Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.

MOVIE REVIEW: Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly) (1981)

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.Any horror fan worth their weight in shrunken heads, has at least heard of Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s infamous carnival of cannibal carnage, Cannibal Holocaust, and how its notoriety set off a mini-explosion of cannibal knock-offs during that same period. Not to be bested, City of the Living Dead helmer Umberto Lenzi wanted to see if he could equal, if not top Deodato’s, claim to ‘fame’, and the result was a nearly identical ‘homage’ to Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox (retitled under numerous names as most films of the period were but recognized mostly under the alternative Make Them Die Slowly).

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.You’ve got to hand it to the Italians; when it comes to mixing and matching hybrids, they go for broke, which makes for some of the goofiest, most unexpected plot twists and turns you’ve ever seen! Not content to simply settle for Cannibal Holocaust’s scenario of having ‘students’ going into the Amazonian wilds for anthropological reasons, Lenzi begins his screenplay as…wait for it…A CRIME THRILLER.

The story immediately starts off with a bait-and-switch, with a guy who we think will be a major character, until he’s promptly murdered by two goons in a New York apartment. Turns out they’re looking for a guy named Mike, who swindled them out of a lot of money, and unfortunately for him, they didn’t believe he had no idea where Mike was.

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.Enter the cops, as the murder case is headed up by Lt. Rizzo (Robert Kerman) and Sgt. Ross (Venantino Venantini). If Rizzo looks familiar, he should. Kerman also appeared in Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, underscoring the intentional similarities in the two pictures. But just wait…Lenzi encroaching on Cannibal Holocaust’s turf doesn’t stop there!

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.Cut to: somewhere near Bogota, Colombia. (Yeah, the transition is just that abrupt – get used to it!) Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle) has come here with her brother Rudy (Danilo Mattei aka Bryan Redford) and her best friend, the model/actress/free-spirit Pat Johnson (Zora Kerova), for something of a dual purpose. It’s for an adventure in the Amazon, sure, but Gloria is also a student of anthropology (shades of Cannibal Holocaust!), who is here to work on a dissertation that will disprove the entire concept of cannibalism and expose it as a myth created by colonialists who wanted to paint indigenous tribes as some kind of evil threat to more “civilized” people and, therefore, justify their extermination.

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.It takes a while for the fun to begin— nearly the entire first act — as Gloria, Rudy, and Pat eventually make their way down the Amazon River and begin their trek into the jungle to find the village that is the center of Gloria’s intended research. The usual ‘antics’ take place along the way: a cute little — lemur? Anteater? I’m not sure what the hell it was, but it was given to Pat by a native on the boat trip— is horrifically crushed to death by an anaconda (and probably eaten later, off-camera); the jeep gets stuck; and they wind up having to make their way to the location on foot.

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.Dying screams of agony lead them to a clearing where they find the slashed and impaled bodies of another native man and woman, and wouldn’t you know it — here’s where our intrepid heroes run into…MIKE! As in the “Mike” everyone’s looking for back in NYC. Mike Logan (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, the iconic star of such Lenzi hits as House on the Edge of the Park and City of the Living Dead, billed here as John Morghen) runs into them with his wounded buddy, Joe Costolani (Walter Lucchini aka Walter Lloyd) in tow.

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.When questioned by Rudy about what happened to them and the two dead bodies, Joe recounts a fantastic tale of looking to score some “really good shit” down here, when they ran afoul of a native tribe that enjoys snacking…on humans. He and Joe barely make it out alive, blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda. Having seen enough of these, it’s not hard for the audience to see from the jump that Mike is more full of shit than a livestock farm. Pat, however, is immediately intrigued. (I guess you know where THAT’S going.)

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.The now-enlarged group of five finally does make it to Gloria’s village, but for the most part, they find it nearly deserted, save for a bunch of elderly indigenous men, some women, and a few kids…none of the young men around whatsoever. And things are just about to get a lot stranger…and dangerously awkward.

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.

It takes a good little while to get to the “making them die slowly” part, but remember: it’s not about the destination, but the JOURNEY. Mike turns out to be an even bigger asshole than any of them realized, and it’s his actions that bring about the gruesome retribution from the natives, well-deserved or not. And unlike the jaw-droppingly realistic effects of, say, The Green Inferno, the practical and visual work here may elicit more giggles than screams from viewers since a 21st Century audience can’t help but notice how painfully “primitive” the bloodletting is. (Though it was probably anything but for moviegoers of that time period.)

The same thing that has many overly sensitive horror fans concerned about Cannibal Holocaust is present in Cannibal Ferox: the real-time, on-camera killing of animals. The anteater-thing that was Pat’s pet, as well as a large turtle that the natives dismember and eat ‘au naturel’, will probably be more of a turn-off to some than what happens to the humans. Yes, the anaconda sequence seems especially cruel, as it feels more like something set up intentionally by Lenzi in order to get some exploitative footage.

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.But to be completely realistic about it, anyone who’s seen a nature documentary has witnessed everything you’ll see here in the way of animal deaths and worse. The butchering and consumption of the turtle are so matter-of-fact, you can pretty much tell that it wasn’t the first time the tribe had consumed such a meal and probably wouldn’t be the last. Yes, it’s questionable that something so unsettling should have been used as the basis for entertainment, but it’s a bit hypocritical to dwell on this as an issue if you’re going out after the movie for a Wendy’s Triple if you get my drift.

But back to the movie. The NYC/Amazon scenario split keeps you wondering if it’s all going to come together eventually in a way that makes any kind of sense, and I guess it does at the climax.

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.Whether or not Cannibal Ferox one-ups its Cannibal Holocaust predecessor is up for you, the viewer to decide. For my taste, it’s just way too close to call. The very “Seventies” message that the violent nature of “civilized” man is contagious seems rather quaint now, or way too obvious to take seriously from a film that — let’s face it — hasn’t aged very well. As expected, the scenery chewing and horrendous English dubbing job are present as usual, though no one can ever say the cast wasn’t up to Lenzi’s demands. Everyone gives their best, and Radice is especially hissable as the amoral Mike.

Cannibal Ferox (1981) / Fair use doctrine.As for the direction, Lenzi is very similar to his contemporaries — Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, etc.— in the way that nothing ever stands between him and telling the story. Crappy acting, substandard special effects, iffy locations, hiccups in photography and/or editing — none of it matters. You may scream, cry, puke, be repulsed or tickled pink…entertainment is the main objective, and there’s no way that anyone into the human fast-food sub-genre WON’T be completely captivated. And there’s something to admire in that determination and sense of commitment — even if it’s only good enough for grindhouses and drive-ins.

For never being boring and maintaining its promise of off-beat entertainment at the very least, Cannibal Ferox gets two-and-a-half leg-gnawing stars out of five.




Posted by Samuel Glass

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