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Jungle Holocaust B+
Year Released: 1977 (USA: 1978)
In my review of Ruggero Deodato's 1979 cult classic chunkblower Cannibal Holocaust I stated that it was the crown jewel of the popular Italian cannibal film subgenre. And while I still wholeheartedly stand by that assessment, I can tell you that Jungle Holocaust is nearly as good -- in fact, it's even better than Cannibal Holocaust in some areas.
Oil company employee Robert Harper (Massimo Foshi: The Chosen) leads a small group to Mindanao, an island in the south Pacific. After a rough landing in their small plane, they disembark to locate the advance team that should already have camp set up. However, after they disembark, they discover the camp's in shambles -- and there's no one to be found. Anthropologist Rolf (Ivan Rassimov: Shock, Eaten Alive), who's part of Harper's four person team (along with pilot Charlie and a female member) discovers a homemade weapon at the site -- and immediately concludes that the missing campers have been attacked by a stone age tribe of cannibals.
Unable to leave the island right away (because darkness has fallen by the time the plane is fixed) they spend the night. However, when the female member of the party has to relieve herself, she's abducted and becomes a cannibal midnight snack. Our three heroes search for her the next morning -- until Charlie is killed by a really wicked native booby trap (a large chunk of wood with a bunch of pointy stakes swings down and impales him to a tree -- Umberto Lenzi would re-use this idea in Cannibal Ferox). Robert and Rolf eventually become lost, but do manage to find the river that should lead them back to the airplane. They quickly fashion a pretty nice raft (Rolf is sort of like The Professor on Gilligan's Island or something) and set sail. However, they encounter some pretty wild rapids (ala Deliverance) and wreck the boat -- and Rolf is sucked away in the process.
Harper is forced to face the jungle alone -- lost, with no food and water, he wanders about aimlessly hoping to stumble onto the airstrip. Starving, he eats some poisonous mushrooms, passes out, and awakens to find himself surrounded by cannibals. The tribe takes him back to their cave, strips him down, then subjects him to numerous tortures and forces him to live in a cage. Eventually, Harper escapes, and with the aid of a native girl (Me Me Lai: Eaten Alive) he flees into the jungle -- with the cannibals in pursuit. From there, he eventually stumbles upon Rolf (who has a knee that looks like it's got gangrene), who's living in a cave with everything but a coconut radio. The three team up and decide to find the plane -- do they find it? I'm not telling.
This would be director Ruggero Deodato's first cannibal film, and honestly, it's quite entertaining. Both Jungle Holocaust and Lenzi's Man From Deep River are essentially responsible for spawning the entire Italian cannibal film subgenre -- a subgenre that was quite popular in the late 1970s and very early 1980s -- until the zombie craze inspired by George Romero's Dawn of the Dead became all the rage. There were never as many cannibal films as there were zombie films, but the few films in this particular subgenre have garnered some well-deserved infamy. Increasingly more violent and gory (which basically culminated with Lenzi's super sleazy Cannibal Ferox), these films have been lusted after by hardcore gore aficionados for years -- and even today, they're quite hard to come by -- necessitating purchasing them through one of several different bootleg companies if you want to see a true, uncut version.
Much of the notoriety of these films stems from elaborate and realistic gore FX. (In fact, Deodato faced an obscenity trial in his native Italy for Cannibal Holocaust -- one that he lost when he couldn't convince authorities that the on-screen footage was fake. This ruling was eventually overturned, however.) There's some truly gruesome carnage in these films (particularly the later ones) and they're certainly not for the squeamish. Still, the real reason most of these films are infamous today generally deals with the fact that they featured some real life animal cruelty. Some of the footage in the film is clearly taken from nature documentaries, but other sequences are real. Here, we see the natives kill a python, and kill and cut open a medium-sized crocodile. It's gratuitous and gross, but condemning Deodato for it seems slightly misguided -- after all, there weren't the same moral issues concerning animal rights at the time this film was made as there are today. Anyway, if that sort of thing really bothers you, skip this film.
The cannibal films are never truly scary -- at least not in the way that traditional horror films are. Sure, there's the ever present fear of being eaten alive, but it's not the same 'edge of your seat' thrill ride that most genre films aspire to be. Instead, a film like Jungle Holocaust desires to evoke a different reaction from its audience -- generally one of dread coupled with despair. In these films, the jungle itself nearly becomes a character -- one often as harsh, if not harsher, than the human antagonists. Nature is a cruel thing, and the jungle is the perfect place to drive this point home. We watch with an ever growing sense of hopelessness as Harper, the cannibal girl, and Rolf trek onward through a never ending sea of trees, snakes, poisonous plants, and so on. We're not sure what will do them in -- either the jungle or the cannibals who inhabit it, but with each passing second, we're certain that they're not getting out of this alive. Deodato does a nice job of capturing this despair -- and the indomitable human spirit that perseveres in spite of these seemingly impossible odds.
The camerawork and direction here are solid -- Deodato has never been a particularly flashy director, and his work here is fairly straightforward as well. But, he continually manages to capture the oppressive, almost claustrophobic, nature of the jungle itself. He pulls the audience right in -- and soon, we're just as lost and trapped as Harper -- only we find ourselves with no hope for a positive resolution to the situation. Say what you will about Deodato -- call him a hack, a cheap exploitation filmmaker, whatever -- but realize this: the man knows how to involve an audience in a story and force them to put themselves in the character's position.
Still, there are a few directorial gaffes here. This is an exploitation film, and Deodato never lets us forget that. There's the crass and leering camerawork that marks every gore effect, every bit of exposed flesh (and trust me, there's a ton of nudity in this film; Me Me Lai is naked from the start, and Harper himself is forced to trek through the jungle nearly naked after his escape) stand out and scream for your attention. Now, I'm not opposed to seeing the gore or the nudity, but the manner in which it's presented sometimes seems cheap. I think Deodato could have kept every gore shot in the film, but presented them in a bit more of an artistic fashion. But hey, I'm not complaining.
My one real beef with the film is that it lacks in the cannibal action department. The cannibals are sort of relegated to supporting players here -- and while they do get to be savages and eat people, this film really pales in comparison to Cannibal Holocaust, which has one of the most incredibly brutal climaxes I've ever seen.
The acting here is surprisingly good, though. Foschi is quite believable as Harper and manages to come across as a real person instead of simply potential cannibal lunch. Rassimov is good too, with his cultured accent bringing a real air of authenticity to the character of Rolf -- which is something you don't see in many of the Italian cannibal flicks. Finally, Me Me Lai turns in a solid performance as well. Granted, she doesn't have a line of dialogue in the film, but she's quite alluring running around naked in the jungle. All in all, these characters are much more three-dimensional, and much more likable than the characters in Cannibal Holocaust.
It's inevitable that after watching this film and Cannibal Holocaust that you compare the two -- they're both cannibal films, they're both films made by Ruggero Deodato, who was clearly the king of the subgenre, and they're both highly regarded amongst fans of this particular kind of film. So how do they stack up in a side by side comparison? Surprisingly well, actually. Both films feature that same oppressive sense of desperation -- that feeling that the jungle is continually closing in on you, but I think it's slightly more prevalent in Jungle Holocaust. Both films feature some fairly complex thematic material which is presented in a bit of a heavy-handed way (hey, these are exploitation films... what did you expect?) but they cover different ground. Cannibal Holocaust tends to focus in on the question of who are the real savages, us or them? after showing us some atrocious behavior from the supposedly civilized humans. Jungle Holocaust honestly seems both more ambitious, and less heavy handed, dealing with several different thematic issues, including the adaptability of man to different situations, and even perhaps the notion that for all our civilized trappings, we're honestly only one step away from reverting back to being savages ourselves -- particularly if doing so guarantees our survival. Of course, neither film is offering up anything all that profound, but it is worth noting, if for nothing other than you rarely see any kind of philosophical issues addressed in exploitation cinema.
Naturally, with this being a cannibal flick, you'd expect there to be some good grue to satisfy your gore cravings... and you'd be right. While there's not as much gore here as one might hope, what is here is pretty good. We get to see the pilot get spiked by the booby trap, the hacked up crocodile, a rape, a native that has a baby, then throws it into the river -- where a hungry croc devours it, natives chowing down on some human meat, a native who gets his arm slashed open, then has ants put on the wound -- ants that devour his arm right down to the bone, and most impressive, a native that has their head chopped off, is cut open from throat to groin, has their guts pulled out, and then has hot stones placed in the empty body cavity (Lenzi would steal this in Eaten Alive as well). Gore fans should find more than enough to hold their interest here.
As I pointed out at the top, Jungle Holocaust has about a billion alternate titles. And to further complicate the life of cannibal fans, there are a lot of different versions of the film floating around -- most of them cut. The British version entitled Cannibal is cut, as is the popular Video City release with the title Jungle Holocaust. Basically, if you want to see the uncut version (and you know you do... after all, why watch something like this and not get the full effect?) then you'll have to track down a copy of the film entitled either Last Cannibal World or Ultimo Mondo Cannibale. My review was based on a viewing of Ultimo Mondo Cannibale -- so it's the uncut version. I do own a copy of Cannibal, which isn't butchered, but is missing some footage.
In closing, Jungle Holocaust is a surprisingly good cannibal exploitation film. All of the standard cannibal elements are present and accounted for -- gut munching, gratuitous nudity, scenes of animal cruelty, and some good gore -- but there's also the added bonus of some good performances and some interesting thematic material as well. Truthfully, I was engrossed in this film for its entire 90-plus minute running time. And while it's certainly not for the squeamish, or the easily offended, it is a flick well worth checking out if you're an exploitation cinema fan, cannibal film fan, or just curious about either subgenre. It's not on the masterpiece level of Cannibal Holocaust, but it's close.
Review published 09.04.2000.
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