There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The sixty-sixth entry into this unbroken backlog is Umberto Lenzi's return to the Italian cannibal subgenre he helped kick off, Eaten Alive!...
The popular Italian Cannibal subgenre - or as exploitation historian and Sleazoid Express co-author Bill Landis referred to it: the "cannibal vomitorium" - began in the early '70s with Umberto Lenzi's Man From Deep River (a/k/a Sacrifice! ['73]). Starring Isaac Rassimov as the almost Nordic-looking tourist, wandering through Thailand with a camera in tow, the picture’s a play on the Richard Harris anti-Western A Man Called Horse ('70), in which Harris' big game hunter is captured by the Sioux and put through a rigorous regimen of torture and forced labor. Only in Deep River, Rassimov's passive adventurer becomes the prisoner of a native tribe, who also put this outsider through a series of nasty trials, including making him live in a wooden cage and shooting him with crude darts. After enduring the abuse, Rassimov's white cipher is accepted into the tribe, commencing a romance with one of the flesh-eaters’ women (Italo-cannibal goddess Me Me Lai), ultimately deciding that life in the jungle is far superior to returning to the civilized world.
Like all the best inadvertent filmic progenitors, Man From Deep River laid out several staples of the subsequent subgenre. While the actual chewing of human intestines looks incredibly phony - just like most of the violence contained in Italian genre pictures during the '70s, all neon blood and rubbery prosthetics - Lenzi more than makes up for said shoddy gore SFX with extended scenes of animal cruelty. A crocodile is split down the middle, a mongoose is made to fight a cobra, a monkey is beheaded, and its brains devoured. None of this is fake, mind you, an ethical disregard for life that makes sitting down with both Deep River and the movies that followed in its successful wake a rather dubious proposition. Alongside the popularization of this vile style of production were the basic cannibal movie plot points: white men (and usually women) enter the jungle, are captured by a tribe and forced to watch archaic rituals before a climax explodes, containing unflinching savagery and pitiless rape.
Man From Deep River is a narrative extension of the Mondo documentaries pioneered by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi (Africa, Blood and Guts ['66]) - all leering Euro voyeurism and unpleasant stabs at shocking the audience into submission. In the tradition of numerous Italo-schlock subgenres, Deep River’s triumph at the international box office spawned an entire string of motion pictures, and even a friendly competition between Lenzi and fellow splatter maestro Ruggero Deodato, following the production of The Last Survivor (a/k/a Jungle Holocaust ['77]). Considered by many (including Landis) to be superior to Deep River, Deodato's work - which was also retitled Carnivorous when it hit Times Square - crash lands a team of Western explorers in the jungle. The pilot (Rassimov again) becomes the lone fighter following the disaster and a string of encounters with another human-consuming cabal. With the aid of a second “good” native woman (Lai again), the fly boy becomes the titular lone escapee from the ordeal.
The Last Survivor is almost a carbon copy of Deep River, only a little more tightly executed formally. Released with a manufactured R-rating (as there’s no way the MPAA ever saw this movie), it’s a crass work of exploitation and one-upmanship, spawning a string of dueling pictures between the two grime purveyors. Lenzi returned to the subgenre - following years jumping pulp modes, such as gialli (Eyeball ['75]) and poliziotteschi (Gang War in Milan ['73]) - delivering the near satirical Eaten Alive! ('80). Containing laughably high levels of violence, sex and sadism that become near numbing by the final reel, Eaten Alive! is possibly the cruelest, most tasteless entry into a collection already known for being utterly reprehensible. This is also why Lenzi’s picture is one of the very best buckets of slime in the cannibal vomitorium: it knows exactly what sort of degenerates it's playing to and delivers precisely what they desire. The friendly competition between Deodato and Lenzi resulted in a rather revolting jewel in the subgenre's crown.
Tracking the journey of Sheila Morris (Janet Agren) - who lost contact with her sister Diana (Paola Senatore) after that free spirit joined a religious sect - Eaten Alive!’s primary white woman ventures into the rainforest, enlisting the aid of arm wrestling safari guide Mark Butler (Robert Kerman). What they discover is Diana's new cult - headed by a wooden dildo-wielding Jim Jones-style messiah, Jonas Melvin (Rassimov, again) - leading followers on an acid and flesh filled descent into Hell, with the cannibal natives watching from the hills. Naturally, Eaten Alive! devolves into an ugly procession of rape, slaughter, animal vivisection - complete with some brazenly recycled footage from The Last Survivor - and near gleeful castration. It's as if Lenzi is daring the audience to look away from the screen, packing as much awfulness into 93 minutes as he possibly can, and pacing it all with a breathless knack for pure entertainment. Me Me Lai even makes an appearance as beautiful tribe girl Mowara, whose topless image graced many of the movie's poster's, a knife pressed firmly to her throat.
The apex of the cannibal vomitorium would come to the Deuce five years later (despite being produced in '79), as Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust not only became the iconic poster child for the subgenre's capacity for nastiness, but also established the found footage template that would be utilized almost twenty years later in the landmark Blair Witch Project ('99). Lenzi would counter with his own Cannibal Ferox ('81), which would reuse the wah-wah pedal disco beats from Eaten Alive! in service of a plot very similar to that movie, in which two coked out villains make their way to the green inferno for another bout of sheer skin-tearing insanity (including one woman getting meat hooks slid through her breasts). To be honest, there’s pretty much zero social redeeming value (let alone formal innovation) to be mined from most of these motion pictures, but that's what marks them as some of the purest examples of exploitation. They exist simply to satiate the base desires of the worst savages sitting in the theaters. Better in the auditorium than out in the streets, I suppose.
Eaten Alive! is available now on Blu-ray from Severin Films.