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Monday, December 10, 2012

Cannibal Ferox (1981) review


Lorraine De Selle (Gloria Davis), Danilo Mattei (Rudy Davis), Zora Kerova (Pat), John Morghen (Mike Logan), Robert Kerman (Lt. Rizzo), Venantino Venantini (Sgt. Ross), Fiamma Maglione (Myrna Stenn), John Bartha (mobster #1), Perry Pirkanen (mobster #2)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi

"We'll all pay for this... guilty or not."

The Short Version: Deep within the land of cinematic cannibal cuisine populated by reprobates spouting vocabularic profundities like "twat" and "shit-face" lies Umberto Lenzi's dizzyingly disgusting CANNIBAL FEROX. Hot off the success of Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and spawned from Lenzi's earlier 1972 tantalizer, MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, this 1981 upchuck champion is among the most down and dirty movies you're likely to ever come across. The plot is preposterous (would you believe an anthropological trip into the Amazon to prove cannibalism is nothing but a myth?) and exists solely to display a gallery of cruel and unusual punishments, gore money shots and animal killings. Some three decades after its release, it retains its power to shock and disgust, but it's doubtful you'll remember the political subtext over the castrations, cannibalism and animal cruelty afterward.

Gloria Davis is a NYC university student writing her college thesis on cannibalism. Believing it a myth and desiring to debunk the practice as a byproduct of Western colonialism, Gloria travels to the Amazon jungle with her brother Rudy and friend Pat. Not long after losing their transportation, they set out on foot. Deep in the jungle, they run afoul of two men -- Mike and Joe, who claim to be diamond hunters pursued by cannibals. Gloria and her brother quickly realize that something is not quite right with Mike and his story. Learning the truth too late, the innocent interlopers are captured by the vengeance seeking jungle savages. Making them pay along with the guilty, Gloria receives a shocking revelation regarding her ideas on the practice of anthropophagy. The lucky ones die first. As for the rest, they'll Make Them Die Slowly!

For many, the ultimate Cannibal Movie will always be Umberto Lenzi's crudely effective CANNIBAL FEROX; an infamous motion picture that played theaters here in America under the aptly titled moniker of MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY. When Thriller Video unleashed the film onto an unsuspecting, but hungry home video viewing audience in the mid 80s, it found an even bigger audience that brought it even more attention and continued controversy.

Written by Lenzi and irresponsibly, if vigorously directed by him, CANNIBAL FEROX is the directors own personal Heart of Darkness. There are moments in this movie -- and like moments in some of his other similar pictures -- where Lenzi addresses societal, or racial issues, yet his penchant for excessive brutality consumes those ideas in a cannibalistic orgy of violence. There are movies by Lenzi where he is remarkably restrained, but CANNIBAL FEROX isn't one of them.

"They thought all white men were fair and honest."

The basis for the storyline to get the intellectual (and in Zora Kerova's case, the horny) travelers into the jungle stems from the preposterous notion that cannibalism doesn't, and never existed. Instead of looking for lost relatives, or documentary filmmakers as often is the case in Italian cannibal movies, our intrepid explorers are looking for answers. Lenzi's scripting hypothesis ultimately plays host to racial and socio-ecological implications that colonialism was this all encompassing evil that used the "myth" of cannibalism to demonize an underdeveloped social class structure. Like Imperialism, Colonialism has a positive influence, but also a negative one depending on the hands that wields the power. For cinematic purposes, though, this power and influence is almost always perceived as ill-gotten gains.

This liberal leaning thought process also tells us that the whites are the real savages (aren't they always?) who institutionalize barbarity in seemingly "civilized", yet primitive jungle tribes of the Amazonas. Meanwhile, Iron Eyes Cody, that Italian-American "Crying Indian" of a 1971 television propaganda commercial is somewhere shedding a tear for the alleged damage done by western Capitalism across the globe.

This Western oppressiveness is probably the one strand CANNIBAL FEROX shares with CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. In that film, the various tribes already made war with one another, wantonly raped women, used stone clubs and spears, and ate the flesh of their enemies; but it showed how a modern and supposedly intellectual group of individuals could be just as savage, if not more so, by partaking in barbarism for sensationalist purposes.

There are scenes in the film that propagandize this colonialist notion, and also others that exploit an imperialist mentality from the point of view of the films true antagonist. An example of the former occurs when our main characters occupy the straw huts of the primitives while they remain outside, presumably sleeping in the mud! There's no interaction between the white explorers and the sad looking, mud-encrusted natives. Rudy (Danilo Mattei) comments on their fear and the "hate in their eyes"; little does he know why, till it's too late.

For the latter, we learn in a flashback that Mike Logan, a criminal on the run from the mob, feigned interest in mining diamonds with a local tribesman. After apparently binging on cocaine, the already unstable Logan becomes angered that no diamonds have been uncovered. Mind you, the two Anglo's merely sit by and watch as the natives do all the work. Anyway, he goes off the deep end, mercilessly tortures, mutilates and murders a handful of the native villagers he had proposed to do business with. This vicious act results in sending these already primitive people back to the stone age and embracing the neolithic practice of anthropophagy.

Film still of a scene not in the movie.

Whether this sort of political pandering was intentional or not is debatable. It's obvious Lenzi's interest lay more in the visceral aspects of his script; at least that's where the bulk of his passion (rage?) is channeled. Exploitation is central to the narrative while any political subtext is secondary. Lenzi only touches on these topics and some of the points I have noted are strictly from observation, and may not have been intended at all. At any rate, this middling subtext could provide an all-you-can-eat buffet of political discussion on topics coveted by left-wing enthusiasts and propaganda specialists.

"The life of the weak for that of the strong. You stake him out, the snakes'll go for him instead of us... the law of the jungle."

The treatment of animals, ie animal cruelty is a very real issue in these movies. MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY was my first experience with onscreen animal death outside of what was seen on television programs like WILD KINGDOM; or even dramatic nature documentaries like the Warner Bros. production ANIMALS ARE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE (1974).

Arguably the first internationally sensationalized display of the animal kingdom was in the controversial MONDO CANE (1962); a film that launched a genre that came to be classified as "shockumentaries". The Italian cannibal movies were the bastard, mongoloid brood of this movement. Like a lot of the animal violence in the Mondo Movies, the animal deaths were often staged specifically for the camera for added, and all too real shock effect just in case primitives eating grub worms, castrations and women with hooks piercing their breasts weren't grim enough for the audience.

The scene where the Coati is bitten and slowly strangulated by an enormous anaconda was the most excruciatingly difficult bit of film footage I'd ever seen up to that point in my life, and it is still a powerful, highly repugnant scene. I felt gutted and exasperated. I almost didn't finish the movie it bothered me so much. 

The camera seems to caress and linger over every inch of the destructive power and size of this snake and the fatal trauma it brings to this tiny creature. It's all rather stupid that the three adventurers just stand there looking both sad and concerned, yet none of them do anything. The machete Rudy likes to wave around remains sheathed. 

It's clear this scene exists solely to shock and disgust the audience, and nothing more. The next few times I saw the film with others, I'd often turn away when this scene came on. This scene is among the most talked about when the subject of CANNIBAL FEROX is brought up.

This same carelessness could be attributed to Jacopetti and Prosperi's treatment of some of the obviously simulated scenes of real animal death in the aforementioned MONDO CANE (the tortoise sequence being the classic example)

One could say Italian filmmakers of this genre style were imperialists in their methods of dominating an environment for the sake of authenticating their cinematic purposes in capturing cheap thrills at the cost of animal life. This lame attempt at authenticity by glorifying real animal death on screen foreshadowed the widespread manipulation of the news media and the flood of "reality" show programs that TV viewers eat up as rapaciously as these big screen cannibals feast on their foes.

And just like the means by which the characters end up in the sweltering South American jungles is flimsy on Lenzi's part, so is the excuse given for acceptance in this cute critters demise. It's told that the animal -- given as a gift by a local Portuguese woman -- will provide sustenance for the deadly Amazonian denizens in place of the humans. When the scene finally comes, the reaction from the actors appears to be shot separately and not live while the Coati is being killed mere feet away. As noted above, this sequence serves no purpose outside of exploitative shock value, despite being perceived as the "law of the jungle".

Other instances of geekshow gore of the animal variety are a monkey being killed by a leopard, the evisceration of a caiman, or crocodile, and the preparation of a large turtle that is reminiscent of a similar, and much longer, and even more nauseating sequence from Ruggero Deodato's supreme cannibal classick, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980).

The acting in Lenzi's cannibal world is of little consequence so long as the participants are believable when they're running and screaming from being mutilated by a vengeful tribe of flesh-eating savages.

French actress (and now producer) Lorraine De Selle is just right for this role and her stagnant facial expressions are consistent with her handful of other horror endurance tests she acted in. She occasionally rises to the occasion showing an emotive state resembling shock and misery; although the latter might be from working in such an inhospitable environment. Lorraine also played menaced characters in such non-family friendly Italian showcases like WOMEN'S CAMP 119 (1977), THE HOUSE AT THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980) and WILD BEASTS (1984).

"...You get off on ecology, huh, twat?!"

John Morghen (alias Giovanni Lombardo Radice) is simply amazing in his over the top delivery of the coked up psychopath Mike Logan. This was my first film seeing Morghen onscreen and his wild interpretation of one of cinemas scummiest bastards stuck with me for days afterward much like all the other seedy elements of this movie. Lenzi was exceptionally well versed in writing the most despicably sleazy characters imaginable and the job he did in crafting Mike Logan is a great starter kit for those curious about Lenzi's oeuvre.  

Possessing an ear-piercingly colorful vocabulary, Naughty Mike (as his character was coined in production by Morghen's friend, De Selle) punctuates his sentences with such memorably derogatory epithets as "twat", "asshole" and "hot-pussied little whore". Morghen's delivery is incredible. Famously proclaiming his hatred of the film, Morghen seems to have unwittingly channeled his displeasure with Lenzi and the production to create an unremittingly misogynistic persona approaching Krugian levels of reprehensibility. With one of his last roles being in THE OMEN remake from 2006, John Morghen needs to be in more big screen movies. Check out his official site HERE.

"Come on, bitch! Where's ya' stud?"

Misogyny has always run rampant in Euro extreme cinema, but Lenzi refined it into some twisted, depraved art form throughout his career. Virtually none of the women in this film are likable, or even of strong disposition. Only De Selle's character has conviction and purpose, but the actress fails to convince much of the time. Pat is a sexual beast, hopping into bed with just about anybody she meets. Myrna, a character in a pretty much unnecessary New York City sub plot, is a tour guide used and abused by assorted men of the cast. At one point, some Mob thugs smack and kick her around and call her a "bitch". The insert image shows her being slapped around yet again; this time by Sancho, the airplane pilot. Curiously, this still photo from a scene near the end isn't in the movie.

Leaving the women and going back to the men, there's Danilo Mattei, the Alpha male of the cast. Throughout the movie, Mattei's character of Rudy demonstrates his masculinity and knowledge of survival in the jungle. When he dies later in the film, it pretty much affirms that the rest of the cast are most likely doomed. With the strongest of their number dead, there's virtually no hope in escape for the remainder. It's also at this point where the American nom de plum comes into play as jungle justice is meted out on the rest of the cast.

Former porn star, Robert Kerman, (sort of) returns to cannibal country encoring from his previous lead role in Lenzi's patchwork guts & gore bonanza, EATEN ALIVE! (1980) and also another lead in Ruggero Deodato's exemplary CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980). This time out, Kerman plays a NYC cop trying to track down Mike Logan who ripped off some mobsters. Kerman's scenes reside exclusively in the concrete jungle this time instead of the emerald jungle. 

These New York segments feel superfluous and tacked on to divert your attention from the fact that this movie is little more than gross sensationalist trash of the highest order. It's also an excuse for Lenzi to squeeze in exterior shots of one of his favorite cities. In addition, these moments give the director an opportunity to revisit his gritty crime films, a genre which he bid adieu with 1979s exceptional FROM CORLEONE TO BROOKLYN starring Maurizio Merli and Mario Merola.

It's of course a pleasant surprise to see Kerman in another cannibal movie, but this is mostly a throwaway role giving him relatively little to chew on; unlike some of the South American extras playing the cannibals.

The score (co-composed by Fiamma Maglione pictured above) is a memorable set of cues heralding the right feeling of cannibalistic retribution and jungle beats dotted with some relaxing lounge sounds that offset the frequent savagery. Other bits consist of synthesizer sonic assaults that unsettle the ear during some of the films more cruel moments; particularly during the flashback sequence. Some of the music (such as the main jungle theme) was featured in Lenzi's cannibalism-Jim Jones combo, EATEN ALIVE! released the previous year.

"He moaned and groaned all night long... but he didn't die till the next morning. God, how he suffered."

I recall my first run-in with Lenzi's notorious gut-slinger on my mission to rent the nastiest films imaginable when I was a kid. On this fateful day the lurid artwork adorning the big box tape case emblazoned with the title 'Make Them Die Slowly' jumped off the shelf and into my hands. Herschell Gordon Lewis' THE WIZARD OF GORE (1970) was my second rental of the evening; the gruesome artwork of the Midnight Video VHS being particularly eye-gouging.

To make a long story short (I've told a portion of this tale elsewhere), with me being a young kid, these were just movies to me and nothing more. For whatever reason, something possessed me to watch this again before returning it, but this time in clear view of my grandparents, who had company over. Expectedly, they were horrified once the shot of the tied and tortured Indio has his eyeball and extremities removed by a cocaine snorting psychopath.

Needless to say, all my horror posters, movies and magazines were quickly seized and my grandparents contemplated having me put into therapy(!) Instead, they kept a closer eye on what I rented. Not long after this in 1987, I was forced to sit down and watch a 20/20 special taped by a relative about the dangers of horror movies. What made this of interest was Lenzi's movie being watched by a group of women who appeared on the verge of losing their lunches. I imagine this title was chosen in much the same way I chose it. To my knowledge, this is the only time an Italian cannibal movie ever made prime time television.

MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY was clearly a popular rental back then, no doubt aided by the "Banned in 31 countries" tag splattered across the front of the video box. I remember being in eighth grade History class one day where this movie was a topic of discussion while the teacher was temporarily out of the classroom. I don't remember how it got brought up. Not only was Lenzi's movie briefly the center of the universe, but this conversation veered off into Joe D'Amato territory with added input oBEYOND THE DARKNESS (released here on tape as BURIED ALIVE); also on videocassette through Thriller Video at the time.

" eat man is bullshit."

German lobby card of a scene not in the film.

I ultimately managed to sneak and see whatever I wanted anyways, and eventually the watchful eyes of my grandparents got lax and I moved into buying my own new and used tapes as I had a job at this point. My morbid fixation with all things grotesque wasn't satisfied till I obtained a copy of MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, which I eventually did. I remember taking the tape to friends houses and discovered much to my surprise that some of my friends' parents had tastes similar to my own; which was bizarre and perplexing. Parents weren't supposed to like forbidden fruit; they're supposed to condemn it. 

For me, I suppose my increased interest in trash was a gradual progression from all those years of watching "harmless" horror on Shock Theater and these blood and guts spectacles were akin to reaching cinematic puberty where horror was concerned.

Possibly the desire to see this sort of thing had a lot to do with teen angst, or rebellion. Anything that deviated from the norm intrigued me and the more bizarre the better. Having been forced to mostly keep to myself as a kid (my dad was afraid other kids would mess around with his stuff), this solitude only fueled my imagination in a variety of ways; so I suppose that had something to do with my teen mantra of 'The Gore the Merrier'. Nowadays, I assume my affinity for Lenzi's infamously renowned endurance test is due mostly to nostalgia. Personally, while it possesses some directorial flourishes here and there, it's inferior to his lesser known crime, giallo and war pictures; all the while remaining the directors most talked about movie.

Years have passed and I no longer have that wonderfully grotesque VHS tape. Thankfully, this seminal addition in the depraved Italian cannibal sub-genre is available on DVD from pretty much every corner of the globe (including a super-bit edition from Sazuma that makes the film sparkle far more than it has any right to)

Umberto Lenzi's succulent tale of jungle revenge can be savored by legions of curiosity seekers for decades to come. Whether that's a healthy, or even a sane proposition is open for debate. CANNIBAL FEROX, for all its unpleasantries, is a vital footnote in horror cinema history; although for different reasons than its more salient competition -- Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980).

This review is representative of the Grindhouse Releasing DVD.

***B/W still: google images--John Morghen's myspace page; lobby cards, and or still shots from DVD extras***


Maynard Morrissey said...

awesome write-up that totally makes me wanna re-watch it ASAP. I've seen it a few years ago, only a few days after I've seen Cannibal Holocaust for the very first time.
I loved Holocaust, but Ferox didn't impress me at all and just felt like an unoriginal Holocaust-ripoff.

venoms5 said...

Glad you liked it and found the time to read through all of that, Harry, lol. That's possibly the longest single review on here.

I've seen the film many times and saw some things in it I didn't pay much attention to before.

HOLOCAUST is a totally different animal. It's interesting that both Lenzi and Deodato were seemingly tied in a death struggle to one up the other where cannibal movies were concerned.

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