Creature Feature Crypt by Count Gore De Vol

The Man from Deep River, and the Italian Cannibal Genre


  Director Umberto Lenzi had been building a solid, journeyman’s career as a filmmaker since the early 1960s, first with a string of Peplum, then a fairly successful series of James Bond-inspired spy films, even a pair of war films and a few Spaghetti Westerns. However, it was in the late 1960s that Lenzi broke out of the pack and began to distinguish himself among his peers. In 1969 Lenzi’s Paranoia (Orgasmo), a Giallo starring Carroll Baker, Lou Castel, and Colette Descombes, though a box-office failure domestically, became a hit internationally. It would be the first of a trilogy of Gialli starring Baker that Lenzi would direct, with So Sweet… So Perverse (Cosi Dolce… Cosi Perversa) following the same year, and the confusingly-titled A Quiet Place to Kill (Paranoia) in 1970. Paranoia (Orgasmo) especially was a huge hit in American grindhouses and Drive-Ins, with its blatant sex and torture elements. In 1972, Lenzi’s Sette Orchidee Macchiate di Rosso (Seven Blood-Stained Orchids) blended elements of the Giallo with the style and violence of another popular Italian film genre, the Poliziotteschi. The resulting success of this film, and the similarly-styled Silent Horror (Il Coltello di Ghiaccio; Knife of Ice), released the same year, convinced Lenzi that audiences would be receptive to even bloodier and more graphic films. He embarked on what would be his most ambitious, and most graphic, project to date, The Man from Deep River (Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio; Deep River Savages; The Country of Savage Sex; Sacrifice!). It would launch that uniquely Italian sub-genre of Exploitation film, the Cannibal tribe movie.

    The Italian cinema in the 1970s and ‘80s had a definite sadistic streak, and these films brought it to the forefront. A natural outgrowth of the Mondo films, pseudodocumentaries that combined travelogue films with scripted scenes meant to be documentary footage examining societal and cultural taboos. Beginning with Mondo Cane (A Dog’s World) in 1962, the Mondo genre competed with the Gialli as Italy’s primary Exploitation export. As the decade of the ‘60s progressed, the Mondo films became increasingly exploitative, with more newly-produced film edited into whatever stock footage could be had for little cost. As with the Goona-Goonas of an earlier era, if the found footage was insufficiently salacious, then it was a simple matter to shoot a few thousand feet of film, with exotic looking male and female “natives” getting back to nature, as it were. It wasn’t surprising, then, that Italian filmmakers eventually pushed outside the envelope, doing away with the found footage, and going straight to the ultimate human taboo—cannibalism.

    Ivan Rassimov plays John Bradley, a British photographer on assignment to photograph the jungle wildlife in Thailand. After he kills a man in self-defense during a bar fight, he flees deep into the unexplored reaches of the Southeast Asian rain forest. Bradley is soon taken captive by a native tribe, and is made a gift of to the chief’s daughter, Marayå (Me Me Lai), to be her slave. After enduring many trials and labors, Bradley gradually begins to be accepted by the tribe as one of their own, though occasional overflights by military helicopters keep hopes of returning to civilization alive.

    Slowly, Bradley grows accustomed to life with his adopted tribe, he goes to war with the tribe against a rival tribe of cannibals, the Kuru, and he even takes Marayå as his wife. When she becomes pregnant, Bradley worries about her health, and decides that it’s time to make his break for freedom, taking his family with him.

    Heavily dependent upon footage of actual animal slaughter, combined with staged scenes of human butchery, the Italian Cannibal films were the most indefensible of the Sleazeploitation genres, appealing to the basest, most prurient interests of their audiences. Even those that are well-produced, with solid plots, decent acting, and a minimum of animal cruelty, such as The Man from Deep River, are difficult for their adherents to justify. Not even as devoted a fan of Exploitation and Horror as the Unimonster can find these movies anything but distasteful in the extreme, with little or no redeeming value. What amazes those who lack appreciation for these films is that anyone could find them entertaining. It is certain, however, that enough people did to make them profitable.

    Though The Man from Deep River stands as the prototypical Cannibal film, it took nearly five years for the genre to take hold, and for the second landmark Cannibal movie to be produced, Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World (Ultimo Mondo Cannibale). For owner/operators, the choice of whether or not to screen these films must have been a difficult one. The mark left on Drive-In Cinema by the Italian Cannibal genre was brief, but deep. They were, undeniably, successful; but to many, even pornographic films had to have been preferable. However, by the mid-1980s, the genre was all but dead. The Drive-Ins were closing down; the Grindhouses were being shuttered; even the public’s taste in films was undergoing a change. Taboos were once again being regarded as taboo, and while no one wanted to see these films censored or forcibly removed from movie screens, few complained when they died a natural death.

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