by Steve Habrat
Among the many subgenres that make up the exploitation catalogue of the mid-1970s and ‘80s, the most ferocious and merciless is undoubtedly the cannibal films that first emerged in 1972. Started by Italian splatter director Umberto Lenzi with his film il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (The Man from Deep River), the jungle cannibal movement hit a barf bag high with director Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 bloodbath Cannibal Holocaust, easily the most stomach churning of the bunch with its traumatizing sequences of violence, sex, and animal cruelty, all laid out in plain view to make you recoil in disgust. From the dingy grindhouses on 42nd Street to the uproar it caused in Milan, Cannibal Holocaust was a major hit with audiences, prompting Lenzi—the director who started it all—to respond in 1981 with Cannibal Ferox, an equally repulsive but tremendously cheesy venture into the jungles of the Amazon. Released into American grindhouses and drive-ins under the menacing title Make Them Die Slowly, Cannibal Ferox will certainly have audience members with weak tummies burping back their lunch over the extreme special effects, but like most Italian exploitation films of the time, the film is brimming with goofy dubbing, mild overacting, eye-rolling dialogue, and a trumpeting score that only adds chills when it shifts over to a moaning electric guitar. It’s a gross out that you just can’t stop chuckling at.
Cannibal Ferox begins on the mean streets of New York City, with a drug addict looking for a heroine dealer named Mike Logan (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Upon arriving at Mike’s apartment, the buyer bumps into two mobsters who demand to know where Mike is. As it turns out, Mike owes the mobsters $100,000 dollars, but has apparently high-tailed it out of town to avoid paying up. Meanwhile, anthropologist Gloria (played by Lorraine De Selle), her brother, Rudy (played by Danilo Mattei), and their free-spirited friend, Pat (played by Zora Kerova), arrive in the Amazon jungles to prove Gloria’s theory that cannibalism is a hoax. Shortly into their adventure, the trio bumps into Mike and his severely wounded partner, Joe (played by Walter Lucchini). Mike and Joe frantically explain that they were attacked by a cannibalistic tribe and that a third member of their party had gruesomely perished in a nearby village. The group eventually stumbles upon the village where the third member of Mike and Joe’s group met a grisly end, but the village now seems largely deserted, with only the elderly remaining. The group decides that they will camp out in the village until they can get help for Joe, but after Mike and Pat attack and kill a young native girl, the younger villagers return to exact horrific revenge.
When Cannibal Ferox first arrived in America, the posters and VHS jackets proudly declared that it was banned in 31 countries due to the extreme violence within the film—something that was sure to stir up some hype and lure viewers into the dilapidated theaters that dared to show it. Furthermore, swapping the title Cannibal Ferox for the more lurid Make Them Die Slowly also added another layer of icky intrigue. While time hasn’t exactly been kind to some of the ultra-violent Italian exploitation films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the special effects of Cannibal Ferox haven’t softened up in the slightest. For those with the an iron stomach, the film treats to you to two castrations, a gouged-out eyeball, one character having hooks shoved through her breasts and then strung up to bleed to death, a group of natives slicing into the chest of one fallen character and chowing down on his innards, and another character having the top of his head sliced off with a machete and the villagers lining up to grab at handful of his brains like they were picking from a bucket of popcorn. For fans of the cannibal genre, it delivers, but when held up to the unflinching “found footage” approach that Deodato took to Cannibal Holocaust, it pales in comparison. Yet Cannibal Ferox gets an extra bump due to the real animal slayings that are guaranteed to upset the uninitiated. Determined to match Cannibal Holocaust every step of the way, Lenzi goes berserk with the animal cruelty to the point of disturbing even the most hardened of exploitation viewers.
And then we have the performances, led by genre regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead), billed here under the name John Morghen. Radice brings some of the same screw-loose intensity that he brought to Cannibal Apocalypse. Here he is a greedy, coked-up madman who seduces Pat with powder, and gets his jollies from tormenting the natives. He’s a miserable piece of humanity meant to represent the savagery that brews and festers in bowels of civilized society. Radice is top-notch, even when his villainous side threatens to go over-the-top, but his downfall, which was out of his hands completely, comes from the atrocious dubbing and dialogue added in postproduction. As Joe, Mike’s wounded partner, Lucchini is surprisingly reserved when propped up next to the insane drug dealer. His compassionate side bleeds through when he witnesses Mike’s true savagery emerge in the most appalling way imaginable, making him a sympathetic character consumed by Mike’s personal demons. Kerova’s Pat is largely asked to run around with her shirt open and add a bit of sex appeal to this mud and blood show. Yet there is something fascinating about watching her get sucked in momentarily to Mike’s uncontrollable rage, and the results of her flirtation with the dark side have grave consequences. Mattei is slightly stiff as Rudy, the good guy who tries desperately to make a break for it and save his friends. De Selle overacts her role as Gloria, the anthropologist determined to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist. Wait for her hilarious plea with a native savior gruesomely impaled on a wicked-looking jungle trap.
Like most grindhouse knock-offs made to capitalize on another film’s popularity, there are aspects of Cannibal Ferox that are glaringly cheap or unintentionally hilarious. On the whole, Cannibal Ferox lacks the realistic polish of Cannibal Holocaust, seemingly made in a hurry so that Lenzi could claim the cannibal movie throne from Deodato. The score from Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione is nice and sleazy, opening with a smile-inducing siege of funky trumpets and slapping urban jazz as Lenzi’s camera spirals around the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s definitely something you wouldn’t expect to hear in a film like this, and it certainly never matches the eerily calm and dreamy synthesizers that the late Riz Ortolani used to set the scenic stage for Cannibal Holocaust. Things fare a bit better in the score department when we step off the beaten path and venture deep into the jungle. It is here that we get static guitars that effective make your arm hair stand on end. And then there is the dubbing and dialogue, both of which keep earning their share of unintentional laughs over the ninety-minute runtime. Overall, while it provides plenty of sleazy thrills for horror and exploitation fanatics, and it thoughtfully reflects on how the depraved actions of one can have devastating penalties on so many others, Cannibal Ferox spends way too much time mimicking the far better Cannibal Holocaust. You’re left wishing that Lenzi, the godfather of the jungle cannibal movies, had taken a few artistic risks to further the genre along.
Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly) is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
At the height of the Italian zombie and jungle cannibal craze, exploitation director Antonio Margheriti (yes, you heard his name in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) came up with the idea to mix the two splatter subgenres together, add a dash of Apocalypse Now and The Warriors, and replace real jungles for concrete ones. The result of this strange brew is Cannibal Apocalypse, a hit-or-miss grindhouse zombie extravaganza that features some impressive gore for a low budget Italian exploitation effort, some mildly entertaining action sequences, gratuitous nudity, and, yes, even a bit of senseless pedophilia. Cannibal Apocalypse could also have been a fairly solid exploration of the traumas of war and early on it seems like it is threatening to get a bit psychological, but after the first twenty minutes or so, the film abandons any sign of something substantial. In its place is the same old clichés that we’ve seen before set to the same synthesizer scores that played over countless other Italian zombie and jungle cannibal movies before it. The only difference is there is a hilarious saxophone playing over those pulsing synths. Make no mistake; this is an exercise in sleazy short-term thrills that goes great with a few Pabst Blue Ribbons. There is no long-term meditation and reflection over a glass of Chardonnay.
Cannibal Apocalypse begins with a rip-roaring flashback to the Vietnam War, with Norman Hooper (played by John Saxon) and a group of commandos storming an enemy bunker where two other commandos, Charlie Bukowski (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Tom Thompson (played by Tony King), are being held prisoner. Much to Noman’s horror, his two buddies have developed an insatiable hunger for human flesh and are in the process of devouring the charred body of a Vietnamese woman. While trying to help his friends, Tom suddenly lunges at Norman’s arm and he tears a big chunk right out of it. Several years later, Norman appears to be living a normal, happy life in an Atlanta suburb with his wife, Jane (played by Elizabeth Turner). Despite the happy face he puts on, Norman is still haunted by the horrors that he witnessed during the war and he even finds himself being seduced by the teenage girl next door. To make things worse, he finds himself craving human flesh. One day, Norman gets a call from Charlie, who has been recovering in a local mental hospital, about grabbing a drink and catching up. At first Norman turns down Charlie’s offer to get together, but after Charlie goes berserk in a local movie theater and rips open a girls throat, Norman is forced to reconnect with his friend and convince him to give himself over to the authorities. While in custody, Charlie meets up Tom, who is also still craving human flesh. As Charlie and Tommy bite more and more people, the cannibalistic cravings begin to spread and madness begins spilling into the streets.
The opening twenty minutes of Cannibal Apocalypse are fairly impressive and well spoken, as the camera is trained on the seriously disturbed Norman and the traumas that haunt him. He suffers from terrible nightmares and he squirms every single time he sees a piece of raw meat sitting in his refrigerator. Things really boil over when the young neighbor girl seduces Norman and he proceeds to take a chunk out of her hip. It is creepy in more ways than one and frankly unnecessary. From here on out, the filmmakers are more interested in showing bare breasts and giving the audience extreme close-ups of teeth tearing into chunks of meat rather than exploring the mental slip that these characters are experiencing. The gore just continues to escalate and you should know that the effects are pretty jaw dropping for a cheap Italian cannibal flick. One scene finds a doctor having his tongue ripped out by an infected nurse after he mistakes her attacks for seduction. Just to make things even more disgusting, the nurse then spits the very realistic tongue onto the floor and proceeds to bash the doctor’s head open. In another standout moment, our group of cannibals huddle around one victim’s leg and then saw it open with an electric saw, all while the camera zooms in on the mutilated meat. Yet the king daddy of gore shots comes when one character has a hole blown through their stomach with a shotgun. Just to make sure we understand that there was a hole blown through the character’s stomach, Margheriti cuts to it multiple times and even shows an extreme close up of it.
While the artier spurts may be the true stars, Cannibal Apocalypse contains some surprisingly passable performances from the actors. Saxon is convincing enough as the mentally unstable Norman. It rumored that Saxon really hated making the movie and that he has refused to see it. You’d never guess he was miserable though, as Margheriti never catches him sleepwalking through a scene. Then we have Radice, who you may remember from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. For those who don’t remember him, he is the guy who gets the drill right to the temple. Radice is in full crazy throughout much of Cannibal Apocalypse and he seems to be relishing every second he is in the film. If you think Radice is gonzo, wait until you get a load of King’s gnashing and thrashing Tom, who chomps, rants, and raves all while blood drips from his gums. He is so outrageous that he surpasses bad and just dives right into hilarity. Turner meanwhile is forgettable as Norman’s suspicious wife, who doesn’t even seem moved when he tells her he was fooling around with the girl next door. May Heatherly is also on board as Helen, a poor nurse who gets bitten and turns into a robotic cannibal with a craving for human tongues. She joins the pack of flash eaters near the end of the film as they dash around in the sewers, but she is mostly there to get gunned down by gas masked police officers.
Heavily inspired by Fulci’s Zombie and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Apocalypse never reaches the extreme highs of either film it is attempting to emulate and it certainly never taps into the satire that Romero did in 1978. Margheriti does manage to deliver a few action sequences that will hold your attention, especially the climactic chase through the hazy and rat infested Atlanta sewers. There is also an unintentionally hilarious brawl with a group of bikers in a seedy alleyway that looks like something ripped right out of The Warriors. The unintentional laughs will continue when you hear the wildly inappropriate disco score that accompanies most of the carnage. Overall, Cannibal Apocalypse is far from scary and it squanders every single opportunity to explore the impact that war has on our troops, but as far as inexpensive exploitation films go, it does have some stomach churning violence. This is only for those people who have worn out their copies of Zombie and Dawn of the Dead and are craving a lesser-known cannibal flick.
Cannibal Apocalypse is available on DVD.