Monday, 16 July 2012

Cannibal Ferox (1981)

Country: ITALY

Make Them Die Slowly

If the Italian cycle of cannibal movies in the 1970’s and early 1980’s is the illegitimate bastard offspring of the Mondo film, then Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox is a stillborn foetus; an abortion that was shit out into the world by people who should have known better. The pride with which the promotional material boasted of its banning in thirty one countries (some DVD releases still assert it is banned in 31 countries!) is a key signifier of the feeble minds behind the project. Lenzi was no stranger to the debased faux-exoticism and casual racism of the cycle. He was there right at the start, helping to put in place a canvas of cruelty and sadism. However his first effort The Man from Deep River (aka Deep River Savages, 1972) was an intriguing, and a not altogether unsuccessful remake of A Man Called Horse (1970), and naturally had a far greater investment in themes of ‘going native’, the limitations of modern civilisation, and the rules and doctrines of a primitive and wild culture. In this example cannibalism is associated with villainy and evil, it is an antagonistic and oppositional force; a position which would be completely reversed by Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Cannibal Ferox. In these two films cannibalism is a reactionary behaviour, a response to external threats. Lenzi’s second cannibal film was Eaten Alive! (1980), despite its hysterical title, it emerges as one of the more placid entries in the sub-genre. The emphasis here is on adventure rather than flesh eating. Although Cannibal Ferox is vile and loathsome it does have a point-of-view, it does (believe it or not!) construct an argument, and (even more unbelievably) follows it through to a cynical and ironic conclusion. For this reason Cannibal Ferox is not the worthless celluloid offal many would have you believe.

If Lenzi’s intention was to out-exploit Cannibal Holocaust then he succeeded admirably, but the key difference between the two films is that Ruggero Deodato’s movie possesses several thematic strings to its bow. For me the crucial distinction is in Holocaust’s attitude to cinema as a means of not only representing reality, but manipulating it to personal ends. Deodato’s highly self-reflexive film is as much about cinema as it is about intestine chewing cannibals and animal cruelty. Lenzi’s treatment of similar material opts to emphasise cruelty and sadism over any wider thematic concern. Curiously enough Lenzi’s flick (which he wrote as well as directed) opens in a mode which will be familiar to those who have explored his numerous contributions to the Polizio/Euro-Crime cycle. This is even extended to the only partially successful musical contribution of Roberto Donati and Fiamme Maglione. But the subplot which takes place in New York City is an odd addition. It doesn’t seek to highlight the dichotomy between modern civilisation and the savagery of the jungle, though it does manage to highlight a different brand of savagery practised in a different kind of jungle. Instead what we are presented with is a rather routine and pedestrian police investigation into the whereabouts of Mike Logan (Giovanni Lombardo Radice). The problem though is that we the audience know exactly where the repugnant Logan is, and thus the subplot becomes utterly pointless. In effect a series of dull episodes that actually works to destroy the simmering intensity being created in the Amazonian jungles of Colombia. This is a major structural fault, and one that makes Cannibal Ferox a lot more boring than it should be. By and large when the action is situated in the ‘Green Inferno’, the film is a lot better.

Cannibal Ferox isn’t as moronic and stupid as film history would suggest. For a start the film quite literally has a thesis upon which it explores the themes inherent to anthropophagi, and perceived third world savagery. The character of Gloria Davis (played with bug-eyed blandness by Lorraine De Selle) is an anthropologist and student whose dissertation seeks to prove that cannibalism was a myth perpetrated by western colonialists in order to give justification to their imperialistic greed for land and capital. In effect the whole sub-culture of cannibalism is an exploitative and propagandist construct. Unfortunately Gloria’s hypothesis did not factor in the brutal sadism of the coked up foul mouthed hoodlum Mike Logan. Logan’s rapacious greed and base criminal personality has already seen him flee New York, but violence, bullying, and torture is a common currency anywhere, and Logan is not afraid to mete out cruelties in order to lay his grubby palms on prized jewels, or something of even greater value to him; narcotics. It becomes apparent quite quickly that the oppressed tribe’s people are cooking up a suitably vicious revenge, but in doing so, they invalidate the central tenet of Gloria’s thesis - that cannibalism doesn’t exist - while at the same time confirming another, that it is the forces of white western capitalism/criminality that forces the behaviour into existence. That Gloria ends the film accepting her doctorate despite this knowledge, and despite the death of her brother Rudy (savaged by Piranha’s and covered in poison darts) and friend Pat (impaled through the breasts and left to die) subsequently becomes a part of the conspiracy herself.

The manner in which this philosophy/argument is presented is pretty childish, with Gloria especially guilty of spouting clichés that screenwriter Lenzi should be ashamed of. But the film nevertheless articulates its position quite well. The real controversy of the picture (aside from the animal cruelty) is the character of Mike Logan. Radice working under his oft used pseudonym of John Morghen has been a harsh critic of both the film and its director. But yet he brings a demonic intensity to the role that suggests he might not have been having such a bad time after all! Logan is so nauseating and abhorrent that he quickly begins to unbalance the film, and Radice/Morghen is quite simply not a strong screen presence, and his histrionics soon become very tiresome. One common defence of the cannibal cycle is the exotic locations and beautiful landscapes, but in one of the films most successful decisions, Lenzi and his cinematographer Giovanni Bergamini take the opposite tack. The jungle is dense, dark, claustrophobic, damp and muddy, and perhaps most importantly of all deadly. There is not a single shot in the film which offers aesthetic relief to the eye, and in a strange way I find I must commend the filmmakers for this. Cannibal Ferox has a position in film history and culture which is entirely justified, but I doff my hat to any film which puts forward an argument and has the guts to follow it through to a downbeat and pessimistic conclusion.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. Wow. Certainly not the review I was expecting! A great piece of writing, Shaun, and certainly a balanced account of the film's (ahem) 'merits'.

    It's nice to see someone give Lenzi some measure of cinematic credit, even if 'Ferox' lacks the formal dynamics and malevolent intelligence of 'Cannibal Holocaust' (the ultimate merits of which, however, will forever be open to debate). Lenzi routinely suffers from offhand criticism in Eurocult circles, which I find unfair. Although I'm more inclined to enjoy his giallo and crime films, the cannibal films do have their moments (deplorable animal cruelty notwithstanding).

    As Landis and Clifford note in their 'Sleazoid Express' compendium, Deodato and Lenzi appeared to be pushing each other to ever-greater heights of insanity in their 'Green Inferno' films. It's interesting to see that the genre seemed to die off abruptly by 1982 - I wonder why? Exhaustion? Censorship? Audience disinterest?

  2. Hi there Johnny :-) Many thanks for the kind words. I've just realised that's two cannibal films in a row I've reviewed now, so I might take a break from flesh eating for a while! That CANNIBAL FEROX has merits may come as a surprise to some...but it does! I think the position most scholars take on this picture is a moral one, and what you end up with is a review that tells you more about the person writing it, than any illumination about the film itself. The animal cruelty isn't an issue for me, it happened, its part of the film...get over it I say! - I'm not sure how anyone can slot a film into the DVD player called CANNIBAL FEROX and not expect to be repulsed and offended. But people need to justify their decision to watch it, and they often do this by waffling on about the morality of the filmmakers.

    I too prefer Lenzi's giallo and crime films, but there are aspects of FEROX which draw heavily upon his crime movies. I think perhaps the cannibal cycle had reached an apex of scandal and controversy with HOLOCAUST and FEROX, and while cannibal movies were made post 1982, they just didn't get anywhere near the level of exposure. Both those films were very lucky to emerge in the formative years of video rental, one cannot underestimate the importance of the new distribution channels opened up by this new technology. But I think the bottom line is always economics, and cycles such as this almost always fade because of audience disinterest.

  3. It's kinda nice to see someone take Lenzi (somewhat) seriously. Given that he made Nightmare City around the same time, I find it hard to believe that anyone would take him seriously ever, in any time, ever.

    That being said, Nightmare is still one of my all time favorites. I've never seen FEROX... it's been on my "to watch" list for a while now. It's just not often that I find myself in the cannibal mood.

  4. Watching these Cannibal films back to back can prove to be a bit too much, I did it a while back with Cannibal Holocaust and Zombie Holocaust...haven't revisited this sub-genre in a while because it can be a bit grueling. This one sounds intriguing though, the philosophical angle is alluring to me. If I remember correctly, Cannibal Holocaust had a bit of social commentary in it as well, the documentary filmmakers practically provoked their own deaths, in this way being a bit more ruthless than the cannibals themselves.

  5. Well said on all counts sir. You've managed to say something articulate and interesting about a film that typically provokes neither. Your comments on the morality of reviewers are particularly astute. Thanks!

  6. @ Kev D - I think NIGHTMARE CITY is woeful as well, but the film has its supporters. As do most of Lenzi's films. Though I'd be surprised to meet anyone who thinks GHOSTHOUSE is any good! I'm rarely in the Cannibal mood myself, but those who voted in last months film review poll consigned me to this.

    @ Franco - I think CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is gruelling full stop. And to be honest once you've seen that one, you don't really need to see any of the others. FEROX does have a philosophical/social point of view, but it's not sophistcatedly conveyed. But the fact that it has a point-of-view and an argument should be commended. How many pictures say nothing? This one does at least have a message.

    @ The Goodkind - Many thanks to you! Glad you enjoyed the review. I generally hate reading reviews about Cannibal films (they are almost as cliched as the films themselves) and I tried my very best to avoid the obvious when discussing this one.

  7. Brilliant review, Shaun, and definitely not what I expected! Now I can write mine; or rewrite the abridged one in Celluloid Sins 2, lol. Personally, I've felt the political angle was merely a crutch for the violence to balance itself on. Any pandering to westernization or colonialism is pretty much consumed by sights such as intestine scarfing, extreme extremity trauma and close ups of grub worms being energetically chewed and swallowed among other things.

    I have mucho respect for Lenzi, although sometimes I think he gets a tad bit carried away with his child-like wonder where the violence is concerned; such as the seriousness evoked from headlines such as his staunch intentions to relay the Seveso Incident of '76 in his own NIGHTMARE CITY, which is mostly negated. He's successful to a degree, but again, his insistence on photographic lovemaking when mutilated, maimed and mauled human bodies are onscreen takes away from whatever message he wanted to get across.

    I haven't watched it in some time, but I think my appreciation for FEROX is likely more to do with nostalgia than anything else. If you can find it, check out Lenzi's THE GREAT ATTACK aka BATTLE FORCE from '78. He's worked with all star casts before, but this one it's on an Irwin Allen scale of top stars.


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