Cannibal Ferox (1981)

Umberto Lenzi

Giovanni Lombardo Radice (as John Morghen) - Mike Logan
Lorraine De Selle - Gloria Davis
Danilo Mattei (as Bryan Redford) - Rudy Davis
Zora Kerova (as Zora Kerowa) - Pat Johnson
Walter Lucchini (as Walter Lloyd) - Joe Costolani
Robert Kerman - Lt. Rizzo
Fiamma Maglione (as Meg Fleming) - Myrna Stenn

Genre - Horror/Survival/Cannibalism

Running Time - 93 Minutes

Another year, another Italian Horror Week. Unfortunately, the man responsible for bringing the bloggers of the horror world together lost his battle to cancer in March. We still miss you. Doc Terror! But thankfully, many of us have come together for Jimmy to keep what he started alive.

This year, I decided to review the controversial 1981 cannibal horror film CANNIBAL FEROX. The irony of me picking this film didn’t hit me until it was approved. For those not in the know, I had planned to discuss CANNIBAL FEROX back in June of 2015 for Midnight Confessions, the podcast I co-host with Reverend Phantom and Moronic Mark. It had been planned months in advance for a Italian Horror Month that June for the show, which I was really excited for. Unfortunately, I was privately dealing with being a caregiver for my mom, who was suffering with a severe bout of cancer for 10 months. She passed away on June 3rd, 2015, forcing me to take a month hiatus  from the podcast and missing that entire month altogether. So CANNIBAL FEROX now seems connected to a horrible disease that took away two important people in my life. Not really the type of film any one would connect with cancer, but it somehow fits within my strange and bleak world. It is what it is.

What CANNIBAL FEROX isn’t is a film that’s catered to everyone, as it will please some and disturb others. It also isn’t a film that is nowhere close to being as memorable, or as good quality-wise to its counterpart - 1980’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. But CANNIBAL FEROX still manages to be an important film within the horror genre, for better or worse.

Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle) is a student writing a college thesis to disprove the idea of cannibalism in the Amazon in order to receive her PhD. To get prove for her piece, she takes her brother Rudy (Danilo Mattei) and friend Pat (Zora Kerova) along as witnesses to her findings in Brazil. Once they arrive to the Amazon, bad things happen to the trio. Their transportation gets stuck in a big mud puddle. The coati given to them as a distraction to the local tribes in the area is murdered by an anaconda. And trying to find a way out, they run into Mike Logan (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and his injured friend Joe (Walter Lucchini) - diamond smugglers who claim to have been attacked by cannibals. As the group witnesses Mike’s psychotic behavior due to drug use, they realize that Mike’s story isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Learning the truth, Gloria and company realize that they’re now seen as guilty in the eyes of the local tribe due to associating themselves with Mike - unfortunate victims of their revenge. Gloria finds out the truth about cannibalism, making sacrifices along the way.

While many see CANNIBAL FEROX as a poor copy of Ruggero Deodato’s highly infamous CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, the two films couldn’t be more different. While certain elements do remain similar in both films, Deodato’s film had more of an artful element to it - with the director actually trying to make a film of high quality while spreading a message that even the most prim and proper people could be more savage than the supposed uncivilized people who inhabit a jungle. It made you question who the real monsters using disturbing imagery that has repulsed people for decades. CANNIBAL FEROX has repulsive imagery as well, but Umberto Lenzi seems to care more about shocking his audience rather than making us question what we’re watching. That’s not to say that’s a bad thing, but FEROX doesn’t work quite as powerfully as HOLOCAUST does for that very reason. However, both films have their place within the cannibalism sub-genre.

CANNIBAL FEROX is a film that wants to be many things, but falls short on some of them. What it does succeed on are the scenes in the Amazon with Gloria, Mike and company. Unlike HOLOCAUST, the group of so-called “civilized” people aren’t at the Amazon to hurt or look down at the local tribes that may or may not be cannibals. Only Mike Logan, the film’s clear antagonist, shows any sort of vile behavior towards the locals. While he claims to have been attacked by cannibals, we soon find out that Mike was the one attacking these so-called cannibals because he didn’t receive the prize he was promised by one of them and killed some of them out of greed and anger. Mike is also a pretty disgusting drug dealer who calls women a “twat” and molests them any chance he can get. Because of Mike, Gloria’s plan to just visit an Amazonian tribe to study them and take notes for her thesis becomes a nightmare - as she and her friends are now guilty by association due to Mike’s actions. Mike’s actions also disproves Gloria’s idea of this cannibal myth, as his cruel behavior unleashes the barbarism of the tribe wanting nothing more but revenge on the “white people”.

In a way, Mike acts as a imperialist. He went to an island to steal their resources for his own benefit, turning on the island only when the resources aren’t enough to satisfy his greed. The locals revolt against him and whoever they believe is friendly with him, leading to an ugly and gory war that leaves many scarred and damaged. Like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, FEROX seems to be taking a stance that the real barbarians are the civilized folk who enter an unfamiliar location and believe they’re above it all and feel entitled to everything that location possesses. It’s clear who the real monster in this film is.

Mike isn’t the only misguided character in the film. Gloria, who’d you would think would be a bit more open-minded about foreign traditions or history, is completely misguided as she heads to the Amazon to disprove this idea of cannibalism. There are stories about this kind of thing for centuries in many facets of the world. Yet, Gloria is so caught up in her civilized world that she can’t fathom this idea that indigenous people might consider eating human flesh as a sort of lifestyle and habit. While she’s not as evil as Mike, her ignorance leads her to dangerous territory that changes her life forever. And judging by the ending of the film, she doesn’t really learn her lesson, even though she’ll suffer with her ignorance for the rest of her life. 

The others are just victims of their own stupidity. Rudy joined his sister Gloria to take photographic proof for her thesis, but should have known a few common things about where he was going. After all, how does one go to the Amazon and not know that piranha inhabit the river before dipping into it to hide? Joe just follows Mike’s lead throughout the entire thing because he’s scared of him, leading to his unfortunate fate. And Pat? Well she would rather get high or have sex during an educational venture, making her the biggest idiot of CANNIBAL FEROX. She even almost helps Mike rape and kill locals at one point. She’s no better than Mike really. At least the characters have development and you can somewhat relate to them on some level - even if they are pretty unlikeable people.

While the Amazon scenes work for the most part, the scenes in New York City should have never been in the film to begin with. I get that Mike needed some sort of backstory to explain why he went to the Amazon. I understand that learning about Mike through people who knew him - his girlfriend, the mob guys after him - was meant to show what a lowlife the guy was. But these scenes just ruin the flow of the film. In fact, they don’t really lead to anything important. The cops are looking for Mike. The mob is looking for Mike. Mike’s girlfriend is looking for Mike. But Mike is caught up in his own crap during this film, making these subplots meaningless. None of these people accomplish their goal at the end, so why even bother?

I’m also not a fan of these animal cruelty scenes in these cannibal films. Both CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and CANNIBAL FEROX are infamously known for these scenes, making many horror fans not want to watch these films more than once because of how the animals are treated in these films. I’m not a vegan or anything like that, but who finds pleasure in watching animals suffer or get murdered on their television? Deodato tried to make these scenes a bit more artful and meaningful in HOLOCAUST at least, even if I look away whenever these scenes pop up. Lenzi doesn’t even try in FEROX, mainly using these scenes to shock and disgust viewers to get a rise out of them. Do I really need to see a helpless coati, that’s tied to a pole, be smothered to death by an anaconda for three minutes straight? Do I really need to hear this coati cry for help and in pain at what this huge snake was doing to it? Do I find pleasure in this? No, I was disgusted that I had to watch that scene as part of this review. It’s not fun. It really bothered me. It’s made worse when the camera just lingers on this murder as if that’s okay. I’m all for the “survival of the fittest” in the animal kingdom, but that coati was murdered against its will without a chance to defend itself. There are also other scenes, especially one with a tortoise getting decapitated so it can be eaten [also disturbing]. But that coati and snake scene really upset me, to the point where I almost regretted taking on this film for a review. I know things like this happen. It doesn’t mean I need to see it on film for some sort of shock value.

The direction by Umberto Lenzi isn’t stylish or anything memorable visually. The editing is off at times and the flow of the film is definitely questionable at times. But Lenzi does manage to get a reaction out of you through his visceral camera work. Lingering on animals getting killed will either make you regret continuing to watch, or make you shut off the film entirely. The gore effects are pretty well done, making certain moments like cutting out an eye, a scalping, and castration make you cringe in disgust. Or maybe it’ll make you giddy. Whatever floats your boat. Lenzi also seems to follow Deodato’s book by telling the viewer that we’re all savages on some level through our main characters and the actions they make in order to survive. Deodato had a more artistic vibe in his direction, however, while Lenzi would rather shock and disgust us with his work. If that’s what Lenzi was going for, he succeeded big time.

The score by Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione is more subtle than not, which adds to the atmosphere of CANNIBAL FEROX. We get funky music, jungle beats, and synthesizer riffs that grab you during the more violent and uncomfortable moments in the film. I believe some music was taken from Lenzi’s previous cannibal film, EATEN ALIVE!. The score is probably not as memorable as the score from CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but it works nonetheless and adds to the overall mood of the film.

The acting in CANNIBAL FEROX isn’t the main focus of the film, but there are some pretty memorable performances here. Probably the highlight in terms of star performances is, without a doubt, Giovanni Lombardo Radice - known as John Morghen here - who plays one of the more memorable and vile villains in 80s horror in Mike Logan. Radice, a well known actor in the Italian horror world, probably provides one of his best performances as a con man who can charm you into bed, but is nothing but the scum of society. He’s smooth while still being a twitchy, sweaty creep. Radice’s vile and maniacal performance stems from the fact that he hated even starring in a film like CANNIBAL FEROX, displeased with the story and the treatment of certain characters and animals. Using that frustration and anger, he channels a misogynistic performance that rivals David Hess’ Krug from THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT as one of the more despicable characters ever portrayed in a horror movie. If there is any reason to watch CANNIBAL FEROX, it’s for Radice’s performance.

The other actors fare well in their own right. French actress Lorraine De Selle is spot on as the misguided and naive Gloria. She’s responsible for the best body language and facial expressions during the entire film, pretty much displaying the same feelings about this entire scenario as the audience watching. I bought her transition from snooty graduate student to traumatized survivor. Danilo Mattei is the male hero of the film as Rudy. He carries a masculine and strong performance that makes you want to see him survive, until the script betrays him for being stupid when it’s most convenient. The only other notable actor is Robert Kerman as a NYC police detective looking for the whereabouts of Mike Logan. It’s funny that he also starred in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, where he actually has a better performance in. It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get the chance to do much in FEROX, but it’s always nice to see him in these kind of films.

While CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is the “better” film, CANNIBAL FEROX is no slouch either. It’s sleazy, disturbing, and sometimes hard to watch. The animal cruelty is a big no-no in my book [I don’t need to see that in a film, I’m well aware that stuff happens], and the scenes that occur in New York City feel as if they’re from a different film that Lenzi wasn’t able to complete for some reason. However, it does what a cannibal film should. It provides a simple message that we are all monsters on some level, no matter if we’re civilized or not. The gore scenes are pretty cool. And the acting, especially by Giovanni Lombardo Radice, is worth the price of admission alone. CANNIBAL FEROX is definitely a polarizing film that’s not meant for everyone. But if you’re willing to take a chance on it, you could do a whole lot worse in this sub-genre. Definitely one of the better cannibal films out there.

3 Howls Outta 4

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