Three years before he made Cannibal Holocaust, filmmaker Ruggero Deodato gave viewers Ultimo mondo cannibale, released in the States as Jungle Holocaust. Many of the lessons Deodato learned making this film, he would later apply to his more notorious followup, including real animal slaughter. According to Joe Bob Briggs, so it must be true, the reason Deodato, and others, featured animal killings in their films was that it somehow increased box office in South and Southeast Asia. Who knows if that is true, as I imagine box office figures from 1977 Bangladesh or Kuala Lumpur are hard to come by. What I do know is that, if it is true, it undermines any artistic argument for including animal killings in a movie. Anyway…
Three folks are credited with the screenplay. They are Tito Carpi and Gianfranco Clerici, who both appear in earlier entries in this year’s Horrorshow, and Renzo Genta, making his first appearance. The movie they wrote follows a small group of oil prospectors who are looking to drill new wells in the remotest jungles of Mindanao, Philippines. An opening scroll lets viewers know that they will be encountering the supposed last tribe of cannibals on the planet.
A camp and airstrip has been hacked out of the jungle by an advance team. When the prospectors arrive, led by Robert Harper (Massimo Foschi), they find the airstrip already beginning to be overgrown, causing the small plane to suffer damage on landing. Further investigation leads to the discovery that the entire advance camp team has been slaughtered at the hands of cannibals. The damage to the plane forces the small group to shelter overnight, and it doesn’t take long for the group of four to be reduced to two (so long, Sheik Razak Shakur and Judy Rosly; we hardly knew you).
Now there is just Harper and his number two, Rolf (Ivan Rassimov), left alive. Their main priority is fleeing the jungle, but the jungle is a dense and deceptive place. One can get lost mere yards from salvation, and that’s what happens to Harper and Rolf. They lose sight of the airstrip and end up wandering all through the jungle, the situation deteriorating further as they have to evade the cannibals.
The two end up separated, and Harper is captured by the cannibals. He is taken to a large cave where the tribe resides, and subjected to a series of brutal rituals and punishments.
Up to this point in the film, there are some gross moments, and also fairly middling set pieces. It’s in this act in the caves (production moved from the Philippines to Malaysia for the cave scenes) that this movie becomes a terrifying experience for Harper and, by extension, the audience. Deodato surrounded Harper with dozens of yelling and chanting tribesmen of all ages and states of undress. The walls of the cave echo with their voices. Harper is tied and stripped of his clothing, a signal humiliation. Harper is lifted high into the air by rope and dropped repeatedly, in a ceremony that must have convinced him would be fatal.
Deodato didn’t take it easy on his star, either. Foschi is naked through this sequence, the harness holding him wrapped around his waist. It must have been only slightly less terrifying for Foschi than the character he played, as his balance appeared precarious.
Harper isn’t on the cannibals’ menu just yet, but he is stored in the tribe’s larder, where he is subjected to random abuse by the tribe, mostly from its children. They pelt him with rocks, deny him water, and even urinate on him. The only member of the tribe who takes pity on him is Pulan (Me Me Lai), a buxom female who, I shit you not, is fascinated by Harper because of his penis.
Harper escapes, kidnapping Pulan in the process, and it’s back to the jungles. The final act proceeds about as one would expect, but that doesn’t stop it from being just as unsettling as the act in the caves. Then there is climax, denouement, credits.
The final two-thirds of Jungle Holocaust is an exhausting watch. Beginning with Harper’s torture in the caves, there’s not much letup in the sense of dread a viewer will feel. Deodato, as much as any great master of horror, conveyed the utter hopelessness facing his protagonist to the viewer. For a film that doesn’t have a complicated plot at all, Deodato showed a grasp of storytelling that is amongst the best I’ve seen for this Horrorshow.
The heart of that is the strong imagery. Besides the animal killings, which are peripheral enough that they could be excised from the film completely, the images in this movie are not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. And it works. Jungle Holocaust is one of those horror movies where dread is just as important, if not more so, than fear. Because dread is such an awful emotion to feel, and devoid of the adrenaline wash that accompanies fear, horror movies that use dread as their device can be very tough to watch, but there is an argument that it is these films, the ones that make us stare into the void, that are most intrinsic to the word ‘horror.’