1/9/09

Feature Friday: Jungle Holocaust (1977)

It's Friday folks, and you know what that means, another healthy dose of Jungle. I'm not talking about something you would rave to, or Upton Sinclair's novel about the horrors of meat processing (although somewhat similar perhaps), or anything having to do with a Fever, Love, or a Book. What I'm talking about tonight is Malaysia and it's dense tropic jungles. When Ruggero Deodato went there to direct his first cannibal film, he was carrying on the tradition of the Mondo movies or perhaps capitalizing of the success of Umberto Lenzi's The Man from Deep River (1973). Either way he created a thrilling film which set the stage for a host of imitators, good and bad, and for his own further explorations of the genre. That's why tonight I am happy to bring you...
Jungle Holocaust (Ultimo Mondo Cannibale) (1977) starring Massimo Foschi, Me Me Lai, and Ivan Rassimov. Directed by Ruggero Deodato

Rich businessman Robert Harper (Foschi) and his friend Rolf (Rassimov) are flying in to the Island of Mindanao to scout for oil, but when they arrive they find base camp to be devoid of life. In a panic, Robert rushes headlong into the jungle to search for any signs of life, and if not for his friend, would have become hopelessly lost. As it was they returned to the plane too late to depart before morning. During the night, their pilot's wife Swan gets out of the plane to relieve herself, but she never returns. In the morning Robert and Rolf, head out with the pilot to search for her, but they quickly become swallowed up by the jungle after their pilot sets off a deadly booby trap.

The men try and find their way back to the plane, and they construct a raft to take them down river. When they hit rapids, the raft falls apart and the men are separated. Robert wanders though the thick jungle for days, and finally in desperate hunger eats some of the local mushrooms. Unfortunately for Robert, they are not edible, and he passes out only to wake with the spears of local tribesmen in his face. He is taken to their camp where he is treated like an animal perhaps because the natives think that Robert can fly even without his plane. He is left in a cage with scraps for food, no water, and his only companion a couple of irascible birds.

Robert begins to spiral into madness as he witnesses strange and brutal rituals and begins to suffer from malnutrition. He attempts to get help from a lovely native girl named Pulan (Lai), but what he needs is lost in the translation. Instead he languishes in his cell until he discovers what fate is in store for him. The birds in the cage are used for bait for the crocodiles who are then ritually slaughtered and the bird taken from it's stomach. Not wanting to become a Croc's meal, Robert manages to escape and takes Pulan along with him as a hostage. He makes his way with his reluctant companion though the jungle, yet there is little time left for him to reach the plane before the natives catch up with them. 

Film Facts

--The film was intended to be directed by Umberto Lenzi as a sequel to his Man from Deep River which also featured Lei and Rassimov

--Me Me Lai went on to be the co-hostess of the British game show Sale of the Century.

--This is the first of Deodato's cannibal trilogy. The other film are the infamous Cannibal Holocaust (more on that in weeks to come) and the Jonestown inspired film Cut and Run (1985).

--Paolo Ricci, who handled the special effects, would work next on Martino's The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1977) and later on Fulci's The Black Cat (1981).

--Rassimov had previously worked with Martino in Your Vice is a Locked Room. 

The Bug Speaks

This is the kind of film that has everything that a cannibal picture is supposed to have, and while it may not share the infamy of it's progeny, Cannibal Holocaust, it does have many of the same characteristics that define that film. 

The most shocking thing with most of the Italian cannibal movies is the level of violence directed at animals. While nothing in this film left me as shaken as the monkey scene in The Mountain of the Cannibal God, it never the less managed to contain some pretty graphic stuff. You get a snake eating a lizard and then later and more grotesquely a bat, and a few other assorted scenes of animal on animal violence. These, while being by no means enjoyable to watch, come off more Discovery channel than disturbing. However the slaughter of the crocodile is another thing. Cut to pieces and disemboweled by the natives, the film shows off every gory detail in it's Mondo-esque desire for reality. It is not a scene for the faint of heart, but I will have to say that context does more for it than the act itself. I've seen slaughters of animals on shows like Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations that are much the same. (Though the TV footage might be a tad less gleefully gory.) Overall while the animal scenes will deter many people from watching this film, they were not the worst I have seen. 

The performances by Foschi, Rassimov, and Lei are what really make this picture. Foschi has much screen time where he must carry the whole weight of the flick on his shoulders. Long scenes of him imprisoned or wandering in the forest are aided by his subtle performance that makes his journey into darkness infinitely believable. By the time his big scenes come around at the end, it is easy to believe that the pampered businessman has been pushed to the extremes of his sanity. Plus give the guy some extra credit for spending much of the movie with not a stitch of clothing on him. From the point where the natives rip his clothes off, it is nearly an hour before Foschi is decent again.

Rassimov is gone for most of the film, but when he appears in the first half he is a strong compatriot with good survival skills, but when he returns to the action he is a broken man on the edge of death. While we do not see the hardships his character endures, it is to his credit that he played both believably. In the end when his character must depend on the hardened, but troubled Robert, the dichotomy between the two men has switched and brings the film into a nice balance.

Me Me Lei's role is a little hard to describe, but perhaps the
 most interesting. She infuses Pulan with innocence and curiosity, but without playing to the sentimental or cliche. The scene of hers which will always stand out to me is when Robert begs Pulan for water. Not understanding his ramblings, she instead gives Robert a handjob. The scene is not over played and comes off more like a well intentioned misunderstanding than exploitative (even though Ms. Lei spends 100% of her screen time topless). Perhaps because there was plenty of time to exploit her later in the picture. 

Deodato worked on this film with cinematographer Marcello Masciocchi, primarily known for his work in spaghetti westerns like Kill Johnny Ringo (1966). The jungle footage was shot beautifully, but the scenes set in the tribal camp are harshly monotone with grey becoming the overwhelming factor. Perhaps this was by design to give the camp more of an oppressive atmosphere, but the monochromatic feel left me wanting more. 

If it's more you want then perhaps more gore is what you need. This film comes up with some very nice stuff, and some laughable effects. When a man gets the skin of his arm eaten away by bugs, the scene itself is very tense, but the arm shown in aftermath is laughable and sadly takes away from the impact. Yet if it's impact you need, then look no further than the one scene of real cannibalism. When the tribe gets their victim and slaughters them with the same precision that they used on the Croc, it gives the scene a real feeling of realism which is augmented by some of the best body splitting effects I have seen. It was a scene that I watched several times over trying to figure out how it was achieved. 

In the end I found it a highly enjoyable film in parts. While I will probably view this one a second time, I will skip over the animal violence next time. It's nothing I want to see again, and even the mirroring between the Croc and human victims hardly stands as an excuse to put such things to film. If you can get past that footage, what you're left with is a good film with some very nice acting in it. This is one I'd recommend to anyone who likes Italian cinema or is curious about the cannibal genre. So check it out, and join us back here next week when I take on the next jungle film, Golden Temple Amazons. 


Bug Rating

3 comments:

  1. Being a fan of Cannibal flicks, I won't say that Jungle Holocaust is better than Cannibal Holocaust, but I will say I like it just as much. Those two along with Cannibal Ferox and Man From Deep River are my favs from the genre.

    Very cool and informative review, Bug!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Fred. I have yet too see CH, but look for my review of it the last Friday of this month.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very interesting review LB!
    [I for one never even knew that Cannibal Holocaust was part of a cannibal trilogy...]

    ReplyDelete

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