Judge Bill Gibron reviews a film that is not for the faint of heart, and by "faint of heart," we mean everyone with eyes, ears, or a soul.
"I pity the wretched people who don't know a better way to have a good time. And I sincerely hope that the movie doesn't stir sadistic instincts in some. But from what I have read, deranged sadists can discover much harder stuff online."—Giovanni Lombardo Radice, who plays the evil drug dealer Mark in Cannibal Ferox
1981 was a banner year for horror. Thanks to the efforts of auteurs as divergent as Tobe Hooper (The Funhouse), Joe Dante (The Howling), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), David Cronenberg (Scanners), and a demented little upstart named Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), it was a year filled with classic creature feature conventions, invention, imagination, and a new desire to push the limits of makeup and physical effects. The genre had been on an upswing ever since John Carpenter made the name Michael Myers a household haunt with 1978's Halloween. It was then reconfirmed by George Romero (Dawn of the Dead was released the same year) and cemented by a sick little slasher film that no one saw coming called Friday the 13th. Indeed, the late '70s/early '80s was terror's prime time, as more movie macabre was made than in any other era since the '50s.
But the rebirth of the repulsive wasn't merely reserved for the US marketplace. Around the world, especially in Italy, fright still had a major following. Lucio Fulci had set a benchmark for the repugnant with his glorified gore geek show Zombi. The certified genius of one Dario Argento braved the beginning of the decade, starting off with Inferno (1980) and following it up with a blood-drenched giallo in Tenebre (1982). The son of famed terror titan Mario Bava, Lamberto, was cutting his teeth on such stunted works as Macabro (1980). But perhaps the most notorious offering from the horror Roman Empire was Rugerro Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1979). With a plot reminiscent of a certain bit of Burkittsville business (a film crew heads off into the jungle to interact with real life flesh eaters. One year later, their footage is recovered), this wholly unwatchable mess became notorious for reinvigorating the long dead Mondo mentality of filmmaking.
Naturally, it spawned commerce-based copycats, the most infamous of which may be Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox (from the Latin for "fierce"). A thoroughly depressing bit of abuse pretending to take up the cause against the racist treatment of poor picked-upon natives by wanton white settlers, it was not Lenzi's first go at the flesh eating Goona Goona film. His 1972 film The Man from Deep River is often cited as the first native nasty. And now, thanks to Sazuma Trading, Region 2 can experience a brand new, pristine print of this controversial film. Indeed, Cannibal Ferox: Ultrabit Limited Edition Tin Box is an impressive DVD presentation. It doesn't make the film any better, however; this is still a gratuitous journey into the grotesque.
Facts of the Case
Gloria and her brother Rudy are traveling to the Amazon so that sis can work on her doctoral thesis. She is convinced that cannibalism does not exist, either as an actual practice or a customary concept carried out by the native people. Gloria believes it is all a bunch of racist hogwash, a clever colonialist way of dehumanizing the inhabitants of an about to be conquered locale. Dragging along her slutty pal Pat for the trip, the trio soon finds themselves lost in the deepest, darkest parts of the jungle. But instead of running into horrible headhunters, they meet up with sadistic drug dealer Mike and his hobbled buddy Joe.
They tell a terrifying tale of emeralds, tribesmen, and torture. Claiming that they just got away with their lives, they convince the group to head up river to make an escape. They end up, instead, in a native village containing only the elderly and children. For some reason, the indigenous people seem scared of the white men and women. Joe takes a turn for the worst (his injuries have become infected) and we soon learn the truth. Mike was responsible for all the atrocities they discussed, not the tribesmen. And the natives get the last word as they round up all the interlopers and sacrifice each one in more and more brutal fashion. One thing is for sure—the so-called cannibals will definitely make them die…slowly.
Combining several now-familiar facets of the Italian horror genre with a whole new focus on human and animal atrocities, Cannibal Ferox is a lot like sitting through a slide show of concentration camp images. Coming across as an even faker Faces of Death or a snuff film fashioned out of latex and lunacy, this is a movie more notorious for how nauseating it is than anything it offers cinematically. Director Umberto Lenzi, whose oeuvre reads like a Mediterranean also-ran to such Eternal City sons as Argento, Bava, and Fulci, signaled the death knell for the genre he helped conceive and create by wringing every last bit of ugliness out of it. Mean spirited, oblique, and suffering from a dated desire to shock and stupefy, there is no denying the film's effectiveness or grimness. But it would be difficult to call Cannibal Ferox an enjoyable viewing experience. Indeed, finding it "fun" would be downright impossible.
Right from the start, you have to grant Lenzi a few things. This is a movie that is being made as part of a well-worn formula, an archetype that dates back to the 1930s. As documentarians and travelers explored the world, bringing back stories and images from the far-off reaches of Africa and Asia, a new fascination with all things primitive came into being. It wasn't long before the strange rites and rituals of indigenous peoples were being exploited as part of popular entertainment. Along with the lax attitude toward nudity (resulting in more than one corporeal National Geographic magazine cover) to the seemingly uncivilized interaction with nature (hence the slaughter and sacrifice of animals for both religious and culinary purposes), western audiences couldn't get enough of the Dark Continent craziness.
But oddly, it wasn't until Richard Harris starred in 1970's A Man Called Horse that filmmakers saw the value in incorporating the repulsive ritualistic ceremonies of natives into their narrative. Horse contained a scene where captured nobleman Harris is put through a painful bit of sadism called the Sun Vow before he is accepted as part of the tribe, and it was this horrendous helping of human suffering (Harris has sharp metal blades thrust through his chest muscles, and then he is hung up by said shards, his body totally supported by the ever-stretching skin) that signaled the start of envelope pushing everywhere. Such a scene does exist in Cannibal Ferox, but it is done in a manner far more miserable, and somewhat misogynistic, than the aforementioned dignified act of self-mutilation.
Ferox is a free-for-all, a nonstop junket into the most jaundiced elements of exploitation ever conceived. There is something here to repulse just about everyone—animal atrocities, human suffering, sexual debauchery, flesh eating, protracted agony, and stilted acting and dialogue, all adding up to a surreal, strangulating experiment in entertainment tolerances. Don't let Lenzi's occasionally pro-people outbursts sway you. This is not Africa Addio, or even Mondo Cane. He is not really interested in racism, the cruelty of colonialism, or the idyllic innocence of jungle inhabitants. This is a calculated freak show, a chicken head-biting geek grind in which body parts are the bait for the even more heinous acts of awfulness to come. Using special effects as sledgehammers, actual live mammal and reptile evisceration as potshots, and a tone that teeters between malicious to downright perverted, Cannibal Ferox pummels you like a boxer up against the ropes, never letting up until you eventually throw in the towel and admit moralistic defeat.
This is a film that dares you to like it, chiding the audience to find something acceptable or identifiable in its gore-soaked hostility. If anyone ever tells you that this is their favorite film of all time, or that Ferox is some manner of forgotten masterpiece, either get them to a clinic, or yourself the hell away as quickly as possible. With an almost porn-like plot, the merest clothesline of a concept utilized to get our victims into the underbrush and receiving their retribution, there isn't a single likeable, dimensional, or salient character in the entire production. Gloria and Rudy come across as ridiculous goody-goodies, shocked and appalled that inhabitants of the jungle would slaughter alligators for food or eat a brain when one becomes available. Their harlot of a hanger-on, Pat, runs the gamut of corruption, plotting to rape a native girl one moment, blowing coke the next, and stealing all her friends' possessions just for laughs. While Joe is just a plot convention, a bystander allowed to live long enough to give us the explanatory exposition we need to get to the finale, it is his malfeasant friend Mike who is center of this callousness.
Indeed, this character perfectly reflects Cannibal Ferox's raison d'etre. He is meant to personify everything that is wrong with the Western world, a kind of seven deadly sins in the persona of a wild-eyed, wicked white guy. Mike is indeed a greedy, womanizing, drug dealing, and abusing murderer who thinks nothing of castrating a native and then raping his women while the individual bleeds to death. He exhibits no loyalty, selfishly acts in direct contravention to the others in the group, and eventually feels limited remorse as his body is being hacked off, bit by bit. Defiant to his death, spitting his curse-filled epithets at anyone within eye or earshot, you just know Lenzi looks at this heartless antagonist and shouts "Mamma Mia, I've made my point!" Problem is, Lenzi's not really out to do anything other than gross us out. Mike has no redeeming characteristics—in fact, he resembles the immortality-laced killers from formulaic slasher films (he can take being horrible maimed, and still come up fighting for his life) more than a human being. Any message that may be laid on his sinister shoulders disappears the minute he dishes out the death like a crazed corpse carver.
Lenzi's direction is also pedestrian and uninspired. The settings seem authentic, but are rendered in a way to drain them of that ever-popular local color. There is no attempt to describe, either visually or directly, the customs or the mannerisms of the native people. Like wild animals sitting sedate in the Veldt, we are warned of their ferocity, but no religious or traditional basis is given for their crimes. Lenzi is merely using his jungle backdrop as a reminder of how the untamed, uncharted regions of the world contain untold horrors that we, as sophisticated, enlightened people, know nothing about. He is opening our eyes to the many misfortunes that lay just beyond the boundaries of civilization, making us face these frightening facts. But Cannibal Ferox doesn't play like an exposé. It is more of a dark ride in the sweltering Amazon heat, a film where a scene of shocking depravity can come at any moment: turn a corner and BANG!—an old native is munching on big fat live grubs. Walk into the middle of a clearing and SLAM!—a booby trap sends huge sharpened poles deep into the chest of your guide.
Had he really wanted to make a statement about society, Lenzi would have found a way to balance the nastiness with the narrative necessities. Mike and Joe wouldn't have been some petty drug thugs, but a real example of educated man run amuck (as Deodato offered in Holocaust). And while live animal destruction has a long tradition in the Italian cinema, Lenzi would have found a way to incorporate it more effectively and less gratuitously into Ferox. As it stands, these are just stomach-churning instances, unfortunate malice used to prove a point. But again, the issue is not about how horrible the circle of life really is, or that man and animal co-exist on the planet in a perpetual state of slaughter. No, the reason for their inclusion in Cannibal Ferox is for subterfuge, a cinematic con job, a way to add authenticity to all the death in the film. It is here only so you'll buy the latex and rubber murders of the human actors. Granted, the gore is very effective, never totally over the top, but just juicy enough to have us cringing in our seats. Even by today's complicated standards, some of the special effects still have the ability to stain one's soul.
So, this must mean that Cannibal Ferox is completely dismissible, a waste of time so complete and despicable that no film fan should bother to broach its tacky tenets? Oddly enough, the answer is no. Just like digging into those old-fashioned nudist colony films proffered by Something Weird Video, or taking a look at the Mondo documentaries from the 1960s, Cannibal Ferox is both a time capsule and a paradigm. It illustrates a filmic fad that has long since passed, a type of jaded global view that has faded away with the advent of technology and the instant access to information. It also proves that the Italians could apply their obsessive love of bloodletting into any cinematic genre, from the zombie movie to the jungle epic. It may be hard to sit through, but it is never boring or basic. This is melodrama fueled at a fever pitch, iconographic conventions colliding with misery and manipulation to create something both craven and crafty. There will be a few freaks out there that find this type of optical offense a "dare you to watch it" diversion. But many will just be dismayed by Lenzi's lax attitude toward viciousness and torment. Cannibal Ferox is true to its name. This is one ferocious, self-consuming endurance test. You will probably pass it, but may not feel good about yourself afterward.
Long available in horribly cropped VHS versions and the occasionally cleaned-up DVD, Sazuma's current Region 2 presented of Cannibal Ferox is a revelation. Fans of the film will never remember seeing it look this clean, clear, colorful, or sharp. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks literally brand new, radiant with the natural beauty of the Amazon. Naturally, as with most European horror films, the feel to the image is flat and dimensionless, with a near-documentary quality to the camera work. And Lenzi is no artist. His framing and composition are quasi-satisfactory, not praise-worthy. This version of the movie looks great—all cinematic merits aside.
On the sound front, the Dolby Digital Stereo is sufficient to put the laughable dubbing across (you can catch all the dialogue with subtitle options that include English, Dutch, Swedish, and Finnish). While it has to be said that the mouth matching is pretty good here, some of the voice over work is hilarious (and here's a little trivia for you—see if you can pick out the craggy chops of that rough, raspy rascal, Lawrence Tierney). Proving that no Italian horror film can contain a soundtrack that doesn't directly reference or rip-off either Goblin or Ennio Morricone, the duo of Budy (Roberto Donati) and Maglione (Fiamma Maglione) use that most evil of noise—disco—to drive home the horror of the film. While the mix is a little music heavy, and the jungle ambiance is mostly absent from all the scenes, this is still a decent decibel experience.
It is in the bonus department that Sazuma comes up short. There is a complete Umberto Lenzi filmography and a few brief biographical notes. You can watch any one of three—American, German, or Italian—trailers, thumb through eight postcards of scenes from the film, or wonder just how the hell you are going to display the oversized gunmetal gray collector's tin with the rest of your DVD collection. Missing the kind of contextual content that would, perhaps, provide the proper background for appreciating this mess, Sazuma really misses the boat. As a result, the digital display of Cannibal Ferox is only 50% comprehensive. Without the necessary extras, this is really just a cleaned up example of extremism.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For those of you who just can't live without knowing just what happens to both the humans and non-humans in the film, the following abominations, both actual and faked, are present:
In the Animal arena—(1) a bush baby-like creature (kind of cute and cuddly) is slowly strangled and tortured to death by an anaconda, (2) grubs the size of lemons are masticated in loving detail, (3) a baby boar is stabbed repeatedly with a knife and bled to death, (4) a big butterfly is eaten whole, (5) a turtle is systematically dissected, (6) a baby alligator is sliced open, alive, and eaten raw, (7) a leopard consumes a live monkey.
In the Human arena—(1) a native is impaled by a large tree trap, (2) a man is castrated, has his eye plucked out by a knife (in loving detail), is mutilated, and left to die (3) a young woman is attacked, (4) several people are shot, (5) the corpse of a man is cut open, the organs strewn about, and eaten by the natives (6) a man is castrated, his privates eaten, the wound is cauterized, his hand is cut off, and his head is lopped open so natives can eat his brains, (7) piranhas chew on a man's leg, then he is shot with poison darts (8) a woman has large metal hooks thrust through her breasts, and she is hung up by said skewers until she dies, (9) another man is impaled by a large tree trap.
All in all, another wonderful night at the movies, right?
Don't get the wrong idea—films like Cannibal Ferox just didn't drop off the face of the Earth once the wave of Goona Goona gorefests had run their course. Indeed, thanks to the ubiquitous corruptor known as VHS, the native nasty went underground, discovering newfound life within the teenager kicks of the Faces of Death school of shocker. We no longer live in a world where we worry if there are flesh eaters living in the remotest parts of the jungle, or if corpses turn up with bite marks in them. In the 24 years since Lenzi's movie made its impact, we have become blasé to the cannibal, using it as the basis for jokes and popular entertainment. From Jeffrey Dahmer to Hannibal Lecter, the culture has been swamped by so many references to skin snacking that we no longer are stunned when it occurs.
But Cannibal Ferox is much more than a film that champions occasional epidermis eating. It is an affront, a visual accosting of your sense and sensibilities. 1981 may have indeed signaled the real rebirth of the horror film for several years to come, but it thankfully marked the last time something like Lenzi's vile vision got a legitimate look. While gore will never really go out of style, the systematic abuse of animals, captured in real time to entertain an audience, no longer has a place in legitimate cinema. So Ferox may be responsible for at least one positive contribution to society. It will be the first, and last time. Horror fans owe themselves at least one visit to his tropical pool of puke. Others should be warned away immediately. The only thing that should be made to die is this gangrenous genre, and it should not go slowly.
Cannibal Ferox is hereby found guilty by this court of crimes against both man and animal, and it is sentenced to ten years of hard labor in a Peace Corp company working deep in the Amazon river basin. Sazuma is also found guilty of failing to flesh out their DVD release, but the sentence is suspended because of the excellent visual attributes offered by the company.
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