Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Posted as part of the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 3rd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon

Of all the Italian horror movie subgenres – from ridiculously gory zombie epics to the excessive aesthetic of the giallo – the most notorious is the cannibal movie. The ‘Citizen Kane’ of which is indisputably Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, a film I featured on this blog two years ago. That review turned into a three-part appraisal: 3,500 words on one of the most reviled films of all time, a piece of work so controversial that … well, drop the title in conversation at the office tomorrow and see what kind of response you get.

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.

Inbetween ‘The Man from Deep River’ in 1972 and ‘Eaten Alive!’ eight years later, two things happened which shaped the narrative of Lenzi’s second cannibal movie. The first was a matter of inevitability: a couple of early cannibal movies made a chunk of money and Italian exploitation cinema did what it’s best at and jumped on the bandwagon. Giallo master Sergio Martino sent Ursula Andress into the clutches of a primitive tribe in ‘The Mountain of the Cannibal God’ (a.k.a. ‘Prisoner of the Cannibal God’); sultan of sleaze Joe d’Amato threw porn into the mix with ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ and ‘Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals’; and Ruggero Deodato’s excesses in ‘Last Cannibal World’ (a.k.a. ‘Jungle Holocaust’) merely served to soften his audience up for the real deal, i.e. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. In 1980, the year ‘Eaten Alive!’ was released, the cannibal boom reached its zenith, with Marino Girolami’s ‘Zombie Holocaust’ (a.k.a. ‘Queen of the Cannibals’), Joe d’Amato’s ‘Orgasmo Nero’ (oooh, he was a subtle one with titles, our Joe), two efforts by Jess Franco – ‘White Cannibal Queen’ and ‘The Devil Hunter’, both of which have multiple aliases – and Hark Tsui’s ‘We’re Going to Eat You’ all riding the coat-tails of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ into the grindhouses and fleapits of the world. There was, in other words, a surfeit of cannibal movies vying for a paying audience at the time ‘Eaten Alive!’ came out. A canny filmmaker – and exploitation filmmakers, from whom a fast shoot, a lurid title and a low-budget were the key ingredients to turning a quick profit, are amongst the canniest – would be turning his mind at this point to the question of how to make a cannibal film that was just different enough.

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.

‘Eaten Alive!’ – the exclamation mark defiantly up there on the screen in the opening credits – fuses the expected tropes of the cannibal flick with a study of cultism and menticide. This throws us into a state of dichotomy already. Its release just fourteen months after Jonestown – a clear indication that this isn’t a clear-eyed artistic response to the tragedy made after much reflection and having allowed enough time to pass – betokens ‘Eaten Alive!’ as an out-and-out exploitationer. And yet the very fact that Lenzi chose to incorporate the Jonestown holocaust (I feel justified in using that word) in a down and dirty B-movie that would undoubtedly have turned the requisite profit if he’d simply conceived it as ‘The Man from Deep River Part 2’ forces the reviewer to engage with it on a different level.

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.

An encounter with a former member of a cult run by the charismatic Jonas (Ivan Rassimov) gives them their first real clue, but soon afterwards they are abandoned by their native guide. More by luck than judgement they find themselves at Jonas’s encampment. Though “luck” probably isn’t the operative word; for all that Sheila is reunited with Diana (who is half stoned and half terrified of Jonas), it’s made explicit that neither she nor Mark will be allowed to leave. 

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.

Subject of the poor bastard snake that had to die in order to achieve this scene, it should be mentioned that ‘Eaten Alive!’ is no film for ophidiophobes. The film crawls with snakes, most of them in documentary footage or scenes lifted from other films – ‘The Man from Deep River’ and ‘Primitive Desires’ are heavily plundered – in order to bulk out the running time with random acts of animal violence. Thus we have snake-on-monkey violence, mongoose-on-snake violence, and man-on-snake violence. There’s also some man-on-crocodile nastiness.

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.

And I’m not sure that any of these things can be put down to directorial incompetence. Lenzi had called the shots on more than forty movies by the time he made ‘Eaten Alive!’, including giallo faves ‘A Quiet Place to Kill’, ‘Knife of Ice’ and ‘Spasmo’. Simply put, the man knew how to construct a movie. I have a theory that ‘Eaten Alive!’ – as risible as it is in some respects (case in point: it’s vaguely suggested that the blow-pipe wielding hitman is whacking former cult members who might blow the gaffe on what Jonas is up to, yet Jonas is subsequently shown exiling a follower for a minor transgression, the implication being that Jonas deals with insubordination by sending people home then paying airfare for one of his goons to go and track them down and assassinate them in the most attention-drawing manner imaginable rather than simply passing them over to the cannibal tribe next door) – disinterestedly heaps on the gore and the grotesquery as a comment on the banality of evil.

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.


Troy Olson said...

Great analysis of one of the more notorious films of the cannibal genre here, Neil (though they are all kind of notorious in their own way, aren't they). The addition of the Jim Jones figure at least makes this a little bit different than most of the cannibal films, but I seem to remember it feeling just as padded with stock footage and overlong as any of them.

By the time this was made, Lenzi was pretty much in full-on "hack" mode, with some of his gritty and entertaining Eurocrime and giallo being in the rearview, and plenty of cheap and pedestrian stalk and slash movies around the corner.

Michael Grover said...

Nice one, Neil. It's refreshing to read an objective review of an Italian cannibal film that isn't the slavish adulation of the gorehound on one hand or blanket condemnation on the other. I used to like these a lot back in the day, but I lost my taste for them some time ago, mostly due to the animal cruelty. That said, I had an urge to watch one again a few months ago, and EATEN ALIVE is the one I went for.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas. I found - for want of a better word - an appreciation for the cannibal genre when I wrote about 'Cannibal Holocaust' a couple of years ago. Not an easily film to watch - or to assimilate into a critically acute article - but there was no doubt that Ruggero Deodato had a definite agenda and, despite the unpleasantness on display, it was a very well put together piece of work. I haven't come across anything else in the subgenre that packs quite the same punch, but 'Eaten Alive!' - with its inclusion of the Jim Jones-type false messiah - comes reasonably close.

Cannibal films are an interesting part of Italian horror/exploitation film history, but best approached very intermittently. It might be a good couple of years before 'Deep River Savages' or 'Cannibal Ferox' show up on The Agitation of the Mind'.