In every genre of film, there are those that aficionados would consider to be essential viewing. Whether it be because of superb acting and/or directing or sound and engineering, some films are considered superior to their similar counterparts mostly because of word of mouth. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, the cannibal sub-genre of horror was a huge hit all over the world and some of the most memorable films in horror history belong to that sub-class. I, myself, still have not yet found a palpable taste for these films, but Cannibal Ferox is one of those exceptions I had to make, just because of the controversy surrounding it, still after all these years.
Promoted as being banned in 31 countries, the film was released under the original title, Make Them Die Slowly. Since I began my hunt for the movies on my "must have" list, slowly, but surely, this one climbed it's way closer and closer to the top and after several years of searching for either a copy on VHS or DVD - for not wanting to resort to the high prices of mail order - I gave up. I have read countless reviews of this film and have delved into many opinions from critics and every-day viewers like myself and the more that I read, the more my own curiosity grew. Being the huge fan of Italian giallo and gore, I knew that sometime I would have to give in and take a look at this, only to finally know what the hullabaloo was all about. Could this film really push the limits to the degree that people said it had?
Back in the summer of 2004, I was vacationing in Dallas, Texas for my birthday and as I cruised Cedar Springs with some of my closest friends and browsing through Tape Lenders, I noticed the community bulletin board, wanting to know what was going on that weekend. From a distance, I saw an 11"X17" mini-poster with what I thought were the words "Make Them Die Slowly" across the front. I ran over to it and to my own school-boy glee, it was indeed a poster advertising the exclusive one-night showing of the film at the Angelika Film Center. And it just so happened that exact night was the night of its exhibition. After hours of trying to convince everyone to go and see this with me, I was immediately shot down and wasn't able to see this in all its wide-screen glory. Sure, it would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sure, I would have been able to brag that I'd seen it on the big screen and surrounded by fans of the film, but fate had other plans for me that weekend and still, to this day, I regret not having pushed harder to convince the group.
Then one day four years later, I walked into the local Video Liquidators in Fresno - where I have been lucky enough to have found some great finds - and lo and behold, this was sitting atop the back of the registers, propped up and smiling at me. I couldn't resist. I paid the (hefty) price tag - hey, after searching for this film for a good number of years, I wasn't going to walk away from it with the DVD being right there - and walked out of the store, practically squealing.
That night, I called my brother over and we sat down in front of it. The Grindhouse Releasing copy I'd purchase had a fantastic easter egg of a showing of the film at the Vine in Hollywood. I watched and thought about the night I could have seen this in Dallas and as my heart raced, I dove into the film first and didn't look back.
The introduction to this film has got to be one of the best in horror history: The disco-tinged opening track and the shots of New York City were just fantastic. Somewhere, some die-hard horror fan has this opening track as an MP3 in their iPod and jams to it every day while jogging or mowing the lawn and I can tell you right now that if I could get that awesome track into my collection, I'd probably end up doing the same thing. Listening and grooving to the track got me even more excited. And this is where the story takes a different turn.
Every horror fan knows the synopsis of this film: Gloria (Lorraine de Selle of The House on the Edge of the Park) ventures into the jumbles of the Amazon to write her college thesis on whether or not cannibalism still exists in the modern world. She takes along her friend Pat and brother Rudy and while in the jungle, they come across cocaine-wielding thugs Joe (Robert Kerman) and Mike (Italo-horror veteran Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Joe has been hurt and as the story unfolds of how Mike has brutally castrated and murdered one of the members of the local tribe, so did my boredom. Nobody seemed to mention that there's more story than gore - most of it doesn't begin until almost half-way into the film itself. I will make a note here that one things that did bother me about this movie was the portrayal of actual animal deaths. I was shocked more by this than the actual human murders that came to follow later on.. I had read somewhere that Cannibal Holocaust is guilty of the same atrocity, but I never read that Ferox had them, also.
I will say that once the gore begins, it begins. There's plenty of originality to some of the death scenes, but I was actually expecting to be appalled to the point of nausea and perhaps vomiting. But, that wasn't the case for me. Sure, some of the scenes were over the top and unexpected but nothing that I would consider worth losing my food over. So many reviews I've read about how atrocious and how reprehensible some of the latter scenes in the film are but I have to say that I didn't really find myself running for the bathroom. The scene where Joe is taken out to the middle of the village and is sliced open by the natives was impressive, though. Some of the scenes actually confused me: when the tribe turns on the group and they tie Mike to the tree to castrate him, it looks like they're slicing a piece of ham for a sandwich. I didn't believe it at all. Now, the castration scene in I Spit On Your Grave? That's a castration. There was no blood here, period. Wouldn't have mike bled to death? But I digress. His death by machete to the head was probably the best gore scene of the whole film.
The only one to escape in the end is poor Gloria, only to return to New York to receive her doctoral degree. I like how for a brief moment in the film, she utters a political statement in which she feels that outside society has kept the tribes people as the cannibals that they are. I sat and pondered on that for a while when the film came to a close and though the statement could be somewhat true, it should have been explored more in the film itself. The whole revenge of the tribe on Mike and the group as a retribution for the murder of one of their own is understandable and actually, I was expecting the film to go in that direction eventually.
Now, to call this film "The most violent film ever", in my opinion, is a bit of a long shot. At the time of this writing, I have yet to see Cannibal Holocaust which is supposed to blow this movie right out of the water. Whether or not I will sit and view that particular film is being decided, only because of my naivety of the cannibal genre as a whole. I have seen films more violent on both the sadistic and artistic levels and though these scenes are brutal in their own right, the final murders of the group can hold their own. If you aren't a stranger to this short-lived sub-genre, and you haven't seen this one, make sure you get a hold of it. I've only seen less than a handful of cannibal films and sadly, they do nothing for me. Give me stalk and slash any day.
Even if you're not a fan of this type of film, it will stay with you long after you see it. It's earned its place in horror history and for good reason. I will compare the experience of viewing this to my experience of seeing The Exorcist when I was in my mid-twenties: If I had seen this movie as a young kid, it would have scarred me for life. I can only imagine what people back in the early eighties felt as they packed grindhouses and little theatres to catch a glimpse of atrocities that had never been shown on the big screen before. Knowing me, I probably would have run for the men's room at some point after having downed a hot dog and a Pepsi. But even seeing it for the first time in my thirties, it was an experience I won't soon forget.
Here is the trailer - it's pretty dark, but it does the job.