Exploitation TV: Volume Sixteen

This week, EX TV takes you into the heart of the deepest, darkest jungle for three cannibal pictures.

For cinephiles, the definition of home video label Vinegar Syndrome’s name is something like a secret handshake. The disease it references consumes celluloid. When film stock starts to degrade, it releases acetic acid, the key ingredient in (you guessed it) vinegar. This phenomenon became a plague during the 80s, chewing up prints of pictures improperly stored in hot, humid conditions. In many cases, where reels of smaller films were scarce due to budgetary restrictions, one bad case of vinegar syndrome could rob the planet of an artist’s work. 

According to a ‘12 study conducted by the Library of Congress, only 14% of nearly 11,000 movies made between 1912 and 1930 exist in their original format. Around 70% were lost completely. Coming in at a close second in terms of casualties is the Exploitation Era. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as many of the weirder, more obscure movies made during these decades of disrepute are pictures we’ve probably never heard of in the first place. Thankfully, the Bridgeport, Connecticut boys at VS own a private archive, from which they’ve been pulling and scanning prints of overlooked horror, exploitation and smut cinema from all eras. To make it easier on all us degenerates, they’ve even established a streaming service, where you can log in and watch all the back alley oddities they’ve been uncovering and preserving, so that true vinegar syndrome doesn’t rob us of any more great trash art. 

For the sixteenth installment of EX TV, we head into an Amazon Hellscape for a cannibal triple feature...

Cannibal Terror [1980] (d. Alain Deruelle, w. Julio Pérez Tabernero & H.L. Rostaine)

Sleazoid Express co-author Bill Landis famously labeled the cannibal pictures that became a minor sensation in Italy during the '70s and early '80s - many of which wouldn't hit the American grindhouse circuit until halfway through the latter decade, extended the subgenre's shelf-life - "cannibal vomitorium" films. It's a pretty apt moniker; as these movies really were nothing more than shocking endurance tests, which wanted to turn your stomach with scenes of animal cruelty, primitive sexual rites, plus heinous acts of rape and genital mutilation. They were Mondo movies without the travelogue pretense of transporting audiences into another culture so that they could learn (while undoubtedly leering). Many of the entries were helmed by the country's premiere genre workmen - including Umberto Lenzi (The Man From Deep River ['72]) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust ['80]) - who'd cut their teeth churning out stylishly explicit sex and violence in the giallo and poliziotteschi sectors of their national exploitation scene.

Alain Deruelle was actually a French director who worked in Spain's smut system, often manning softcore cheap thrills such as The Erotic Festival ('79), and co-directed the Nazi WIP sexpot Jailhouse Wardress ('79) with notorious Spanish sleaze monger, Jesús Franco. In that regard, Cannibal Terror ('80) is a third-removed outsider's interpretation of a country's disreputable cinematic filth, which may explain why it never truly rises to the heights of cruelty its predecessors achieved. Deruelle never commits to out-and-out savagery when the native tribe (who seemingly live in rocky Spanish hill country) feast upon a trio of kidnappers idiotically seeking shelter in their territory. Instead, the director casually ogles his lead actresses as they bathe, a deliberate gaze that renders the subsequent rape scenes all the more stomach churning (as he's obviously after titillation at times). Yet this gauzy inability to fully focus on the ugliness that'd become a staple of the "cannibal vomitorium" picture leads to some rather striking images; such as the snatched girl's grieving parents, seen through sun-streaked windows staring off at the horizon, as if hoping to catch a glimpse of their girl. Too bad they end up in the forest, too -- more food for the godless hordes who dine on warm human flesh.

Devil Hunter [1980] (d. Jesús Franco, w. Julián Esteban & Jesús Franco)

It’s always good to remember, no matter how perverse his pictures get, that Eurosleaze King Jess Franco hails from a background in jazz music (which he often used to help provide his films a soundtrack). Unleashing the exploitation legend in the jungle is a recipe for cacophony, in terms of visual, sonic, and subgenre mash-ups. His camera drifts over cannibals’ homes, clearly a small forest in Spain that’s been lightly dressed to appear like the Amazon. Stock bird sounds, tribal drum loops and ominous droning combine into a deafening clamor that seems to bounce off the canopy, before we reach a beach where waves endlessly lap the shore. Indigenous hunters chase human prey in the first scene, before Franco transitions into his usual sadomasochistic WIP template: a blonde model (three-time Franco fixture Ursula Buchfellner) having been kidnapped by a gang of crooks, who chain and molest the beauty amidst the wild setting. All the while, an African tribe cowers in fear due to the bleeding, bug-eyed, lurking Devil God who wants to rain death down on anyone foolish enough to stumble upon his unholy ground.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Devil Hunter ('80) is how Franco makes the "cannibal film" distinctly his own. None of Franco's works ever seem to move with a real sense of urgency, content to float along, stopping at numerous tableaux of garish rough sex and violence along the way. The Vietnam Vets contracted by the kidnapped goddess’ management feel like they’re taking a vacation more than being on a search and rescue mission; refusing to even put the bottle down as a nubile, nude woman they recover tells them the girl they’re after is set to be sacrificed to the Devil God (who will literally eat her heart from her chest). No wonder the requisite subgenre ending - where a gorgeous woman in danger is tied to a stake and then massacred by the chomping clan - is transmuted into a veritable low-rent dance number, with equally hard-bodied tribal women shaking it in the buff while the model squirms in discomfort (and one of her supposed rescuers simultaneously fucks his way to a slasher film death scene on a nearby yacht). It’s a “copy of a copy” scenario, genre-wise, but that doesn’t matter when you have arguably the most unabashed pervert in cinema history manning the machine.

Mondo Cannibal [2004] (d. Bruno Mattei, w. Giovanni Paolucci & Bruno Mattei)

Bruno Mattei was possibly the most shameless rip-off artist in Italian exploitation history (and, quite frankly, that’s saying something). As he marched on from making genuinely insane Nunsploitation like The Other Hell (‘81), to nonsensical collages of stolen footage and cheaper filler like Cruel Jaws (‘95), his craft level edged into the Syfy/Asylum realm of modern trash cinema. Mondo Cannibal (‘04) is Mattei remaking Cannibal Holocaust (‘80) with green screens, backyard jungle sets, and reels of borrowed clips from the subgenre classics it’s imitating. In short, it’s simply an aughts iteration of ‘70s knock off cheapies, never straining to do anything more than earn its production budget back on the DTV market via copious amounts of gratuitous nudity and rubbery gore SFX.

To be completely honest - while Mondo Cannibal is certainly awful, it’s still incredibly watchable, despite the motion smoothed digital photography and Wakaliwood-style production value/stunt work. For die hard fans of the “cannibal vomitorium” subgenre, it’ll play like a greatest hits reel, compiled by a very accomplished YouTube video guru. Mattei is providing further proof that in order to create a turgid rip-off, you still have to maneuver around subgenre stereotypes, until they play like a self-referential parody. “My public wants one thing: blood, you asshole!” The lead reporter screams at her squeamish cameraman before their guide butchers a baby alligator. It’s as if Mattei’s reminding himself and his crew what they all showed up on set to deliver that day, as well.

Tune in next week for three more picks from your new favorite channel. In the meantime, log in to Vinegar Syndrome’s streaming service to embark upon your own filthy adventures.