In my slightly sordid past, I have been dared to do a number of things including drink a pint of scotch in just an hour, dance on stage with a male stripper named Turbo, and also watch Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox back-to-back before I knew anything about them. Out of all of these tasks, the cannibal films were the hardest to get through and resulted in more nausea than the scotch. In short, I have a thing about animals. I can watch the most extreme horror films where people are the victims. But show me a slightly sad puppy or a mildly inconvenienced raccoon, and I’m disturbed for the remainder of the day. Why? Animals aren’t acting, and in the case of these classic cannibal films, the animal deaths are all real. That said, I have an odd appreciation for these films simply for attempting to push the envelope of decency.
Cannibal Ferox, also known as Make Them Die Slowly, was a film that everyone talked about but only the most hardened horror fans had ever seen. It was a VHS box cover that sat on the local video store shelves taunting viewers with warning labels emblazoned across the front cover. “This Motion Picture is one of the most violent films ever made” printed under the title was my clear invitation to watch this film. And they are not just marketing tools. This is one extreme film. Mike, a New York City drug dealer, is on the run after ripping off some underworld criminal-types to the tune of $100,000. He travels down to Paraguay with his friend Joe in search of cocaine. While there, they stumble upon Rudy, Gloria, and Pat, three young adventurers researching cannibalism in South America. Unfortunately, they find exactly what they are looking and are taken prisoner by actual cannibals.
Prior to the 70s, instances of cannibalism were rather rare on film. Flicks like The Naked Prey and several of the Tarzan films made mention of man-eating tribes, while occasionally films like Northwest Passage (1940) featured scenes of entrails consumption. What most horror fans know as “cannibal films” didn’t emerge until the 1970s. Many cite the 1972 Umberto Lenzi pic The Man From Deep River as kick-starting the brutal subgenre. The cannibals then exploded in 1977 with the release of Ruggero Deodato’s Jungle Holocaust. The genre would then climax in 1980 with Deodato’s next film, the highly popular Cannibal Holocaust. Cannibal Ferox rode in on the tail end of the “cannibal boom.” Despite the market being rather accustomed to the gory sub-genre by this point, Ferox still found itself on the infamous video nasty list in England. In spite of this designation, or possibly because of it, Ferox found itself lofted in the upper echelon of cannibal films.
By Ferox’s release, in order to make a successful cannibal film, the director had to try to convince the viewers some of it was “real” or documenting “real events”. There’s nothing like watching a movie where people wonder whether the director actually had his cast murdered for the sake of the film. I know a lot of the scenes depicting animal torture were real (which is highly disturbing), but let’s not take away from the brilliant FX work of Gino De Rossi. Best known as the artist behind Zombie (1979) and City of the Living Dead (1980), De Rossi eventually was able to shift into more mainstream American pics like The Last Emperor (1987) and Casino Royale (2006). But accolades should be given to Ferox for its ability to make an entire generation say, “Did they really just cut that guy’s dick off?”
Like many of the Italian cannibal films, the soundtrack is just as powerful and effective as the disturbing butchery. Cannibal Ferox features a soundtrack that is more 70s cop show than many of its counterparts. The use of funk guitar, bass, rock piano and synthesizer makes for a fun yet still powerful sound. It’s 70s recklessness with an 80s sensibility, perfect for a film that rides the line between two decades. The bulk of the soundtrack was done by Budy-Maglione, a partnership of Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione (who also appears in the film). This pair was responsible for collaborating on such films as Eaten Alive (1980) and Daughter of the Jungle (1982).
For years, this VHS classic sat on rental shelves under various titles and cuts. In 2006, Grindhouse Releasing put out the definitive DVD release of Cannibal Ferox just as Lenzi originally wanted it- completely uncensored and disturbing as hell!