I’ve never really been a big fan of the cannibal movie. The genre has its problems, most notably that they’re all the same movie at the root level. You can take the following formula and apply it to just about any cannibal movie: Civilized westerners/filmmakers/anthropologists/drug dealers head into the jungles of South America/Asia, fuck with the local stone-age tribes and wind up castrated, dismembered and/or eaten asking us the question: Who are the real savages?
I realize that I’m passing judgement on a genre of exploitation whose mission it is to copy the popular movies and that many popular post-nukes, kickboxers and slasher movies follow the very same convention but the cannibal flick has always been particularly bland to me, in spite of the excessive gore and boobs. Plus, they always seem to feature a lot of animal cruelty which doesn’t really shock me in a pleasant way. It just kind of makes me sick. There are a few twists on the formula that I actually quite like (i.e. Cut and Run and Cannibal Apocalypse) and a couple of genre gems that you just HAVE to see (i.e. Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferrox) but if you ask me, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Unless you’re talking about an archive item like Man From Deep River, which is, arguably, the source of the Italian flesh eater craze.
Photographer John Bradley, played by genre favorite Ivan Rassimov, descends into the thick jungle canopy that blurs the lines between Thailand and Myanmar to take some wildlife photos but the journey doesn’t last long before his guide is killed by the savages living in the jungle and he is captured. Why they kill the Thai guy and let the white guy live, albeit suspended from a tree in a net, is beyond me, but I suppose we wouldn’t have a movie if fifteen minutes in he gets a poison dart to the carotid and dies. What follows is the westerner’s slow embrace of the savage culture. The opening treats us to Bradley’s western sensibilities, thrilling to a Muay Thai fight, being an ass to his girlfriend and then displaying a little fighting ability when he turns an attacker’s knife on the attacker but the simple life, comprised of eating bugs and building grass huts eventually wins him over. After passing a gruelling initiation rite, Bradley is brought into the tribe where he falls for the beautiful and frequently nude Maraya and the two are wed, to produce and child and so on. But the nearby tribe of cannibals eventually attacks and somebody gets eaten.
It’s funny. If you bring up the title Mondo Cane with most people you’ll be greeted with blank stares, but Mondo and its countless sequels and knock offs were responsible for a massively profitable cottage industry of cinematic slumming. Documentary crews set off the four corners of the world to film the bloodiest civil wars in Africa, any indigenous people in loin cloths and face paint, weird-ass sex shows in Bangkok, and so on but the fad was also responsible for spawning the entire concept of the jungle savages movie. Right here. This very movie marks the beginning of the wave of the cannibal movies to emerge from Italy and this is easily the most Mondo of the pack. The pace of Man From Deep River is often interrupted by these day in the life shots of the tribesmen hanging out doing whatever it is that you do when you live in the jungle. Often this is meant to shock and it occasionally does but only when it involves a mongoose fighting a cobra for the entertainment of the villagers, or a goat having its throat cut in celebration of a new birth. They’re saving on special effects here, folks. That’s real animal blood and grue. The rest of the movie, however, particularly for a cannibal movie, is reasonably tame. A few tongues are cut out and there’s a bit of dismemberment but nothing ever feels quite as in your face as the high water mark, Cannibal Holocaust.
Rassimov is a serviceable protagonist, too. He’s almost a direct ripoff of Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse from which the plot of Man From Deep River closely mirrors yet Bradley’s endurance of the tribe’s initiation rites don’t seem nearly as intense or trying as Horse’s suspension in Man Called Horse. Dangling him from a pole and shooting him with blow darts just seems like a minor annoyance. It certainly looks uncomfortable but leaving him to bake in the sun all day was a far worse fate. But it’s Italy, what can you do?
The producers wanted full frontal female nudity, some way-out looking tribal rituals (which a title at the beginning insists are actual rituals) and some gory violence and they got what they were looking for. A compelling plot becomes strictly secondary and it may have something to do with modern sensibilities trumping the shocks of the early 70′s but Man From Deep River just doesn’t move me in any particular direction. There are god awful moments in Cannibal Ferrox and Cannibal Holocaust but for a cannibal flick, Man From Deep River is really about an outsider shedding the modern the world in favor of a budding relationship with a deeply tanned naked woman who considers wildflowers in her hair a major fashion accessory. The plot never really goes anywhere and Bradley’s relationship wth the tribe is barely ever explored. The only thing we come away with is a feeling that the witch doctor probably doesn’t like him much.
I guess cannibal movies have to start somewhere and as time marched on, they’d get further and further away from their Mondo beginnings, but this is an attempt to capture the Mondo magic in a fictional narrative that works in some places and fails in others. Director Umberto Lenzi is a sore spot with me, though. His poliziotteschi flicks are some of my favorites (eg. Rome, Armed To The Teeth) but I always hated when he descended into horror. Where some Italian directors, like Lucio Fulci, could leap around the genres with ease, Lenzi always seemed to stumble when he stepped out of his comfort zone of peplum and cops and robber flicks and packed them firmly with padding. He would come back to cannibals a couple of times with Eaten Alive and the aforementioned Cannibal Ferrox where he seemed to get everything right, even if it meant that the genre was starting to eat itself by exploiting other exploitation movies. Cannibal movies, however, are a popular destination for horror fans who are beginning to explore the fringes of the genre and for those looking for the starting line for movies about flesh eating savages, look no further than Man From Deep River.