care specialists.

The AFRICA ADDIO incident was later thrown out of court, but such accusations mirror dubious scenarios seen in the aforementioned MONDO CANE (1962) and many others where animals are carelessly used for dramatic license, dying for the sake of entertainment. It's all rather careless, really. When so many of these mondo movies have been ousted as fraudelent containing simulated scenes of violence where humans are concerned, why could not the same thing be done for the animals? You can't kill the actors for real, but nobody is going to miss a fragile creature which in all likelihood would end up as another animals meal, right? It's so much easier to just kill an animal for the camera. It saves on production costs and instantly generates a shock from the audience all in one go.

An incredibly nasty, reprehensible sequence showing an African tribe bringing down a Hippo family that valiantly attempts to protect its young in AFRICA, ADDIO (1966)

The slaughter of elephants and the utterly relentless, repugnant butchering of a hippopotamus family in AFRICA ADDIO are some of the most gut wrenching sequences ever committed to film. Whether these bits were staged for the viewers "entertainment", or not, the sight of an African tribe gorily spearing these beasts to death is nauseating in the extreme. Knowing that such incidents happen in this fashion is one thing, but the thought of this happening for the sake of making box office dollars is questioning good taste.

Here, this shot from MONDO CANE, the narrator says the woman lost her child and the pig lost its mother so there you go.

In some ways these scenes are an important document that force us to see ourselves in an uncivilized light; to show how we were and still are oblivious to the inhabitants of nature around us. Not only have filmmakers profited from the deaths of animals in their movies, but people profit from the misery of nature everyday in brutal and illegal games such as dog fights. Every day, thousands of cows, chickens, sheep and other animals are slaughtered so that we, the people around the world, can enjoy our favorite steak, or bucket of chicken. On McDonalds sign, it says "Billions Served Daily". I'm sure that if more people saw slaughterhouse footage detailing the brutality involved in butchering various animals, there might be more vegetarians in the world.

The bulk of the focus here has been towards European films. That is not to say that American films are free of violence towards animals. Maybe not quite to the extremes seen in the Italian movies, but thousands of horses have been seriously injured, or killed from taking falls in movies. Various creatures less cuddly looking have fallen under the "knife" of filmmakers such as scorpions (THE WILD BUNCH), spiders (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS) and rats to name others. While Italy gets so much flack, Asia has showcased more than its fair share of animal violence in its movies.

No words need to be said really. This is from MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988)

One of the most infamous scenes of animal cruelty in a HK movie is seen in former Shaw Brothers director, Mou Tin Fu's MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988). The scene in question sees a single white cat being thrown into a room filled with hundreds of starving rats. The Japanese military official states he is demonstrating "Strength in numbers". The scene lasts approximately four minutes and the camera lingers on the agony and ultimate consumption of the feline by the flesh hungry rats. It's one of the most sadistic examples of animal cruelty in a film out there. However, the director has since made statements that this sequence was in fact staged. Whether or not that's true, it's still a powerful sequence and the Chinese have been the least merciless when it comes to killing various animals onscreen.

According to John Morghen, these performers were disgusted by having to do this scene. This is from Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX (1981).

Filmmakers both here and abroad have shown themselves to be an irresponsible lot when it comes to the use of animals as entertainment. This isn't Francis, the talking Mule, Flipper, Lassie, or Rin Tin Tin. These animals were sacrificed for the lowest form of shock value because it was much easier to exterminate them than to waste time creating an effects shot. But on the other side of the coin, we as a race could get by without eating meat, most of us just choose not to. Even though we are not sitting down and watching it on a movie, or documentary, an animal was butchered so we could enjoy a good meal.

Another pointless and gratuitous animal scene from MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978)

It's okay to eat meat so long as we don't see how it got to our plate in the first place. I eat beef, chicken, pork and seafood. However, I don't like the way the animals are put down so that I may enjoy that meal. But then, I don't dislike it to the point I'd be willing to give it up. As far as the documentaries and shock films go, even if the animals were eaten by the crew afterwards, does it still make it any better that the filmmakers went out of their way to exploit natures creatures for the sake of shock value? An argument could also be made that I am exploiting violence against animals by the very images seen in this article. Personally, I think we're all hypocritical in our own way regarding certain issues. We all have our own views of right and wrong. I'm merely writing the questions. It's up to your own judgement as to what the answers are.

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