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Cannibalism in the Lens of the Whites: Reading Select Italian Horror Films

By Purabi Nandi

Cannibal films are the subgenre of horror or torture films that tries to evoke horror among its audience through disturbing, gory, and gut-wrenching visuals. Most of the films of this genre follow a similar pattern – a group of people (most of the times the so-called civilized Europeans/ Americans) arrive at a mysterious forest of some catastrophe or solely to appease their curiosity and then it shows how the group survives by tackling ‘dangerous’ animals and cannibals throughout their journey. As half of the cannibal films are directed by European directors, most of the time these representations seem one-dimensional. Harvey Fenton in his review of the Jungle Holocaust describes:

The Italian ‘Third World cannibal movies’ form a peculiar strain of horror cinema which has its roots in the culturally-significant ‘mondo’ genre, precipitated by the 1962 film from which the movement derives its name, Mondo cane. Revelling in the west’s fascination with ‘barbaric,’ ‘primitive’(i.e. non white, non-western) cultures, the early Italian mondo movies presented an unashamedly racist view of life in the jungles, deserts, and savannahs of the world… (55)

The cannibals and their rituals seem eerie to the audience for the lack of context and perspectives in the movies. Thus, they become the ‘other,’ who can be exploited, misrepresented, or can be reduced to merely savages to add sensationalism to the films. The article aims to examine the representation of Cannibals in select Italian films namely White Cannibal Queen (September 15, 1980), Jungle Holocaust (February 8, 1980), and Cannibal Holocaust (February 7, 1980) directed respectively by Jesus Franco, Francesco Prosperi and Ruggero Deodato.

The film, White Cannibal Queen starts with the frames of the colourful, well-furnished cabin of the Taylor family. The frames then shift to the watery path and long, dark, and thick pile of trees which almost cover the sky. The frame signifies darkness, a land distinct from the Eurocentric perception of the ‘civilized’ society. It is the story of Jeremy Taylor, a professor of tropical diseases, his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter Lena who on their way to the expedition to the Amazon rain forest get attacked by the cannibals (Gaevis tribe) at night at Malavi. During one of his conversations, Jeremy tags the country as wild and unknown. The cannibals are shown as having various colorful patterns painted throughout their bodies. The long takes showing the close-ups of the cannibal taking out the internals from Elizabeth’s stomach and eating them with great satisfaction definitely make the natives monsters, the so-called ‘wild beasts.’ They kidnap Jeremy and cut one of his hands. The boat sinks. One of the native leaders discovers little Lena and declares her the ‘white goddess’ or ‘the white queen.’ For the very first time, we get the opportunity to see the cannibals in a humanistic light. They not only save an orphan child but also welcome her into their community by giving her the title of their ‘queen.’

However, for the deep-rooted Eurocentrism, the representation of the indigenous people becomes problematic. Although at first thought the idea looks astonishing. How they can consider an ‘outsider’ their queen! But the reason is shown very methodically. She is addressed as ‘white queen,’ ‘Greek goddess,’ ‘white goddess’ etc. to signify the Eurocentric obsession with whiteness. Throughout the whole film, only one female native is shown whose only work is to dance in ‘the so-called savage steps.’ Although she appears many times in the film, her face is not shown. But the camera does not forget the white queen. Each time she appears in the frame the camera travels through her glowing, shaved legs to her beautiful white face. Franco in one frame shows the passionate sexual encounter between Jeremy and Ana where both of them ‘participate.’ In the next frame, he shows Lena and her Gaevis husband’s sexual Intercourse where Lena has no role to play. She lies flat while he penetrates. The scene is a clear indication of the European perception of the sexual primitiveness of the east. The end is absurd as it shows Jeremy abducting Lena and taking her with him to the ‘white man’s land.’ Instead of being a queen, she doesn’t resist the abduction and happily agrees to go with him to a ‘whole new world’! All the attempts to present the cannibals in a new light get lost in this process as it again conforms to the stereotypical rule of portraying them as the ‘other,’ the binary of the so-called ‘civilized’ white race.

The binary of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ has played a key role in most of the theories of literature. If we follow the universal grammatical rule then subject refers to the thing that acts. Object refers to the thing that gets impacted by the act. Thus, subject becomes powerful and the object powerless. This subject/object binary in Hegel’s theory becomes master/slave, in Beauvoir’s theory norm(men)/other(women), in psychoanalysis father (empire/powerful) and mother(other), and in Postcolonialism self and other. The term ‘Othering’ is coined by Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak in her 1985 essay The Rani of Sirmur (1985). In the context of Postcolonialism,’ the self’ becomes the colonizer and the colonized the ‘other.’ In cannibal films, the ‘self’ represents the colonizers, the adventurers whose white skin signifies racial superiority, and civilization. As most of the films of this genre are directed by whites keeping the Eurocentric audience’s white obsession in mind, the colonized ‘other’ becomes the primitive, savage, devilish, Cannibals.

This problem of ‘othering’ continues in Ruggero Deodato’s Jungle Holocaust also where after a violent plane crash Robert Harper gets lost in the jungle. He is discovered by a cannibal tribe who violently tortures him in their cave. His dresses are torn, he is stripped naked, and some even try to eat his wristwatch. The natives play with his penis as if they have never seen it before. They throw him up to a cave from a high rock thinking he can fly in the air (seeing the helicopter). Desperate Harper tries to communicate with the people but fails. The helpless eyes watch their day-to-day activities which are bound to seem violent, and shocking to an outsider. A man’s arm is thrashed and ants are thrown upon them as a punishment. After a few moments, the final result is shown- the thrashed, bloody flesh with a lot of fleas in it. All these visuals seem intentional to show the day-to-day sensational lifestyle of the natives. The visuals at one time force the viewers to wonder at their ‘brutal’ lifestyle but at the same time confronts them with the tropical atmosphere of the land.  In one of the visuals the tribe engages in intercourse at night openly and when Robert Harper calls a sympathetic girl (Pulan) from the community to communicate with her regarding the escape she starts playing with his genitals. The scene can be interpreted as the creators’ attempt to show the sexual savagery of the tribe. The natives are always shown in groups which can be interpreted as the inhabitants having no identity of their own. Robert’s helplessness is contrasted with the detailed graphic depiction of the animal killings, and the violent punishment scene of the native (ants eating the thrashed arm) which makes Robert and the natives consecutively innocent and devilish. The violence symbolically evokes fear among the audience for the rituals and practices of the East. Pulan in the context of Postcolonialism represents the women of third-world countries whose bodies go through multiple marginalizations. Robert, failing to show his heroism in front of the tribes chooses an underdog, kidnaps her, rapes her, and makes her his slave. His deed truly echoes the words of Jean Paul Sartre: “the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters” (26).

Cannibal Holocaust is one such film that crosses all the limits of showing violence on screen and gifts its audience with a horrific gut-wrenching experience. The film is about a group consisting of “four brave young Americans” who go missing after an expedition (makes a documentary) in the jungle. Professor Harold Monroe and the rescue team are given the responsibility of finding them as well as the documentary film reel. It is through their journey to the forest we come to experience what ‘horror travel’ is! During their journey with the Yakumo prisoner, the first horrific scene appears. A man is seen dragging a naked woman in the mud and constantly penetrating a wooden dildo in her vagina. After she starts bleeding the man takes some mud and decorates it with some pins. Making a sacrificial gesture to the sky he brutally inserts that into her vagina and keeps on hitting her head until she dies. From the guide Chaco, we come to know that it is a ritualistic punishment for adultery among one of the cannibal tribes in the jungle. The screaming of the helpless woman, the violent gestures of the man, and the blood is probably a teaser to the horror the film has as its content. Professor and his crew after arriving at the Yakumos’ village come to know about two of the most powerful cannibal tribes in the jungle namely the Yanomamos and Shamataris. They also find some clues about the missing crew journeying in the Yanomamos’ village. The professor’s group during their journey to the Yanomamos’ village perceives another horrific scene. They see a fight between Yanomamos and Shamataris where several women’s bodies are shown pierced from breast to vagina. The professor and his team shoot at the Shamataris. The Yanomamos due to this reason give them the remains of the missing crew which include the raw footage of the documentary, “The Last Road to Hell.” Professor and his team happily come to New York and plan to release it in the media after giving it a watch. But from the first clip, it becomes clear that the expedition has nothing to do with any cannibal tribes but rather it’s solely for the sake of fame and money. There is a tortoise killing scene at 51:58 minute which can make any faint-hearted vomit at the utter discomfort and disturbance. There are zooming shots of the internal part of the tortoise. The close-ups and long takes of the glaireous, thick flesh along with the white layers, and bubbles are too disturbing to absorb. There is another scene when the guide Filipe is bitten by a snake and he in his helpless screaming preys the crew members to cut the leg and burn it on fire. The venom however flows fast in his body and although they cut the leg, he dies. The scene is again disturbing and shows the horror of the Amazon rainforest. They proceed toward the Yakumos’ village and start the atrocities. At first, they shoot a pig which the tribe intends to eat for lunch. They drive the timid people into the huts and burn them on fire. When the helpless tribe, losing their food and shelter sits still on the riverbank, the two civilized white adventurers make love on the house remains!  The horror does not end here. They go on to rape a Yanomamo girl and probably kill her to make their documentary sensational. As a result, the tribe attacks them and kills them one by one in a brutal way. The whole film makes the audience question what is horror? Whether it the cannibals, their normal lifestyle (in a place like the Amazon rain forest obviously one can’t survive with veganism), or intentionally breaking their privacy, selling a sensational savage image of the cannibals before the Eurocentric media for their own benefit? 

Cannibal Holocaust has a sharp difference from the other two films regarding the representation of the cannibals. while in White Cannibal Queen or Jungle Holocaust the natives are simply reduced to devilish flesh eaters without having any voice or identity, in Cannibal Holocaust they are at least given a perspective that makes the viewers empathetic towards their situation. But the representation here remains flawed too because under his sugar-coated criticism of European journalism he has served the same mondo philosophy of Othering the natives. Gaia Giulani in her article explains:

 the whole film gives a grotesque description of the indigenes, who let professor Monroe check their teeth, skin and skulls as though they were dogs: they eat human flesh voraciously, like wild rabid animals, as if they deserved nothing but anthropological surveys and death (at the indiscriminate hand of the army soldiers in the rescue team). Their behaviour is constantly under scrutiny or talked about by Monroe and his team. They, on the other hand, remain silent: they eat, rape, and kill in silence. They have no voice, as though they were zombies just able to roar, eat and murder. They walk fast, as though they were horses trotting, and knuckle-walk, like monkeys. (438)

By showing the violent rituals and practices (the infamous punishment scene of a native woman for committing adultery, or killing a pregnant woman) or reducing them simply to voiceless animals at one side Deodato cleverly advocates the colonial politics of the whites and at the same time presenting the whites in a negative light (the cruelty of the documentary team) he tries to critique the “exoticising manipulation of the Other’s postcolonial reality by journalism, academia And cinema” (Giuliani, 437). To conclude, although Deodato has tried to make his cinema Cannibal Holocaust unique from the rest of his contemporaries by criticising the ‘sensationalist’ aspect of the genre, he can’t come out of the influence of ‘mondo cane.’ Thus, the cannibals remain primitive, uncivilized, and savage in Deodato’s representation as well.

Works Cited

Deodato, Ruggero, director. Cannibal Holocaust. United Artists Entertainment, 1980.

Deodato, Ruggero, director. Jungle Holocaust. Interfilm, 1977.

Fanon, Frantz, and Jean Paul Sartre. “Preface.” The Wreched of the Earth, Grove Pr., Inc., 1968, pp. 7-31.

Fenton, Harvey, et al. Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato. FAB, 1999.

Franco, Jesus and Francesco Prosperi, directors. White Cannibal Queen. Atlas Films SPRL-PVBA, 1980.

Giuliani, Gaia. “Razza Cagna: MondoMovies, the White Heterosexual Male Gaze, and the 1960s–1970s Imaginary of the Nation.” Modern Italy, vol. 23, no. 4, 2018, pp. 429-444., doi:10.1017/mit.2018.32.

Bio:
Purabi Nandi is presently pursuing postgraduation in the Department of English, Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University, West Bengal. She can be reached at nandipurabi000@gmail.com

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For more articles, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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