Eaten Alive! Directed by Umberto Lenzi
Filthy as ever, the second installment of cannibal fare from Umberto Lenzi – the Italian director responsible for starting the cannibal fever in the golden age of Italian exploitation cinema in 1972 – is more of the same: wanton anthropophagous violence, animal cruelty and sexual depravity. Although these tawdry constituents of the genre are adhered to the banally indispensable formula of the art of provocation guiding the film under a one-sided idiocy and absurdist ethnocentrism, Umberto Lenzi keeps introducing new schemes to this nauseating and rather peculiar form of entertainment. If Mangiati Vivi! differs in any way from other contemporary cannibal flicks, it is that this one privileges adventure as a storytelling mechanism instead of pornographic torture. However, beware of taking this literally; this is still a sickeningly brutal graphic exhibition of the human anatomy in its raw, visceral interior. The schematic alterations in the cliché design are evident in the practical arrangements. A large percentage of the dramatic motivations are placed in a storyline bifurcated by two facets that gravitate around a single narrative core. The first facet would be the most mundane of all, native cannibals hunting white men and then devouring them. The second facet would be that of a religious sect of foreigners settled in the jungles of New Guinea, followers of a dogmatic and intransigent leader. Both are intertwined with the central synoptic pattern of an American girl and a Vietnam veteran going in search of her missing sister. There is something supremely compelling about how the narrative confluence of these facets creates a kind of twisted escapism that evokes more the ethos of an anti-capitalist adventure than a simple, frivolous cannibal movie. I don’t know if it’s Umberto Lenzi using his trademark sensationalist trickery that is manipulating me into saying that much of what I saw here is legitimately good – always keeping in mind the low standards of this infamous genre – or maybe the adventurous rhetoric is what is causing my enthusiasm to do the talking instead of my rationality, but what I can assert is that the modus operandi of this production is persuasive enough to make an impression more for its staggering sense of adventure in the midst of dangers far from civilization than for its recycled gore.
For starters, the fact that the film stars vigorous porn actor Robert Kerman – best known for his part in the quintessential cannibal movie Cannibal Holocaust – playing a gruff, whiskey lover war veteran benefits greatly by providing a macho, aggressive contrast to Janet Ågren’s gentleness and femininity. She plays the girl who goes in search of her sister, who is under the strict hypnosis of the dogmatic sectarianism of her leader, the latter played by another familiar visage in the cannibal mythology, Ivan Rassimov. There is something extremely classic about the stereotypical protagonists, seeing Robert Kerman in a heroic role – although in reality he is more of an ordinary anti-hero – together with Janet Ågren – the pretty, unassuming blonde – penetrating the confines of the jungle and facing all sorts of fatal misfortunes. This very thing sustains the shoddy narrative structure without breaking both the tenets of an adventure b-movie and those of a barbaric cannibal flick. Interestingly, unlike other films of the genre, this one does not seem to rely on the customs of mondo cinema – a genre of tabloid documentary that influenced the proceedings of Italian exploitation filmmaking – the film features several sequences of bizarre ceremonies filmed with that ethnographic touch but does not exploit idiosyncratic diversities with emetic violence. Almost all of the obligatory sequences of savage animal cruelty presented here are reused footage from other cannibal films. I have no idea what the reason is for having done a lazy recycling of other films, but the dense compendium of real footage of actual violence makes the film overflow with glaring incongruities. Sometimes the visual disparity in the space-time juxtaposing these videos that don’t correspond to the context of the actual mise-en-scene gives you the feeling that you’re watching something too unpalatable. Thankfully, these incompatibilities between different spaces and times do not always fail, there are sections where the cuts seamlessly mimic the same continuity of events.
It’s ironic to think so, but this movie was made the same year as the most notorious of all cannibal movies, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. And I say it’s an irony because many accuse this film of being just another meaningless rip-off of Deodato’s vastly superior film, yet the ideas of both have autonomy despite sharing the same genesis of the genre in which they implement new conceptions. The sheer brutality of Eaten Alive! is uncomfortable and consistently gross to induce you to vomit in its most gruesome sections, but as severe and extreme as its gore feast is, it doesn’t reach the levels of unfathomable violence of its contemporary sibling. What I’m attempting to elucidate is that Umberto Lenzi’s film has a more appealing approach than Deodato’s, and that more digestible tone makes it easier to be explored in its alternative facets as a tense adventure film and a sleazy cannibal flick. Watching Lenzi’s camera glide through the vast jungle vegetation, orchestrating hectic, throbbing chases is an absorbing delectation, an unrestrained style that cleverly confounds our discernment to the point where you don’t know if what you’re watching is great cinema or simply schlock. Be that as it may, this is probably one of my favorite films of the most infamous genre of all time.