Jungle Holocaust / Cannibal / Carnivorous / The Last Survivor / The Last Cannibal World / Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1976?/1978?) **½
Think of it as a dress rehearsal for Cannibal Holocaust/ Holocosto Cannibal. Some years before clobbering us with what is surely the most extreme example of a genre already well and justly noted for its extremity, director Ruggero Deodato made his first attempt to beat the pioneering cannibal horror film The Man From Deep River at its own game. Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (“The World of the Last Cannibals” is probably closer to the sense of the Italian than the overly literal The Last Cannibal World) certainly has its flaws-- the entire middle of the movie, for instance-- but it is saved by its surprisingly gripping first and final acts.
I’ve always been a big believer in not fucking around, and I appear to have found a kindred spirit in Deodato. Ultimo Mondo Cannibale gets right to the point, with oil company honcho Robert Harper (Massimo Foschi, of Holocaust 2000) riding a small company plane to remote site in the jungles of Mindanao. (It’s in the Philippines.) Accompanying him are a geologist and jungle survival expert named Rolf (Ivan Rassimov, who had earlier appeared in The Man From Deep River, and who would make yet a third foray into cannibal territory in Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive), a Filipina girl named Swan (whose silence on the plane trip marks her as Expendable Meat), and, of course, Charlie the pilot (Sheik Razak Shikur). Harper has come to Mindanao to check up on the progress of a team of prospectors he had sent to the jungle some months before in search of oil. Take a wild guess what he will find when he reaches their campsite.
That’s right, the camp is deserted, in terrible disrepair (the runway is so overgrown that the plane throws a wheel upon landing), and chock full of signs that something made its former occupants leave in a big hurry. While Charlie and Swan work on putting the wheel back on the plane, Harper and Rolf have a look around for clues to the prospectors’ disappearance. What they find is not good-- Rolf’s investigations turn up a bloodied spear, with a bamboo shaft and a head of chipped stone. As the scientist explains, he had heard that this particular stretch of jungle had once been the domain of stone-age tribesmen, and the discovery of the spear would seem to confirm the stories, and to point to the tribe’s survival to the present time as well. And in that case, Harper and company are in big fucking trouble, because the primitives in question were reputed to be among the last practicing cannibals in the world. Great place to have a busted landing gear, huh?
By the time Charlie has the plane ready to fly, the sun is on its way down. This means our heroes will have to stay put for the night, because the size and featurelessness of the jungle makes nighttime navigation too tricky an affair for a plane with such a limited fuel supply. At least the aircraft’s cabin makes a respectable shelter, both from the elements and from any unfriendly natives, and it’s a good thing too, because unfriendly natives are exactly what begins prowling around the periphery of the airstrip once it gets good and dark. And wouldn’t you know it, Swan waits until she and her comrades are surrounded by unseen cannibals before deciding to go out to take a piss. You know what that means, of course.
But Harper, Rolf, and Charlie (who’d kind of like to take a shot at it anyway) all know that the dead of night is not an auspicious time for three poorly-armed men to try to rescue a girl from cannibals. So they stick it out until the next morning, and then go charging off into the jungle to look for Swan. All they find is a scrap of her dress and a supremely nasty booby trap, the latter of which makes short work of Charlie. (An Italian cannibal movie is a bad place to have brown skin-- you just know there’s a panji pit or a swinging spiky log with your name on it somewhere.) Not much later, Harper and Rolf realize that they’re completely lost, and that their only hope of finding their way back to the campsite is to build a raft and follow what they think is the river that passes by it. Unfortunately for them, the river has a surprise up its sleeve in the form of a long and treacherous stretch of rapids; the raft smashes itself to bits on one of the larger exposed rocks, and Harper is forced to watch in impotent horror as Rolf is whisked away on the current to his almost certain demise.
But Harper’s troubles have scarcely yet begun. The mushrooms that are the closest thing to food that he can find prove to be poisonous, and he spends much of the night puking his guts out and hallucinating before finally falling asleep shortly before dawn. What he sees upon awakening is the final kick in the ass: a chipped-stone-and-bamboo spear pointed at his face, with a nervous-looking cannibal at the other end of the shaft. As a matter of fact, Harper finds himself completely surrounded by cannibals, and thus he has little choice but to accompany the tribesmen back to their home, a huge cave in one of the nearby hills. (This cave looks a whole lot like the one where the Puka live in Sergio Martino’s The Mountain of the Cannibal God-- could there be a connection?) The cannibals then tie Harper to a large stone in the middle of the cave, strip him, and after amusing themselves for a ridiculously long time by yanking on his dick, try to see if he can fly. “What?!?!” you ask. Well, remember, the cannibals saw him and his comrades fly in aboard Charlie’s plane, and I suppose that if fire was your idea of advanced technology, you might not grasp the point that the power of flight resided in the machine and not in the people riding in it either. When their experiments (which entail hanging Harper by a rope from the ceiling of the cave and then dropping him-- a lot) reveal that he is merely a man after all, the cannibals lock him in a crevice at the back of the cavern.
And now for the dull part. The next third of the film serves as little more than an opportunity to try to disgust the audience. Harper is forced to subsist on beetle grubs (for which he must fight with his “roommate”, a short-tempered toucan), is pelted with rocks and pissed on by cannibal children, and is given nothing to do with his time except watch his captors kill and butcher the reptiles that are apparently the staple of their diet. (The butchering scenes are, of course, the real thing.) It may sound hard to believe, but yes, watching a naked Italian man being tormented and crocodiles being skinned for half an hour really can be boring. The closest thing to a bright spot from Harper’s perspective is his discovery that the only good-looking girl in the entire tribe (Me Me Lai, who like Ivan Rassimov bracketed her appearance here with roles in The Man From Deep River and Eaten Alive, though she also had a small part in The Revenge of the Pink Panther, of all things) has a crush on him. But even this is something of a mixed blessing, because when what you really want is a drink of water, a hand-job from a gorgeous, naked cave-girl just is not a viable substitute. On the other hand, this particular cannibal chick ends up being Harper’s ticket out of the cave. Harper, you see, has discovered that the savages are keeping him alive for use as crocodile bait, and reasoning that live bait is better than dead, he decides to play dead one night in the hope of attracting his captors’ attention. When two of the tribesmen go into his “cell” to check on him, he kills both with a large rock and sneaks out into the main cave. He makes this first stage of his escape just in time to rescue Me Me Lai from a male cannibal trying to force himself on her, winning in the process enough of the girl’s affections for her to feel like helping him escape for real.
And at last the dull part comes to an end, and the admirable level of tension reached by Ultimo Mondo Cannibale before Harper’s capture begins to return. But first, time out for a turn of events that could happen only in an Italian exploitation movie. Me Me Lai clearly thinks Harper is pretty hot and all, but she’s not so sure she wants to elope with him. He nevertheless drags her along (often literally) because he needs her familiarity with the jungle if he is to have any hope of finding his way back to the plane. On the morning after his escape, Harper wakes to find that the girl has made yet another attempt to flee back home. When he finally catches Me Me Lai, Harper is so pissed at her that he takes a few more minutes out of his busy schedule of hiding from the cannibals to rape her. This has the result that we have long come to expect in these movies, to wit: Me Me Lai falls, in a stone-age primitive kind of way, in love with her attacker. This is revealed to us the next day, when Harper again wakes up to an empty… well I guess it’s not really a bed, is it, but you know what I mean. This time, though, his cannibal girlfriend is not trying to escape, but is instead out foraging for food for herself and Harper. The man’s heartfelt delight at the catfish she brings him is one of the high points of this movie.
But his sex life isn’t the only thing that’s improved since he fled the cave. A bit later, Harper accidentally stumbles upon Rolf! Apparently there really was something to the geologist’s incessant talk of jungle survival techniques, because he’s still alive despite a forest full of man-eating savages and an infected wound on his knee. Not only that, Rolf thinks he knows which way the campsite-- and thus the plane-- is from where he’s been hiding out. Harper, Rolf, and the cave-girl begin the trek to the plane, and all goes well at first, but before long, the cannibals have picked up their trail, and the chase is on.
This is where Deodato really shows what he can do. That tension I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago returns at full force, making Ultimo Mondo Cannibale the only cannibal movie I’ve ever seen in which I ever found myself actually worrying about the fate of any of the characters. Not even the mighty Cannibal Holocaust pulled that trick off! Equally important are a couple of genuinely surprising twists, one of which is also more than a little disturbing.
Before I wrap this up, I want to say a few words about dates and titles. To the best of my knowledge, the first English-language version of Ultimo Mondo Cannibale was called The Last Survivor, and it probably hit American theaters in 1978. I can’t be certain about the dates, though, because no two of my usual sources are in agreement on the subject. I suspect 1976 is the correct date for the original Italian release, because Sergio Martino would seem to need at least a little time to figure out which parts of the film were worth ripping off for his The Mountain of the Cannibal God, made in ‘78. Carnivorous seems to be another American title, and may correspond to the extensively edited version that circulated in the UK as Cannibal. In any event, it’s fairly clear that the movie did not become Jungle Holocaust, the title under which the uncut version most often appears in English, until after the 1979 release of Cannibal Holocaust, and that the retitling was a deliberate ploy to cash in on the latter film’s reputation.
Finally, I would be remiss in failing to mention the fact that Ultimo Mondo Cannibale enjoyed a second career as a source of recycled footage for later cannibal movies made by lesser directors. Lenzi’s Eaten is especially replete with footage lifted from this film.