It only takes the briefest perusal of the subgenre to realise that, alongside Deodato, one name stands tall in the canon of cannibalism: Umberto Lenzi. It was, after all, his 1972 opus ‘The Man from Deep River’ (a.k.a. ‘Deep River Savages’) that properly kickstarted the cannibal boom of the mid-70s to late-80s, and his farewell to the flesh(munching) was no less a controversy-fest than ‘Cannibal Ferox’ (a.k.a. ‘Make Them Die Slowly’), a flick that cheerfully billed itself as “the most violent film ever made” and laid claim – with probably only the mildest exaggeration – to being banned in 31 countries.
The second thing that happened took the world by surprise. In November 1978, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana was the scene of an incidence of so-called “revolutionary suicide” which cost the lives of over 900 cult members, a third of them children. The commune was ruled over by religious leader / fraud / fuckin’ wacko [delete as applicable] Jim Jones. History would record the site, the tragedy and the perpetrator in a stark one-word reminder: Jonestown.
The film opens at the Niagara Falls, where a harried looking man is assassinated by a Eurasian gentleman who uses a blow-pipe and a poison-tipped dart. Cut to New York where same individual effects two further assassinations in same manner. Fleeing the scene, he’s hit by a truck. Goodnight Vienna. Gruff cops Lieutenant Creal (Gerald Grant) and Inspector Logan (Jake Teague) are stuck for ID or motive; the only thing on him is a reel of home movie footage labelled as the property of heiress Diana Morris (Paola Senatore). Slight problem: Diana went missing some months previously. Diana’s sister Sheila (Janet Agren) is asked to view the footage. It depicts a weird ritual in a foreign locale.
With no idea what it means or where her sister disappeared to, Sheila turns to anthropologist Professor Carter (Mel Ferrer) who offers a couple of suggestions as to the location, the jungles of southeastern Asia being his first guess. That’s where Sheila heads. Engaging the services of J&B-swilling ’Nam deserter Mark Butler (Robert Kerman), they head into the jungle.
Compounding their problems, Mark falls afoul of Jonas’s brutish second-in-command while Sheila finds herself subject to the same cocktail of drugs, mind games and sexual depravities that Jones practised on Diana.
The film really gets its exploitative funk on at this point. Even before Jonas sets his sights on Sheila, we’re treated to the rape and dismemberment of a girl by a local cannibal tride (yup, this is a cannibal film that gets around the problem of nobody in Jonas’s commune being likely to chow down on some longpig by conveniently having a cannibal tribe live next door), and a ceremony in which recently widowed cult member Mowara (Me Me Lai) is released from her holy union in order to remarry. This ceremony involves the deceased’s three brothers publicly having sex with her. The scene is unintentionally hilarious, mainly for the utterly bored look on Lai’s face and the 0.0001 seconds that brother number two pretends to be doing the nasty, as if the thought of even pretending to have sloppy seconds is repugnant to him.
The scene where Jonas drugs Sheila and utilises a dildo smeared in cobra blood, however, isn’t hilarious. Not at all.
So, yeah: ‘Eaten Alive!’ is pretty nasty. It wants its actresses disrobed as much as possible and its wildlife dead. It’s not really all that bothered about how anyone else fares, for that matter. During an escape attempt from the commune, Mark encounters the nearby cannibal tribe and watches them castrate one of their own. No particular reason as far as I could discern, just penis here, penis gone, lots of blood. But there’s also a curious lack of engagement in all this unpleasantness. The animal deaths are inserted into the film haphazardly and without regard to continuity. Scenes of nudity and rape play out with a sort of blank indifference. The big break-out and pursuit that occupies the final reel is weirdly devoid of tension.
For all that Jonas has established his sect in the middle of nowhere, the emphasis is always on ceremony and a masquerade of civilised behaviour: there are opulent feasts; the interior décor of native huts betrays a western-capitalist sensibility; Jonas plays recorded music during ceremonial proceedings. These are contrasted against the natural world – and I’m talking the kind of nature that Tennyson described as “red in tooth and claw”. For all that Jonas encourages his followers to participate in what he calls “purification”, every frame that Lenzi puts on screen reminds us that there’s nothing pure going on here. Quite the opposite.