If you are looking for a subgenre of horror that emphasized graphic violence and shock value above all else, look no further than the Italian cannibal movies of the 1970s and 1980s. Evolving from Mondo cinema, Italian filmmakers like Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato would exploit xenophobic fears of exotic customs; their movies often depicting ‘civilized’ westerners running afoul of cannibalistic natives.
Whilst most cannibal movies focused on nothing more than provoking extreme disgust – often through rape, torture, and real animal cruelty – a few titles stand out due to their social commentary; it is often the westerners that are the first to perpetrate violence upon the natives due to their ‘uncivilized’, misunderstood culture.
Censors around the world felt a deep repugnance for the subgenre – four out of the five cannibal movies on this list were deemed ‘video nasties’ in the United Kingdom and effectively banned for almost two decades – which only made them more desirable.
5. Massacre in Dinosaur Valley (Nudo e selvaggio) (1985) | Directed by Michele Massimo Tarantini
aka Cannibal Ferox II
Directed by Michele Massimo Tarantini under the pseudonym Michael E. Lemick, 1985’s Massacre in Dinosaur Valley is the least notorious Italian cannibal movie on this list. Exploitative but eschewing most of the real animal cruelty that contemporaries of the subgenre were known for, Tarantini opted to create an adventurous romp, set deep in the Amazon jungle. The result is a camp sleaze-fest brimming with all sex (the original title, Nudo e selvaggio, translates literally to ’Naked and Savage’) and gore expected from its 1980s South American setting.
In the UK, VIPCO (Video Instant Picture Company) altered the title from Massacre in Dinosaur Valley to Cannibal Ferox II in an effort to capitalize upon the success of the notorious Cannibal Ferox (1981), aka Make Them Die Slowly!
4. Man from Deep River (Il paese del sesso selvaggio) (1972) | Directed by Umberto Lenzi
aka Deep River Savages / Sacrifice!
Capitalizing off the success of Mondo cinema – mimicking the gritty realism of films like Mondo Cane (1962) and Africa Addio (1966) – and inspired by Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970), Umberto Lenzi’s Man from Deep River inadvertently led to a “cannibal boom” throughout the 1970s and 80s; an early example of the Italian cannibal movie, superseaded by the success of Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World (1977).
Notorious in the UK for its inclusion on the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) list of ‘video nasties’ in 1983, Man from Deep River avoided prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act but remained legally unavailable until the 2000s. Even today, Man from Deep River has never been released uncut in the UK; censors opting to remove much of the animal cruelty Lenzi included.
3. The Mountain of the Cannibal God (La montagna del dio cannibale) (1979) | Directed by Sergio Martino
aka Slave of the Cannibal God / Prisoner of the Cannibal God
Another Italian cannibal film to fall foul of media hysteria and find its way on the DDP list of ‘video nasties’ – under the title Prisoner of the Cannibal God – Sergio Martino’s The Mountain of the Cannibal God (review), like Michele Massimo Tarantini’s Massacre in Dinosaur Valley, is a jungle adventure; closer to man (or woman in the case of Ursula Andress) versus nature than its history of UK censorship suggests.
Watch Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach fend off anacondas, alligators, tarantulas, and the savage, cannibalistic natives of Ra Ra Me; known to local residents as the cursed mountain of the cannibal god!
2. Cannibal Ferox (1981) | Directed by Umberto Lenzi
aka Make Them Die Slowly / Woman from Deep River
Returning to the subgenre of exploitation he helped spearhead alongside Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi released Cannibal Ferox in 1981 to disgusted audiences across the world. Unlike Lenzi’s earlier Man from Deep River or Sergio Martino’s The Mountain of the Cannibal God, Cannibal Ferox’s inclusion on the DDP list of ‘video nasties’ led to its prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act; effectively making it illegal to possess a copy of the film in the UK until 2000 when it was certified (and censored) for home video.
Also known as Make Them Die Slowly, Cannibal Ferox deserves its reputation as a difficult film to watch; a rather ugly depiction of human depravity filmed on grainy 16mm. Sadistic in its treatment of animals – a common thread in this list – Cannibal Ferox is depressing and inexcusable in its uncut format, but it cannot be denied that Lenzi’s last cannibal movie is an important one in the lexicon of exploitation cinema.
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) | Directed by Ruggero Deodato
Inspired by the Italian media’s coverage of the Red Brigades, including news reports that director Ruggero Deodato believed to be staged, Cannibal Holocaust is a ‘hyper-realistic’ Italian cannibal film that innovated the found footage style of filmmaking – half of Cannibal Holocaust’s running time is presented as lost footage from a documentary crew – and blurred the line between fiction and reality…
After Cannibal Holocaust’s Italian premiere in 1980, the film was confiscated under the orders of a local magistrate and Deodato was charged with obscenity. Cannibal Holocaust’s notoriety however would reach its zenith in 1981 when the charges against Deodato were amended to include murder!
You see, many of the actors had signed contracts with the production which ensured that they would not appear in any type of media for twelve months following the film’s release; to promote the idea that Cannibal Holocaust truly was recovered footage. This led to various publications claiming that the violence was real and Cannibal Holocaust was a snuff movie… However, all murder charges were later dropped once the courts realised that the actors were indeed alive and well.
Prosecuted as a ‘video nasty’ under the Obscene Publications Act in the UK, Cannibal Holocaust has since been re-evaluated as a harsh social commentary on western civilization that elevates Deodato’s cannibal movie above all others. It is repugnant to watch, difficult to recommend, but at the same time, this anti-exploitation exploitation movie is an essential entry in the subgenre.