Make Them Die Slowly / Cannibal Ferox / Woman from Deep River (1981/1983) -***
The Italian cannibal movies of the 70’s and 80’s enjoy a little-recognized point of distinction from the more conventional horror films of their era. To the best of my knowledge, every single one of them was either targeted by the Director of Public Prosecutions during the height of the Video Nasties scare or banned from Great Britain’s video stores as a result of the Video Recordings Act of 1984. I can think of no other case since the 1930’s in which an entire genre was expressly given the boot from an entire country— or at least not from any country that wasn’t under the thumb of some manner of authoritarian dictator. Perhaps because it was the first film of its kind that I saw (or indeed heard of), I tend to think of Umberto Lenzi’s Make Them Die Slowly as a sort of poster child for its whole sordid tribe. Whether that’s valid or not, I definitely believe this film’s divergent fates on the opposing shores of the Atlantic have something to tell us about the difference between the British response to the rise of hardcore gore movies and the American. Make Them Die Slowly was banned in the UK, but here in the States, it was promoted with one-sheets and video boxes that proudly proclaimed, “Banned in 31 countries!” This is one instance, I think, in which we Ugly Americans are indisputably on the side of the angels.
There was an odd relationship between Lenzi and his fellow Italian schlockmeister, Ruggero Deodato, during 1970’s and early 1980’s. From the moment Lenzi basically invented the Italian cannibal movie with 1972’s The Man from Deep River until the time about ten years later when the genre sputtered to a premature but much appreciated halt, the two men seemed to be engaged in a sort of undeclared duel to see who could make the most disgusting movie about gut-munching stone-agers. Lenzi and Deodato were hardly alone in the cannibal arena, to be sure, but nobody else on the scene played the game with such verve, or gave the impression of taking it so personally. First, Deodato one-upped Lenzi with Jungle Holocaust; then he ten-upped himself with Cannibal Holocaust a couple of years after that. Lenzi, not to be outdone, replied first with The Emerald Jungle (which, ironically, consists to an embarrassing extent of footage lifted from Deodato’s first cannibal opus), then with Make Them Die Slowly. The latter movie is arguably the one for which Lenzi is best remembered today, and while some might not wish such a legacy on their worst enemy, I think it fits old Umberto quite well. Whenever anyone makes a movie as crass and squalid and pugnaciously gross as Make Them Die Slowly, that’s what they deserve to be remembered for, and it’s perfectly fair to say that this movie marks the culmination of everything Lenzi had been doing for the past decade at least. If you have a cast-iron stomach and absolutely no couth, it’s a hoot and a half.
While the most amazingly inappropriate funk groove honks and quacks away on the soundtrack, a twitchy-looking young man (Dominic Raacke) gets out of a cab in one of New York City’s seedier neighborhoods and heads over to the apartment where his coke-pushing friend, Mike, apparently lives. Mike isn’t at home and neither is his girlfriend, but Mr. Twitchy finds the door unlocked. This is because the apartment is currently occupied by a pair of mobsters (John Bartha, from War of the Planets and Planet on the Prowl, and Perry Pirkanen, who had a somewhat larger role in Cannibal Holocaust and an even tinier one in The Gates of Hell), who have come looking for Mike as well. Mike, you see, isn’t just Mr. Twitchy’s cocaine hookup. He’s a big enough dealer to be on the mafia’s radar, and he’s just skipped town with $100,000 worth of somebody else’s blow. When the mobsters finally get the hint that Mr. Twitchy has nothing to tell them on the subject of Mike’s present whereabouts, the higher-ranking of the two shoots him in the face and calls it a day.
But forget about all that for now, and fly with me to Panaguaya, Brazil, at the edge of the jungle on the banks of the Amazon. Here we meet some more New Yorkers, specifically aspiring anthropologist Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle, of Caged Women and Women’s Prison Massacre), her brother Rudy (Ironmaster’s Danilo Mattei), and her young and feckless friend Pat (Zora Kerova, from The Grim Reaper and The New York Ripper). They’ve come down to the rainforest in the service of Gloria’s doctoral dissertation, with which she seeks to prove that “cannibalism as an organized practice of human societies does not exist and never has existed,” and that stories of Third-World primitives eating each other were all made up by Whitey the Man in an effort to give legitimacy to the conquests of the colonial era. It’s a pretty tall order, trying to prove such a patently false thesis, but when has a trifling little thing like reality ever stood in anybody’s way in an Italian horror flick? The trio’s destination is a little village called Manhoca, the point of origin for a recent spate of cannibal stories, which nobody Gloria or Rudy talks to seems ever to have heard of. Naturally, they won’t be letting that stop them, either, nor will the local constabulary’s warning that the jungle is a dangerous place have any deterrent effect on Gloria and her companions.
Muddy and completely unmaintained roads, though? That stops them. Barely have they driven their jeep off of the ferry when they get bogged down the first time; when it happens again some hours later, they’re miles deep in the jungle and the jeep throws a rod or something as a result of their overly vigorous efforts to extricate it. Now most of us would recognize immediately that the thing to do under the circumstances is to hang it up and go home. This is because most of us have a fucking brain in our fucking heads! But doctoral candidate or not, Gloria insists on trudging ever onward, even after Rudy spots the curiously unflappable Indio squatting in the foliage beside the trail, munching contentedly away on some sort of gigantic grubs and never changing his facial expression no matter how strenuously Rudy waves a machete in his face. The would-be anthropologist and her companions also fail completely to notice the huge band of native warriors who stand up from behind the greenery as soon as they’ve turned their backs on the bug-eating guy. (This, by the way, is easily the most spectacularly botched zinger scene in a movie that is simply chock full of spectacularly botched zingers. These guys ought to be stalking Abbott and Costello instead.) Indeed, Gloria still doesn’t think to reconsider her plans when she, Rudy, and Pat stumble upon a pair of Indios who have been mangled to death in an ingeniously ghastly booby trap, and immediately thereafter meet a couple of harried Westerners, one of them badly wounded and the other talking darkly of a narrow escape from cannibals. Whatever else happens, we may be certain that Gloria will not be mounting any “Doctor of Common Sense” certificates on her office wall any time soon.
One of those Westerners happens to be named Mike (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, from The Church and House on the Edge of the Park), by the way. Any doubt you may harbor over whether or not this is the guy those mobsters were looking for up in New York will be banished almost immediately, for no sooner has Mike led his injured partner, Joe (Walter Lucchini, another member of the Ironmaster cast), and the Intrepid Dimwits to the relative safety of a clearing by the riverbank than he takes a toot from the vial of cocaine hanging from a cord around his neck. His head now clear, Mike explains that he and Joe came to the Amazon originally to take up coca farming (what else?), but got distracted when they fell in with a Portuguese emerald prospector in— small world— Panaguaya. The bid to supplement their projected vegetable riches with the mineral variety led Mike and Joe to a little, out-of-the-way village called— even smaller world— Manhoca. The inhabitants proved to be man-eaters; they tortured the Portuguese to death and would have done the same to Mike and Joe if given the chance. So where do you suppose our heroes go now that they’ve heard this alarming tale? That’s right. Straight back to fucking Manhoca. By the time the natives settle into a serious gut-munching groove, we’ll have learned that Mike and Joe actually drew first blood, and that Mike’s version of the story was a big, fat lie, but so far as I’m concerned, Rudy, Pat, and Gloria deserve what’s coming to them just as much, simply for being a bunch of imbeciles.
Meanwhile, back in New York, those mobsters— remember them?— have set their sights on Mike’s girlfriend, Myrna (Fiamma Maglione, from Emanuelle and Lolita and The Emerald Jungle). Lieutenant Rizzo (Robert Kerman, of Gums and Debbie Does Dallas), the detective in charge of investigating that murder from the opening scene, assigns a bunch of men to protect her, and eventually drags out of her the story of her relationship with the gangsters’ real target. You may have heard that this subplot has nothing to do with the gut-munching portion of the film, but that isn’t strictly accurate. Though the connection is indeed very tenuous, the idea here is to inject suspense into a story that would naturally be without any by giving yet a third group of New Yorkers an excuse to fly down to the Amazon, thereby introducing some slim possibility of a few of the main characters getting out of this film alive. Not that we in the audience actually want any such thing to happen, mind you…
Make Them Die Slowly is the last of the Italian cannibal films that anyone especially gives a shit about, and also represents Umberto Lenzi’s final foray into the genre. Unfortunately for Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato had already rendered any imaginable future cannibal movie redundant by the time Make Them Die Slowly appeared, and Lenzi’s efforts to make sure he had the last word on his rival came to rather less than he might have hoped. Despite any number of obvious efforts at one-upmanship, this movie gets stuck with the number-two spot in terms of infamy, and a position far down the list indeed in terms of quality. Whereas Cannibal Holocaust’s viciousness is equaled by its cunning, Make Them Die Slowly is just dumb and violent and mean— a thuggish henchman to the earlier film’s supervillain. The problem, ultimately, is that Lenzi attempts to substitute quantity for quality. He establishes Mike’s villainy less with arrestingly sick scenarios (like, say, Alan Yates surreptitiously filming the natives killing his friends in Cannibal Holocaust) than by encouraging Giovanni Lombardo Radice to outrageous heights of overacting. Similarly, he piles on numbers of atrocities both faked and authentic which don’t begin to compare on an individual basis with the wrenching repugnance achieved by Deodato. In a perverse sense, Make Them Die Slowly might be considered a more objectionable film than Cannibal Holocaust, because it resorts just as often to reprehensible tactics like animal mutilation, but uses them to drastically lesser effect. Lenzi is such a clumsy oaf of a filmmaker that Make Them Die Slowly is often hysterically funny— which is something you should never be able to say about a movie that involves this much animal-snuff footage— and though he lacks the nerve to revel in his most loathsome misdeeds the way Deodato did, he never lets that stop him from committing them, either. Compare Lenzi’s take on the turtle-butchering scene to Deodato’s. Both cost the life of a defenseless animal, but because Lenzi doesn’t lavish such fiendish attention on the rotten spectacle of its demise, his version is paradoxically both easier to take and more contemptible— Deodato owns up to what he’s doing in a way that Lenzi either can’t or won’t.
Make Them Die Slowly is further undercut by what is probably the stupidest approach ever to that nearly obligatory cannibal movie theme, modern man as the true savage. Nearly every Italian jungle gut-muncher at least pays lip-service to the idea, but most of them (including, and most successfully, Lenzi’s own The Man from Deep River) have the— well, I guess “class” and “decency” are both words that have little or no meaning in the present context, but they’ll have to do— to let actions speak for themselves on the subject. They also generally have the honesty not to contend that their anthropophagous primitives aren’t bestial. Make Them Die Slowly, however, begins with a woman setting out to prove that there neither is nor ever was such a thing as a cannibal, and ends with said woman claiming to have done exactly that after being rescued from a trip which saw her brother and her best friend (to say nothing of a couple of erstwhile strangers) being killed and at least partially eaten by the villagers of Manhoca! Furthermore, Lenzi presents this jaw-dropping conclusion in such a way that he seems to be saying, “Oh yeah, sure. She’s lying. But when you really think about it, her lies actually tell a deeper truth.” No, Umberto. They don’t. Gloria is full of shit, and so are you.
This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal salute to the Video Nasties. Click the banner below to see just how much nastiness my colleagues and I could take.