“When the cannibals attack, I want you to kill me!” exclaims Sheila, making a doom-laden proposition to her jungle guide, Mark.
Although he is technically credited for launching the so-called ‘Italian cannibal film’ cycle with his gruesome if well-mounted jungle adventure THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (1972), director Umberto Lenzi’s film – despite featuring a brief, gory bit of cannibalism – is simply a copy of Elliot Silverstein’s A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970) which transposes that film’s Native American setting over to Southeast Asia instead. Like the Silverstein film, most of the primary promotional materials for Lenzi’s unofficial ‘remake’ likewise centered on its grisly initiation rituals, albeit in a far more exploitative manner. However, it was the success (or infamy?) of Ruggero Deodato’s harrowing CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979), which truly kicked-off this questionable ‘body horror’ subgenre, resulting in a number of inferior imitations, including Umberto Lenzi’s notorious CANNIBAL FEROX (a.k.a. MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, 1981) and the present EATEN ALIVE! (1980), one of the more, um ‘entertaining’ and completely bonkers films the genre had to offer, which even incorporated – and certainly tried to capitalize on – the notoriety of real-life fanatical cult leader Jim Jones and the tragic 1978 mass suicide / massacre he presided over in Jonestown, Guyana.
Following a series of baffling murders perpetrated by some low-level assassin by means of (quote) “tiny darts dipped in cobra venom” in both Niagara Falls and New York City, our blow-dart killer is, during a moment of panic, run-over by a garbage truck in midtown Manhattan. Soon after, Sheila Morris (Janet Agren), a (quote) “good ’ole Southern gal from Alabama”, is summoned to NYC because the police happen to find a canister of 8mm film in the murderer’s pocket (!) – yet another connection to CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST – featuring footage of Sheila’s sister Diana participating in some sort of native ritual involving mondo-styled scenes of suspension piercing. More disconcerting still, though, is her involvement with Jonas (Ivan Rassimov), a (quote) “first-class nut”, who has set up camp somewhere in the wilds of New Guinea with his cult of worshippers, a bunch of (quote) “ecology freaks”. With the help of Professor Carter (a seriously slumming Mel Ferrer), Sheila heads to New Guinea, where she meets up with Mark (Robert Kerman / a.k.a. Richard Bolla), a Vietnam deserter, who begrudgingly agrees to help locate her sister and, in the midst of some shocking sights, promises the wide-eyed Sheila (quote) “you’ll see worse before this is over!”
Unbelievably crass, but highly entertaining, Lenzi’s first real cannibal film is a genre-hopping jungle romp, which features some form of indignity and/or gory set-piece every few minutes. However, unlike Deodato’s unforgivably harsh and misanthropic CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, Lenzi’s film is just so slapdash and preposterous that it’s hard to take seriously. Furthermore, Lenzi – rather brazenly – includes footage from a number of previous cannibal flicks, including Deodato’s THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (a.k.a. JUNGLE HOLOCAUST, 1976), Sergio Martino’s upscale THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (a.k.a. SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, 1978), and also from his very own THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, which was undoubtedly done to pad the film out with as much gore for a modicum of the cost. Minus some of the film’s obligatory animal cruelty, most of the gory makeup effects are of the “H.G. Lewis” school, but at the same time, it’s hard to deny the effectiveness – and nastiness – of shots showing cannibals slowly eating people alive during one of the film’s climactic sequences, which is done without the use of any music whatsoever and is accompanied by sounds of the natives hungrily chewing on raw flesh, the victims’ dying breaths and birds chirping in the background. It’s certainly a grisly, unforgettable tableau. For the most part though, this is an enjoyable, fast-moving film, which also affords prominent porn-star Kerman / Bolla another leading man role following his turn in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and who also gets to perform many of his own stunts; it’s too bad he wasn’t offered more non-adult roles over the course of his lengthy career. Usually cast as the heavy, veteran Eurocult star Ivan Rassimov really gets to chew on the scenery here as well, in what is undeniably, one of his more over-the-top roles as the Jim Jones-inspired (if that’s the right term!) Jonas, who is seen either barking orders, overseeing native sexual rituals or, in yet another one of the film’s more ‘notable’ eyebrow-raising scenes, gleefully participating in some ceremonial mumbo-jumbo involving a drugged Agren, who he seems to perceive as some sort of deity.
Briefly released theatrically by Continental in 1985 as DOOMED TO DIE, which also flaunted a “Banned in 38 Countries” moniker (that’s a whopping 7 more countries than Lenzi’s MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY!), Continental released it soon after on home video in 1986 as THE EMERALD JUNGLE (retitled once again to cash-in on John Boorman’s then-recent THE EMERALD FOREST ), in a colourful, over-sized box, which housed an uncut copy of the film. In the early 2000s, a number of DVDs surfaced in Europe, but for the time, the best release came from Shriek Show in 2002, which included a solid transfer (albeit incorrectly framed at 1.78:1) of this low-budget film and a trio of interviews with Lenzi, Rassimov and Kerman. Severin’s new Blu-ray (the first out of the gate) is most definitely a vast improvement, which includes the film’s correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is a far more pleasing presentation. And despite the film’s low-budget origins and ‘borrowed’ footage, everything looks damn fine. Unbelievably, the DTS-HD MA mono audio is included in English, Italian and Spanish, and in a nice surprise, English subtitles are even included for the Italian audio track, which differs slightly and makes for a highly welcome inclusion; but it’s hard to resist the English language track, which features the usual voice talent, including Susan Spafford (she dubs Sheila) who, quite hilariously, tries her best to affect a ‘Southern twang’; Closed Captions are also included for the English audio.
Extras are plentiful, and these begin with Federico Caddeo’s Freak-O-Rama-produced Welcome to the Jungle (16m37s), an on-camera interview with the always enthusiastic Lenzi, who discusses one of his most popular and infamous phases in his long and varied career, beginning with THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER and that film’s inception; apparently it was based on some of Emmanuelle Arsan’s first-hand experiences in Myanmar and Thailand where, according to Lenzi (quote) “the nature was wild!” Of course, he goes on to discuss his later films, as well as his dissatisfaction with star Kerman (“…we didn’t have a relationship”), and also Agren’s professionalism. The second, most-substantial extra, is Me Me Lai Bites Back: Resurrection of the Cannibal Queen (79m55s), a feature-length documentary originally included with 88 Films’ THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER U.K. Blu-ray, which runs through her entire career while placing a particular emphasis on her Italian film work. In The Sect of the Purification (13m03s), yet another Freak-O-Rama production, veteran production / costume designer Massimo Antonello Geleng goes into detail about his time in Ceylon and his (quote) “instinctive” approach to his work, and how most of EATEN ALIVE!’s (quote) “raunchiest scenes” were filmed back at DEAR Studios in Rome. Culled from Shriek Show’s DVD, a pair of archive interviews (12m20s) with Kerman and Rassimov are also included, but are significantly improved upon thanks to some skilled editing. In the last extra, on September 21st, 2013, Lenzi attends a Q&A at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films (23m43s), where he discusses much of the same topics from the previous interviews, including his dislike for these cannibal films, but because they continue to bring in the royalties, he has no choice but to modestly declare them (quote) “masterpieces!” The original English-language export trailer finishes-off the extras.
Available in a number of editions, including a DVD, a standard Blu-ray, a Limited Edition Blu-ray (which includes a soundtrack CD and a rather striking slipcover) and a special Cannibundle (which includes the Limited Edition Blu-ray, a T-shirt and an enamel Umberto Lenzi pin [!]), Severin have definitely gone all-out for the film’s Blu-ray debut, which will, most certainly, remain the ultimate edition for as long as physical media continues to thrive. It can also be ordered from DiabolikDVD, and you Canadian readers can get it via Suspect Video.