Cannibal Ferox Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
An anthropologist named Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle) sets out the Amazon basin with her brother Rudy (Bryan Redford) and friend Pat (Zora Kerowa) in hopes of proving her thesis that modern cannibalism is a myth. Soon after arriving, the trio is lost in the rainforest, where they encounter a pair of fugitives from New York City named Mike (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and Joe (Walter Lloyd). Mike tells them a story about insane native cannibals attacking and killing their friend and chasing them into the jungle, but, when they finally arrive at the nearby village, Rudy and Gloria begin to suspect that he isn’t telling the truth…
Note: This review reuses Italian cannibal historical context from my review of Grindhouse’s Cannibal Holocaust Blu-ray.
The cannibal movies released throughout 1970s and early ’80s sit high on the list of the most tasteless, mean-spirited, and controversial feature films to have ever oozed from Italy’s movie machine. The stylishness, camp, and surrealism that made the region’s other horror and exploitation traditions (zombie movies, gialli, and nunsploitation) tolerable – even lovable – was replaced with raw filmmaking, rampant racism, graphic sexual violence, and, most disturbing of all, actual on-screen animal slaughter. The genre began auspiciously enough in reference to Hollywood revisionist adventure movies/westerns, most obviously Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970, based on a 1950 story by Dorothy M. Johnson), in which an English aristocrat (Richard Harris) is captured and eventually adopted by Sioux Indians. The first couple films in the cycle, Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River (Italian: Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio; aka: Deep River Savages, 1972) and Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World (Italian: Ultimo Mondo Cannibale; aka: Jungle Holocaust and Cannibal, 1977) follow the plot of Silverstein’s film pretty closely and, despite their grindhouse trappings, also have plenty in common with later revisionist adventures, such as Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning epic Dances with Wolves (1990)*. You know, respectably xenophobic white savior movies.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – the early cannibal movies were more popular for their grueling violence than their swashbuckling antics, so, like the pseudo-documentary Mondo travelogues they followed (perhaps the only more tasteless and controversial Italian exploitation genre), filmmakers took it upon themselves to one-up each other with harrowing gore and callous sexual content. At their best (a relative term), they were notable and are remembered for their increasingly revolting on-screen atrocities. Aristide Massaccesi’s (aka: Joe D’Amato) erotic gut-munching variants, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (Italian: Emanuelle e gli Ultimi Cannibali; aka: Trap Them and Kill Them, 1977) and Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals (Italian: Papaya dei Caraibi, 1978) tend to be tolerable, because the downplayed cruelty is merely window dressing for harmless softcore pornography. At their worst, these movies were grimy, boring smears that were so cheap and interchangeable that some of them literally stole and spliced scenes from one another (the most extreme case was Cannibal Terror, a movie with so much appropriated footage from other films that no fewer than four directors are credited – Alain Deruelle, Olivier Mathot, Julio Pérez Tabernero, and Jess Franco).
Deodato’s final cannibal opus, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), is the most famous Italian cannibal movie and the one that even exploitation detractors might feel compelled to experience themselves, but Lenzi’s last word on the subject, Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981), pushed grievous bodily harm into the realms of parody. It was the last ‘pure’ Italian cannibal film to make any kind of international box-office impact (its US release poster proudly stated that it had been banned in 31 countries). Soon after, zombies replaced living humans as the flesh-eaters of choice and, not too long after that, the entire Italian horror industry began to spiral into made-for-video obscurity. Only a handful of tepid, comparatively bloodless Z-grade disappointments, including Maurizio Gariazzo’s Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story (aka: Forest Slave, 1985) and Michele Massimo Tarantini’s Massacre in Dinosaur Valley (aka: Nudo e Selvaggio, 1985), remained to squeeze every ounce of money from the formula. Cannibal Ferox is still relevant due to its commitment to excess. It puts any of the modern era’s so-called “torture porn” movies to shame with its commitment to nastiness, pain, and grievous bodily harm, over storytelling, performance, or thematic purpose.
The constant stream of cruelty and profanity is more or less the entire purpose of the movie, but Lenzi himself did produce a rickety screenplay in which to frame the atrocities around. He recycles a common post-Man from Deep River story formula: a group of First World whites venture into a Third World rainforest in search of natives they intend to study/exploit/plunder and are murdered/eaten for their hubris/cruelty/stupidity. It was so common it was arguably satirized in Cannibal Holocaust, which was a pseudo-indictment of genre conventions by framing them in a faux-documentary context. Cannibal Ferox, on the other hand, is only memorable because it isn’t at all concerned with doing anything new with the formula. There’s an odd respectability in how little Lenzi cares about the project. His only goal is to get his cast and crew to the finish line with more grit and viscera than his competitors and, based on the limited expectations of the cannibal genre, this really was enough to reserve its place as the second most enduring and popular of the series.
For however little it is worth, Cannibal Ferox is an appropriately outrageous and offensive exploitation movie and Lenzi deserves credit for shooting in an impossible environment. If Les Blank can make an award-winning documentary about the hardships endured by Werner Herzog and crew while filming Fitzcarraldo (1982), surely Lenzi deserves similar consideration for his less dignified rainforest movies (Herzog didn’t have to deal with the threat of violent drug lords, after all). Yet, there is tragedy in Lenzi’s long, at times respectable career being posthumously boiled down to his most base and revolting movie. His work spanned several decades, from comedy and adventure, to peplum (sword & sandal) and Eurospy releases, but his best work was in post- Dirty Dozen war films (sometimes referred to as “macaroni combat”), giallo, and poliziotteschi (Eurocrime) genres. In fact, Lenzi’s giallo work followed Mario Bava’s closely and pre-dated Dario Argento’s successful forays into the genre. Some of these movies, like Legion of the Damned (aka: Battle of the Commandos, 1969, co-written by Argento), Orgasmo (1969), Knife on Ice (aka: Il Coltello di Ghiaccio, 1972), Almost Human (aka: Milano Idia: La Polizia non Può Sparare, 1974), and Violent Naples (aka: Napoli Violenta, 1969), aren’t only better than his cannibal movies, but they’re authentically good.
For his part, Lenzi tended to downplay the impact of Cannibal Ferox in interviews (“I get letters from people who consider Cannibal Ferox is the greatest movie ever made. Well, what about Goodfellas?”). During a discussion with Gorezone Magazine (February of ’93), he said he only made it because Cannibal Holocaust had proven popular and the financing for his Invisible Man adaptation fell through. He expressed more pride in the adventure-driven The Man from Deep River (note that he actually recreates A Man Called Horse’s most memorable scene – Richard Harris’ hook suspension hanging – here in Cannibal Ferox) and even Eaten Alive! (aka: Mangiati Vivi!, 1980) – a particularly terrible cannibal cycle entry that blatantly recycles footage from Last Cannibal World.
The ratty, Italian to English dialogue (“shithead” and “twat” are the curses of choice), awkward attempts at being hip (anything involving cocaine, basically), massively stupid characters, and stiff performances help propel the film’s status as a so-bad-its-good guilty pleasure*. Surely, if it weren’t for the toe-curling racism and animal slaughter on display (more on that shortly), Cannibal Ferox would be a nearly perfect midnight movie. The one person that was certainly in on the joke is actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice, working under his usual English language pseudonym, John Morghen. Radice was the victim of choice for Italian horror filmmakers throughout the ‘80s. In 1980 alone, Lucio Fulci drove his head through with an electric drill in City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), Antonio Margheriti blew a gaping shotgun hole in his stomach in Cannibal Apocalypse (Italian: Apocalypse Domani; aka: Invasion of the Flesh Hunters, 1982), and Deodato spent nearly 90 minutes of House on the Edge of the Park (Italian: Italian: La casa sperduta nel parco, 1980) putting him though every brand of hell.
But this was all pittance compared to what Lenzi had planned for him. Though usually cast as an imbecilic social outcast, Radice chews the scenery as the film’s main villain, Mike – the catalyst of film’s most brutal violence. After tormenting the peaceful members of the cannibalistic tribe in a coke-fueled rage, Mike is repaid in kind. First, he is castrated, his member is eaten, and the wound is cauterized. He escapes his bamboo prison, cuts a rope that his “friends” could’ve used to escape themselves, but is quickly captured. His hand is hacked off as punishment and is finally put out of his misery when his head is cracked open like a melon with a machete. His brains are later eaten.
As I’ve said before, we can’t talk about any Italian cannibal movie without discussing the too frequent inclusion of real-life animal slaughter. The salacious practice murdering animals for the expressed sake of movie footage, not for food or euthanasia, is immoral. There are exceptions where respectable films have killed animals for the sake of art (Apocalypse Now, El Topo, and Oldboy spring to mind), but it’s almost always a cheap stunt – literally so, since slaughtering a defenseless critter costs less than making an expensive prosthetic gore effect). In Cannibal Holocaust, the animal slaughter arguably serves a thematic and contextual purpose (if the animals are being killed for real, perhaps the humans are, too?), but in Cannibal Ferox, the practice is particularly crass, serving no purpose but to shock. The most depressing and inexcusable example is the coati that the protagonists tie to a stake as bait for boa constrictors, because the cute little guy is lovingly cuddled in the previous scene. When confronted with the practice, Lenzi, Deodato, and Sergio Martino have all make the same excuses – either the animal deaths were merely well-staged special effects or that the natives ate what they killed after the cameras stopped rolling. These claims are usually refuted and contradicted by the cast and crew.
Most Italian-made cannibal movies are also hypocritical in terms of their racial content. Like the Mondo movies, they waste energy waxing philosophical about the brutal nature of the civilized white people outweighing that of their savage counterparts, while otherwise presenting the natives as degenerate and subhuman. Cannibal Ferox embodies this hypocrisy more literally than any other movie in the cycle, because its white protagonists are journeying into the Amazon with the expressed purpose of proving that modern cannibalism is a myth. They are naturally shocked by the horrors that await them during the film’s second half, but these supposed intellectuals are just as disgusted by the actions of the non-cannibalistic natives. Everything the natives and even non-native, Spanish-speaking locals do is framed as gross and backwards with just a hint of enlightenment. In the end, Gloria realizes that they are the “real cannibals” for driving the natives to violence, but makes a mockery of her ordeal by publishing findings that refute the existence of cannibalism in the Third World.
The genre’s racism is especially distressing in cases where real native peoples were exploited for a film’s cruel purposes. Though Lenzi did force natives to eat raw animal parts for Cannibal Ferox (he claims they were doing it anyway, while Radice claims they were actually vegetarians and vomited when Lenzi shouted “cut”), his production did struggle to exploit them in terms of money. Reportedly, the natives were aware of Cannibal Holocaust’s box office success and started asking for more and more money as production trickled on. Lenzi calls it “blackmail,” but I like to think of it as “free enterprise.”
* There is at least one intended joke in the movie. After the white protagonists are captured, the “Indios” (as the film calls them) dig through their belongings, eventually discovering an American Express card. It seems that they did not leave home without it.
Cannibal Ferox might’ve been banned in 31 countries, but it was actually pretty easy to find on home video in the US. Thriller Video’s big box tape was actually one of the more easily acquired, uncut Italian horror rentals (legend has it that Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, was asked by Thriller to do her hosting bit before and after the film, but refused after seeing it, as well as Fulci’s The Beyond and D’Amato’s Beyond the Darkness). Grindhouse Releasing’s released the first DVD version in the ‘90s. It was taken directly from their special edition laserdisc, including extras, but was non-anamorphic. As antiquated bans were lifted, other regions began putting out anamorphic versions, including an Ultrabit PAL release from Sazuma Productions in Austria.
Fortunately for Grindhouse, their new 1080p, 1.78:1 (slightly reframed from the 1.85:1 OAR) Blu-ray has zero competition. There are no other HD versions available and no DVD version is particularly impressive. Fortunately for fans, their 2K restoration has pulled about as much detail and clarity from the negative as possible. Cannibal Ferox is never going to look like a new movie – it was shot and developed in less than ideal circumstances and was probably not very well maintained over the years (I imagine it sitting in some producer’s closet, under a stack of unused posters and a trailer reel). The footage is pretty grainy and this noise pulses and ebbs, depending on location and lighting (at worst, it cakes up in the corners of the frame). The grain itself is relatively fine, but it does discolour some of the more delicate hues. This is sometimes a typical side effect of bad telecine scanning, but it doesn’t look like a digital artifact problem to me. Details are much sharper than flat DVD versions, especially the finer textures, and general element separation is tighter without a lot of edge enhancement. Nearly the entire movie is baked in super-bright sunlight that blasts those delicate hues, but this overheated look is true to the source material. I’m actually more impressed with the color quality than anything else, especially the vivid jungle greens, natural skin tones, and rich red highlights.
Grindhouse has provided viewers with three uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio options: original mono 1.0 Italian, original mono 1.0 English, and remixed stereo English (the same one that showed up on the Grindhouse DVD, as far as I can tell). Cannibal Ferox was shot without sound, but most of the major cast members are speaking English, so I think it’s fair to say that the English dub is the preferred version. Naturally, the stereo remix offers the most depth and warmth, especially in terms of music. Basic effects and dialogue are effectively centered, despite the lack of a discrete center channel, and bass levels are punchier. However, the stereo mix also sounds more compressed than the other tracks, at least in terms of overall volume. Some of the incidental sound effects disappear in the spread. I prefer the original mono track, myself, which has been very nicely preserved. The tracks are a bit tinny and there’s a steady hiss beneath the quieter scenes, but its volume is more consistent and none of the effects are lost. Viewers that insist on watching the film in Italian (I do think a number of the actors dub themselves in their native language, despite the lip-sync not matching) are in for a slightly more muffled experience than the English dub. All three tracks have minor musical skips between scenes.
Roberto Donati & Fiamma Maglione’s score (composed under the pseudonym Budy-Maglione) is one element even Cannibal Ferox’s many detractors would probably admit works in the film’s favour. The music is divided between danceable funk/disco melodies (many of them relegated to the New York scenes) and genuinely chilling electronic horror themes. Grindhouse has included their entire soundtrack on CD in this Blu-ray package.
Commentary with director Umberto Lenzi and star Giovanni Lombardo Radice – This composite director and actor commentary was taken from Grindhouse’s original DVD release. It is among my all-time favourite commentary tracks and really the major reason I own the DVD, despite not particularly liking the film. Lenzi takes a conventional approach and simply discusses the behind-the-scenes story. He’s relatively screen-specific as well. Radice, who was recorded separately and absolutely despises the film, offers a critical view of the filmmaking process – often directly contradicting something Lenzi said on his track. The whole track is an utter joy.
Deleted footage – Grindhouse discovered two previously ‘lost’ deleted scenes. The two sequences are presented either within the context of the film itself or separately under the special features:
Killing pig (1:40, HD) – More footage of the poor little black pig being stabbed to death
Piranha scene (1:30, HD, including subtitles where language tracks were not recorded) – Additional footage from the piranha attack on Rudy.
Eaten Alive! The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film (1:25:30, HD) – A new feature-length documentary directed by Calum Waddell on the Italian cannibal phenomenon that includes footage from genre movies (sadly, not in HD) and interviews with filmmakers Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato, Luigi Cozzi, and Sergio Martino, screenwriter Antonio Tentori, actors Me Me Lai, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, and Robert Kerman, and authors/critics Shelagh Rowan-Legg, John Martin, Mikel Koven, and Kim Newman. It’s a fantastic primer on the subject for newcomers, as well as an entertaining revisit for those of us already familiar with this fascinatingly offensive subgenre. I love that Lenzi and Deodato still fight over who ‘created’ the genre.
International, German, U.S., and Mexican trailers
Footage from the Hollywood re-release premiere in February of 1997 (5:20, SD, from the original DVD)
Umberto Lenzi: Hooked on You (19:40, HD) – The director offers a few new insights with a big smile, but largely overlaps information already discussed during the commentary. The best of the new stuff is his reaction to Radice’s disdain (‘He’s just jealous! I made him a star!’).
The Many Lives (and Deaths) of Giovanni Lombardo Radice (51:10, HD) – Originally released as part of Arrow Video’s City of the Living Dead Blu-ray, this in-depth discussion with the actor, who covers his entire career, not just Cannibal Ferox or City of the Living Dead. It includes footage from his Italian horror films, along with rare photographs from his plays (both old and new). Directed by Calum Waddell, it also features cute Flash animation and is long enough to be considered an additional documentary.
Zora in Cannibal Land (25:00, SD) – An older interview with actress Zora Kerowa that must’ve appeared on a different DVD release (I’m just not sure which one).
Danilo Mattei’s Amazon Adventure (20: 50, HD) – Another new interview. The actor flutters randomly through Cannibal Ferox memories.
They Call Him Bombadore (25:10, HD) – This discussion with special effects artist/designer Giannetto DeRossi appears to have been filmed at the same time as his interview for the Beyond Blu-ray. DeRossi is fully of information, though his output is a bit scattered.
Umberto Lenzi – An interview from the first DVD’s release around 1998
Still galleries including production stills, behind-the-scenes photos, promotional materials, video releases, and fan culture. An interview with stateside distributor Terry Levene (2:40, HD) is also included in the U.S. promotional material section.
Grindhouse Releasing Prevues of coming attractions
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.