Among the many subgenres that make up the exploitation catalogue of the mid-1970s and ‘80s, the most ferocious and merciless is undoubtedly the cannibal films that first emerged in 1972. Started by Italian splatter director Umberto Lenzi with his film il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (The Man from Deep River), the jungle cannibal movement hit a barf bag high with director Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 bloodbath Cannibal Holocaust, easily the most stomach churning of the bunch with its traumatizing sequences of violence, sex, and animal cruelty, all laid out in plain view to make you recoil at in disgust. From the dingy grindhouses on 42nd Street to the uproar it caused in Milan, Cannibal Holocaust was a major hit with audiences, prompting Lenzi—the director who started it all—to respond in 1981 with Cannibal Ferox, an equally repulsive but tremendously cheesy venture into the jungles of the Amazon. Released into American grindhouses and drive-ins under the menacing title Make Them Die Slowly, Cannibal Ferox will certainly have audience members with weak tummies burping back their lunch over the extreme special effects, but like most Italian exploitation films of the time, the film is brimming with goofy dubbing, mild overacting, eye-rolling dialogue, and a trumpeting score that only adds chills when it shifts over to a moaning electric guitar. It’s a gross out that you just can’t stop chuckling at.
Cannibal Ferox begins on the mean streets of New York City, with a drug addict looking for a heroine dealer named Mike Logan (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Upon arriving at Mike’s apartment, the buyer bumps into two mobsters who demand to know where Mike is. As it turns out, Mike owes the mobsters $100,000 dollars, but has apparently high-tailed it out of town to avoid paying up. Meanwhile, anthropologist Gloria (played by Lorraine De Selle), her brother, Rudy (played by Danilo Mattei), and their free-spirited friend, Pat (played by Zora Kerova), arrive in the Amazon jungles to prove Gloria’s theory that cannibalism is a hoax. Shortly into their adventure, the trio bumps into Mike and his severely wounded partner, Joe (played by Walter Lucchini). Mike and Joe frantically explain that they were attacked by a cannibalistic tribe and that a third member of their party had gruesomely perished in a nearby village. The group eventually stumbles upon the village where the third member of Mike and Joe’s group met a grisly end, but the village now seems largely deserted, with only the elderly remaining. The group decides that they will camp out in the village until they can get help for Joe, but after Mike and Pat attack and kill a young native girl, the younger villagers return to exact horrific revenge.
When Cannibal Ferox first arrived in America, the posters and VHS jackets made the claim that it was banned in 31 countries due to the extreme violence within the film—something that was sure to stir up some hype and lure viewers into the dilapidated theaters that dared to show it. Furthermore, swapping the title Cannibal Ferox for the more lurid Make Them Die Slowly also added another layer of icky intrigue. While time hasn’t exactly been kind to some of the ultra-violent Italian exploitation films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the special effects of Cannibal Ferox haven’t softened up in the slightest. For those with the an iron stomach, the film treats to you to two castrations, a gouged-out eyeball, one character having hooks shoved through her breasts and then strung up to bleed to death, a group of natives slicing into the chest of one fallen character and chowing down on his innards, and another character having the top of his head sliced off with a machete and the villagers lining up to grab at handful of his brains like they were picking from a bucket of popcorn. For fans of the cannibal genre, it delivers, but when held up to the unflinching “found footage” approach that Deodato took to Cannibal Holocaust, it pales in comparison. Yet Cannibal Ferox gets an extra bump due to the real animal slayings that are guaranteed to upset the uninitiated. Determined to match Cannibal Holocaust every step of the way, Lenzi goes berserk with the animal cruelty to the point of disturbing even the most hardened of exploitation viewers.
And then we have the performances, led by genre regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead), billed here under the name John Morghen. Radice brings some of the same screw-loose intensity that he brought to Cannibal Apocalypse. Here he is a greedy, coked-up madman who seduces Pat with powder, and gets his jollies from tormenting the natives. He’s a miserable piece of humanity meant to represent the savagery that brews and festers in bowels of civilized society. Radice is top-notch, even when his villainous side threatens to go over-the-top, but his downfall, which was out of his hands completely, comes from the atrocious dubbing and dialogue added in postproduction. As Joe, Mike’s wounded partner, Lucchini is surprisingly reserved when propped up next to the insane drug dealer. His compassionate side bleeds through when he witnesses Mike’s true savagery emerge in the most appalling way imaginable, making him a sympathetic character consumed by Mike’s personal demons. Kerova’s Pat is largely asked to run around with her shirt open and add a bit of sex appeal to this mud and blood show. Yet there is something fascinating about watching her get sucked in momentarily to Mike’s uncontrollable rage, and the results of her flirtation with the dark side have grave consequences. Mattei is slightly stiff as Rudy, the good guy who tries desperately to make a break for it and save his friends. De Selle overacts her role as Gloria, the anthropologist determined to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist. Wait for her hilarious plea with a native savior gruesomely impaled on a wicked-looking jungle trap.
Like most grindhouse knock-offs made to capitalize on another film’s popularity, there are aspects of Cannibal Ferox that are glaringly cheap or unintentionally hilarious. On the whole, Cannibal Ferox lacks the realistic polish of Cannibal Holocaust, seemingly made in a hurry so that Lenzi could claim the cannibal movie throne from Deodato. The score from Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione is nice and sleazy, opening with a smile-inducing siege of funky trumpets and slapping urban jazz as Lenzi’s camera spirals around the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s definitely something you wouldn’t expect to hear in a film like this, and it certainly never matches the eerily calm and dreamy synthesizers that the late Riz Ortolani used to set the scenic stage for Cannibal Holocaust. Things fare a bit better in the score department when we step off the beaten path and venture deep into the jungle. It is here that we get static guitars that effective make your arm hair stand on end. And then there is the dubbing and dialogue, both of which keep earning their share of unintentional laughs over the ninety-minute runtime. Overall, while it provides plenty of sleazy thrills for horror and exploitation fanatics, and it thoughtfully reflects on how the depraved actions of one can have devastating penalties on so many others, Cannibal Ferox spends way too much time mimicking the far better Cannibal Holocaust. You’re left wishing that Lenzi, the godfather of the jungle cannibal movies, had taken a few artistic risks to further the genre along.