Director: Umberto Lenzi
Screenplay: Umberto Lenzi
Starring: John Morghen, Lorraine De Selle, Danilo Mattei, Zora Kerova
Duration: 90 min
BBFC Certification: 18
Italian exploitation cinema of the 1970s and 80s is well known for it’s, shall we say, “recycled” elements. The filmmakers had no qualms about plagiarizing the plots of US films and were also happy enough to borrow from their fellow countrymen – such is the case with Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox. Released in 1981, the film very closely follows the plot and style of the previous year’s highly successful Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Ruggero Deodato. Although Holocaust is the better known, and arguably better of the two, Ferox has lived on in infamy and caused serious headaches for censors – it was reputably banned in 31 countries, mainly for the excessive scenes of animal cruelty. Shameless have now released it on Blu-ray in its least cut form ever in the UK, the majority of the cuts being of the unnecessary animal cruelty scenes.
The film begins in New York, where we follow a man who has just been released from a drug rehabilitation centre whose main goal is to go cop from his dealer, Mike (John Morghen). He roams the streets of New York until he gets to Mike’s apartment and is met by two men with guns. It transpires that Mike has double crossed a criminal gang and he has gone on the run. With the drug addict unable to give them any information on Mike, the hoods shoot him dead.
The action switches to the Amazon, where we follow Gloria (Lorraine De Selle) and her companions, who are researching her thesis on cannibalism – the theory being that cannibalism doesn’t exist and was invented by the Conquistadors. Trekking through the jungle, accompanied by Rudy (Danilo Mattei) and Pat (Zora Kerova), their jeep gets stuck in the mud and they decide to carry on by foot. Soon they come across the corpses of two tribespeople when, suddenly two men come rushing through the trees, one of whom is Mike, the drug dealer from New York. He and his injured friend have been in South America gathering cocaine and emeralds and explains how they were captured by cannibals, who tortured and killed a colleague, but they managed to escape with Mike’s friend getting injured in the process. The two groups decide to press on together, but they end up back at the cannibal’s village…
If I’m going to be honest, Cannibal Ferox is not a great film (although one I greatly enjoyed!), but it does meet its goal of shocking its audience – by 80s standards it is pretty nasty. The work of special effects artist, Gino de Rossi, is incredibly convincing – especially the “egg cup” scene (I’m saying no more!). Unfortunately, the couple of scenes of animal deaths and mutilation are real and as such, are far more disturbing. Animal mutilation is a common trait in these cannibal films, which does spoil my enjoyment of them a little.
The story takes a while to pick up – it’s over an hour into the film before any real action takes place. There is also a strange subplot set in New York with Mike’s girlfriend being chased by the hoods from the beginning of the film and her protection from the police. This appears to have been added to pad out the running time, but ends up ruining the tension in the final act as Lenzi keeps cutting between New York and the Amazon. The acting is pretty much solid – although it’s sometimes difficult to tell in heavily dubbed films – but the dialogue is ropey throughout much of the film. As laughable as the hoods constant use of the word “shitface” is, the misogyny that makes up a large chunk of Mike’s lines is pretty uncomfortable at times.
Like Cannibal Holocaust before it, Lenzi tries to add a bit of social commentary into Cannibal Ferox. The purpose of Gloria’s expedition is to discover if cannibalism is a reality, and when she discovers it is, it becomes apparent that this is a reaction to the brutality which so called “civilized” man subjects the tribespeople to. I feel that Deodato portrayed this slightly better in Holocaust though.
Shameless have done a great job in transferring Cannibal Ferox to Blu-ray. The restored 16mm film retains its grain, but is splendidly bright and looks great on a big television. The extras are little thin on the ground though – a brief interview with Lenzi recorded before his death in 2017 shows his infamous belligerence. There is also an interview with Giovanni Lobardo Radice (who is credited in the film as John Morghen, portrayed Mike) where he sheds light on how unorthodox Lenzi’s methods were, especially the way in which he treated the native Amazonian tribespeople. A restoration featurette and picture gallery are also included, but I would have liked to have seen a retrospective documentary or commentary as there must be some real tales to tell about the production.
So to summarise, Cannibal Ferox is a rip-off of a much better film, but it’s still one of the classics of the genre. One that I recommend to fellow fans of European exploitation films.
Cannibal Ferox is released on Blu-ray by Shameless