Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
When journalist Emanuelle (Laura Gemser) discovers evidence of an extinct cannibal tribe in a Manhattan mental hospital, her investigation will take her to the Amazon jungle for an orgy of carnage. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
In 1974, French director Just Jaeckin made a groundbreaking softcore porn film based on Emmanuelle Arsan’s famed erotic novel, Emmanuelle (pub. 1967). Along with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat (1972), Jaeckin’s film helped to propel the porno chic era, in which X-rated films (Deep Throat aside, largely harmless by modern XXX/NC-17 standards) were considered viable cinematic art alongside major Hollywood productions. Given its particularly simple premise, Emmanuelle was prime material for official and unofficial sequel treatments. Italy’s most well-received entry in the ‘franchise’ was Bitto Albertini’s Black Emanuelle (note that they removed one letter ‘m’ from the character’s name to avoid copyright battles), which was built around the unmistakable charms of Indonesian-Dutch actress Laura Gemser, released in 1975, and followed by (at least) 17 so-called sequels over an 8-year period. Top-tier Eurosleaze merchant Joe D’Amato (real name Aristide Massaccesi) arguably got the most mileage the Black Emanuelle character. He teamed-up with Gemser to make a total of five movies, each of which were bolstered by combining softcore antics with aspects of other fashionable exploitation subgenres. Emanuelle in Bangkok (Italian: Emanuelle nera – Orient Reportage, 1976), Emanuelle Around the World (Italian: Emanuelle – Perché violenza alle donne?, 1977), and Emanuelle & the White Slave Trade (Italian: La via della prostituzione, 1978) saw the title character traveling throughout the developing world to witness and report on Mondo-like vignettes of “strange cultural practices” and save human trafficking victims between sex scenes. Emanuelle in America (1977) added a genuinely shocking snuff film subplot, while Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals (Italian: Emanuelle e gli Ultimi Cannibali; aka: Trap Them and Kill Them, 1977), as the title would indicate, introduced flesh-eating Amazonian tribes into the mix, in order to cash-in on 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, 1977).
Cannibal films are such an insular genre that the majority of them actually share a basic plot line. Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals’ plot – credited to D’Amato and Romano Scandariato – 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), Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive! (Italian: Mangiati vivi!; aka: Doomed to Die, 1980), the first half of Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981), and even Marino Girolami’s zombie/cannibal mashup, Zombi Holocaust (aka: Doctor Butcher, M.D., 1980). It’s so common that I’ve recycled this exact description in at least three reviews now. This 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.
D’Amato takes his sexploitation rep seriously, so he and Scandariato adjust the prototype to fit more sex and nudity than you’d typically see in a cannibal movie. Like any porno, fornication drives the plot, to the point that a sex scene occurs about every five minutes (at least until the final act, where it’s more like one every 10 minutes). These don’t include anything as crude as horse masturbation (as seen in Emanuelle in America), but there is enough male-on-female grinding, sapphic heavy-petting, implied oral sex, solo masturbation, and casual nudity to sate an X-rated audience in 1976. D’Amato’s commitment to softcore shenanigans and devotion to the Italian cannibal formula peaks during the end of the first act, when he literally intercuts copious love making with shots of the cast visiting various New York City landmarks (in the middle of it all, Emanuelle has one last fling with her current beau on the beach beneath the Brooklyn Bridge). However, the apex of the film’s ludicrousness is the sequence where Emanuelle takes a standing bath in a tropical lagoon, while a cigarette-smoking, sunglass-wearing chimpanzee looks on. You know, one of those famous Amazonian chimps – the ones that know how to use lighters.
For better or worse, though, Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals really isn’t a gore movie and its most violent episodes are comparatively tame. Its ick-factor tends to be tied to the concept of the atrocities, rather than the actual juiciness of said harm. For example, the film opens with Emanuelle working undercover in a mental hospital, where she sees a patient bite off a nurse’s breast, but we only really see stage blood smeared over the actress’ exposed chest, followed by another actress chewing on what appears to be steak. After that, the gorehound audience has quite the long wait to nearly the 50-minute mark, when our heroes stumble across a gutted native tracker. Things pick up during the final 30 minutes, where, one-by-one, our adventurers are impaled, beheaded, cut open, and eaten. Again, the gore is largely implied via split-second glances at costume shop props, aside from two rather gnarly (though unconvincing) gutting deaths and an elaborate, but ultimately almost bloodless scene where a character is bisected when rope is pulled over his midsection. The most revolting (and convincing) sequence is a brief snippet of black & white footage where supposed African cannibals slice off a man’s penis. Not too surprisingly, these shots were borrowed from a Mondo-style pseudo-documentary that D’Amato made with Bruno Matei called Notti porno nel mondo (1977). Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals is every bit as culturally insensitive as its counterparts – and its racism might actually be more offensive, considering the title character’s non-white heritage – but it does score points for avoiding animal slaughter. Aside from stock footage of two caimen fighting and a pre-killed boa being shot in the head, barbarism is reserved for the humans. D’Amato was trained as a cinematographer and tended to prefer this role to directing, so Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals tends to look better than corresponding movies (in defense of other filmmakers, few seem to have really cared about their cannibal projects, aside from maybe Deodato). It’s still clearly shot very quickly and on a shoestring, but D’Amato takes a few extra minutes to find interesting and evocative shots. These cinematic habits, along with Gemser’s effortlessly statuesque screen presence, help propel the film beyond the humdrum of D’Amato and Scandariato’s by-the-numbers script.
D’Amato made one more erotic cannibal hybrid, Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals (Italian: Papaya dei Caraibi, 1978), followed by a series of straight horror movies, such as his strange slasher variants Anthropophagus (aka: The Grim Reaper, 1980) and Absurd (Italian: Rosso Sangue; aka: Monster Hunter and Horrible, 1981), and the wonderfully revolting Beyond the Darkness (Italian: Buio Omega, 1979). He also co-directed two mockumentaries with Bruno Mattei starring Gemser, the aforementioned Notti porno nel mondo and Emanuelle & the Erotic Nights (Italian: Emanuelle e le porno notti nel mondo n. 2, 1978). Some of his other Gemser collaborations – Black Cobra Woman (Italian: Eva nera, 1976), Pleasure Shop on the Avenue (Italian: Il porno shop della settima strada, 1979), Sexy Erotic Love (aka: Porno Esotic Love, 1980), and Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (Italian: Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980) – were rebranded as Black Emanuelle movies in some countries. As censorship slackened, he became better known for his XXX efforts and recycled his Last Cannibals concepts by crossing hardcore violence and hardcore sex for zombie horrors, like the aforementioned Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust (Italian: Orgasmo Nero II, 1981).
None of the Italian cannibal movies were particularly easy to find on VHS outside of Italy. They were largely banned throughout Europe (almost all of them were included in the British Board of Film Classification’s Video Nasties ban), they were niche enough to have smaller releases during the early days of US home video, and their lack of MPAA rating/graphic content ensured that they disappeared from the market when companies like Blockbuster took over. Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals was among the rarest here in North America. It was put out twice on video by Twilight Video and Trans World Entertainment; both times under the Trap Them and Kill Them title. It had better luck on DVD, including discs in multiple territories, though only the German (via X-Rated Kult), Scandinavian (via Another World Entertainment), and American versions were uncut (Shriek Show/Media Blaster’s R1 anamorphic disc is now very OOP).
Severin’s new 1080p, 1.85:1 (maybe 1.80:1?) Blu-ray transfer was created using a 2K scan of original vault elements. I assume that they started with the same scan as UK company 88 Films, since the two tend to share materials, then did their own restoration/grading. I don’t have access to 88 Films’ disc for a direct comparison, but, if recent history stands, Severin’s disc probably features a slightly better bitrate and a notably different contrast and color balance. This is a particularly grainy movie, as are many exploitation movies from the period, but the grain appears to be mostly accurate film-based product, rather than CRT machine noise, as is often a problem for Italian-born digital scans. The brighter scenes are at the mercy of the elements and tend to have a hazy sheen, while the nighttime sequence, which D’Amato was able to exert more control over, exhibit surprisingly strong contrast and clarity. The muted colors are a little disappointing, yet this is again expected, based on the conditions that the film was shot in. Still, the jungle greens appear more lush than its DVD counterparts and other hues, like skin tones, remain consistent throughout. There are also a handful of stock footage shots that are particularly gritty and rife with print damage.
Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals is presented with English and Italian mono audio options, each in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Here’s the part of every Euro-exploitation film where I remind you that almost none of these movies were shot without sound, so all language tracks are dubbed tracks. In this case, the movie is silly enough that I think the stiff English deliveries help magnify the unintended laughs. In terms of pure sound quality, the Italian mix is a bit more naturalistic, at least where the balance between dialogue and incidental effects are concerned. Nico Fidenco’s jazzy and dramatic score is among the film’s greatest assets, as are the groovy pop love songs that usually accompany the sex scenes. It sounds every so slightly better on the English track, thanks to higher volume levels, but is limited by the mono field and tinniness of the mix in either case.
The World Of Nico Fidenco (27:04, HD) – The first new interview is with composer Nico Fidenco, who recalls his early career, his first compositions and songs, the famous friends he made in the industry, and working with D’Amato.
A Nun Among The Cannibals (22:53, HD) – Actress Annamaria Clementi chats about her work as a model and actress, her first speaking role in Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals, shooting the film in the jungle, the awkwardness of nude scenes, and continuing to work with D’Amato and Gemser.
Dr. O'Brien MD (18:47, HD) – In this archival, shot-on-video interview, actor Donal O'Brien discusses his pre-acting life, his family, his appearances in various genre films, and working with Lucio Fulci, D’Amato, and other Italian exploitation filmmakers.
From Switzerland To Mato Grosso – Actress Monika Zanchi talks about her childhood in Switzerland, moving to Italy, her film roles, and shares stories from behind-the-scenes of Emanuelle & the Last Cannibals.
I Am Your Black Queen (11:25, HD) – Things draw to a close with this archive audio interview, in which the elusive Laura Gemser casually discusses her heritage, her modelling career, breaking into acting roles, marrying co-star Gabriele Tinti, and her various Black Emanuelle roles.
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