Horror filmmakers have long delighted in confronting audiences with their very worst fears. And yet in all of horror history one action still has the power to put punters off their popcorn. Though our sensibilities are a lot less delicate these days, cannibalism still carries with it a cultural taboo that can make it both deeply uncomfortable viewing, and sickly fascinating.
Dinner Is Served
1977 was the launch of the true cannibal boom. Initially kicked off by Italian director Umberto Lenzi with 1972’s The Man From Deep River, and it would be a new generation of Italian directors who took the torch from him and ran with it.
In the 1970’s Italy was awash with organised crime and political violence. The exploitation scene reflected this turmoil, presenting viewers with amoral, bleak and brutal offerings that made American equivalents look laughably tame.
Ruggero Deodato and Joe D’amato terrorised audiences throughout the 70’s and 80’s with a series of films that revolved around death, rape, torture and, of course, cannibalism. Many of the films even delved into animal cruelty in order to shock their audiences. For the first time, the cannibal movie became a genre in and of itself, and the act of cannibalism was the focus (the films were notoriously lacking in plot) rather than a chilling motif.
Often (particularly in the case of D’amato’s films) mixing pornography with violence, films like Jungle Holocaust, Mountain of the Cannibal God, Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals and Emanuelle and The Last Cannibals would return to those 1920’s themes, with civilised westerners being captured by primitive tribespeople. Many of their directors would claim that they were ironic metaphors for western imperialism rather than excuses to watch naked people eat each other. While it’s certainly true that the westerners in these films tend to behave absolutely despicably to native people, the jury’s still out on that.
In 1980 the cannibal craze reached its crescendo with perhaps its most notorious film: Cannibal Holocaust. Director Ruggero Deodato was hauled up in court after many people believed that he had created an actual snuff film. Instead, what he’d done was single-handedly invent the found footage sub-genre, for which he should be either lauded or crucified, depending on your point of view.
For the next few years, Italy would churn out bucketloads of cannibal movies, each trying to outcompete the other for shocks and gore. Among them were notable entries Cannibal Ferox, White Slave and Eaten Alive.
More Discerning Palates
The cannibal film craze burned fiercely but briefly, petering out by around 1986 with Massacre in Dinosaur Valley, also billed as Cannibal Ferox 2.
Outside of the Italian extreme cannibal bubble, cannibalism had lost a lot of its sting, with cult favourites like Motel Hell (1980) and Microwave Massacre (1983) playing their gore for laughs. HG Lewis was back at it again in 1987 with Blood Diner, another movie about a body-part feast to resurrect an ancient goddess, this time at the behest of a brain in a jar.