From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Cannibal films are a sub genre of exploitation film made mostly by Italian filmmakers through the 1970s and 1980s. This sub genre is a collection of graphically gory movies that usually depict cannibalism by primitive, Stone-age natives deep inside the Asian or South American rain forests. Even though not all cannibal films show cannibalism on screen, all the movies are connected with the genre by stating that the tribe is cannibalistic. While cannibalism is the uniting feature of these films, the general emphasis focuses on various forms of shocking, realistic, and graphic violence, typically including torture, rape, castration and/or animal cruelty. Similarly to Mondo films, the main advertising draw of cannibal films was the promise of gore, exotic locales, and cruel behavior, and eventually became a popular aspect of Grindhouse culture. The peak of the genre's popularity was from 1977 to 1981, a period that has come to be known as the cannibal boom.
Due to their graphic content, the films of this subgenre are often the center of controversy. Many of the films include genuine slayings of animals, making them a common target of censors around the world. The inclusion of graphic gore and sexual violence has also landed the films in censorship problems.
Movies similar to the cannibal genre certainly were not rare before the 1970s, as rain forest adventure films were often found popular in cinema (such as with the Tarzan movies of the 30s and 40s starring Johnny Weissmuller). Some of these films even included primitive, and in some cases, cannibal tribes, and could be seen as the prototype for the modern cannibal film. One movie that can almost be definitively linked as the predecessor to the cannibal genre is Cornel Wilde's 1966 film The Naked Prey, which involved a white man being chased by a tribe of natives because his safari group offended their chief.
The sub genre as it is known today was officially started with Italian director Umberto Lenzi's 1972 film Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (also known as The Man from the Deep River). Man from Deep River was released in New York City as Sacrifice!, and was a 42nd street hit. This film inspired several other similar films to be made during the late 70s, a period identified by genre fans as the "cannibal boom". Included in these films are Ruggero Deodato's Last Cannibal World( Jungle Holocaust in the U.S.A.), Sergio Martino's The Mountain of the Cannibal God, and a few films by Joe D'Amato starring Laura Gemser.
A large number of cannibal films were made in 1980, making it the most successful year for the genre. In February 1980, Ruggero Deodato released Cannibal Holocaust, probably the best known cannibal film. Its graphic and unrelenting violence and exploitation is believed to have caused audiences to realize how repugnant most of these films really were, and inevitably, the popularity of the genre began to decline. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Cannibal Holocaust was an enormous success; it is sometimes claimed to have accumulated a 200,000,000 USD worldwide box-office gross, though this has not been verified and the true gross may never be known. Lenzi would also contribute to the genre in 1980 with Mangiati Vivi (Eaten Alive), and again in 1981 with the notorious Cannibal Ferox (Make Them Die Slowly), but by then, however, the genre was beginning to fade, and only a few other obscurities were made until Mondo film director Antonio Climati was considered to have put an end to the genre in 1988 with the film Natura Contro, which is also known as an unofficial sequel to Cannibal Holocaust (it has an alternate title of Cannibal Holocaust II). Other similar films were made with a straight-to-video release afterward, most notably films by director Bruno Mattei.
The genre is heavily indebted to Mondo cinema, which similarly aimed to shock audiences with exotic customs and graphic violence. A common premise is of the cannibal films is that mondo filmmakers (as in Cannibal Holocaust) or anthropologists (in Cannibal Ferox) from a "civilized" country enter a jungle and runs afoul of cannibalistic natives. Ironically, many have a left-wing slant to them, as in the films, the "civilized" Westerners are the first to perpetrate extreme cruelty and violence upon the natives. The cannibals, in turn, reap revenge by inflicting the same form of barbarism on the Westerners. A few are set in modern urban centers with cannibalism practiced secretly, as in Emanuelle e gli Ultimi Cannibali and Zombie Holocaust.
While many films tread the definition of a cannibal film, the general understanding of the genre is that it involves primitive natives as a major plot point.
- Il paese del sesso selvaggio (1972; The Man from the Deep River/Deep River Savages)
- Ultimo mondo cannibale (1977; Last Cannibal World/Jungle Holocaust)
- Emanuelle e gli Ultimi Cannibali (1977; Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals/Trap Them and Kill Them)
- La Montagna del Dio Cannibale (1978; The Mountain of the Cannibal God)
- Papaya dei Caraibi (1978; Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals)
- Primitif (1978; Primitives/Savage Terror)
- Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
- Mangiati Vivi (1980; Eaten Alive!/The Emerald Jungle)
- Mondo cannibale (1980; White Cannibal Queen/Cannibals)
- Il cacciatore di uomini (1980; The Man Hunter/Devil Hunter)
- Orgasmo nero (1980; Black Orgasm)
- Cannibal Ferox (1981; Make Them Die Slowly!)
- Terror Caníbal (1981; Cannibal Terror)
- Schiave bianche: violenza in Amazzonia (1985; Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story)
- Nudo e selvaggio (1985; Massacre in Dinosaur Valley/Cannibal Ferox 2)
- Natura Contro (1988; The Green Inferno/Cannibal Holocaust II)
*Contains no on screen cannibalism
Several directors of different nationalities have contributed to the genre, but most did not make more than one cannibal film. The major directors to the genre are:
- Ruggero Deodato, with the films Ultimo mondo cannibale and Cannibal Holocaust.
- Umberto Lenzi, with the films Il paese del sesso selvaggio, Mangiati vivi, and Cannibal Ferox.
- Jesus Franco, with the films Mondo cannibale, Il cacciatore di uomini, and El Tesoro de la Diosa Blanca.
- Joe D'Amato, with the films Emanuelle e gli ultimi cannibali, Papaya dei Caraibi, and Orgasmo nero.
Like directors, few actors are cannibal genre regulars. The three actors who appeared in three cannibal films (the most by any actor) are:
- Robert Kerman in Cannibal Holocaust, Mangiati vivi, and Cannibal Ferox.
- Ivan Rassimov in Il paese del sesso selvaggio, Ultimo mondo cannibale, and Mangiati vivi.
- Me Me Lai in Il paese del sesso selvaggio, Ultimo mondo cannibale, and Mangiati vivi.
Other popular cannibal genre actors are Giovanni Lombardo Radice, a mainstream Italian actor; Laura Gemser, an Indonesian model turned actress in Italy; and Carl Gabriel Yorke, who played the most infamous character of the cannibal genre, Alan Yates in Cannibal Holocaust.
Because of the content, the cannibal genre is one of the most controversial genres of film. Many of the films were once banned in the UK and Australia, and most are forced to be cut before public display. Several are still banned in countries all around the world. Only two films of the genre (Schiave Bianche: Violenza in Amazzonia and Zombi Holocaust) have been rated R by the MPAA for the uncut version (the R rating for Zombi Holocaust has since been surrendered, and the film is now unrated in the United States).
The most controversial aspect of the genre is the real animal killings, featured in several cannibal films. Most of the films also include graphic scenes of rape and other sexual violence.
The most controversial and most infamous movie of the genre was Cannibal Holocaust. Ten days after the premiere in Milan, the film was seized by Italian authorities and director Ruggero Deodato was arrested on the belief that his film was a real snuff film. Facing life in prison, Deodato was able to bring all the actors onto a television show and demonstrated in court how some of the special effects were accomplished. The charges were dropped, but because of the still extremely explicit content, the courts still banned the film because of the real cruelty towards animals. Deodato was ultimately held on charges of obscenity and animal violence. Four years later, in 1984, Deodato was able to overturn the courts' rulings and the film was unbanned. Ironically, that same year, the United Kingdom, Norway, Finland, and Australia banned Cannibal Holocaust (all but the UK have repealed the ban). It is sometimes claimed that Cannibal Holocaust is still banned in over 50 countries worldwide, though this can only be verified for a handful of nations. In 2006, Cannibal Holocaust made Entertainment Weekly's Top 25 Most Controversial Movies of All-Time list, landing at number 20.
Several of the films landed on the UK's infamous video nasty list. They are:
- Il paese del sesso selvaggio (1972)
- La montagna del dio cannibale (1978)
- Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
- Mangiati vivi (1980)
- Il cacciatore di uomini (1980)
- Cannibal Ferox (1981)
- Terror Caníbal (1981)