If you’re looking to venture into the tougher side of the horror realm, one subgenre I’d point you to would be the Italian jungle cannibal films. Emerging in the mid-1970s and reaching their pinnacle in the early 80s, the jungle cannibal films became notorious for their extreme violence which remains unparalleled and highly controversial to this very day. Perhaps the most well-known of the bunch is Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, which found itself under fire the second it hit movie screens, but a notch below that would be Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly). While not quite as expertly crafted as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox does manage to be a grisly, stomach churning entry into a line of films that wallowed in the deep end of bad taste.
Cannibal Ferox picks up with American student Gloria (played by Lorainne De Salle), who has traveled to the Amazon rainforest to work on her theory that cannibalism is a myth. Along with her brother, Rudy (played by Danilo Mattei), and their friend, Pat (played by Zora Kerova), the three venture deep into the jungle where they happen upon Mike Logan (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) and his severely injured partner, Joe (played by Walter Lucchini). Claiming to have been attached by a savage tribe, Mike and Joe team up with the group in an attempt to get help. They end up in a largely abandoned village, where Mike claims a third member of their group was tortured and killed. With Joe’s condition worsening, the group temporarily takes shelter, but after Mike and Pat attack a young native girl, the group begins to suspect that Mike’s story may not be entirely truthful. To make matters worse, the villagers return and begin looking for revenge.
Seemingly trying to ride some of Cannibal Holocaust’s buzz, Cannibal Ferox does come off like it was quickly slapped together in an attempt to lure back those who were wowed by the grisly sights of Deodato’s film. It doesn’t embrace the found footage approach, but there are quite a few similarities between the two films. Much like Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox spends a good chunk of time in New York City, where Mike Logan was a notorious drug dealer that fled the wrath of persistent gangsters. The film also mimics Deodato’s question of who the real savages are by Mike and Pat’s attack on the native girl. Hell, even Cannibal Holocaust star Robert Kerman stops by as Lt. Rizzo, a New York cop attempting to track down Mike. Lenzi even makes the ghastly decision to incorporate real animal killings, right down to a turtle being slaughter in a similar manner to Holocaust. This, of course, is one of the jungle cannibal staples that still manages to cause an uproar, and as an animal lover I will agree that its senseless and repugnant. It’s certainly never easy to see and not for the faint of heart.
In typical Italian exploitation style, a good number of the performances fall on the lackluster side, and they stumble further into unintended hilarity through the awful post-production dubbing. Those versed in grindhouse fare will quickly recognize Radice, who appeared in other gross-out efforts like Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse and Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. Radice quivers with perverse intensity as a sweaty, drugged out madman who gets his jollies torturing the poor natives. Equally game to match Radice’s outrageous performance is Kerova, who bops around the frame as a coke-sniffing party girl just looking for a good time. De Salle manages to shine as mild mannered intellectual Gloria, and Mattei wins our sympathy as Rudy, a good guy just trying to keep the group alive.
If you can believe it, Cannibal Ferox does manage to be much seedier than Cannibal Holocaust. It’s brimming with aggressively shocking violence that isn’t shaken off easily. Throughout it’s runtime, we get castrations, chopped off arms, impalements, the top of a skull chopped off so the natives can munch on brains like a bowl of popcorn, and fishing hooks through one character’s breasts, to name just a few of the queasy sights that Ferox has in store for you. Lenzi certainly understood what lured audiences to these types of films, and he makes sure that his contribution is memorable in the most ghastly fashion imaginable. The effects work is well done, but I don’t feel as though it reaches the mastery of Holocaust.
Overall, aspects of Cannibal Ferox are undeniably cheesy and over the top, but Lenzi and his crew do manage to make a film that simultaneously feels dangerous and forbidden. It ticks all the boxes on the gross-out list, and it proves to be perfectly capable of generating substantial amounts of tension and suspense. It ultimately stands as the perfect gateway into a long lost subgenre that refused to play nice.