Welcome back to my bite sized examination of the U.K.’s infamous Video Nasty list, the films that the Director of Public Prosecutions deemed too morally reprehensible to be viewed by any upstanding British citizen in the early ‘80s. For the sake of time and sanity, I’m breaking the list into easily digestible chunks. On this week’s menu is a lightly pan seared delicacy, the films of cannibalism.
The DPP really, really hated cannibal movies. Out of the 72 movies prosecuted or considered for prosecution on grounds of obscenity, 10 were about cannibalism, 6 with the word "cannibal" in their title. This might be due to the inherent gruesomeness of the subject, but I believe iftmostly stemmed from one movie, perhaps the most notorious off all the Video Nasties, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. And while the film itself is well deserving of notoriety, it was probably this image that caused the most fuss.
This VHS cover was scientifically designed to horrify old white conservatives while intriguing everyone else (seriously, you want to turn your eyes away, but you can’t). It was so blatant and in your face that it practically dared the establishment to ban it, which it did. When the MPs went looking for titles to add to their list, anything using the word cannibal was guilty by association.
To be fair, though, if you include “Cannibal” in your title, there’s a reasonable bet your movie is just a little bit nasty. I’m sure there is some highbrow French film out there that uses the word as an analogy for the bourgeoisie, but it isn’t CANNIBAL TERROR.
So I start this installment with the Mother of All Video Nasties, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. I seriously debated putting this one in the Bummers category, as it is kind of a downer. And by “kind of” I mean “soul crushing”. I have seen a lot of really rough movies, but nothing compares to this one. The biggest reason being that the movie, which is about a professor traveling through the uncharted jungles of Amazon to find what happened to a missing film crew, is actually very well made. Director Ruggero Deodato made some incredibly hokey (and entertaining) films in his career. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is not one of them. It is beautifully shot, well scored, decently acted, and most of all, very authentic feeling. This is especially true of the found footage portion (made before that was even a term). The combination of real violence to animals (quick, but still nauseating) and very effectively staged violence toward the characters (shot from a distance) causes the lines between movie and reality to blur. There is a reason Charlie Sheen reported this to the police as an actual snuff film when he saw it, and it wasn’t just because of the cocaine.
Fun fact: While being banned in over 50 countries (allegedly), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is the second highest grossing film in Japan, behind E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERESTRIAL. Coincidently, this also constitutes the world’s worst double feature ever.
The power and gravity of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is most apparent when shown against its similarly themed but immensely trashier counterpart, CANNIBAL FEROX (re-titled MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY in the U.S. because no one knew what the hell a ferox was). Umberto Lenzi’s film has practically the same plot (minus the found footage) and arguably even more gore, but none of the stark, visceral impact of Deodato’s. There is no mistaking FEROX for anything other than the sleaziest of exploitation, especially with the incomparable Giovanni Lombardo Radice chewing up the scenery. Radice was a staple of Italian genre cinema of that era, and perhaps the subject of more gruesome deaths than any other actor in history. FEROX is still a rough movie, but considerably more fun (except for the animal killings, boo!).
Umberto Lenzi actually started off the whole Italian cannibalspoitation genre with THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (aka SACRIFICE!, aka DEEP RIVER SAVAGES). Basically a remake of the American Western A MAN CALLED HORSE, the movie is about a photographer who is captured by a primitive tribe in the Amazon and slowly adapts to their ways (after a period of distrust and torture). DEEP RIVER is far tamer than the cannibal films that would follow. The gut munching angle doesn’t even appear until near the end, when a hostile (and hungry) tribe attacks. Less of a horror movie as it is an exploration of cultural understanding. Except, you know, a little bit racist. Oooow, scary indigenous people want to eat you! The whole cannibal genre is uncomfortably literal exploitation cinema.
Switching from the Amazon to New Guinea but still very Italian, Sergio Martino’s MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD is another one caught in the DPP’s widely spread cannibal net. This one, starring Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress, is more of a straight up adventure movie, with subplots about corporate greed and the exploitation of nature. Andress hires Keach to guide her and her brother through a dangerous jungle in search of her missing husband. The gore is fairly restrained (unless you are an animal), until they get to the titular mountain and everything goes absolutely apeshit. Ursula Andress covered in honey, cannibal orgies, forced heart eating, and one very confused pig. I re-watched that scene last night and it was even more insane and uncomfortable than I remembered. It’s the cannibal equivalent to CALIGULA.
While cannibal movies were mostly the domain of the Italians, other countries were eager to get in on the action. From France came the sublimely schlocky CANNIBAL TERROR, which I have already gone on about in more detail than the movie has probably ever received.
Spain’s exploitation maestro Jess Franco took a bit of the pie, as well. His most obvious offender, CANNIBALS (aka WHITE CANNIBAL QUEEN), somehow escaped the Video Nasties List, probably because everyone in the U.K. government thought it was CANNIBAL TERROR. Or they thought it was already on the list because they mistook it for Franco’s other kind-of-supernatural-but-not-really gut-munching tale, DEVIL HUNTER. It is primarily an action vehicle starring ZOMBIE vet Al Cliver as a tough guy hired to rescue a kidnapped actress from a mysterious jungle island that is coincidentally inhabited by cannibals. The twist is that the tribe doesn’t do the cannibalizing (they mostly just dance a lot). Instead, they offer up tasty people treats to their god, a man with the power of having weird bug eyes. That’s it, really. Not sure why they think so highly of him. There are a few very unconvincing liver extracting scenes that were probably the reason the movie was labeled a Nasty, but the real high point is watching the uncoordinated Cliver have a fight with an almost completely blind actor on a real cliff top. It could have so easily become an accidental snuff film. I’m sure Franco would have released it anyway.
Not all cannibal films have to be in the jungle. In Joe D’Amatto’s impressively named ANTHROPOPHAGUS, a group of rich tourists, including another ZOMBIE alum, Tisa Farrow, get stuck on an abandoned Greek island and discover that a horribly disfigured cannibal is stalking them. The tourist chomper is played by legendary Italian exploitation villain George Eastman, but since his character has been driven mad to the point of catatonia, we are deprived of the standard Eastman overacting magic. The movie has plenty of gore, including one super gruesome bit of depravity (more in concept than in execution), but honestly, it is kind of a slog to get through. None of the characters are remotely interesting, and even the death scenes are slow moving and drawn out (not in the torture porn way, more in the “okay, we got it” kind of way). It’s really only notable for being the movie that made Tisa Farrow conclude “You know, maybe the acting world only needs one Farrow.”
Eloy de la Iglesia’s THE CANNIBAL MAN is the real oddball in this line up because it is actually a fairly classy, introspective film about isolation, loneliness, and desperation. It is certainly the least gory. Clearly no one in the DPP office actually watched it, they just looked at the VHS cover and declared “Another one of those bloody cannibal movies!” The irony is that the main character, played by Vicente Parra, isn’t even a cannibal. He is just a guy who accidentally kills his girlfriend, and in trying to cover up the crime has to kill an ever increasing string of witnesses, snoops, and blackmailers. He decides to dispose of the bodies at the sausage making factory where he works. In that sense, he’s less of a Cannibal Man as he is a Cannibal Enabler. It’s quite a good movie, really, as long as you aren’t expecting a lot of intestine yanking gore.
It is kind of a stretch, but I’ll include BLOOD FEAST, a movie which I have already described in great detail, in the cannibal section. Faust Ramsey never consumed any of his delicious Egyptian feast made for—and from— lovely Floridians, but it was definitely his intent. If he hadn’t been so enormously incompetent and the police very slightly more competent (and ridiculously lucky), an entire upscale neighborhood would have unknowingly been turned into flesh eaters.
Lastly, and most enjoyable of all, Giovanni Lombardo Radice returns, along with John Saxon, in Antonio Margheriti’s CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE. The title might be (intentionally) reminiscent of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but that is about as close as it gets. Margheriti completely discards any sense of realism or atmosphere by setting the majority of the movie in Atlanta, GA. It has the strangest, most confusing connection with cannibalism of all the movies on the list. APOCALYPSE starts off as a Vietnam POW flick, transitions to a FIRST BLOOD style PTSD drama, then mutates into a zombie film. In a new twist, anyone bitten by a cannibal becomes a cannibal themselves. Because of a virus, maybe? Logic is clearly secondary to Radice’s wonderfully unhinged performance as he takes on both a weekend biker club and the cops. Saxon brings his trademark brooding intensity, compounded by the fact that he has absolutely no idea what is happening. The gore is impressive without being too disturbing. As to be expected Radice takes a lot of punishment (though not nearly as much as in CANNIBAL FEROX). I might need to revisit this one as a full post one day.