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Sunday, July 22, 2018

What the cult of cannibal and giallo films owes to Italian filmmaker Umberto Lenzi

The passing of Umberto Lenzi, 86, went largely unnoticed. In India, some of his films might ring a bell for the VHS generation of the 1980s, even if his name does not.

Written by Kabir Firaque | New Delhi | Updated: October 29, 2017 1:42:40 am
Umberto Lenzi directed two of the most important films in the cannibal subgenre — Cannibal Ferox (1981) and Eaten Alive! (1980) — and also made significant contributions to giallo movies.

Back in the 1980s, when international cinema invaded the local drawing room, a short-lived subgenre came out of Italy, accounting for a small section of the countless videocassettes in circulation. Dubbed in English, these movies came with titles that left no mystery about their theme. Cannibal Holocaust and Eaten Alive! (both 1980), followed by Cannibal Ferox (1981), were among the definitive entries in the subgenre. So was Mountain of the Cannibal God (1977), which featured an ageless Ursula Andress, 15 years after she had launched the “Bond girl” club.

The subgenre lasted between the early 1970s and mid-1980s. It drew this audience with its ability to shock with scenes of extreme violence and excess, including flesh-eating. The cannibals would belong to the Amazon forests, or occasionally the Caribbean islands, where Western travellers would run into them.

One of the pioneers of the subgenre died last week. The passing of Umberto Lenzi, 86, went largely unnoticed, although it did find wide coverage on cult websites, in Italian publications, and in the form of an obituary in Le Monde. In India, some of his films might ring a bell for the VHS generation of the 1980s, even if his name does not. Lenzi directed two of the four definitive cannibal films — Eaten Alive! and Cannibal Ferox — both of which were in demand in video libraries. Ferox was sometimes marketed with an alternative title, Make Them Die Slowly, and often with a rather boastful tagline, “Banned in 31 countries!”, which was probably a well-plotted exaggeration.

Lenzi also made Daughter of the Jungle (1982), a “female Tarzan” exploitation film, which continued to screen in Indian theatres, on and off, well into the 1990s. For films that were so obviously trash, why should anyone bother to look back at their creator? Only the Italian media and the cultists acknowledged him for what he was: versatile, and a mirror of his time (1958-92). That period of Italian filmmaking ran its entire course within the five-decade reign of the great Federico Fellini — but it is popular cinema we are recalling here.

The movies are too many to list, but the names of the genres and subgenres alone show how colourful cinema used to be. Eurospy movies in the 1960s. Lenzi, check. Peplum (“sword & sandal” historical/Biblical epics) as well as spaghetti westerns, both again in the 1960s. Check, check. Poliziottesco (urban cop thrillers) in the 1970s. Check again. Zombies in the 1980s. Check, although Lenzi preferred to call them “infected people”. Whatever was trending in Italian popular cinema, Lenzi was part of it.

Two genres deserve special mention. One is giallo, that irresistible brand of slasher whodunits marked by violent serial murders, red herrings, and unforgettable titles, such as Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key (1972, by Sergio Martino, the director of Mountain of the Cannibal God). The genre is said to have influenced the likes of Quentin Tarantino.

Lenzi delved early into giallo, which peaked during the 1970s, and many count him as a major contributor, though he never earned the recognition he deserved. Lenzi’s major gialli include a trio of films between 1969 and 1971, featuring Hollywood import Carroll Baker.


The other genre is, of course, cannibal, which is a subgenre of horror, strictly speaking. Lenzi was one of its two tallest contributors. The other is Ruggero Deodato, who directed Cannibal Holocaust as well as Last Cannibal World (1977). Lenzi posted two of the four biggest milestones in the brief journey of the cannibal movie. He also posted the first. Man from Deep River (1972) is the earliest recognised entry in the Italian cannibal subgenre. For an even earlier cannibal movie, minus the Italian gore, check out the engaging Brazilian comedy How Tasty was My Little Frenchman (1971).

Forgotten in death, Lenzi will be remembered by film historians, for a lifetime of work that reflects the evolution of Italian popular cinema from genre to genre, generation to generation. And by cultists, that small breed that appreciates trash as much as it respects class, for the rewards they got out of this vast, varied output. Ah, those guilty pleasures.

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