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Cannibal Ferox (1981) Blu Ray (Shameless Films)

A gruesome journey into the Amazon rainforest

Umberto Lenzi’s cannibal exploitation horror begins in New York City as two mobsters question a junkie (played by an uncredited Dominic Raacke) as to the whereabouts of his friend Mike Logan (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), who has made off with $100,000 of their money. When he pleads that he doesn’t know where the latter has disappeared to, he is shot down in cold blood for his troubles.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Amazon basin, a trio of students - Gloria (Lorraine De Selle), her brother Rudy (Danilo Mattei) and their slutty best friend Pat (Zora Kerova) - head into the jungle in order to back up a University thesis seeking to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist. They are looking for a village named Marioca, a place inhabited by a primitive tribe who are rumoured to be into devouring human flesh.

On their gruelling journey through the Green Inferno, they come across two gruesomely mutilated corpses of Native Americans. Shortly afterwards, they bump into two fellow New Yorkers, one of whom (Joe, played by Walter Lucchini) is severely injured. The other is Mike Logan himself. Mike tells them that they went on an emerald-panning expedition at Marioca with a third man whom he refers to as “The Portuguese”. However, the natives turned on them, placing the duo in a bamboo cage and gruesomely killing The Portuguese in front of their eyes. While they successfully made their escape, Joe was severely injured in the process. Sure enough, when the students finally reach the village with Mike and Joe in tow, they see an unrecognisably mutilated corpse tied to a wooden structure.

Later on, however, while Joe is succumbing to his injuries, he admits to the students that Mike had altered many details of their story. The so-called “The Portuguese” was, in fact, a Native American who had assured them that an incredible wealth in emeralds could be found at their village. However, when their attempts at panning the nearby river proved unsuccessful, Mike, while strung out on cocaine, decided to torture him to death as well as attacking some of the other villagers.

Now, the natives fear and hate every white person around, setting the scene for a catalogue of gruesome acts of retribution.

Watch a trailer:

Notorious cannibal horror

As I’ve mentioned in a couple of my other reviews, there was a tabloid-fuelled moral panic in the UK during the early 1980s around so-called “video nasties”. There were a considerable number of films released on VHS which, owing to the fact that video releases weren’t yet covered by the nation’s censorship board (the BBFC), contained material which would otherwise have been prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. In more recent years, many of these films have been successfully rereleased on DVD and Blu Ray formats uncut, with 18 (and sometimes even 15) certificates. Nowadays, most of the supposedly “shocking” scenes no longer have the same impact, partially because even such respectable and mainstream films as the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring The Revenant (2015) contain moments of comparable extremity, and partially because high-definition home viewing formats tend to render the artificiality of their old-fashioned effects laughably obvious.

However, there are a couple of subgenres which were represented on the Video Nasties List and remain controversial to this day: the Nazi Exploitation Flick and the Cannibal Film. Ironically, the latter type of film tends to cause concern nowadays not over the (simulated) scenes of human flesh-munching and other sundry mutilations, but over the fact that some of them feature genuine footage of animals being killed.

Cannibal Ferox is one of the most notorious of the lot and this Shameless release, while retaining all of the faked human mutilations (flesh-eating, eye-gouging, disembowelment, penis-chopping, the top of a man’s head being sliced off, a woman being hung up with hooks through her breasts and so on), omits a lot of the animal cruelty at the BBFC’s behest. Rather than trimming the scenes outright, however, Shameless opted to substitute the offending shots with milder ones, thus retaining the overlapping soundtrack and dialogue. You should also be aware that some of the animal butchery remains intact here, including a turtle dismemberment which will make even the most hardened of carnivores wince. I’m not really a big fan of the idea of animals being killed for the sake of entertaining an audience, although this film at least has the partial excuse that such brutalities are part and parcel of the remorselessness of jungle life.

Make The Film Move Slowly

Some of the simulated gore effects are amongst the most nauseatingly gruesome and convincing of this particular time period in cinema. However, there isn’t much reason to watch Cannibal Ferox apart from these fleeting moments. The film’s alternative title is Make Them Die Slowly, a moniker which is appropriate for the wrong reasons. It is indeed a plodding affair which talks the viewer to death via endless reams of expository dialogue. It is padded out with a lot of travel through the jungle via boat, jeep and foot, along with some fairly superfluous New York-based police procedural business. Director Umberto Lenzi films it all in a routine manner, via entirely perfunctory camera setups in the jungle sections, along with some handheld stuff in the Manhattan sequences which was doubtless captured on the sly in order to save money. There’s also a bit of social commentary about how the people of the Western world are “the real cannibals” - but it frankly feels like a rather half-assed gesture towards giving the film some pretence of depth.

Cannibal Ferox

In common with some other Italian exploitation films from this period, attitudes towards women are stuck back in the dark ages: even the supposedly upstanding “friend zone nice guy” type Rudy refers to Pat via the charming euphemism “twat” and slaps her around when she panics. That’s long before the infamous scene where she gets hung up by her breasts as punishment for her own promiscuity.

The imaginative score (by the duo of Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione, the latter of whom also has a supporting role here) adds some interest, especially a haunting operatic synth-rock piece which plays over some of the jungle scenes. However, the cop show-style opening theme (playing over Dominic Raacke walking through the streets of Manhattan) is too jaunty and upbeat for such a gruelling endeavour. That sums up the major problem with this film: there’s so little attention paid to building an overall atmosphere of dread that it made me wish it would simply hurry up and get to the gory bits rather than making me cower in anticipation.

As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that the New York police lieutenant investigating Mike’s disappearance is played by an American actor named Robert Kerman, who made his living mainly from porn films under the pseudonym of Richard Bolla. However, he also popped up (if you’ll excuse the Freudian slip) in a couple of earlier cannibal flicks: Lenzi’s own Eaten Alive! and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (both 1980).

As much as I enjoy a lot of Italian genre fare, this one’s strictly for those who value gore quotient over and above anything else.

Runtime: 93 mins

Dir: Umberto Lenzi

Script: Umberto Lenzi

Starring: Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Lorraine De Selle, Danilo Mattei, Zora Kerova, Walter Lucchini, Fiamma Maglione, Robert Kerman, Dominic Raacke

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

Shameless’s 2K restoration reinstates the original colour grading and grain from the 16 mm format and the result looks authentically sickly and grungy, while still offering plenty of eye-filling detail. Sound quality is a mixed bag but this can largely be attributed to the cheap original audio recording and usual Italian post-production dubbing. During the film’s last scene (which takes place in New York with the obligatory sole survivor of the carnage), you can hear the white noise of poorly-recorded street traffic intruding in the background. On the other hand, the music comes out very well indeed, with the different layers of sound creating an immersive experience.

Extras

A Taste of the Jungle

This Shameless-exclusive interview with Umberto Lenzi is one of the last ones with the cult Italian director before his passing away in 2017. He’s quite a character here - animated, direct, frankly quite arrogant and curmudgeonly but never dull. He reveals that the film was shot around Leticia, an area shared between Brazil, Colombia and Peru where the borders are marked with flags standing in the jungle. Since it was a notorious crossroads for the drugs industry at that time, the crew witnessed some unpleasant situations. This included the key grip hearing a shopkeeper get shot while he was out looking for souvenirs.

He also mentions that the producers couldn’t afford to pay him his full fee for directing the film, so they gave him a back-end deal of 8% international sales. However, he discovered that they weren’t giving him his share of American receipts despite the fact that one of his friends, while visiting New York, saw 300-400 people queueing to see it (under the title Make Them Die Slowly) at one cinema on 42nd Street. When he brought it up with them, they denied that they had sold the American rights but ultimately agreed to pay him anyway.

Amongst the other bits of trivia here: Zora Kerova’s breast-hanging effect was achieved by having her sit on a cleverly-concealed bicycle seat with prosthetic fake hooks protruding from her breasts. Lenzi didn’t realise that Robert Kerman was a (quite well-known) porn star until it was mentioned in reviews. Since he knew nothing of the indigenous peoples’ native languages, most of his instructions to them consisted of asking them to say the word “Yacaraba” in a happy, sad or angry tone depending on the given scene.

Restoration Process for Cannibal Ferox

A comparison between the 2K restored 16 mm print with and without the colour grading.

Lenzi Photo Gallery

Some behind-the-scenes photographs from the film’s shoot.

Hell in the Jungle

Giovanni Lombardo Radice gives a wonderfully honest interview here. As this featurette’s title suggests, he didn’t exactly enjoy his experience of working on this film. Indeed, he describes it as being the only one which he has regretted doing. He describes the shooting location, Leticia, as “the asshole of the world” - an incredibly wealthy but equally violent place as a result of it being a location where cocaine was grown. The wildlife was a considerable danger, be they a tiny insect which can burrow through skin and deform bones, or a variety of red dolphin which is known to attack human beings. Lenzi was unpleasant and shouted constantly at cast and crew. The jungle natives were extremely poor and children often stared at the cast while they were eating their sandwiches.

Radice naively thought that the animal killings featured in the script would be handled via special effects. When he was called upon to kill a pig with a knife, he refused to do so, resulting in the special effects artist Gino De Rossi carrying out the act instead. Radice got his revenge on Gino when he was asked to film a linking shot of him stabbing into a bowl filled with blood. While the latter was holding the bowl, Radice thrust the knife so hard that it broke it and injured him.

The effect sequences involving his character being castrated and having his brains eaten were also difficult for him. For the former scene, he was tied to a tree which was inhabited by ants. The fake penis was glued onto his real one and was a pain to remove afterwards. The brain-munching scene took around 30-40 takes since the natives didn’t like the taste of the fake brain matter and visibly looked disgusted eating it on camera.

The final extra here is a rather fitting commemorative sick bag.

Overall:

Let’s be honest here; Cannibal Ferox is a pretty weak excuse for a film and is only worthy of any note for its inordinate level of gore. The partially-censored genuine animal butchery also risks upsetting two diametrically-opposed camps: those who are staunchly anti-censorship will feel that this is a compromised release, whereas those who are against the very idea of animals being hurt for entertainment will dislike the fact that a few scenes still escaped the chop (although they probably don’t like the fact that the film was ever made in the first place). However, the amount of affection put into the overall package makes it well worth a look for fans of Italian exploitation cinema who don’t feel too strongly about this issue.

Movie: ☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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