Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals / Caribbean Papaya / Papaya of the Caribbean / Die of Pleasure / Papaya dei Caraibi (1978) -**½
Let’s get one thing sorted out right up front: this isn’t a cannibal movie, regardless of what its German distributors (or its English-language DVD distributors, Severin Films, who followed the Germans’ lead as to retitling) might like you to believe. Rather, it is an entry in another primarily Italian trash genre, the Third World sexploitation movie. These films haven’t attracted nearly as much attention as the cannibal gut-munchers (not least, or so I surmise, because discussing them entails first admitting that you watch porn), but they really ought to, because their existence plays up one of the most basic and yet overlooked facts about Mediterranean exploitation cinema from the late 60’s through the mid-80’s. In those days, and in that part of the world, horror movies and sex movies were inextricably intertwined, and it is impossible to understand either fully without examining both.
The personnel overlap was enormous for one thing, with writers, directors, and performers routinely dividing their efforts between screams of terror and moans of ecstasy— and Papaya’s director, Joe D’Amato, is especially noteworthy for performing that juggling act nearly to the exclusion of everything else. A natural effect of such genre cross-training was a great deal of stylistic commonality between Mediterranean horror and Mediterranean smut, with both tending to emphasize imagery and mood over sense and linearity, and with elements normally associated with one form tending to contaminate the other. Italian, French, and Spanish horror movies of the era in question were frequently extremely sexy (or at least they frequently tried to be), while the contemporary porn films were often surprisingly violent or shockingly concerned with boner-killing subjects like cruelty, madness, obsession, and death. In fact, sometimes it’s impossible to decide whether a given movie would be more properly assigned to one category or the other, as the present marketing of Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals under that title, and with cover art featuring such standard horror signifiers as bloody knives and screenshots of gore scenes, suggests. And of the greatest significance for our present purposes, sex movies and horror movies could even throw up entire subgenres in parallel, working through the same subtextual material in their own distinct ways. That gets us back to where we started, for cannibal horror and Third World sexploitation constitute one such pairing. Both seem to represent a sort of sideways pop-culture effort to come to terms with the preceding decade’s final meltdown of the colonial system that had driven politics and economics in Europe for centuries. They overtly portray Europeans as arrogant, selfish, destructive interlopers, exploiting the indigenous peoples of “primitive” lands until they receive some horribly stark comeuppance, yet at the same time depict the natives themselves according to every unenlightened stereotype and ignorant misconception imaginable. They pay lip-service to the post-colonial understanding of the relationship between the West and its former overseas dominions, but hypocritically assure their viewers that the developing world is, if anything, even more savage, anarchic, and inscrutable than the colonizers of previous generations had recognized— and they do both with all the pandering to base impulses that censorship authorities would allow (which got to be quite a lot as time went on). Just as the last thing you want to do in a cannibal movie is to piss off the local stone-age tribe, the last thing you want to do in a Third World sexploitation movie is to go native.
If I had to pick one scene to stand for the entirety of Joe D’Amato’s career as a filmmaker, I’d probably go with the first eight minutes of Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals. Before we’ve seen so much as the title or a line of opening credits, a virtually nude woman (Melissa Chimenti, from Revelations of a Psychiatrist in a World of Perverse Sex) strolls out of a tropical surf and lies down on the beach. The camera ogles her for a bit, then she gets up and heads over to a little hut situated amid a grove of palm trees. The woman makes eye contact with a couple of skulking Mestizo men (they didn’t get their names in the credits despite playing two of the most important characters in the film), who take up positions within easy reach of the hut, yet invisible from its doorway. The woman— now identified as Papaya— removes what little clothing she’d been wearing to begin with, then kneels down between a big pile of tropical fruit and her boyfriend (also uncredited) lying sprawled out on the floor. Papaya selects (go figure) a papaya from the pile, quarters it, and starts rubbing one of the sections all over her boyfriend’s crotch. The ensuing oddly edited sex scene comes to a most unexpected conclusion, however, when Papaya goes down on her lover not to suck his cock, but to bite it off! Then she gets dressed, leaves the hut, and signals to the Mestizos to burn the place to the ground with the copiously bleeding man still inside.
Apparently that scene wasn’t quite tasteful enough for our boy Joe, because the next place he takes us is a cockfighting arena. There we meet our ever-so-delightful protagonists, vacationing reporter Sara Russell (Sirpa Lane, of The Beast and Nazi Love Camp 27) and geologist Vince Somethingorother (Maurice Poli, from 5 Dolls for an August Moon and Slaves of Caligula). Unlike Sara, Vince has come to Santo Domingo on business. The company he works for is building a nuclear power plant on the island, and they need someone to make sure they don’t try to put anything important on top of, say, a discontinuity in the bedrock or the track of an underground stream. The pair are old friends (and old fuck-buddies), but neither one had the slightest idea the other was in the neighborhood, even though they’re both staying at the same… well, the Dominicus isn’t exactly a hotel, but I’m not sure what else to call it except “rectangular array of rented beach cottages,” and that takes way too long to say. After ascertaining that Vince has not brought his wife along for the trip, Sara suggests that they follow up the cockfight with some good, clean adultery, which sounds like a fine idea to Vince. They don’t get very far, though (at least not this time), because few things ruin the mood like finding a burned-up dead guy stashed behind the liquor cabinet. Sara flips out and runs back to her own cottage, where she has a brief, strange encounter with Papaya, posing for who knows what reason as a member of the Dominicus housekeeping staff.
Vince, meanwhile, calls the cops, and while he, Dominicus manager Nelson, and Inspector Montenegro (neither of the latter men credited— this is starting to get ridiculous) discuss the situation, it comes out that Vince knows who the dead man is. His name was Dean, and he was one of the engineers for the nuclear plant. They weren’t close friends, but Vince does know that Dean was supposed to have left Santo Domingo shortly before his own arrival, and that Dean’s departure had something to do with him getting a divorce— evidently he’d fallen in love with a native woman. Yeah, well, we know how that turned out, don’t we? Montenegro doesn’t think that had much to do with the crime, nor does he put much stock in Sara’s notion that Dean had gotten himself mixed up with drug dealers. No, Montenegro believes that Dean was murdered because of his involvement with the power plant, and he thinks the body was planted in Vince’s room as a warning about what Vince’s own involvement could eventually buy him. Sara too sees the sense of that when it’s pointed out to her. By 1978, few people, whether in the First World or the Third, were terribly keen on living next door to a nuclear reactor.
Evidently holding a doctorate in geology does not save you from being a dumb-ass, though, because far from modifying his behavior so as to give the hypothetical anti-nuclear terrorists a harder time reaching him, Vince instead goes out of his way to expose himself to every form of danger that Santo Domingo holds for an affluent white guy in a politically incendiary line of work. While he and Sara are driving around in the countryside, Sara spots Papaya hitchhiking, and persuades Vince to give her a lift. (She’s plainly thinking in terms of a threesome later on.) Papaya mentions that she is on her way to the town of Los Vientos for the Festival of the Round Stone. Outwardly, this is one of those saint’s day things that one encounters everywhere in the Catholic world, but according to local legend, there is an older, secret observance underlying it, something that goes all the way back to the Incas. Vince doesn’t buy that. (Maybe he knows that the Incas lived along the Pacific seaboard of South America, and would therefore be unlikely to have exerted much influence on Caribbean cultures.) He thinks the “secret” part of the Festival of the Round Stone is just a story concocted simultaneously to titillate and intimidate foreign tourists, and he says as much to Papaya, too, because he’s just that big of an insensitive prick. Anyway, as the trio near Los Vientos, they pass a car apparently broken down by the side of the road, and Papaya identifies the passengers as her friends, Ramon and Miguel; she asks Vince to stop and see if they need help. This is a very suspicious turn of events, for Ramon and Miguel are the men who burned down Dean’s beach hut earlier. Their car trouble, meanwhile, is so easily fixed once Vince gets a look at it that it starts to sound like something the “stranded” motorists might have inflicted themselves in order to engineer this “random” encounter. Regardless, since Ramon and Miguel are also going to Los Vientos, Papaya takes her leave of Vince and Sara, and joins her two friends instead. In parting, however, she gives Vince her very old and very Incan-looking necklace. And if that weren’t enough to engage the foreigners’ curiosity, the fact that Vince recognizes Ramon would be— especially since Vince knows him as Luis, in which identity he doesn’t speak with a Hispanic accent. Obviously, the couple are going to Los Vientos now, too, whatever their plans for the day had been previously.
It turns out to be quite an adventure. Sara quickly spots Papaya through the crowd gathered to watch the festival parade, and by staying just barely in sight beyond dense clumps of onlookers, the latter woman stealthily leads her pursuers to what has to be the slummiest, most out-of-the-way barrio on the whole island. Papaya vanishes completely at that point, but a succession of cryptic (and in some cases, seemingly supernatural) clues nevertheless enable Vince and Sara to find their way to the nondescript building where the real Festival of the Round Stone— complete with big, hieroglyph-festooned, round stone— is held. The man presiding over the ceremony (Dakar— he isn’t credited, but I recognize him from Dr. Butcher, M.D. and Zombie) orders both of the outsiders to drink from a cup of what I think is supposed to be drugged pig’s blood, then dons a mask that looks more African than Indio, and slits open the bellies of the hog carcasses hanging to either side of the Round Stone’s sanctuary. Their blood fills more little clay cups, which are passed around to the other celebrants. Everyone but Vince and Sara put on masks now, too, everyone including them file into the sanctuary to place sprays of flowers on the stone, and the festival proceeds to the human sacrifice stage. No, it isn’t Vince or Sara who gets laid out across the stone, but it is a white guy, and therefore presumably another of Vince’s coworkers. The priest carves the man’s heart out, then hands it around for everyone in the congregation to take a bite. Finally, the ceremony reaches the fun part— what the copywriter for the Severin Films DVD aptly dubbed the “Disco Cannibal Blood Orgy.” At this point, Vince and Sara are invited to become active participants. And while they don’t yet realize this, they’re about to be made active participants in the guerilla war against the nuclear plant as well— Vince as hostage and informant and Sara as unofficial Minister of Propaganda— with Papaya’s venereal siren song (backed up by a little old-fashioned brain-washing) working as the primary instrument of indoctrination.
You see what I mean? Seriously, who in the hell makes a porno movie about anti-nuke guerillas anymore, let alone opens it with a guy getting his dick chomped off?! But in 1978, in Italy, you could build a whole career doing shit like this. That said, I strongly suspect that most people will find the appeal of Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals to be primarily conceptual in nature— that the insane discordance between genre and subject matter will be just about the only redeeming feature that all but the hardest-core Eurosleaze fans can find in it. Those seeking the cannibal movie its title seems to promise will be disappointed to find that there’s only that one heart being eaten (Papaya spits out Dean’s wang once she’s amputated it), while those looking strictly for wank-fuel will rapidly lose patience with the long stretches of plot-centric downtime between sex scenes. Animal lovers will be furious over the cockfight, and I’ll wager the majority of them won’t be very happy about those strung-up hog carcasses, either (although at least there’s little to suggest that the pigs were ever destined for anything better than somebody’s dinner plate to begin with). Nearly everyone, meanwhile, is sure to respond with bafflement to practically everything that all of the characters do, from one end of the film to the other. Still, the aforementioned one redeeming feature was enough for me, and though I really can’t defend Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals against those who would call it stupid, turgid, nonsensical, and crass, I rather enjoyed it anyway.