Friday, March 23, 2018

Eaten Alive! (1980)

Written by: Umberto Lenzi
Directed by: Umberto Lenzi
Robert Kerman as Mark
Janet Agren as Sheila
Ivan Rassimov as Jonas
Me Me Lai as Mowara

One of the things I never get tired of as a genre fan is seeing people who starred in movies decades ago discovering that they have generations of fans who love them and their work, and want their autographs and to hear the stories that they thought had long since passed into irrelevance. There's a feature length documentary about Me Me Lai on the new Severin Films Blu ray of this movie that is largely her adorable and slightly befuddled reaction to precisely this information. The highlight of the piece, though, is a story about her career after she retired from film, but I'll get to that later.

“Who is Me Me Lai?” you may be asking yourself. I doubt any of my readers are unfamiliar with her name, at least, but just in case: Born in Burma to a Burmese mother and an English father who worked for an oil company, the family moved to England for the company when she was a teenager. Being stunningly beautiful, she quickly got jobs modeling and followed that naturally into acting because it seemed like fun to get paid vacations to exotic locations, even if she did have to be nekkid all the time. She is the only woman to have starred in three Italian cannibal movies (and ended up playing alongside Ivan Rassimov in all three of them, too). Well, starring may be a machete whack too far in this case. She's more of a secondary character in Eaten Alive, but an important one, nonetheless. She is an instantly recognizable face in the world of Italian exploitation (although she did the majority of her acting work outside the genre, and a lot of television as well). It's a damn shame she and Laura Gemser never got teamed up.

Our story opens, as so many of Lenzi's movies tend to, in New York City. This has some of the most beautiful and loving shots of scuzzy old NYC I've ever seen in an Italian splatter flick. I've said it before and I'll say it again, constant readers, I was born in the wrong damn decade. A vaguely Southeast Asian-looking man with an unfortunate bowl haircut is running around the city shooting various people with a blowgun, while a statuesque blonde woman in a fur coat makes her way downtown to a police precinct. The woman is Sheila, and she's going to the police to answer some questions and try to get a few answers of her own about the disappearance of her sister, Diana. It seems she was seen in the company of a suspected cult leader named Jonas shortly before he and all of his associates vanished from the city. The man is thought by the police to be murdering defectors from Jonas's cult to prevent them from turning state's evidence against him should an extradition case be mounted once the FBI can figure out exactly where he moved his cult to. How do they know that? All the darts used in the murders were coated with cobra venom, an ingredient essential to many of the cult's rituals.

The police are unable to aid her further, but discovery of a video of Diana attending some sort of strange ritual in New Guinea leads her to that hoariest of adventure movie cliches, the washed up jungle adventurer, in this case one Mark Butler (played by exploitation sleaze stalwart and Italian porn stallion Robert Kerman). He wants no part of messing with some loony cult, but Sheila promises him $80,000 of her rich family's Alabama cotton mill money if he will guide her into the jungle and suddenly a little cobra venom seems a trivial thing.

Reaching the compound of Jonas's purification cult is perhaps not as difficult as they had anticipated, but getting out will be another matter. They can't just snag Diana and run for it, or they'll be gunned down by his brainwashed followers. Instead, Mark and Sheila have to pretend they are pilgrims who want to join up, and try to find some sympathetic followers who might help them escape. And even if they manage that, Jonas has set up shop at the very farthest reaches of jungle that could be even vaguely described as hospitable to modern man. Beyond the camp's borders, the vegetation becomes an impenetrable tangle, filled with all manner of dangerous wildlife. On top of that, there is a tribe of stone-age cannibals living in the caves that riddle a nearby mountain who have become increasingly bold in their raids on Jonas's land looking for food. To make matters worse, while Mark tries to hatch an escape plan, Jonas has begun grooming Sheila as his newest bride and plying her with the same brainwashing drug he uses on Diana and their new friend Mowara, a widowed cultist who seems destined to become the village bicycle without the protection of her husband. The women have moments of lucidity as the drug wears off, but they don't have long between their mandatory doses. Their window of opportunity to escape is closing, and Jonas's chief henchman Karan is becoming suspicious.

Despite being known by horror fans primarily for his work in the genre, Lenzi only made three cannibal movies. Well, two and a half if you consider the fact that a large portion of the money shots in Eaten Alive are lifted from Lenzi's own Man from Deep River, Sergio Martino's Slave of the Cannibal God, and Deodato's Jungle Holocaust (Also known as Ultimo Mondo Cannibale because in some territories, Man from Deep River was re-titled Mondo Cannibale and Jungle Holocaust was originally intended to be a Lenzi-helmed sequel. The Jungle Holocaust title came later to cash in on the infamy of Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. And you thought the numbering issue with the Zombi sequels was confusing...) Or four, if you count the jungle adventure parody flick Daughter of the Jungle (1982). Between Man from Deep River and Eaten Alive, Lenzi worked primarily on giallo and poliziotteschi movies, both genres he preferred to straight horror, which would go some way toward explaining why even his later horror movies have a detective element to them.

While loads of other directors got in on that sweet man-eating cash during the decade or so, none of them enjoyed the success or the infamy of Lenzi and Deodato. Even then, they rarely stuck to making “straight” cannibal movies. The gut munching almost always took a backseat to other story elements or even entirely different genres. Their respective careers in cannibalism always make me think of the running joke in Dracula: Dead and Loving It, where Dracula and Van Helsing constantly try to get the last word on each other in Moldavian. Deodato was brought in to helm a sequel to Lenzi's groundbreaking Man from Deep River; Lenzi stole footage from that movie and inserted it into Eaten Alive; Deodato pulled out his 12-inch hog on the dick-measuring contest of how gruesome the movies could get with Cannibal Holocaust; Lenzi came in at 11 ½ inches but an arguably more watchable movie with Cannibal Ferox; and finally, Deodato put the whole thing to bed with Cut and Run, a blatant knockoff of Eaten Alive, with even less cannibalism but the best gore effects in any of these things by a country mile (seriously, the scene of the guy getting torn in half by the tree snare trap is fucking incredible).

Deodato is unquestionably the better filmmaker, but Lenzi's lack of tact, intelligence, and artistic flare often make his movies a great deal more enjoyable than Deodato's. Cut and Run may be the technically superior jungle cult/cannibal hybrid movie, but by Satan's gnarly knob, it gets downright boring in the middle. Richard Lynch is great as the cult leader, but he's only in the last five minutes of the movie. With Eaten Alive, little time is wasted getting to Ivan Rassimov in scenery-chewing overdrive and some of the goofiest looking phony rituals ever committed to film. I mean, what would you rather see: Richard Lynch lying in a hammock and whispering bullshit philosophy, or a guy who looks like an even angrier Jack Palance fucking a hot Swedish girl with a stone dildo covered in cobra blood? Yeah, me too.

Some of the animal violence is placed in such a way that, if you were of the disposition to find subtext in your entertainment, you could make a case for Lenzi actually putting some thought into juxtaposition and the themes of his story. For example, a monitor lizard is seen yakking up a snake that was too big for it to digest in one go, at the same time Mark is trying to escape from the compound to bring back help. Sheila and Diana being from a cotton plantation in Alabama, and talking about their black workers as though they were slave owners from 150 years ago, might make you think there is a theme of one racial minority taking a sort of metaphorical revenge for another when Diana is raped and eaten. Then you hear their hilariously shitty dubbed Southern accents, and wonder why the hell you're trying to read deeper meaning into such a silly thing. Even better than the sisters' ludicrous accents are the voices of the cannibals themselves. They evoke the “caveman rhubarb” jokes from the Cave Dwellers episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I dare you to watch any of the gut munching scenes with a straight face when you can hear the dubbing crew saying things like, “Unga bunga ugga bugga bugga” with crystal clarity.

In summation, if you are a fan of cannibal movies and you haven't seen this one already, check it out. It's a real hoot. As much as something with this much repugnant and morally reprehensible can be a hoot. Oh, you know what I mean. Just go watch the damn movie!

Oh, right. I had a story about Me Me Lai to tell you. After she retired from show biz, she became a police officer in Essex. This was in the mid-80s, at the height of the Video Nasties lunacy. In the course of duty, she found herself involved in several movie raids, where they would confiscate banned titles. Lai was mortified to discover several of her more notorious films among the captured cassettes, and feared that her fellow officers would watch them and discover the traitor in their midst! If anyone did sneak one of the tapes home and find out her secret, they never told. She retired from the force many years later, and today is still happily meeting her multi-generational fans at conventions hither and yon.

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