There have been handful of American films that dealt directly with cannibalism, but for true human on human munching, your best bet are the Italian "cannibals in the jungle" films released in the '70s and '80s. The most infamous come from the two "cannibal trilogies" of Italian directors Umbert Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato. It was practically a duel between the two directors to see who could put the most repulsive and sleazy images on the screen. For those who dared watch, we loved every tasty minute of it.
Here’s a look back at this most influential of sub-genres, proving that the most memorable cannibals prefer to eat Italian:
MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972)
Lenzi peeled the first flesh of this genre with his sly reworking of A Man Called Horse (1970). But instead of a captured white man (Richard Harris) enduring withering torture as he is initiated into a Sioux Indian tribe, we have a captured English photographer (Ivan Rassimov) put through various savage punishments as he is slowly accepted into a native tribe in the jungles of southeast Asia. Compared to the cannibal films that followed, Man From Deep River seems rather tame (the actual encounter with cannibals involves an enemy tribe, not the one our photographer falls into), but it did establish two of the genre’s main features: realistic depiction of remote jungle tribes and (unfortunately) real life cruelty to animals.
JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (1977)
Deodato’s first dip in the jungle cannibal pool upped the gore and torture ante as oil prospectors from a small expedition are stalked and devoured by natives in a South Pacific rain forest. On screen violence features folks being speared by spiked booby traps, eaten slowly alive by ants, as well as a savage rape, various beheadings, disembowelments, and regrettably more real life animal killings, including an excruciatingly cruel mutilation of a captured crocodile. Interestingly, this film was actually set to be directed by Lenzi (and it features two of Lenzi's stars from Man), but his fee was too high so the producers opted for Deodato, and the duel began.
EATEN ALIVE (1980)
Lenzi’s next entry mixes a Jim Jones-type cult with voracious cannibals in the rain forests of New Guinea. The story concerns a woman who joins forces with a mercenary to find her lost sister, apparently held captive by the cult leader. But escaping the cult compound is just the beginning, as a tribe of ferocious cannibals awaits in the jungle beyond. Not to be outdone by Deodato, this time Lenzi includes scenes of sadistic torture, brutal rapes, penis severing and various unfortunates being disemboweled and devoured alive. Marred only by more real life animal cruelty, but otherwise a cheesy, sleazy fun fest that lives up to its name.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)
Long before The Blair Witch Project, Deodato came up with the device of a revealing the fate of a missing documentary film crew via footage found in their cans of film. But unlike Blair, the images inside these cans - discovered hanging in the trees of a Brazilian jungle known as "the Green Inferno" - really deliver the shocks including major flesh chomping, limbs severed by machete, a violently forced abortion, several vicious rapes, an on-screen castration, and the iconic image of a woman sexually impaled on a huge spear. Generally considered the high (or low) point of the genre for gore and violence to animals (and that's saying a lot), the deaths depicted were so life-like that Deodato was pursued by some legal authorities for producing a snuff film. Many reasons why this is the most infamous and banned film of the genre, including the real and extremely hard to watch killing of a giant tortoise (seriously gross), plus the controversial twist of having most of the savagery and debauchery committed by the white film crew, which makes the natives brutal revenge seem almost heroic.
MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (1981)
Lenzi's last entry in the genre (better known by aficionados as Cannibal Ferox) is also his most famous, and perhaps the only film of either trilogy with a message. Grad students venture into the South American jungles to prove cannibalism is a myth, perpetrated by white colonialism to denigrate native tribes. They unknowingly fall in with a sadistic drug dealer who tortures and kills the natives for fun. When the natives take their extremely cruel and gory revenge (including a shocking scene of genital mutilation), her thesis is proved, but not quite as she anticipated. Like Eaten Alive, a movie that lives up to its title, and then some.
CUT AND RUN (1985)
The final installment in Deodato's trilogy features a more recognizable cast (including Richard Lynch, Eriq La Salle, and Willie Ames from Eight Is Enough!) plunging back into the South American jungle. There's plenty of action and some nice gore set pieces, but it's actually pretty light on the flesh eating. Wes Craven was supposed to direct, which probably accounts for the unique presence of Michael Berryman (the iconic Pluto from The Hills Have Eyes) who makes the most of his on screen time here as the murderous Indian Quecho. Although less sadistic than Deodato's previous films (with thankfully no animal cruelty), it does feature one of the great death scenes as a Viet Cong-style trap literally rips a man limb from limb.
An honorable mention must go out to MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978). This film, directed by Sergio Martino, is one of the better known copycats of the Lenzi/Deodato films. Though not nearly as hardcore or sleazy as the above entries, it works as an enjoyable jungle horror/adventure, especially with the luscious Ursula Andress, in fine form as a woman on the trail of her missing scientist/husband on a island off of New Guinea. When she and fellow scientist Stacy Keach stumble into the realm of a masked cannibal tribe, the fun (and gore) really begins. Also known as Slave of the Cannibal God.