Cannibal Ferox (1981)

*. Believe it or not, there’s some dispute over who has the bragging rights to having launched the sub-genre of Italian cannibal horror flicks that ran for about a decade in the 1970s and early ’80s. There actually weren’t that many of these movies, but seeing as each was released under a bewildering variety of names it always seemed like there were a lot more than there really were. “Ferox,” by the way, is Latin for fierce or ferocious. The film was also released as Make Them Die Slowly, among other titles.
*. The two main claimants to having kicked things off are Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. I think most people who follow these things (I hesitate to call them scholars) give Lenzi the nod for having made The Man from the Deep River in 1972. It was, however, Ruggero’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) that really raised awareness of the so-called “cannibal boom.” In any event, by the time of Cannibal Ferox the conventions of the cannibal film were pretty much set and Lenzi wasn’t going to make any changes to them.
*. So, once more into the jungle, dear white people. This time we have two groups of doomed travellers. Mike and Joe are small-time drug pushers who leave the Big Apple when things get too hot, and end up hunting for emeralds among the tribes of the Amazon. If that seems a stretch, so is the idea that the subsequent murder of a junkie in Mike’s old apartment will set off an international manhunt to track him down to what was then the ends of the earth. Meanwhile, Mike and a badly wounded Joe are joined by a trio of explorers: ethnographer Gloria, her brother Rudy, and a superfluous pair of breasts named Pat. Apparently Gloria is looking to prove that cannibals don’t really exist. She doesn’t seem very well-informed, but then she doesn’t speak the language of the country she has traveled to either. Nothing good will come of this.
*. Nothing good does. Mike and Joe went full Kurtz on a tribe of natives but were overthrown and hunted down. It is as they were trying to escape that they met up with Gloria and her pals, who then find themselves in the same bloody boat. They are captured, tortured, and killed. Gloria alone survives to tell the tale.
*. There are numerous cutaways to local fauna, and the natives killing and eating animals. I don’t know what the point of these is, but they are a staple of the genre. Perhaps they’re just meant to show how “natural” cannibalism is. But since wild animals don’t know how to perform for the camera these sequences all seem pasted on. The piranha attack on Rudy is particularly silly.
*. This brings us to the moments of unintentional humour. After the piranha attack, Rudy escapes from the river and screams for the natives (!) to help him . . . while he has one (1) piranha attacked to his leg. And he is sitting on dry land. This is ridiculous. Even worse is the pig trap that Gloria falls into which looks like it could easily be climbed out of. There she is tormented by a baby pig that looks terrified and about as dangerous as a puppy. That the pig is later butchered by Mike only makes the silliness distasteful.
*. The usual political message gets short shrift, coming entirely in Gloria’s speech to Pat: “What a goddamn fool I was! Thinking I had to leave New York to find the reason behind cannibalism. Do you realize it’s us, the so-called civilized people who are responsible for their cruelty? Us and our superior society. . . . Violence breeds violence.” Fair enough, I guess, but then why does Gloria go back to NYC and write up a false report of what happened? Just to get her doctorate from the good liberal thinkers at New York University?
*. Basically the only point of these movies is to build up to a few scenes of shocking torture and death. They’re exploitation flicks, and Cannibal Ferox was marketed as “the most violent film ever made” and “banned in 31 countries.” So with that billing you have to deliver some video nastiness beyond watching natives kill and eat turtles and lizards.
*. For what it’s worth, the big scenes here involve cokehead Mike having his penis and then the top of his skull cut off, and Pat being hung up with hooks through her breasts. If that latter bit of depravity makes you think of A Man Called Horse (1970) you shouldn’t be surprised at the connection. Lenzi was inspired by that film and its influence was obvious in The Man from the Deep River.
*. Is it entertaining? Not really. Some of the dialogue is unintentionally funny in a crude way. The gore isn’t too bad, but it’s really only three very quick scenes. The plot is a total mess, wasting a lot of time following the police investigation back in New York. This has nothing at all to do with the main story, as Gloria will later be rescued by a pair of seedy monkey poachers who show up out of nowhere.
*. The cult cachet of these movies has gone up in recent years, leading to their being released on DVD with commentaries and other special features. Eli Roth even made an homage to them in 2013 (The Green Inferno). But really, they’re very poorly made and not all that interesting. If you’ve seen one you may not have seen them all but you’ve probably seen enough.

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