Monday, November 24, 2014

In the Land of the Cannibals (2003)

Written by: Bruno Mattei, Giovanni Paolucci
Directed by: Bruno Mattei
Claudio Morales as Romero
Cindy Matic as Sarah Armstrong
Lou Randall as Lt. Wilson

In its heyday, the Great Italian Ripoff Machine was a juggernaut of crap. Its massive gears ground out ripoff after ripoff, and it crushed international copyright law beneath its mighty treads. In 2003, it was a rusty two-door hatchback with the hood and one door the wrong color, that burned oil and had a leaky radiator, driven by Bruno Mattei after he found it in the back of the Italian film industry's motor pool and lovingly got it working again by stealing a bunch of parts from other people's cars and spray painting the rust to at least vaguely match the original color.

This is one of the movies he made during his brief comeback before a brain tumor killed him in 2007. Not giving a damn that the cannibal horror subgenre had passed its sell-by date more than twenty years before this masterpiece, In the Land of the Cannibals splits its time pretty evenly being a shot-for-shot, sometimes very nearly line-for-line remake of Cannibal Holocaust and Predator. The surprising thing is that no one thought to do something like this before. The two plotlines are a pretty good fit for each other. Unfortunately, Mattei seems to have lost a lot of the energetic stupidity that made his older movies such a delight. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty to laugh at here, and it's probably more fun with a group, but compared to, say, Rats: Night of Terror, this one can get pretty draggy in between bouts of delirious retardation.

A group of commandos led by Lt. Wilson (this is our Dutch analog character, and the guy playing him looks exactly like Phil Anselmo from Pantera, which opens up a whole new world of riffing opportunities) is sent into the jungle to retrieve the daughter of a senator, who was traveling with another army platoon and got shot down, or some such nonsense. Their guide is a tracker named Romero, who is an amalgamation of Robert Kerman's character and his guide from Cannibal Holocaust, taking on the actions and dialog of both characters. They head into the jungle, and from there with a few exceptions if there's an action scene it's one from Cannibal Holocaust and if there's a dialog scene it's one from Predator, up until dee choppah comes and Sarah makes it out alive while everyone else is cannibal chow.

Now, you may be thinking that I'm exaggerating when I talk about it being a shot-for-shot remake of the two movies. I thought the similarity might have been a coincidence when they aped the “meet the crew disembarking the helicopter” scene at the beginning. After all, they have to get out of dee choppah in order to get back to dee choppah at the end, right? I thought the similarity might have been a coincidence when Lt. Wilson sits down with the commissar (uh oh), or whatever, to get the lowdown on the mission. But then when they flat out fucking steal the helicopter footage from Predator for the airdrop sequence, my suspicions were confirmed.

You know, as great as it is, I never thought about Predator in terms of its dramatic impact and the acting chops of its cast. After watching this group of buffoons and their voicover crew woodenly ham their way (yeah, I didn't think that was possible either) through scenes from the far superior source, I realized how important those aspects of the earlier movie were. Sure, most of them were just a bunch of grunting weightlifters, but there were a few actual thespians in the cast, and even the grunting weightlifters acquitted themselves admirably. Bill Duke was probably the best of the lot, and the version of the “I'm gonna cut your name into him” speech from In the Land of the Cannibals really accentuates how good a job he and Jesse Ventura did of sketching out their characters' friendship with just a couple lines of dialog, because in Predator it's a surprisingly emotional moment, and in this flick it stands out as being a fucking awful imitation in a great sea of fucking awful imitations.

It also doesn't help that every time one of the commandos bites it, you remember the awesome action sequences in Predator and your mind's eye vividly recalls, say, Carl Weathers being literally disarmed and hauled into the air on the blades of the towering alien hunter, while your actual eyes are seeing nothing but a group of befuddled and slightly embarrassed looking Filipinos in loincloths and silly pastel-colored war paint.

There are a couple of interesting departures taken by this flick from either of its plagiarized sources. Well, they're departures. They could have been interesting if someone had bothered to make an effort here. For example, Lt. Wilson really only starts out as the Dutch analog. That role increasingly transfers to Romero throughout the movie, with Wilson losing his cool and taking over the role of Dillon, the incompetent loser who constantly endangers his men.

Most notably, though, is the character of Velasquez. Yes, because ripping off two things just wasn't enough, there had to be a tough Latina soldier who dies by grenade-induced self-sacrifice to buy the rest of the team some time. I was kind of disappointed she didn't grumble, “You always were an asshole, Gorman”, even though there's no one in the movie named Gorman. I mean, fuck it, it's Bruno Mattei, right? It's not like he gives a shit. Oddly enough, this awkward transplant gave the movie its one real chance to do something worthwhile since it seemed so determined to do nothing but slavishly (and astonishingly badly) copy two better movies the rest of the time. Early on, they come upon one of the cannibal tribesmen doing the adultery punishment bit from Cannibal Holocaust, and while all the men look on, Velasquez is the one who is all fired up to do something about it and you think maybe, just for a fleeting moment, that we're going to get a little feminist heroine action. Then Romero basically tells her to shush up and go make them some coffee like a good little girl and my sigh of exasperation was so deep I started seeing spots and thought I might pass out.

For being half a ripoff of one of the most notoriously graphic and brutal movies of all time, this thing sure is skittish with the sleaze. When there is gore, it's the one area where the movie mostly manages not to completely suck. There's one scene early on with Romero doing a very rough field postmortem with his Bowie knife on a really nasty looking badly decayed body and he nearly cracks its head in half trying to get a look at its molars. We also get a couple of pretty messy full-body explosions. But when it comes to the real nitty-gritty of cannibals dismembering people, it's pretty lacking. Whatever power the aforementioned adultery punishment scene may have had is pretty well dispersed by the female victim spending more effort on conspicuously trying to keep her nipples covered with her hands than keeping her insane boyfriend from shoving a ball of mud and nails into her vagina and bashing her head in with a rock. And although two different pigs are killed and mutilated, we only see the live before pig, and the dismembered after pig. Not that I particularly wanted to see a couple of terrified pigs killed for the sake of a shitty movie, mind you, but it seems an odd point of squeamishness. After all, you still have to see their guts spilled out all over the ground, so it's not like they're sparing any animal lovers in the audience. Since Mattei cuts back to the actors hacking up the carcasses to revel in the gore after the deed is done anyway, it almost makes it worse than if they'd just showed the whole thing, in a way. If you're going to have that kind of awful thing in your movie, at least have the balls to follow through with it instead of pretending you didn't do what everyone damn well knows you did.

It's worth checking out for its novelty, probably better with friends than a solo viewing, and make sure you have some alcohol on hand. You're going to need it.

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