The Italian cannibal movie is basically the love child of “mondo” films (a.k.a., exploitative documentaries) and splatter flicks (which is a horror film that’s more interested in blood and guts than in suspense and scariness) — and throughout the mid-‘70s and early-'80s, there were quite a lot of these grungy little exports floating around the b-movie circuit. As newcomers to the sub-genre of “Italian cannibal cinema” — perhaps inspired by Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, perhaps you’re just a specific kind of freak — you should know what you’re in for when you dig through this stuff. Basically, expect tons of nudity, rape, torture, animal abuse, bodily mutilation, terrible audio dubbing, outrageously bad editing, plotless boredom, vicious booby traps, very dated clothing, occasionally cool music, ill-fitting stock footage, and, of course, lots and lots of cannibalism.
THE MAN FROM THE DEEP RIVER (1972)
a.k.a., Deep River Savages, Il paese del sesso selvaggio
Here it is! The Italian cannibal flick that started it all! Surely it must be among the most brutal, graphic, and horrific examples of the entire grungy sub-genre, right? Nah, not really. It’s actually more like a soap opera melodrama in which a British photographer gets lost in the jungles of Thailand, becomes a prisoner of a local tribe, slowly (very slowly) asserts himself as a valuable member of the community, witnesses all sorts of animal cruelty (a crocodile beheading is particularly unpleasant), falls in love, fathers a child, and defends his new pals against a malevolent tribe of cannibals. The cannibalism angle actually plays a relatively small part in the story — especially compared to the massive wave of exploitative insanity that would arrive only a few years later.
LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (1977)
a.k.a., Jungle Holocaust / Ultimo mondo cannibal
A team of oil company jerks have organized a base camp on the remote Filipino island of Mindanao, only to discover that everyone has gone missing! It doesn’t take long to figure out why: the pilot who gets gored by a massive booby trap gets off easy, but poor Rolf and Robert are left to contend with a “stone age” tribe of cannibals. Really nasty ones, too. And their kids are even worse. Robert spends virtually the entire film absorbing all sorts of gruesome punishments: he gets smashed into rocks, dropped into a pit, attacked by rotten little kid cannibals, AND has his bare genitalia groped more than once. Yikes. Those who dug Man from Deep River will no doubt appreciate the return of the long-suffering Ivan Rassimov and the perpetually naked Me Me Lai — and of course there’s a heaping helping of repulsive animal slaughters. And while Jungle Holocaust is actually fairly creepy once it hits the home stretch, it also suffers from a whole lot of boring nonsense in the middle section.
THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978)
a.k.a., Slave of the Cannibal God / Prisoner of the Cannibal God / La montagna del dio cannibal
If you thought that the arrival of legitimate movie stars like Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach would bring a little class and/or legitimacy to the suddenly very popular cannibal horror movie… think again. Because Mountain of the Cannibal God may be more disgusting than the first two films combined. Andress plays a well-off woman who enlists the aid of American adventurer (Keach) so she (and her prissy brother) can track down her missing husband deep in the jungles of New Guinea. Three guesses as to what happened to the missing husband. The original cut of the film was gruesome enough, what with all the gore, cannibalism, and castration — but the extended version also has some remarkably unsettling animal-on-animal violence and a couple of simulated sex scenes that come dangerously close to outright pornography. Entertaining in fits and starts (it kinda feels like a matinee adventure movie that turns into pure hell), but is ultimately undone by broadly over-the-top violence and the aforementioned animal violence that’s just randomly wedged into the movie at random points. (Does anyone actually enjoy watching a snake eat a monkey while it’s still alive and struggling? Yikes.)
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)
Not only the most well-known of all the early cannibal flicks, but also one of the early ancestors of the “found footage” sub genre, Cannibal Holocaust is probably the first (and frequently last) movie that horror geeks check out once they finally decide to dip their toe into this gristly sub-genre. It has everything you’d ever want from an Italian cannibal flick, especially if you enjoy gruesome sequences of animal cruelty (yuck), but there’s quite a bit more going on here than just another collection of gut-munch moments. The first half of Cannibal Holocaust follows a search party on the hunt for a hateful bunch of “documentarians” who went missing in the Amazon rain forest. The second half of the film focuses on the “found footage” left behind by the filmmakers — and boy it is not pretty. While much of the gruesome stuff is reminiscent of earlier cannibal flicks, there’s actually a bit more insight, intellect, and social commentary found in Cannibal Holocaust. (All things being relative, that is.) The film is just as disturbing as its predecessors — perhaps even moreso — but it also makes some pretty clever points and takes a few trenchant jabs at “true” documentary filmmaking.
EATEN ALIVE! (1980)
a.k.a., Mangiati vivi!
A rich, snooty woman enlists the aid of a swaggering adventurer to help track down her sister, who joined a religious cult in the jungles of New Guinea and then disappeared. Yeah, these movies didn’t exactly worry about being original, and Eaten Alive! showcases some particularly egregious plagiarism. Not only does Eaten Alive! mark the third and final on-screen pairing of Ivan Rassimov and Me Me Lai — not to mention Robert Kerman (last seen in Cannibal Holocaust) as the goofy hero — but the flick is so overloaded with old footage it almost starts to feel like a greatest hits album. Astute viewers will note that about 40 percent of Eaten Alive! is composed of footage from the first three films on this list — either the producers assumed that viewers wouldn’t notice the re-used footage, or they didn’t care. Even in the sliding scale of cannibal movie “quality,” this one is pretty weak.
CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980)
a.k.a., Invasion of the Flesh Hunters / Apocalypse Domani
This is sort of an “extra credit” inclusion. Aside from the first few minutes (in which American POWs in Vietnam have resorted to cannibalism to stay alive) there are no jungles in this movie. The action actually takes place in Chicago, and it centers around a strangely contagious outbreak of cannibalism that runs rampant through the city. It’s sort of an interesting bridge between cannibal horror and zombie horror, plus it stars John Saxon and it has some pretty wild violence, so feel free to dig this one up once you’re done running through the jungles in which cannibals generally reside.
ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (1980)
a.k.a., Dr. Butcher, M.D. / Zombi Holocaust
We try to avoid using the “Z” word here in our Intro to Cinematic Cannibalism class (keeping all these movies organized is hard enough without combining them with the zombie sub-genre) but this flick certainly deserves to be included among your homework assignments. It’s about a gorgeous anthropologist who travels to a remote Indonesian island to track down a mad scientist who not only mutilates corpses, but somehow manages to bring them back to life as “zombie” slaves. Once the expedition hits the island, we’re treated to some pretty standard mayhem, but things get considerably more interesting once our heroes track down the zombie-maker and start foiling his disgusting plans. If someone decided to remake this gory obscurity today, they’d probably call it Cannibals vs. Zombies. And you’d probably go see it. (Okay, you’d rent it for two bucks.)
CANNIBAL FEROX (1981)
a.k.a., Make Them Die Slowly
Arguably the second-most well-known / discussed / notorious Italian cannibal flick (after Cannibal Holocaust), this grungy import once claimed to be “the most violent film ever made” — which is ridiculous because it’s not even the most violent film on this list. “The most boring film ever made,” would probably be more accurate. At this point in the cycle of cannibal movies, the filmmakers seem intent on merely upping the eww quotient with each successive production, regardless of how tediously redundant the films may turn out. Cannibal Ferox is about an anthropologist who travels deep into the Amazonian rain forests to somehow prove that cannibalism has never existed. How a scientist would actually go about proving something like that is beyond me, but it’s not like cannibal movies are known for their intelligence. Anyway, the doctor slowly (very slowly) comes to realize, after her brother and various hateful traveling companions are devoured by a primitive tribe of carnivores, that — whoops — not only does cannibalism exist, but it exists all over the damn place. The flick earns a few points in Act 3 for creative carnage and a slightly ironic epilogue, but they hardly make up for the film’s endless first hour. (P.S.: “Ferox” is Latin for “fierce.”)
MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985)
a.k.a., Cannibal Ferox 2 / Stranded in Dinosaur Valley / Nudo e selvaggio
By the mid-'80s the jungle cannibal movie was pretty much standing on its last legs, as is plainly evidenced by the inept and cliche-laden — but somehow sort of entertaining — Massacre in Dinosaur Valley. The “high adventure” tone that was re-introduced in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark seems to have rubbed off on even the sleaziest of b-movies, which sort of explains why this movie has a swaggering archaeologist hero who hitches a plane ride into the Brazilian rain forest to research “dinosaur valley,” only to survive a plane crash along with a nasty war veteran, a photographer, and two models — most of whom meet randomly gruesome demises at the drop of a hat. (This may be the first cannibal movie in which said cannibals lose a potential meal to quicksand.) Suffice to say that a matinee-style “playful” tone doesn’t exactly mesh with a seamy exploitation flick that deals in carnage, cannibalism, torture, and slavery — but it does make for a weirdly amusing exploitation flick all the same. And while this obscurity probably wouldn’t rank all that high with the old-school cannibal “classics,” it does earn points for energy.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST 2 (1988)
a.k.a., Natura contro
Every film on this list, no matter how gross, classless, or sleazy, can at least claim to give the viewer what they want: merciless jungle brutality against humans and animals alike. Some of them may take a long time to get to the meat of the matter, but they all deliver some gruesome highlights before the end credits finally make their all-too-welcome appearance. Such is not that case with Cannibal Holocaust 2, which is not only an “in-name-only” sequel, but also qualifies as an “in-name-only” cannibal flick — simply because the film has no cannibals to speak of. Perhaps the “holocaust” in the title is meant to imply that all of the world’s cannibals have been long since exterminated, but either way this is one painfully lethargic, silly, and dry piece of jungle-set misadventure. It’s about four very resourceful friends who decide to steal a plane, travel deep into (all together now) the Amazonian rain forests to rescue a missing professor, and the wander around aimlessly. (They also spend a lot of time capturing monkeys and anacondas for local hunters for no good reason.) Sort of a weird way for the cannibal sub-genre to draw to a close, but it probably didn’t deserve a better send-off in the first place.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (2007)
What would inspire a big-time Hollywood screenwriter like Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard 3, Jumanji, Armageddon, The Punisher) to head out to Fiji with a skeleton crew, no screenplay, and very limited funds to make a teeny, tiny found footage horror flick? It’s probably safe to assume that he was inspired by childhood nightmares involving what went down in “classics” like Cannibal Holocaust — and while his ode to cannibal horror never made much of a splash upon its release, it definitely qualifies for inclusion on this list. It’s about two young couples who (stupidly) decide to trek deep into the jungles of New Guinea to locate the long lost Michael Rockefeller. It takes a good long while for the scary stuff to show up, but it seems as if the director was aiming for an old-fashioned cannibal movie that’s paced and presented precisely like The Blair Witch Project. By the time the perpetually bickering couples have grown to openly detest one another, Welcome to the Jungle has built up a nice bit of tension, which leads to a fairly satisfying (if annoyingly abrupt) finale.
THE GREEN INFERNO (2015)
When it comes to old-school horror cinema affection / addiction, few contemporary filmmakers come close to Eli Roth. Love his films (Cabin Fever, Hostel, etc.) or hate them, there’s no denying that the man really knows his horror flick history. So it was only a matter of time before he tackled the Italian cannibal format. Of course the story is about a bunch of naive young people who head into the South American rain forest, only to get captured by a tribe of man-eating natives — but whereas most cannibal movie protagonists are selfish idiots or arrogant jerks, the Green Inferno kids are actually trying to do some good on an ecological scale. It makes no difference, of course. Hungry cannibals don’t really care about the socio-political views of their potential meals. Clearly inspired by some of the most memorably outrageous moments from the original cannibal flick “craze,” Roth tosses some broad, sometimes juvenile, humor into the mix, but The Green Inferno is at its best when it’s being scary. Fans of the man-eater sub-genre will probably appreciate this icky throwback effort, but it’s unlikely to kick-start an all-new wave of “cannibal cinema.” And that’s probably for the best.