Eaten Alive (1980) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
When her sister Diana (Paola Senatore) goes missing, Sheila (Janet Agren) travels to in the wilds of southeast Asia. There, she meets ex-US soldier Mark (Robert Kerman), who agrees to lead her into the jungle. After escaping deadly animals and cannibalistic natives, they find Diana in the thrall of a mad cult leader named Jonas (Ivan Rassimov).
The Italian cannibal fad began in earnest in 1972, when Umberto Lenzi – known mostly for his early entries in the giallo canon – directed a loose rip-off of Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970), replacing an English aristocrat (Richard Harris) with an English photographer (Ivan Rassimov), and Sioux Indians with cannibalistic Thai natives. That film was The Man From Deep River (Italian: Il paese del sesso selvaggio or The Country of Savage Sex; aka: Deep River Savages) and it drew crowds with its pseudo-documentary Mondo-style travelogue stunts, rough sex, and torture scenes, more than its cannibal content. Slowly, but surely, its popularity spawned Ruggero Deodato’s incredibly similar Last Cannibal World (Italian: Ultimo mondo cannibale; aka: Jungle Holocaust and Cannibal) in 1977. This would set off a wave of films that put aside the violent adventure of A Man Called Horse in favour of harrowing gore (increasingly of the flesh-eating variety), callous sexual content, bald-faced racism, and real-life, on-screen animal slaughter. Lenzi and Deodato (the superior filmmaker of the two) developed a minor rivalry – one that was hyped up for the sake of the fans in the decades that followed – ending with Deodato making the best overall cannibal film for his transcendent Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Lenzi making the most cannibal films with a total of three. His final word on the subject, Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981), 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). It is also, for better or worse, the film that became his middle name (as in Umberto ‘Cannibal Ferox’ Lenzi) and the one most commonly associated with him following his death in October of last year. Just before Ferox, he threw together a less notorious, but similarly revolting copy/paste dry-run called Eaten Alive! (Italian: Mangiati vivi!; aka: Doomed to Die, 1980) – not to be confused with Tobe Hooper’s film of the same name (minus the exclamation point).
Cannibal films make up such an insular genre that the majority of them actually share the same basic plot line. Eaten Alive!’s plot – credited to Lenzi himself – follows the same narrative lines as Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God (Italian: La montagna del dio cannibale; aka: Slave of the Cannibal God, 1978), Aristide Massaccesi’s (aka: Joe D’Amato) Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (Italian: Emanuelle e gli ultimi cannibali; aka: Trap Them and Kill Them, 1977), the first half of Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Lenzi’s own Cannibal Ferox, and even Marino Girolami’s zombie/cannibal mashup, Zombi Holocaust (aka: Doctor Butcher, M.D., 1980). The story pattern states that, following some kind of frightening/murderous event in America (almost always New York City), a group of white folks venture into a rainforest in search of a different group of white folks that went missing and are presumed to have been eaten by brown folks they wanted to study/exploit/plunder. As usually happens, the early, city-set scenes are amusing crime movie pastiches that have more entertainment value than the meatier jungle-set scenes. In this case, the film opens with the bonkers image of a Sri Lankan tribesman, donning practical winter wear, cruising various New York area tourist destinations, and killing unsuspecting schmucks with a blow-dart gun. I wish I could say this was the extent of the plot, but, alas, he’s hit by a truck on 49th Ave. and killed before the opening credits even roll, and we’re dropped into another familiar gut-munching exercise.
Lenzi took this copy-catting to a new and cheap extreme for Eaten Alive! by literally stealing and splicing scenes from other movies into his patchy narrative (though not as extreme as 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). Early in the film, Lenzi evokes memories of Cannibal Holocaust’s mockumentary techniques with a montage culled from stock scenes of East Asian landmarks and religious rites (I’m sure that the same clips have found their way into a Mondo movie or two). This is followed by a crocodile beheading and generic cannibal killing from The Man from Deep River; clips of a python eating a monkey, men frenziedly eating snakes/lizards, and a man dismembered by a crocodile from Slave of a Cannibal God; as well as a castration scene and Burmese/English actress Me Me Lai’s gruesome disemboweling from Last Cannibal World (in both cases, she dies trying to save the white protagonists). If all of this doesn’t convince viewers that Lenzi was completely disinterested in the project, the ratty, awkward manner in which he edits everything together should probably do the trick.
It’s not all a wash, though. In keeping with the genre’s commitment to faux-reality (culminating in Cannibal Holocaust’s convincing ‘found footage’ techniques), Eaten Alive!’s main villain was torn from the real-world’s most salacious headlines. In 1978, a little over a year before Lenzi went into production, a charismatic religious leader named Jim Jones led his followers from the United States to the rain forests of Guyana, South America, where they intended to create a socially dependent utopia. But, when the US government came to investigate family claims that Jonestown residents were being held against their will, the already volatile Jones convinced his followers to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The final death toll, including those who drank the poison, children that were force-fed the poison by their parents, and dissenters that were murdered by Jones’ goons, was 913. Lenzi wasn’t the first exploitation filmmaker to cash-in on the story (earlier versions included René Cardona Jr.’s Guyana: Crime of the Century  and William A. Graham’s Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones ), but applying it to tired cannibal clichés did manage to set Eaten Alive! apart from the rest of the rabble, even though it had Xeroxed basically every other one of its basic elements. The Jones-like antagonist and his hippy-dippy followers even fit the context of the genre’s typically immoral cultural ethics, in which evil white people subjugate the “savage” natives for their own gains. It is, of course, also hypocritical and offensive to wax philosophical about the brutal nature of the civilized white people, while otherwise presenting native people as degenerate, subhuman animals, but, you know, so is exploiting the tragic deaths of 913 people.
And, speaking of offensive behavior, we can’t talk about any Italian cannibal movie without discussing the elephant in the room, or, rather, the dead turtle in the river (that’s a Cannibal Holocaust reference). Murdering real, living animals for the expressed sake of a film, even if those animals are going to be eaten or had needed to be euthanized, is a cheap stunt – literally, since slaughtering a defenseless critter costs less than making an expensive prosthetic gore effect. Due in part to its patchwork qualities, Eaten Alive! is a major offender in this regard, including the aforementioned crocodile, monkey, and snake deaths, a mongoose/cobra fight, a snake gutted and spread onto a ceremonial dildo, a monitor lizard trying to swallow yet another snake, and an iguana being skinned and gutted. Lenzi attempts to infuse some of the cheeky sexiness of his gialli at times, but almost all of these scenes are tinged with so much palpable misogyny that it is difficult to enjoy on any level, exploitation or not. It’s not just the numerous, ritualistic rape scenes – even tender lovemaking is preceded by face-slapping and degradation. Normally, I’d have something nice to say about the gruesome, but charmingly unconvincing special gore effects here, but so much of it has been borrowed from other movies that I can’t be bothered.
Eaten Alive! was one of a handful of Italian splatter movies that never had an official North American VHS or Beta release. In fact, it was a rare enough release worldwide to not even end up on the official BBFC Video Nasties list, despite UK censors going after far more obscure cannibal clunkers, like Jess Franco’s Devil Hunter (the Video Media/Vampix VHS’ salacious cover art was enough to get it included on the non-prosecuted ‘section 3’ list, but it was a severely edited cut of the film, shorn of about six minutes). This scarcity extended even to the bootleg market, but, with the advent of DVD, uncensored releases popped up all over Europe (except the UK, where it is still cut for animal violence), Asia, and the US. Defunct Media Blasters’ sub-label Shriek Show put out a decent anamorphic disc in 2002, then again as part of a cannibal box set. Severin has gained the RA release rights to a number of Italian horror films recently, but almost all of them were previously available in the UK, Germany, and/or Australia. Eaten Alive! is a Severin exclusive (as of this writing) that has never been available in HD and hopefully a sign of the improving quality of future spaghetti horror releases. None of their Italian discs have been bad and, in fact, have made minor improvements on their European counterparts. But there are ongoing and apparently unavoidable telecine/CRT noise problems with Italian-born HD scans for just about every boutique horror/exploitation label. This 1.66:1, 1080p transfer exhibits some of those problems, but, for the most part, the noise on-screen matches what we’d expect from a gritty, low-budget production. Lenzi and cinematographer Federico Zanni shot on 35mm, which accounts for the vivid color quality and total detail, but it was a cheaper stock, so grain texture is almost as chunky as it would be in 16mm. Age and cheapness aside, the footage is in good shape with only minor print damage artifacts, such as white dots, blue & green vertical lines, and some yellowish water damage. Compression and other digital artifacts are minimal, as well. I’m specifically impressed by the absence of posterization and digital smoothing effects.
Severin has included the original mono English, Italian, and Spanish dubs, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. I will remind readers that just about every Italian film from the era was shot without sound – often with international actors speaking in their mother tongues – and dubbed in post-production, meaning that there isn’t such a thing as an ‘original language track.’ The Italian track is good to have, especially because few of the American actors seem to have dubbed their own performances (shockingly, it appears that big-shot Mel Ferrer was actually able to convince Lenzi to shoot some of his scenes with synced sound), but the English track has superior sound quality all-around. The dialogue, though somewhat scratchy, is cleaner than its flat Italian and Spanish counterparts, and sound effects are louder and better integrated. There’s a lot to make fun of while watching Eaten Alive!, but Budy Maglione’s score is genuinely great. The composer, or rather, composers, because Budy Maglione is a pseudonym for Roberto Donati & Fiamma Maglione, bring their A-game in a funky-rock-meets-synth-horror blast, which was largely recycled for the duo’s Cannibal Ferox OST. Again, the tone of the music sounds best on the English dub.
Welcome to the Jungle (16:37, HD) – This new interview with director Umberto Lenzi was recorded just before his death last year. He discusses the Italian cannibal lineage, the making of The Man from Deep River, passing on a “sequel,” Deodato’s contributions (surprisingly, he’s quite complimentary), German investors convincing him to make Eaten Alive!, using the Jim Jones story angle, star Robert Kerman’s porn career, and, briefly, Cannibal Ferox.
Me Me Lai Bites Back: The Resurrection of the Cannibal Queen (79:55, HD) – This well-made interview and clip-based feature-length documentary about enigmatic actress Me Me Lai is the highlight of the entire disc (note that it first appeared on 88 Films’ Man From Deep River BD). Writer/critic/documentarian Calum Waddell (who is among the interviewees, along with Eli Roth) was initially responsible for hunting her down in hopes that she could discuss the strange, short career she had very consciously left behind. While she has appeared on other special features and docs (including Waddell’s own Eaten Alive: The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film), this is the most extensive look back at her work. Her early and more recent life (she became a cop in the UK and was actually involved in Video Nastie raids!) is discussed, but most of the focus is on her three cannibal movies – Man from Deep River, Last Cannibal World, and Eaten Alive!. Now, if only someone would make a similar doc about actress Laura Gemser…
The Sect of the Purification (13:03, HD) – Production designer Antonello Geleng talks about his career creating elaborate jungle sets on shoestring budgets. Archive Interviews with actors Ivan Rassimov and Robert Kerman (12:21, HD) – These video interviews are culled from two separate Shriek Show extras.
Q&A with Umberto Lenzi (23:43, HD) – Taken from a 2013 Festival of Fantastic Films screening in the UK, it covers more or less the director’s entire career, from early training to his success in exploitation cinema.
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.