“The following feature is one of the most violent films ever made. There are at least two dozen scenes of barbaric torture and sadistic cruelty graphically shown. If the presentation of disgusting and repulsive subject matter upsets you, please do not view this film.”
So begins the opening titles to Italian exploitation cinema icon Umberto Lenzi’s controversial 1981 Amazonian gorefest Cannibal Ferox (a.k.a. Make Them Die Slowly), a midnight movie staple and former UK video nasty that makes its way to Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox this Monday night (July 30th) at 6pm replete with a Q&A and presentation from TIFF Midnight Madness chief programmer Colin Geddes and director Eli Roth. It’s a bit surprising to see a film this opening sleazy and depraved playing at a building as prestigious as the Lightbox, but while the movie definitely requires a strong stomach, a love for all things cheesy, and a huge suspension of disbelief as to what makes a dictionary defined “good” film, there’s still definitely a lot that can be said about the film both positively and negatively.
Despite having directed over 60 films in his career (sometimes under various pseudonyms) with many of them being of the Italian mob thriller or giallo variety, Lenzi will probably always be tied to starting the decade long Amazonian cannibal movie craze that began in 1972 when he made the Mondo film one-off The Man from Deep River. That film roughly six years later would somewhat inspire the similarly minded Ruggerro Deodato (of Cannibal Holocaust infamy, released one year prior to Ferox), Joe D’Amato, and Jess Franco to make several cannibal films of their own from the mid-70s to the late 80s that would take advantage of extremely relaxed filming regulations to churn out often similar looking films about (usually) white twentysomethings poking their noses where they don’t belong and getting slaughtered for their transgressions. Cannibal Ferox was actually the third and final film of this cycle directed by Lenzi (following Eaten Alive!), but next to Deodato’s most notable film, remains the most easily recognizable.
Starting off oddly and jarringly like one of Lenzi’s mob films (in New York City of all places and with similarly jazzy music), Cannibal Ferox gives absolutely no indication whatsoever just where the movie is headed. A police officer named Lt. Rizzo (played by genre vet Robert Kerman, who appeared in Cannibal Holocaust as an anthropologist the year before) is looking for some guy named Mike who has skipped town following a heroin trafficking scheme that went awry.
Not much is immediately expanded upon as the film moves quite jarringly to the story of Gloria (Lorraine De Selle) and her friends Rudy (Danilo Mattei) and Pat (Zora Kerova). Gloria is on her way to the jungles of Paraguay to finish up her spotty doctoral thesis stating that cannibalism doesn’t exist. Aside from Gloria, the rest of the characters are pretty unlikable and by the first time they incompetently get their Jeep stuck in the mud, the audience will probably be begging for the titular cannibals to arrives, but their douchiness pales in comparison to the thoroughly unlikable Mike (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, a role that the actor stated years later that he wish he’d never played), who meets up with the students while hiding out in the jungle with his extremely banged up friend Joe (Walter Lucchini) after the duo had just escaped from a tribe of cannibals.
Next to Krug from Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, Mike might be one of the most reprehensible onscreen characters in horror movie history. He’s constantly threatening everyone, he never stops doing coke, every woman is a twat in his eyes, and he’s ultimately the reason the cannibals seize upon the group when he kills a girl from the tribe out of retaliation. There isn’t a single thing that Mike does that doesn’t warrant the gruesome torture that he’s brought unto himself.
The film has the requisite eating of entrails, beheadings, castrations, and a particularly grimy bit with some giant hooks which led to the film’s advertisers calling it the most violent film ever made and that it was banned in approximately 31 countries. Neither statistic is exactly quantifiable by any stretch, but the ad copy isn’t that far off. The film’s nastiness and depravity doesn’t only apply to the work put in by Italian make-up artist staple Giuseppe Ferranti or the crudely effective special effects from Gino De Rossi (who would take his grindhouse experience and put it to good use in films like The Last Emperor and Casino Royale), but also to some genuinely unjustifiable on screen killing of animals that puts this film into an even more controversial grey area of discussion.
The film still holds a place in cinematic history among cultists, genre fans, and Italian Cinema historians despite its faults, but it’s an added treat to see it presented as a rare, uncut 35mm print and introduced and talked about by someone like Eli Roth, who covered some oddly similar moral ground in his equally squirmy debut feature Cabin Fever. As a writer and director, Roth unabashedly seems to position himself as a no-bullshit heir apparent to the throne of the masters he looked so highly upon in his youth. Roth’s films feature characters that are ultimately undone because of their hyper-conservative senses of self-preservation, so it’s not much of a jump between something like Hostel and many of the exploitation films that were coming out of Italy in the post World War II era.
The movie itself might not be among the all time greats by any stretch of the imagination and it could seem to some elitists like the absolutely wrong fit for a building like The Lightbox, but this particular programming actually speaks to those who want to actually have a dialogue about a movie rather than just leaving the building immediately after. Take it from someone who has already seen the movie in a theatre when I say that Cannibal Ferox, whether you like it or loathe it, is definitely part of the big screen experience that will become less and less frequent in the coming decades.