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Italian Cannibal Films as Eco-Horror

2012 April 7

Hello all,

Shortly after this year’s SCMS conference in Boston, I was contacted by Stephen Rust, who graciously invited me to share the abstract for my presentation here. Below is my abstract, followed by a few additional comments on how my work might be situated in a discussion of eco-horror.


“The Only Monsters Here Are the Filmmakers”: Animal Cruelty and Death in Italian Cannibal Films
Mark Bernard
Bowling Green State University

“Sadly, the torture of animals was rooted in Italian cinema since the Sixties as a form to express a longing for fascism and, of course, to titillate the worst elements of a simple public.”
— Giovanni Lombardo Radice
Italian genre actor and star of CANNIBAL FEROX (Umberto Lenzi, 1981)

The Italian cannibal film cycle, an especially brutal subgenre of Italian horror, has produced what are undoubtedly some of the most controversial films in world cinema. Lasting roughly from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, this cycle consists of films such as DEEP RIVER SAVAGES (Umberto Lenzi, 1972), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Ruggero Deodato, 1980), and CANNIBAL FEROX (Umberto Lenzi, 1981). These violent, gory films, which depict white Westerners besieged in a foreign jungle by savage cannibals, retain the ability to shock even the most jaded audiences to this day.

Perhaps the most shocking element of these films, even more so than the gore effects and prejudiced depictions of indigenous peoples, is the inclusion of real animal mutilation and death. The onscreen mutilation and murder of animals, which are sometimes eaten by the characters, became a bizarre staple of this subgenre for reasons that, three decades afterward, remain unclear. When confronted about these issues over the years, those involved in the production of these films usually blame others or remain mystified regarding how and why they agreed to participate in such indefensible cruelty.

This presentation offers an overview of animal cruelty in Italian cannibal films and examines the possible functions performed by real footage of animal death in the narratives of these films. Since animal death in these films is often followed by characters consuming the slain animals, I will conclude this presentation by briefly considering these scenes of animal cruelty from a foodways perspective.

As the conclusion of my abstract states, I was mostly interested in examining these films through the lens of food studies. I have recently found the disciplinary tools of food studies very useful in the political analysis of horror films. Along with Cynthia Baron and Diane Carson,I am currently in the process of finishing up a book (warning! gratuitous plug ahead!), titled THE POLITICS OF FOOD AND FILM, that attempts to shift the focus of the study of food in film away from scenes of food consumption and toward a broader view of food from procurement to clean-up after the meal (no more plugs, I promise).

At the danger of stating the obvious, it seems to me that food studies and ecomedia theory have many concerns in common, not the least of which being the destruction of our environment by industries that pollute the land and fill our stores with genetically-modified and/or unsanitary foods.

In terms of eco-horror, I believe that films in the Italian cannibal cycle can be best situated in a liminal space between more traditional “attack of nature” eco-horror films and postmodern eco-horror that, as Stephen Rust puts it in his SCMS presentation, “resists the urge to demonize individuals and those living on the borders of society by directing their social critique at the central institutions of Western hegemony” (Rust 4).

This liminality can be traced in the Italian cannibal cycle in terms of animal cruelty, more specifically, through an examination of *who* is depicted as torturing, mutilating, and killing animals. Below is an excerpt from my presentation:

“In the early films, only natives are depicted harming and killing animals. In fact, Lenzi’s DEEP RIVER SAVAGES, which tells the story of an Englishman, John Bradley (Ivan Rassimov), who is captured by a native tribe and eventually becomes their leader, falls all over itself to not show Bradley harming an animal. For example, one scene depicts Bradley and the tribesmen hunting and capturing a boar, and the film conveniently cuts to Bradley’s hut as he brings in a slab of the boar for himself and his native wife (Me Me Lai). A later scene of Bradley benevolently playing with a bear cub are vastly different from later, more cynical cannibal films that depict white westerners behaving just as “savagely” as the natives. Scenes such as the documentary filmmakers from CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST killing, dismembering, and eating a large turtle while gleefully playing around with its body parts or crazed cocaine dealer and would-be emerald thief Mike Logan (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) violently stabbing a trapped pig to death in CANNIBAL FEROX immediately come to mind in this context.”

In the early films, indigenous people, who are made to stand in for the “savagery” of nature in this genre, are shown killing animals on camera. The later films, which are more critical of Western imperialism, depict destructive whites being just as brutal as the “savages.”

Thus, as eco-horror, these films range from typical to postmodern, and this transition can partially be traced through the films’ use of footage of real animal death.

There is obviously much more to talk about, but I will end here for now. I would like to thank Stephen for the opportunity to share my work with this community, and I look forward to any comments you all may have.

Thanks and best,
Mark Bernard

2 Responses leave one →
  1. srust permalink*
    April 8, 2012


    It was right around this period that Hollywood films finally began to fully embrace and almost universally adopt the American Humane Society seal of approval “no animals were harmed during the making of this film” following reports that several horses were killed during the filming of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and cattle blood smeared on actors for battle sequences. Films since this period have been heavily invested in special effects to depict gore and violence. I wonder about the end of the period you discuss and whether audience/media reactions eventually forced filmmakers to use more special effects driven violence? The actor you quote calls the audience stupid but was their pushback?

    I have a feeling you’ll enjoy Carter Soles’s essay ” Sympathy for the devil: the cannibalistic hillbilly in 1970S rural slasher films,” which will be in the ecocinema collection. Hopefully he’ll comment here and you can be in touch. Though the use of animals is not as central to the films he discusses, there are certainly overlaps. Also, while at SCMS I also attended a panel on Cousteau’s 1953 film ‘Silent World’. In that panel, all three speakers focused on a particular scene where Cousteau’s crew reenacts a scene from a previous film in which they run down a whale calf, shoot it to end its suffering, and then slaughter the scores of sharks who have come to feed on the calf. You almost wonder if its Westerns way of saying, well we may be losing control over humanity but at least we still have power over nature.


    • markb permalink
      April 9, 2012


      Thanks for your comments. I especially like how you note that these films come right before the rise of the FANGO-era superstar splatter makeup effects artists. Sure, guys like Dick Smith were around in the 70s, but Smith did all kinds of make-up effects, not just horror. Guys like Tom Savini and Rob Bottin hoisted high the horror flag, were unapologetically devoted to splatter, and basically become rock stars in the 80s.

      The mention of Bottin reminds me: early reviews of John Carpenter’s THE THING (with effects by Bottin) viscously attacked the film as basically pornographic in its attention to gore and dismemberment, and one of the problems critics had was the violence against animals in the film (simulated, of course). Just a random connection . . .

      Steve, your mention of HEAVEN’S GATE makes me think of that other colossal epic that is often blamed for ending the director-centered cinema of the New Hollywood: APOCALYPSE NOW, which includes real animal death during a ritual near the film’s conclusion. Another connection . . .

      I didn’t attend the Cousteau panel at SCMS, but I wish I did! It sounds fascinating, and it’s certainly interesting that all three panelists discussed that scene.

      Carter Soles’s essay sound fabulous, and I cannot wait to read it!


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