…And then there’s Cannibal Ferox. Released a year after Cannibal Holocaust, in 1981, Cannibal Ferox tries to succeed as a film by taking the most exploitative moments of Holocaust, and wrapping footage around them. Writer/director Umberto Lenzi did not seem to realize that what made Cannibal Holocaust a successful movie was not the animal slaughter or the graphic violence. Those are, arguably, essential parts of the package, but Holocaust is indeed a package deal. It succeeds because most aspects of the film are well done, including story, acting, cinematography, music, etc. Without all those things working together, viewers get, well, Cannibal Ferox.
Cannibal Ferox stars Lorraine De Selle as Gloria Davis, a doctoral student in anthropology from New York, whose thesis is that cannibalism in tribal cultures does not really exist. Rather, it was a lie fomented by Conquistadors and other Europeans to justify genocide in the New World. In order to prove her thesis, she travels to the Colombian Amazon with her brother, Rudy (Danilo Mattei), and friend, Pat (Zora Kerova). They’re hoping to locate an isolated tribe and do some anthropological stuff.
Not long after going off the beaten path into thick jungle, they begin to see disturbing signs that something is amiss, culminating in the discovery of bloody corpses. Then, a pair of unexpected New Yorkers like themselves pop out of the jungle, one suffering a grievous wound. They are Mike Logan and Joe Costolani (the recently-deceased Giovanni Lombardo Radice and Walter Lucchini). Those two fled New York after ripping off a heroin supplier, in a side plot that takes up far too much of this film’s time. They somehow ended up in the Amazon jungle chasing down emeralds.
It’s these two who set the nasty bits of the film in motion.
Like in Holocaust, the natives are not the monsters viewers might expect them to be. Mike and Joe claim that they escaped from the clutches of mad cannibals, but it becomes clear soon after meeting Gloria and company that Mike is an unhinged, coked-up maniac, who revels in torturing and killing natives. Like the Conquistadors, he treats the villagers as subhuman.
He’s also been preying on the weakest members of the tribe, as the hale and hearty members have been away on a fishing expedition. When those members return and see how Mike has been terrorizing their village, the movie kicks up a notch.
Now we get all the scenes of torture, mutilation, and random animal slaughter that viewers of Holocaust were left wanting more of. Wait, that’s not right. Speaking as a viewer of Holocaust, I left that picture totally satisfied that I had seen enough real animal slaughter in horror flicks. Holocaust does not leave one wanting more, yet Lenzi and his producers saw visions of dollar and lira signs, and exploited that to the full.
Exploitation is the right word. Lenzi and company took a look at Holocaust, and all the other cannibal flicks that had been released of late, stripped away any artistic pretensions, and gave us dead tortoises, dead monkeys, dead muskrat things, and not one, but two simulated radical penectomies. If the goal was to disgust, then mission accomplished. That seems to have been the only goal.
It is a satisfying journey watching the tribe get their revenge on Mike, though. No spoilers, there. That was always going to happen. What happens to others in the cast is no mere collateral damage, either. Lenzi knew that without a steady sprinkling of violence, a horror flick can drag.
As for the cast, De Selle and Kerova held their own. Meanwhile, Mattei and Radice were competing to see who could ham it up the most. There are also a number of scenes shot in New York featuring Robert Kerman as a cop investigating Mike’s dealings with the drug dealers he ripped off. Kerman was attempting to establish himself as a film actor after having spent the ’70s in pornography. As it happened, he never could shake that albatross from his neck, and that’s too bad. The films I’ve seen him in show he was very much capable of making a go at acting. His character didn’t have the prominence in this film that he did in Cannibal Holocaust, but he was still just fine. (A side note: In the American release, his voice was dubbed by Edward Mannix, who was doing his best De Niro. Mannix was a fixture in Italian flicks of the ’70s and ’80s. Fans never saw his face, but they certainly heard his voice. Gregory Snegoff dubbed Mattei in this film. Kids from the ’80s will know his voice, as he had regular voice work in cartoons and anime.)
Because Lenzi and company were taking advantage of the cannibal moment in Italian cinema for profit and not for art, it’s worth considering Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox as a double feature. Watching them back to back, if one can handle three hours of this material, one will see the differences in intent described above. Cannibal Ferox is not a bad movie, and is certainly not the worst film featured in this year’s Horrorshow, but in comparison to its more infamous cousin, it can leave one feeling used.