Jungle Holocaust (1977)

Ruggero Deodato is infamous for Cannibal Holocaust, a 1980 film that, in addition to resulting in Deodato's arrest for supposedly killing the cast and the movie being banned about everywhere for its graphic violence and real animal killings, also foretold the "found footage" phenomenon.  Despite the movie purposely trying to be as repulsive as possible and pulling out every exploitation stop imaginable it managed to still be a decent movie, even if it is not one to which most people look forward to repeat viewings.  Even understanding that, no, the cast was not murdered and everything except the notorious animal torture (and the killings in this movie are torture) is fake, many reaction channels have backed out of viewing the movie partway through. 

Despite it being the most famous movie in the genre it was not the first of the Italian cannibal films.  That goes to Umberto Lenzi's The Man from Deep River, which featured a cannibal attack on a native tribe, even though it wasn't the focus of the movie.  It starred Ivan Rassimov as an American who kills a man in Thailand and flees Bangkok to hide out with a primitive tribe that gradually grows to accept him.  In the process he goes native as well.  It has animal killings - most of which are incidental and are meant to show tribal customs, rather than just shock value - but the main plot, despite some exploitation elements, echoes The Man Called Horse.  

The Man from Deep River is actually a good film without having to make any excuses for what is in it, and it was also quite successful, so much so that Lenzi was asked to do a sequel.  He wasn't at the time interested in doing one, so after some rewrites Ruggero Deodato was tapped to do it instead.  Maintaining Rassimov as one of the characters, as well as Me Me Lai, a Burmese/English actress who had played his love interest in the previous film, screenwriter Tito Carpi and his compatriots cooked up a "true" story about an American named Robert Harper who is kidnaped by an uncontacted tribe on the Philippine island of Mindanao.  

Harper (Massimo Foschi) is the owner of an oil company that has sent in one of his prospectors.  So far the news has been good, so along with jungle survivalist Rolf (Rassimov), nurse Swan (Judy Rosly) and pilot Charlie (Sheik Razak Shikur) he goes to meet them at a remote jungle airstrip.  When they land they find the radio destroyed and the camp deserted, and soon find the body of one of their crew.  It turns out there are several uncontacted tribes in the area, with at least one being cannibals.

Being too late to leave the group is forced to camp in the plane overnight, and when Swan goes out to take care of her business she is immediately captured by the cannibals.  A search for her leads to Charlie being killed and Rolf and Robert being separated, with the latter eventually being captured by another tribe after he eats some random flowers in the jungle.  He is stripped naked and held in a cage and, though the tribe aren't cannibals, he realizes that his intended fate is still not a good one.  Kidnaping a native girl named Pulan (Lai) he sets out to find his way back to the plane and to civilization.

In Cannibal Holocaust the "natives" were members of the nearby Colombian town in which they were filming, many of them not even members of the tribes presented nor living anything other than a typical rural Latin American existence.  I'm not able to find a lot about the making of Jungle Holocaust other than the why, but I would hazard a guess that it was not much different on this earlier film.  Many of the "natives" seem to have been made up to look more animalistic in contrast to Me Me Lai, whose features are obviously more "human."  That is a big problem with this film; the indigenous people are meant to look like savages, with barely any concept of language, and nothing more than unintelligent brutes.  Cannibal Holocaust at least made it clear what horrible people the American filmmakers were who went to exploit tribes for their own documentary, and I wonder if Deodato, through all of his excuses for how he handled things in his movies, felt a tinge of guilt for this one.  There is no portrayal of natives in this that is not racist, and in the unique colonial fashion of Europeans. 

The story, despite the opening and ending crawls, is fake, and I am sure even in the 1970s there were no "stone age savages" living on Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines and the seventh most populous island in the world.  It is a diverse place with influences from Buddhism, Islam and Roman Catholicism, and often resulting in some major problems for the main government in Manila.  It was a place that suffered wide-scale reprisals under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator in charge at the time this was made.  In fact, the only reason it takes place in the Philippines at all is probably the same reason Roger Corman and a number of Australian producers used it at the time.  It was cheap to film, there were plenty of people willing to work for next to nothing and Marcos did what he could to attract foreign business.  

That said, it is still not a horrible movie.  There are some great horror moments early on, as well as a decent adventure story in the last third.  The problem is that, despite the aforementioned racism and animal killings - albeit not as exploitative in this one, but still not really necessary - a good portion of the movie drags in the middle.  Once Robert is captured it is a rinse/repeat of him being degraded and scenes of the natives butchering things to eat, with some naked shots of Me Me Lai thrown in every now and then.  When the movie gets back on track there is also an unnecessary rape scene thrown in to keep things sleazy, with Pulan being seemingly grateful to the point of being willing to cooperate and bring Robert food afterward. 

Deodato, when he was not trying to be a master of sleaze, had a good eye and was a decent visual filmmaker.  Much of that is on display here, particularly in the beginning and end of the movie, but even without all the negative elements it comes down to the fact that this is a thinly plotted film that spends a lot of time trying to figure out where it is going to go.  Eventually when it gets there it can't help tripping over itself.  It's hard to say, but Cannibal Holocaust is the better of the two, if only because Deodato, despite his later backpedaling, doesn't try to hide the baser nature of his most well-known movie, and he manages to keep things going even if they're not necessarily enjoyable to watch. 

Jungle Holocaust (1977)
Time: 88 minutes
Starring: Massimo Foschi, Ivan Rassimov, Me Me Lai
Director: Ruggero Deodato 



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