BY ROCCO THOMPSON
Ah, the Cannibal film. Was there ever a subgenre more reviled, more hated, more irredeemable? Sure, “Torture Porn” is icky, but is easily salvaged when viewed as a cultural reaction to 9/11. “Rape-Revenge” flicks are crass, but become empowering with just a little mental maneuvering. But the Cannibal genre—synonymous with un-simulated animal cruelty, graphic flesh-eating, and racial politics to make even the most dyed-in-the-wool alt-righter flinch—is the Everest of offensive cinema.
In fact, the fandom surrounding Italian Cannibal films of the 1980s is so clandestine that the average movie buff is unlikely to have seen CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, let alone even heard of it. Ask non-genre obsessives if they’re familiar with EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS and you’ll be met with a range of expressions—from stunned silence to wide-eyed disbelief—all of which are likely to be followed by an appalled gasp if you’ve admitted to personally enjoying such ethically dubious cinematic delights.
So, why are horror fans so enthralled by…nay enamored with, this infected wart on the underbelly of cinema? If you ask Cannibal horror obsessive Eli Roth (whose love letter to the genre, THE GREEN INFERNO was met with critical disdain in 2013) it’s because these movies feel dangerous in a way others don’t: “I miss a type of film-making where you watch it and think, ‘The people who made this were completely insane.’”
There exists a grand tradition of great directors striking out into the wilderness to capture moments of profound truth through physical and mental exertion. From John Huston’s THE AFRICAN QUEEN to Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO and Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW, these artists pit their production teams against great odds with the almost insurmountable challenges of location shooting. From the Sahara Desert to the darkest reaches of South America, these untamed wilds can suffuse filmmaking with something of the cruelty and indifference of mother nature. Though the profundity of naked, human experience holds little weight in the Cannibal genre, those films tap into the same feral spirit.
The second reason to feast upon Cannibal cinema is because of the craftsmanship on display. These films aren’t mere audience-baiting hack jobs, but competently made visual stunners shot by some of the finest journeymen in the Italian film industry. Ruggero Deodato studied under the immortal Roberto Rossellini before crafting the found-footage marvel CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and Umberto Lenzi (a graduate of Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the oldest film school in Western Europe) brought his knowledge of sumptuous widescreen cinematography to MAN FROM DEEP RIVER. Lenzi especially was a lover of old-school American filmmaking (listing Frank Capra, Michael Curtiz, and John Ford among his influences) and an admirer of the Italian neo-realism of De Sica and Visconti.
Newly released from Severin Films, Lenzi’s second cannibal feature, EATEN ALIVE! wholly deserves the appreciation of both fans and neophytes. This 1980 slice of wretch-inducing nastiness is a wildly entertaining tour of perversion that must be seen to be believed.
The plot concerns Sheila (Janet Agren) who goes searching for her sister, Diana (Paola Senatore) who has disappeared into the Sri Lankan wilderness. She enlists the assistance of professional braggart-slash-mercenary Mark (Robert Kerman) and the two set off to discover Diana’s whereabouts. They find her at “Purification Village”, the makeshift community of Jonas (Ivan Rassimov), a maniacal cult leader, and his horde of followers. Diana informs them that she’s not buying what Jonas is selling, but has been playing along as the village provides protection from the bloodthirsty cannibals lurking in the surrounding jungle. Sheila and Mark do their best to assimilate into the community while they plan an exit strategy with the help of a native widow named Mowara (Me Me Lai).
The film’s most obvious inspiration is the Jonestown Massacre, which occurred a mere two years prior in Guyana. Lenzi’s wanted to make something miles away from what he’d done with MAN FROM DEEP RIVER or Deodato’s then recent efforts. Using the salacious, headline-grabbing mass suicide of Reverend Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple as the backdrop for a Cannibal film was a move of both brazen indecency and inspired salesmanship. By barely hiding the story’s influence (“Jonas” and “Jones” are snigger-inducingly close) and juicing up the narrative with flesh-eating tribesman and plenty of tits n’ ass, Lenzi produced a product that audiences clamored to gorge themselves on.
But mere hucksterism this wasn’t, as EATEN ALIVE! is just as crazy and offensive as it sounds. More of an action/adventure film than your typical Mondo-style Cannibal offering, EATEN ALIVE! wastes no time in getting to the good stuff, with opening shots of tourists meeting their untimely ends at the hands of blow dart puffing tribesmen and an arm-wrestling scene in which the opponents’ fleshy forearms inch inexorably towards sharp knives affixed to the table. By the time the famished man-eaters have had their way with the unfortunate leads, the gore-hungry viewer is fully sated.
Swedish actress Janet Agren is a likeable heroine and sometime pornographic actor Robert Kerman (who Lenzi decried as “awkward, ugly” and lacking “a beautiful body”) commands attention much more easily than most of the dull, hulking leads in this genre. His notable charisma shines through despite the typically lousy dubbing. As Jonas, perpetual villain Ivan Rassimov does the expected shifty-eyed nutbag routine and Me Me Lai is underused, though captivating as usual, as the ill-fated and always naked Mowara.
What truly sets EATEN ALIVE! apart from other Cannibal films is its off-the-wall, almost absurd tone. When we first encounter Jonas, the Bach-loving, red-robed, cult leader is overseeing the semi-incestuous gangbang of Mowara atop her dead husband’s funeral pyre. Mark kicks, chops, and hip throws his way through cultists and cannibals like a poor, poor-man’s Charles Bronson, and decks Sheila in the face not once, not twice, but three times—each strike eliciting an inappropriate snort from this reviewer. Speaking of Sheila, she spends much of the runtime in the buff, and is eventually painted gold and violated by a snake venom slathered dildo. It’s all so broad and objectively bizarre that EATEN ALIVE! entirely skirts the soul-killing tone of CANNIBAL FEROX or HOLOCAUST, largely to its benefit.
That’s not to say, however that the film lacks its unpleasant moments. There’s indefensible animal cruelty aplenty (much of it is recycled from MAN FROM DEEP RIVER) and the violence enacted against the female cast feels a tad too sexualized, even for this type of film. Some viewers may be disappointed by the cannibal content taking a back seat to the cult storyline, but both elements are intriguing and blend well.
The disc comes housed in a black case with reversible cover art and a, dare I say, almost classy looking slipcover featuring a topless Me Me Lai against a warm, gradient background. Eye-catching, to say the least! Severin says the film is “remastered in HD for the first time ever,” but there’s no indication where the elements came from, and though much of the image is clear and vivid, there’s still noticeable damage present. However, this is hardly a deal breaker: visual wear and tear has always been a staple of the grindhouse experience and only adds to EATEN ALIVE!’s rough-hewn quality.
Special features are light, but what’s present is worth treasuring. The first is WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, a brand new (though brief) interview with Umberto Lenzi, conducted a mere six months before his passing. ME ME LAI BITES BACK is a feature-length documentary about the “Queen of Cannibal Moves.” It’s a real treat to hear the elegant Burmese-British actress dish about her experiences on-set, her time as a police woman during the UK’s video nasties era, and her reticence toward revisiting her film career late in life. THE SECT OF PURIFICATION gives some welcome insight into the film’s production process with Antonello Geleng, and archival interviews with Robert Kerman and the late Ivan Rassimov are a ported over from an older release, though they’re a welcome addition. Last, but not least is a 2013 Q&A from the Festival of Fantastic Films, UK, moderated by Calum Waddell, the man responsible for reconnecting Me Me Lai with her adoring public. Unfortunately, there’s no commentary to speak of. Though Lenzi recently passed and Lai has no love for the film, it still would have been nice if Severin had sought out scholars/fans for a commentary, much like they did on the THE VAULT OF AMICUS’ trailer reel a couple of months ago. Finally, the disc comes with a remastered CD of the film’s score.
Though the Italian Cannibal genre is something of a dirty secret amongst horror fans, thank goodness there are companies like Severin doing their damnedest to remind us why these films are worth preserving. When Umberto Lenzi cut his teeth shooting war dramas in the Sahara in the 1960s, he learned just what it takes to contend with the elements in a less-than-friendly climate. Though most directors would be satisfied with one feature made under such brutal circumstances, Lenzi returned to nature’s unforgiving bosom time and again, a true blessing for fans of genre cinema. Though CANNIBAL FEROX is often considered the high-water mark for Lenzi’s time in Horror, EATEN ALIVE! is arguably a far more interesting and entertaining exploitation experience. Taking inspiration from the Jonestown Massacre and showering its cannibal content in action/adventure tropes, EATEN ALIVE! sets itself apart from its contemporaries with a wild tone and caustic sense of fun. Severin’s release presents this feast of sordid delights in a beautiful package with a handful of special features to cherish. Any gorehound or fan of Italian genre film shouldn’t resist the pull of this release, which is limited to only 2500 units. “Creating cinema is not easy,” Lenzi said in 2013, and EATEN ALIVE! is a prime cut of adventursome exploitation cinema: murder to make, but oh so easy to enjoy.