Cannibal Holocaust turned a lot of heads-and an equal amount of stomachs-in 1980, director Ruggero Deodato’s gut-munching masterpiece adding fuel to the cannibal film fire which sparked initially in Italy with Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 film Man From Deep River.
Therefore, it almost goes without saying that film producers would naturally seek out to replicate the success of Holocaust, Deep River and Lenzi’s own Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive, preferably via a director who could be relied upon to deliver product in a timely and cost effective manner.
Enter Spain’s exploitation auteur Jess Franco, and his own entry into the cannibal cycle, White Cannibal Queen, or Cannibals, as it’s more commonly referred. Franco had, in the years after making Cannibals, expressed his general disinterest in this jungle genre of survival, and this “directing for a paycheck” feel comes across very strongly upon viewing the final cut of Cannibals.
Overweight, badly made up white men-“gypsies,” according to Franco-portray the cannibals here, unconvincingly dancing about in mock ritual while occasionally stealing glances at Jess’ camera. Meanwhile, the center of all their attention, Italian sexpot Sabrina Siani, appears as if she’s getting paid to glance lifelessly away from the lens, delivering very few lines in what amounts to a relaxed role as almost eternally nude eye candy.
Siani’s character of the titular “White Cannibal Queen” is actually the lost daughter of Dr. Taylor-played by Zombie’s Al Cliver-who is abducted from a family jaunt into the Amazon, while Taylor’s wife is devoured, and the good doctor’s arm is severed quite unceremoniously. Most of Cannibals revolves around Taylor’s hospital recovery, search party organization-whereupon he connects with Franco’s muse and partner Lina Romay-and eventual return to the island, in desperate search for Siani, now the property of Yakake, the tribal leader played (in one of the film’s only decent performances) by fellow Franco regular Antonio Mayans.
This lengthy second act is a bit dull compared to the film’s impressive opening and serviceable denouement, hampered by tons of scene filler and a poorly dubbed audio track. Still, Franco does what he can to make Cannibals his own, most notably within the actual munching scenes, which are shot in psychedelic slow motion and ably assisted by Roberto Pregadio’s creepy and rhythmic score.
Actually, Uncle Jess has admitted in interviews that Pregadio had no hand in composing the film’s score, claiming that himself and frequent musical collaborator Daniel White were responsible for writing the jazzy, tribal melodies and ominous chanting which make up the score for Cannibals. The end result-regardless of composer-is successful either way, serving as one of the film’s surprising highlights.
Elsewhere, Siani and Romay are, of course, wonderful to look at, yet neither of them turn in what most would refer to as “memorable” performances, which is an unfortunate par for the course regarding almost all of the talent here, Cliver included. To see the actor attempt to act with his arm so obviously tied behind his back is amusing, for sure; yet another reason why Cannibals is best suited for parties or drinking games, so lovably daft is the affair.
Still, there is that damned and dogged Franco charm which lifts almost all of the man’s movies into that special echelon of trash; for it’s clear that Jess is simply superior to most of the means which surrounds him. Cannibals didn’t have a chance in hell to succeed, but it’s almost because of this cinematic wonkiness that we as an audience are mesmerized by the end results.
Cannibals is damned good fun-if not taken too seriously-occasionally demonstrating a glimmer of atmosphere, yet more often than not simply serving as a film best enjoyed with friends and/or a couple of beers.
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