August 09, 2007

Cannibal Holocaust

Eaten Alive.jpg

No one can match Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic vision of our civilization’s total demise in 2006’s The Road. The world has been entirely destroyed beyond all recognition and comprehension. The story takes place after the fantastic Armageddon. Exactly what happened is unclear. Everything must have gone wrong all at once: economic collapse; a world hopelessly at war; environmental disaster; nuclear Holocaust; you name it, it must have all happened in one great unforgiving and devastating storm. US literature has never been closer to the minimalism and extreme bareness of late Sam Beckett. Humanity is reduced to little more than the cadaverous, grimy, bulky weight that is the dying shell of the human spirit. McCarthy has understood the simple fact that where survival is concerned the end most closely resembles the beginning. The truest thing McCarthy ever heard was that we humans are monkeys in pearl necklaces. Dorothy Parker was once supposedly challenged by some snide, upper crust snob to put the word “horticulture” into a sentence. She reportedly retorted: “You can lead a whore-ta-culture, but you can’t make her think!” McCarthy’s is a hyperrealist’s world, cruel and amoral. There isn’t much mercy in his world-view, but 1985’s Blood Meridian might be one of his most ruthless contributions. The book reads like an old Quentin Tarantino movie — except set in a lawless Wild West. Someone gets brutally scalped or otherwise gored to death on practically every page. Blood Meridian makes Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) look like a family picnic. The Road is basically the intimate story of a father and son trying desperately to stay alive after the only world they know has gone to hell. Everything is reduced to the cold hard facts of life: them against the world. There are a couple of classic Atomic Age allegories of the breakdown of society where good folks are set against each other. They were generally law and order propaganda intended to remind us that our culture was the only thing that saved us from mob rule. McCarthy is a student of human nature. He’s never placed much serious stock in moral ideals. What McCarthy’s interested in is what his fellow humans are capable of when their existence is seriously threatened. And a recurring theme of The Road is that devastating environmental conditions reduce us to cannibals. Anthony Burgess is best known for A Clockwork Orange. Some folks dismiss his earlier efforts, but his follow up to A Clockwork Orange was The Wanting Seed (1962). The novel is a complicated rebuke of ideological political cycles. Has anyone noticed that all of a sudden out of the blue during what is a widely acknowledged crisis in our nation the presidential election season was moved up by an entire year? Although more than half the national civil population is in favor of impeachment, the topic has been moved off the table in disproportionate part due to the unprecedented shift in the political schedule. Burgess takes the subject to cannibalistic ends. As the story opens up, we are introduced to a totalitarian version of a liberal government: all government officials are by law homosexual; police officers are recognized by their bright red lipstick drag; and it is forbidden for heterosexuals to procreate. An obvious crisis ensues. A Military regime is instated to deal with the calamity. The homosexual government can’t feed their citizens. Simulated wars are contrived in order to deal with the problem of starvation by creating a food source out of the fallen soldiers. Of course, no matter what the ideology the public servants remain the same. Soon enough cannibalism proves too controversial. And the cycle begins anew. Bar the rare exception, movies have shied away from the subject. The Japanese director Toshiyasu Sato’s Spatter: Naked Blood (1995) took the theme to the unprecedented highs of auto-cannibalism. Three girls are given an experimental painkilling drug that results in bizarre self-mutilation. One of the experimental subjects, for example, eats herself alive. The most faithful contributions to the subject where probably made by 70s and 80s Italians. Jay Slater’s Eaten Alive! (2002) is without a doubt the most complete account of these cannibal and zombie movies. Where zombies are concerned, nothing the Italians did ever came close to George Romero. Not that the cannibal movies are so great. It’s just that nobody else got into it so much as the Italians. The movies most commonly sighted are: Umberto Lenzi’s Man from Deep River (1972); Ruggero Deotato’s Jungle Holocaust (1977); his Cannibal Holocaust (1980); Lenzi’s Eaten Alive! (1980); and, finally, Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981). They are a peculiar bunch of films if for no other reason than their incredible amount of crossbreeding. Identical footage, stock imagery of the cruelty of jungle wildlife and staged footage of savage rituals is shared throughout, and so are the same actors, especially his lead man Ivan Rassimov, Mark Kerman, who was always in a completely different role, and Me Me Lai, who gets an awful boob-job somewhere between Deep River and Jungle Holocaust. Lenzi is hit or miss. He’s a classic Italian B-movie director right up there with Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Argento is a hands down master, but, if there’s any doubt about Fulci, his 1983 Conquest might change some minds. Lenzi and his acolytes were the prime movers behind these cannibal movies, but the director illuminated a great many depraved subjects over his long career, and showed an uncanny insight into the most violent psyche, among the more notable of his contributions was the criminal mind in Almost Human (1974). These flicks are essentially about sex and violence. Not surprisingly one of the best movies in the long running Emmanuel soft-porn franchise was Aristide Massaccesi'sEmmanuel and The Last Cannibals (1977). When Lenzi took the theme up again a few years later the bar of primal lust and gore was raised pretty high. Deotato’s Jungle Holocaust was basically a story of one man’s survival in the vicious, primordial jungle. Lenzi’s movies all had a very different theme. He wanted to contrast primitive man against modern space-age man. In his movies the balance of nature is tipped by the intervention of our world. In Deep River a desire to exploit natural resources leads us deep into the jungle, our irrepressible greed and wanton exploitation is what brings all our deepest fears of the rain forest alive. These movies don’t address cannibalism literally. Naked, black wigged man-eaters abound, but these stories deal with the theme of cannibalism metaphorically. The lost tribes in these stories are supposed by outsiders to no longer exist. Eaten Alive! is a notable exception. It’s the story of a Jim Jones type cult that has taken up camp deep inside the South American rain forest, only it’s the Italian version, so the charismatic leader is portrayed less as an Elvis-like urban counter-intelligence agent gone awry, than as a perverted Roman demigod whose rituals include a fearsome golden dildo. But Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox is a pale comparison to Deotato’s Cannibal Holocaust of a year earlier. There is no better example of the student surpassing the master. If Lenzi wanted to call our modern way of life into question, Deotato’s movie is a far more vicious indictment of the vanity and greed of our civilization. A team of modern day documentary journalists go into the deep jungle and kill, destroy, and rape everything they encounter in order to juice their latest sensationalist film, until they anger the stone-age natives so much so that their bubble of superiority is irrevocably burst and they get the comeuppance due to them. The question is always clear in these movies: who is the real savage? And the answer is always the same: all our space age culture and civilization aside, we are.

Posted by dm-b at August 9, 2007 02:03 AM | TrackBack
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