I Finally Saw “CANNIBAL FEROX”

Cannibal Ferox poster01

After previously working up the guts (ha! ha! pun intended) to watch and review Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1979 Italian cannibal film Cannibal Holocaust, I knew it was but a matter of time before I did the same with the only other flick in this genre with a comparable reputation: Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox, released in 1981. The former film review is still up on my old blog, but stay tuned, as I’ll have a somewhat revamped version up on this iteration of my blog before too long. Once I found out that, as of this writing, Lenzi’s classic cannibal film is on Hulu Plus, well, I just couldn’t resist any longer. This review is the end result of my tuning in to this treat provided for Hulu’s paid subscribers. In fact, Cannibal Holocaust  is also on Hulu at this writing (though its listed release date of 1985 is not accurate). One thing I’ll say about online services like Netflix and Hulu Plus: they will provide you with fare that would never even play on the TV premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, so let’s give them some applause here. Or screams of protest, whatever may first come to mind.

I. Food for Thought (Ha! Ha!)

First off, let’s get this question out of the way: did Lenzi shamelessly rip off Deodato’s anti-masterpiece of gorily atrocious cinema, as is often alleged? Or did he contribute something truly unique to the genre that can stand on its own merits?

As I see it, though the inspiration factor was clearly there, Cannibal Ferox  was not truly a rip-off. Its plot was distinct, as were its characters, though the main lesson learned was essentially the same: our society’s veneer of being civilized makes us no less prone to acts of extraordinary violence than any of the remaining pockets of humanity living the primitive life in remote regions of the world, especially once we’re removed from the standard civilized environment; and further, their violence towards us is often provoked by our own greed-oriented violence against them. Many will say, as they did with Deodato’s previous flick in the genre, that this moral lesson was a mere facade for what was primarily a shameless exploitation flick of gory violence and humiliation–what we would today call “torture porn”– which included authentic animal violence to appeal to the more prurient part of the audience’s psyches, not their intellectual/philosophical faculties. Don’t get me wrong, the violence factor in this film is as over the top as it was in Deodato’s presentation, and the animal lives sacrificed for this contribution to cinema are every bit as sleazily unnecessary. However, Lenzi’s screenplay and direction do an admittedly good job of making the intended lesson blatantly clear, and to his further credit he hired a good cast (at least for the jungle scenes) who were more than up to the task of doing justice to this part of the story. Let’s give him his due credit before we sic agents of PETA on his ass (since I’m guessing S.H.I.E.L.D. may have bigger concerns right now).

This film has a history on home video that carries a curious bit of nostalgia for me, even though I never had the nerve to rent it back in the day. By “back in the day,” I mean the heyday of the VHS home video market during the 1980s to mid-’90s, back when Blockbuster Video and a myriad of smaller independent chains dotted the landscape next to your local McDonalds and Radio Shack. I was very young then, and I recall seeing the VHS cassettes of this movie desecrating the shelves near the likes of “mondo” videos like the Faces of Death series (and its many copycats; remember them?), and “shockumentary” titles like Shocking Asia (yes, the first video in that series was the much talked about one that depicted the male-to-female sex change operation in all of its graphic clinical glory) and all sorts of reality videos purporting to document the gross and horrific things done by our fellow humans to each other, not to mention the many animal species at our mercy, across the world. Of course, you could only find these videos in the less respectable but glorious sub-sections that were reserved for the horror genre. Blockbuster and other major franchises, such as Hollywood Video, felt that their reputation for providing video fare to all ages would end up besmirched if they carried “trash” like that stuff. No doubt carrying such a selection would have interfered with the sales of candy and carbonated soda beverages they also hoped to sell to younger patrons, right?

At any rate, the VHS version of Cannibal Ferox  which was available for rental alongside the above material and other, more obscure cannibal films like White Cannibal Goddess–I don’t recall Cannibal Holocaust  ever being available for rental at these independent stores–was given the more foreboding title of Make Them Die Slowly  by the company which released it, Thriller Video (I wonder whatever happened to them). I’m not certain if it was an edited version or not, but it clearly retained the majority of the “bad” stuff, since I recall how intrigued I was by the disclaimer on the rental box, something along the lines of: “Warning! This is one of the most violent movies ever made. It contains [a large number of] scenes of graphic torture and extreme humiliation. Viewer discretion is highly advised.” A notation exclaiming that the movie was banned in 31 countries also adorned the cover box–which conveniently neglected to mention that the bans were lifted in many countries by the time the video was available–which either piqued the interest of customers  enough to take it home with them just so see what all the fuss was about, or (in my case, admittedly) made them think better of it, since despite a high tolerance for such material I didn’t want to “push it.” Hey, those disclaimers scared me almost as much as the ones that now appear at the end of TV commercials advertising FDA-approved pharmaceuticals!

Cannibal Ferox nom nom nom

Cannibal #1: “Nom nom nom nom!”
Cannibal #2: “You need to learn to eat with your mouth closed, Doutka. Your table manners are deplorable!”

Cannibal #1: “That’s okay, seeing as we don’t actually have a table here right now. Nom nom nom nom NOM!”

Cannibal #3: “Hey, why does Doutka get all the intestines, while you get to hog the heart and liver? You two always get all the good organs while I always get left with the prostrate and the testicles!”

But as the ’90s progressed and the digital revolution fully came of age, including the DVD format and the Internet, I frequently found this film reviewed and included in the various “most disturbing movies ever made” lists that appeared throughout the fledgling realm of cyberspace. Hence, I continued to be intrigued with the movie as time and research went on, and I knew it was inevitable that I would one day see it. I didn’t know it would take as long as the year 2015, when flying cars and hover skateboards would be as common as VHS tapes were back then, but the time did eventually come! And as a result of my finally finding the nerve thanks to Hulu, my blog will now add yet another review of this movie to the thousands of others already online 🙂  Cool, huh?

Cannibal Ferox alternate title poster

Here is the Thriller Video release version of the film that you could find in those independent video rental stores back during the glory days of VHS. Ah, nostalgia!

According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), it’s a fact that this movie first premiered completely uncut in Germany, and then quickly found the complete version banned. The fully uncut version runs 93 minutes, and heavily cut versions of 85 and 86 minutes were made available for theaters and home video rental in other nations, including the heavily censored iteration released by BBFC 18 for British audiences. Of course, this movie had an honored place on the BBFC’s dreaded “Video Nasties” list of films that the government insisted must be banned or heavily censored to spare the moral and emotional sensibilities of any viewer within that nation’s political jurisdiction. The censored version of this film released in Australia was titled Woman From Deep River  to cash in on Lenzi’s first albeit more tame 1972 semi-entry in the cannibal genre Man From Deep River  (a.k.a., Sacrifice!).

II. You Are Who You Eat: The Plot

Regarding the plot of this movie, it was uncomplicated but fully realized, and I completely disagree with any review that claims this movie had virtually no plot to speak of. A lunatic coke-head drug pusher from New York City named Mike Logan (played with awesomely insane zeal by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) is on the run from a Mafia family after screwing them out of $100,000 of cocaine (which he seems to have purloined mostly for his own snorting pleasure, rather than re-sale). He and his eventually reluctant partner-in-crime Joe Costolani (played more passively by Walter Lucchini) flee to Columbia, where they soon end up in the unforgiving wilds of the Amazon jungle where Logan falls into a scheme to bilk an Indio tribesman out of his finding of precious emeralds. You see, Logan has to find something of value that he can’t sniff out of existence in order to sell for an illicit profit. Since opening up a lemonade stand wouldn’t bring in enough income to support his coke habit, moving valuable gems seemed like a light bulb of an idea to him (during the lucid moments between his brain being fried by massive coke intake, that is).

Cannibal Ferox piece of mind

“I’m about to get a piece of his mind.”

However, Logan and Costolani were only part of the film’s cast, and by no means the protagonists. That role would go to the ensemble accompanying main character Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle), a graduate level anthropology student who journeyed to the Amazon jungles courtesy of her American university to prove her thesis that cannibalism didn’t exist, but was merely a racist invention of white travelers. Her entourage for this venture was her straight-laced and basically morally upright brother Rudy Davis (Danilo Mattei) and (for Goddess knows what reason) her rather wild female friend Pat Johnson (played by the truly gorgeous Zora Kerova). Their ill-fated quest to prove a truth that wasn’t the truth (which they would learn in the hardest way possible) would cause them to randomly cross paths with Logan and Costolani, after their gem-stealing plans went all to shit thanks to the former’s coke-fueled psychotic rage.

In short, Logan and Costolani talked the overly trusting Indio native who found the emeralds into taking them to the river deep in the Amazon jungle where he discovered the gems. Logan then held him and some other members of his tribe hostage at gunpoint, and tortured the young man in most horrific ways to tell him where he left his stash of gems. This torture included the literal removal of his manhood by machete. Costolani was horrified by his partner’s actions at this point, but seemed too intimidated to challenge him. The two left with the goods… and with the ire of the young male members of the tribe, who resolved to hunt, capture, and torture the criminal duo out of vengeance. One of the tribesmen managed to seriously injure Costolani with his wooden pig sticker, but Logan shot the native and helped his injured cohort make their way further into the jungle, continuing to flee the revenge-seeking tribal warriors… who just so happened to have cannibalistic tendencies.

It was during this flight for their lives when they encountered Gloria’s trio, who had been stranded deep in the jungle after their rented dune buggy-like vehicle (hey, I’m no an expert) had an inconvenient accident thanks to Rudy being kind enough to swerve out of the way to avoid hitting an iguana. Logan hastily provided a bogus explanation as to why the cannibals were hot on their asses (saying they attacked them and their non-existent guide first), and being the trusting good Samaritans that they were, decided they would help these strange guys and tend to Costolani’s serious wounds. Big mistake.

Soon after this, however, Logan’s true nature became known when he encouraged Pat (who had since started sleeping with him) to help him harm a (very pretty) girl from the tribe who, along with a younger male member of the tribe, was playing with a tortoise near the edge of the river. The girl ended up shot to death, but Pat helped the boy escape, thus earning them a secret ally who would come in handy later. Rudy thoroughly kicked Logan’s ass in a fight for what he did, finally giving us some violence that was fun to watch.

Cannibal Ferox ripped abs

“Wow, talk about having a really ripped  set of abs!”

Costolani then told Gloria and Rudy what actually happened just before he expired from blood poisoning due to the severity of his injuries. When his just recently expired corpse was found by the searching cannibal warriors, they decided that the proverb of “waste not, want not” applied to their culture as well as ours, so they ripped open his stomach and fed on his innards in a gloriously graphic scene of culinary indulgence. Gloria and Rudy desperately tried to find Pat–who had fled with Logan–only for all four of them to end up in the clutches of the tribe. Brought back to their village in captivity, the nightmare was about to begin. To see what happens there, and who survives (yeah, right!) and who doesn’t… well, see the movie. Just make sure you’re not eating anything while you do, because you won’t be having dinner alone, if you get my meaning. Oh, and btw… you will never again enjoy the bouncy childhood song “Red River Valley” that you enjoyed reciting in elementary school music class after watching this. You’ll see exactly what I mean once you also find the nerve to watch this film!

III. Being the Main Course in a Cannibal Village: Does It Add Up to the Hype?

I must confess that the movie didn’t so much as make me flinch. It’s rare that something does, though it certainly has happened–the uber-graphic blood-letting of David Cronenberg’s 1977 horror film Rabid starring famed porno queen Marilyn Chambers in her only non-porno-oriented role got me sick to my stomach, for example–so I wasn’t too surprised, especially after sitting through Cannibal Holocaust, the only flick from this genre said to be worse. Don’t get me wrong, though: the violence was pretty incredible, and for the most part, the gore effects were well done on whatever presumably limited budget that Lenzi had to work with. It included graphically unflinching and up-close depictions of people and (real) animals having their guts sliced open and their viscera removed and eaten raw (this tribe was apparently too impatient to cook their meals over a fire when they got hungry), skull decapitations, men being deprived of their manhood in a most literal fashion, graphic breast mutilation, and quick removal of limbs that could have taught a lesson in efficiency to any medical amputation expert who operated (quite literally) during the Civil War.

Of course, being the quibbler that I am concerning lax logic in fiction, I do need to point something out and complain, and my esteemed readers will now have the dubious honor of seeing me vent. Yes, I know this is only a movie and it’s totally fiction blah blah blah, but I’m sorry, I need to see degrees of internal logic and the raw details being as close to “realistic” as possible in a work of fiction, otherwise my suspension of disbelief is given a proverbial black eye. So yes, I’m that  type of viewer, i.e., the type who get’s annoyed at a TV series or movie franchise when, for instance, it’s established early on that a certain character has no siblings, only to later have that character introduce a respected brother with nary so much as an attempt to explain the discrepancy. I know some people will say, “Dude, it’s only fiction, so as long as it’s entertaining, who the hell cares if it doesn’t make sense according to logic as we experience it in the real world? Why can’t you just watch the show/movie without worrying about stuff like that and just stfu instead of spoiling everyone else’s fun?”

Unfortunately for all of those fellow viewers whose fun I routinely spoil, I’m not one of those ultra laid back viewers with no need for suspension of disbelief to have a good viewing experience. I’m the type of viewer who at a very young age complained that The Muppet Movie  was too illogical to fully enjoy because, among other things (don’t get me started!), it depicted Kermit the Frog meeting Scooter for the first time as the manager of Dr. Teeth’s band when the debut episode of The Muppet Show  had previously depicted their “first” meeting, with Kermit expressing incredulity at the name “Scooter” (yeah, yeah, I know, how much logic do you expect from a character whose eye balls are fastened to the lenses of their bifocals rather than attached to their face? But still!). The problem in this film is related to the violent content, of course. Please tolerate me further while I explain.

I don’t think I’m providing any major spoiler by mentioning that the cannibal tribe who captures Gloria Davis’s group begins their brutal vengeance by slicing off Logan’s penis (yes, in full graphic detail) and then adds insult to injury and more grossness to already existent grossness by eating it in front of him (sorry, but I’m not making that up). The agonizing and humiliating mutilation is then followed up by the cannibals cauterizing the stump (is that what you would call it? I’d rather not speculate on proper terminology here) so he wouldn’t bleed out; remember, the idea was to prolong his agony over a lengthy period. All well and good (if you’re not Mr. Logan, that is). But when next we see Logan after the removal of his manhood, he’s casually walking and standing while being led to different locations with his fellow captives, and soon after that escapes from his cage and makes an impressive attempt to fight his way out of the village, in the process moving around in a fashion that would have impressed Indiana Jones or Alan Quartermain. And therein lies the problem.

Alright, granted I’m not an expert here since I never had anyone go all Lorena Bobbitt on me (if you don’t recall that classic real life incident, then you’d be remiss not to do the research that got Ms. Bobbitt and her ill-fated husband John their 15 minutes of fame 22 years ago). But considering how sensitive that area is, wouldn’t you think that Logan would be in constant extreme pain, especially when he tried to walk or run? Even if fueled by adrenaline and extreme determination, wouldn’t you at least expect him to move about in a crouching waddle while repeatedly yelling “Ow! Ow! Ow! Shit! Ow!” or something like that? I mean, any guy can attest to how painful it is if you simply get a single strand of hair lodged into the shaft; it feels like a Phillips’ screw driver is jammed up there! And I hardly think the cannibals gave him any type of exotic herbal painkiller, since that would have defeated the purpose of the torture, right? Maybe Logan’s constant coke sniffing somehow altered his metabolism to act as a permanent Morphine-level painkiller or something, I dunno. But that’s another thing. Considering what a horrid addict he was, why didn’t he ever go into withdrawal during the days he was held captive by the cannibals? You would think his fits, spasms, and vomiting on the floor of his cage would have provided no end of amusement to the vengeful tribe members. But that never happened either. So there you go with my complaint, and a Marvel No-Prize to anyone who figures out WTF was the secret behind the post-vasectimized Mr. Logan’s incredible resistance to pain.

Cannibal Ferox eye for violence

“I have a real eye for violence, dude.”

Okay, now let’s get to the justifiable complaints about the violence initiated against real animals in this film, a problem that similarly plagued Cannibal Holocaust  and encompassed a big chunk of the controversy directed at that movie too. A lot of the scenes involving real animal slaughter in this particular movie featured animal on animal violence. We saw a leopard attack and kill a small animal of some sort, a huge iguana fight a boa constrictor and kick ass (or what passes for one on a snake), and an anaconda constrict to death that weird looking whatever-the-hell-it-was little mammal that Gloria was given as a pet by some of the weird people her entourage met on a boat ride earlier in the film. In fact, Gloria seemed to have been given that animal for no good reason other than the script’s desire to set the poor creature up for its rib-crushing fate in the coils of the anaconda.

However, these slaughters of the natural world weren’t much worse than what you saw in several episodes of those naturist reality shows so popular in the U.S. during the 1970s, many of which copycatted the long-running Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom [it’s hard to forget that little blast from the past that was hosted by naturalist adventurer Marlon Perkins, including that cheesy but melancholy jingle from its sponsor, the life insurance company Mutual of Omaha, who for totally inexplicable reasons had so much invested in wildlife education]. Check out those elephant seals tear into each other at the 1:23 time stamp on this episode of the show as one way cool example. Of course, as far as we know, Marlon and his cohorts didn’t set up these battles before hand, but simply happened to be in the right place at the right time to get the footage, so I presume PETA would give them a free pass. This wasn’t the case with Lenzi and his production crew, who decided to take a lesson from the producers and special effects hacks of the 1960 version of The Lost World,  who decided to cheaply simulate dinosaur battles by gluing a few frilly attachments to a gator and a monitor lizard–two species of large reptile known to be natural enemies–and then pushing them into contact with each other so they would get into a truly realistic savage donnybrook on camera (that vicious footage was recycled by several parties who produced other cheaply made “dinosaur” films for many years afterwards, including the infamously bad King Dinosaur).

Oh yeah, there was also that scene on the boat where Gloria’s entourage interacted with those weird people when some dude ate this big ass insect with multi-colored wings which made it somewhat resemble a Fairy Mothra. I’m not sure if a real insect’s life was sacrificed for this early gross-out scene, but it was explained as some sort of cultural thing that the people of that region of Columbia engaged in. So, if you should ever have an exchange student from that area of South America at your house for a week, do not retch on his shoes if he should happen to snatch and devour a monarch butterfly that lands on a flower near the two of you; it’s a legitimate cultural thing, okay? Just be sure to warn him if he attempts to snatch and devour a bee or a yellowjacket (or don’t, if you want to have a laugh at his expense).

Lenzi certainly didn’t exactly scrimp with the human on animal violence either, though (as partly noted above). We saw more tortoises slaughtered and eaten raw by members of the Indio tribes, which started with having their heads lopped off. As I mentioned in my review for Cannibal Holocaust,  that is normally a merciful way to go about it, but I must say that the second tortoise killed on camera in this flick was subject to a machete that really needed to be sharpened, so the decapitation didn’t exactly go quickly. The crocodile slaughter scene was less merciful, since its guts were opened without the head first coming off (I wonder why the tortoises were treated better). To his credit, Radice refused to directly participate in the scene where his character Mike Logan speared a pig to death, so a double was used to do the deed. As a bit of poetic justice, the slaughter double got his own hand (apparently) accidentally skewered by Radice since due to his refusal to kill the pig, he had to be filmed thrusting his spear into a bowl of fake blood that was held in place by his double. Needless to say, his aim was off and the blood spilled wasn’t all fake. Radice felt that accident was something akin to karmic retribution for this double needlessly killing the pig.

In short, like with Cannibal Holocaust,  the animal killing scenes were fully unnecessary, and provided solely for some extra “jungle savagery” shock value. The only such scene of animal slaughter in this movie that was even remotely relevant to the plot was Radice’s killing of the pig, as it provided a good example of his coke-addled mental instability. However, this killing could easily have been faked considering the quality of the gore effects used to depict human on human violence. So if you happen to be sensitive about this type of thing, and have strong principles against the slaughter of animals for entertainment purposes, then you would miss nothing if you acquired a copy of this film that was sans footage of the animal killings. Be aware, though, that the version now up on Hulu Plus features the fully uncut version.

Cannibal Ferox I knew I should have watched where I was going

“Shit, who put that there? Doutka and those damned practical jokes of his!”

IV. But What About the Quality of the Script?

I have to say this in favor of the movie: both the script and the acting–at least with the scenes that took place in the Colombian/Amazon environment–were quite good. The whole movie held up as an exciting and suspenseful jungle adventure without relying entirely upon the shock value of the uber-gory violence for the entertainment factor. The same cannot be said for the periodic sequences occurring in New York City, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Umberto Lenzi is as good a director and film maker in his own way as Ruggero Deodato happens to be, and this movie can compare favorably to Cannibal Holocaust  as the best film in the Italian cannibal genre. The wondrously experimental and less PC days of the 1970s and early ’80s was an amazing time for cinema, and rarely has the old adage “they don’t make them like this any more” been as applicable. The script fleshed out the characters quite well (please don’t take that as a vile pun), and each had their distinct personality traits, with Pat Johnson and Joe Costolani being sufficiently gray characters to offer their own manner of unpredictability to the plot. Mike Logan was quite a villain, and his machinations went a long way towards providing sympathy for the cannibal tribe, showing that the brutality they dispensed upon their captives was only in response to that which Logan had first inflicted upon them.

The jungle cinematography was very well done, and the thespians portraying the Indio tribe members were spot on with both their acting and the make-up effects. It should also be pointed out that the young native tribeswomen were extremely gorgeous to behold, adding their own degree of incongruous beauty to the general brutality of this movie. As noted before, Zora Kerova was also exceedingly pleasant on the eyes in addition to being a good actress. Lorraine De Selle did an equally good job in the role of main protagonist Gloria Davis, and though she wasn’t bad looking she still couldn’t hold a candle to Kerova or the young Indio women in that respect.

Cannibal Ferox welcome to dinner

“We’re here to invite you to be dinner for us… er, I meant to have  dinner with  us. Sorry, my English is no very good.”

The soundtrack over the jungle sequences was as well done as the cinematography, even though it was borrowed from Lenzi’s lesser cannibal film from the previous year, Eaten Alive.  Hey, if something worked before, why not recycle it, right? Especially when you’re budget strapped and would rather not spend the funds to hire a new maestro. Just as I reported how the highly pleasant and relaxing music that played over the very scenic aerial jungle footage in the opening credits of Cannibal Holocaust  gave absolutely no hint as to the type of movie you were about to watch, so did the opening credits for this movie, but in an entirely different manner! This film opened with footage from a populated street in the middle of a particularly dingy area of New  York City with some really funky music of the type commonly heard on American cop films and shows at the time. Just as the opening theme of Cannibal Holocaust  was indicative of an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, the opening theme of this film must have made many think they were about to see an episode of The Streets of San Francisco  or a sequel to Serpico.

Now let’s get to what is often reported as the one major drawback to this film in regards to the script and the plot: the New York City sequences, which were actually filmed on location there. I fully  agree with these critiques. Despite the hard-boiled edge and the “realistic” surfeit of profanity thrown about by the characters, these scenes looked as if they could have belonged to an entirely separate movie. The script clearly connected them to the main plot, since the city scenes dealt with the NYPD, led by Lt. Rizzo (Robert Kerman), and members of a brutal drug dealing gang looking for Mike Logan by interrogating people he knew, including his ex-girlfriend Myrna Stenn (Fiamma Maglione). Both the acting and the dialogue for these scenes were below par, to say the least, and most of the violence was no worse than what you would see on a typical episode of Starsky and Hutch  or  Baretta  from around that general era. In fact, the only violent scene from the NYC sequences that was routinely cut from the censored versions of the movie was the scene were Stenn was kicked in the face while on the ground by one of the drug dealers in the course of trying to beat information out of her regarding her boyfriend’s whereabouts. In fact, that scene also involved a lapse in logic: immediately after receiving such a brutal kick to the face, Stenn’s visage looked completely unmarked; no bloody nose or lip, and no sign of a big facial bruise until the next scene when she was at the police station making a statement. She must have been snorting a lot of Logan’s special cocaine.

All of the above regarding the NYC sequences seemed to suggest that most of the budget was spent on doing a good job on the jungle scenes that focused on the main plot and protagonists, and these city scenes were later filmed more or less as an afterthought just to pad the running time to a full 90 minutes. They could easily have been left on the cutting room floor without in any way diminishing the main narrative of the movie. These sequences were pretty much filler that detract from the movie, so it’s a shame we never got a version of the flick that dispensed with most or all of these scenes. What went on in NYC after Mike Logan stole the drugs and fled to South America just wasn’t interesting or important enough to depict in such detail, and only had direct relevance on the main part of the movie as set-up to explain the search helicopter flown into the Columbian jungles towards the film’s climax. A single quick extra scene or two added to the script could have served as sufficient set-up for that, especially considering we knew Logan would never receive any comeuppance for his deeds from the police or the drug dealers he screwed over. The cannibals took care of that in the most dickish manner possible.

Interestingly, the male members of the cast (and one female member) took on screen names for the credits that sounded more American, so that the movie seemed less like an Italian production (for example, Giovanni Lombardo Radice being credited as “John Morghan”). Yanno, sort of similar to the way employees from India or the Middle East who regularly service North American clients during these days of rampant outsourcing take on American-sounding names like David or Mary to sound… well, more American.

Basically, for those with strong stomachs, tolerance for real animal violence (and I mean for viewing it, not necessarily being okay with it ethically), and a penchant for a good jungle adventure flick, I highly recommend this movie. It does have a point to its script beyond the violence, and if you aren’t totally taken aback by those scenes, then you can see this flick as more than a mere exploitation film with no overriding message. If you overlook the New York City sequences, you will at least get a decent script with very competent acting and generally believable characters, if not always believable events. I personally found this movie to be a worthy addition to the horror genre in general, and the Italian cannibal sub-genre in particular.

Cannibal Ferox sharing scene

“Just so we don’t come off as overly impolite captors, I thought I would share some of your friend’s penis with you. I was even generous enough to pre-chew it for you, see?”

I Just Finished Reading Michael Crichton’s CONGO… and Compared to the Movie Version, It’s Nothing to Go Ape Over

Congo04

 

Let me admit this right off the bat, despite how much it goes against consensus opinion on the matter: Paramount Pictures’ 1995 big screen adaptation of the late, great Michael Crichton’s novel Congo  is one of my favorite horror/adventure films of that decade. To those who have read even a moderate amount of consensus reviews on the quality of this movie, let me assure you that you did indeed read that correctly. Nearly every single review of the film I’ve read over the years, who are often quick to compare it to Crichton’s 1980 novel–and who range from the most famous film reviewer to the lowliest ad hominem-hurling Internet commentator–is generally this: “The movie totally sucked. You really need to read Crichton’s novel, which was brilliant. The movie version really left a shit stain on Crichton’s great work.”

 

What finally inspired me to compose this blog was my state of mind after finally getting the chance to read Crichton’s novel, completed just the other day. I was hoping that my greatly contrary opinion to consensus thought about the quality of the movie wouldn’t extend to that same opinion regarding the oft-stated “brilliance” of its literary inspiration. It wasn’t to be the first time one of my hopes were cruelly dashed, but it was the one relevant to this blog. So if you bother to stick around after this sentence, you are about to read my pontifications as to how the book compares to the movie, and I why I greatly disagree with the frequently heard commentary from those who have critiqued and compared both.

 

Congo01

This mo’ fo’ will do a lot worse than hurl feces at you.

 

 

 

I. Conventional Wisdom is Not Always Wise

Contrary to what those who read my non-fiction scribing and do not know me well personally may assume, I’m not one of those people who knee-jerkedly goes against anything considered to be conventional wisdom merely for the sake of “being different” or “looking for negative attention.” There are, in fact, many aspects of conventional wisdom I do fully agree with, including within the realm of literary and film criticism. I have strong agreements with many consensus opinions (e.g., I think Citizen Kane  is an absolutely brilliant film); and more than my share of disagreements with the vast majority on certain commonly held opinions (e.g., though I concede The Godfather III  most certainly did not match the grandeur of the first two films in the trilogy, I do not  agree that it thoroughly sucked an unmentionable anatomical extension). I’m simply notorious for being vocal about aspects of conventional wisdom that I may disagree with based upon a combination of personal experience and research, no matter how dear to the heart of mainstream thought such beliefs, opinions, or interpretations may be. Just ask anyone who has ever heard me dare to criticize anything about Alan Moore’s attitude and decisions regarding his infamous falling out with DC Comics, or publicly mention that the movie version of The Princess Bride  is not  on my list of cherished cinematic memories (I know what you’re thinking about that last one: “inconceivable!”).

 

Which brings us to my opinion on how CONGO the novel compares to Congo  the film (yes, I’m now going to start distinguishing books from films and video games by scribing the former in all caps and the latter two in italics; I just think it looks better that way!).

 

I insincerely apologize to the vast majority of critics about this, but I most certainly do not think the movie version sucked ass. Was it a blockbuster epic along the lines of Aliens? No, it wasn’t, and no one deciding to watch the film should expect such a thing going in. But it was a slick, relatively well-aced adventure flick with good casting choices, a decent if not stellar script courtesy of John Patrick Shanley, and some impressive physical effects despite a limited budget during the last years before CGI almost completely took over. The species of vicious, gray-furred gorilla which menaced the human expedition to the remote rain forests of Zaire (that’s what they call the Congo now, people!) were genuinely fearsome-looking and deadly… much more so than the versions that appeared in the book, in fact. But I’m getting just a bit ahead of things here.

 

The cast was genuinely likeable, even if over half of the expedition members were comprised of porters native to Africa who weren’t played by well-known thespians, and were simply there as fang fodder for the gorillas to rip apart. And these simian horrors didn’t skimp on any of that in the movie version! These killer gorillas, said to be the product of an ancient form of eugenics developed by the lost populace of Zinj who bred and trained them to aggressively guard their precious diamond mines, kept up a sizable breeding population up to the present and continued their predatory security purposes long after the human civilization that spawned them vanished from the historical records. That spelled really bad news for the corporation which hired the various individuals comprising the expedition to search for the legendary but unsubstantiated old city and its reported store of diamonds. It’s a terrible shame that the company’s intel on the fauna bred by the people of Zinji wasn’t as good as that which they acquired for the lost civilization’s mineral resources. But if it was, the crew would have gone far better prepared, resulting in no loss of human life and a huge loss of entertainment value for the viewers.

 

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You gotta “hand” it to that laser weapon’s efficiency! Bwah-hah-hah!

 

This strange species of aggressive gorilla resembled the two known and gentle conventional species, but had gray fur, somewhat sleeker (and thus faster) bodies, and were much more evil-looking. You wouldn’t want to confront one of these things in an alley, whether dark or fully lit, anywhere in the world. Having to deal with a horde of such killer simians in a very dangerous and remote area of Africa that these apes knew much better than any human was a true nightmare to experience. I think it’s a complete shame that we never saw more of these creatures in either additional movies or other in other mediums, thanks to the film’s lackluster performance at the box office. So I won’t hold out much hope for seeing Dark Horse Comics acquire the license from whoever now owns the copyright to produce a group of Congo  mini-series, including one titled PREDATOR VS. THE APES OF ZINJ IN THE CONGO or something like that. And what a way cool crossover that would have been!

 

 

II. Okay, Why Do I Think the Movie Didn’t Suck?

Shanley’s screenplay was faithful to the main story that Crichton took far too long to tell in the book. To paraphrase an apropos expression that someone living on a farm must have invented, Shanley cut most of the wheat from Crichton’s chaff and took one of the slowest stories I ever read and turned it into a reasonably fast-paced movie without losing anything important. The end result focused largely on the main details of the expedition’s trek into the lost city of Zinj and directly into a brutal life and death struggle with the Zinj Apes (did I just coin that term? We gotta call them something, right? And isn’t this easier to type than “Those Killer Gorillas From Congo “?).  Almost all extraneous details not integral to that particular plot, or even having direct bearing on it, were excised. And there were veritable heaps of this extraneous and semi-extraneous material in the novel. This very necessary excision amounted to cutting literally 70% of the text in the book… trust me, I actually checked the counter on my Kindle tablet at the point in the novel where the expedition finally reached the area where they had to deal with the apes.

The gore and onscreen mayhem inflicted upon human victims were surprisingly intense for a PG-13 rated movie, and what survived the cutting room floor for the theatrical version really pushed the limits for that rating. We see the Zinj Apes’ penchant for literally tearing off the heads of human victims and then contemptuously tossing them at the surviving humans in quite graphic detail. This, btw, was in contrast to how the apes preferred to kill people in the book: they smashed their heads on each side with stone paddles specially sculpted by the ancient citizens of Zinj to be used by their ape sentries for that purpose. Yes, you just read that correctly; evidently, Crichton thought the considerable strength of the apes’ bare hands wasn’t sufficient to do the job. I’m thankful that Shanely’s script rectified that matter.

Travicom’s experimental laser beam, powered by the blue diamonds of a certain size that were found in Zinj’s precious mines, was utilized by the maverick Travicom’s computer expert Dr. Karen Ross to literally slice through the ranks of the killer apes like a hot knife through wads of butter. And it was seriously sweet to behold! Those scenes hardly skimped on the retaliatory onscreen slaughter wreaked upon Zinj’s simian sentries.

The blue color of those diamonds actually signified a form of impurity that made these gems all but worthless in a financial sense, but extremely valuable in a sheer practical manner as a power source for certain advanced electronics. In turns out natural diamonds can serve as powerful semiconductors (remember learning about those things in high school physics class?) if they are put through a synthetic process called boron-doping, said impurities leaving the normally clear sparkling gems with an azure hue. The diamonds in the Zinj mines, however, are subjected to some volcanic process that leaves the lot of them naturally boron-doped, and thus invaluable semiconductors for all manner of technology. In the book, the device intended for this power source was a computer system designed to process command protocols and bolster communication speeds for human-created missile-firing armaments; they served mainly as an opportunity for Crichton to show off his extensive knowledge of late 20th century advanced computer and munitions technology. In the movie, the blue gems were used to power the large sophisticated laser which provided the human expedition members with opportunities to give as good as they got against the apes.

Congo03

Karen Ross kicks some serious hairy ass with the way cool weapon that Crichton didn’t include in the book version.

Perhaps I should also mention that the company whose Evil Capitalist CEO, R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker), employed Dr. Karen Ross and funded the American expedition to seek out the diamonds was called Earth Resource Technology Services Inc. (ERTS) in the book, but changed to the previously noted Travicom for the film. I’m not sure what the reason for the change was, but let’s face it, the latter title sounds much more satisfactory for the arrogance of a wealthy shark in human clothing like R. B. Travis. Even Tony Stark couldn’t resist naming most of his own businesses after himself!

Take a guess which of the two diamond-powered devices I found to be more interesting and exciting. This was another change in Shanely’s screenplay from Crichton’s book that was a great improvement IMHO. The sophisticated automated, laser-guided ground-mounted machine guns used by the humans to guard the perimeter of their camp from the apes appeared in both the book and movie versions, and the book actually used them to somewhat more of an effect. However, the addition of the diamond-charged laser rifle more than made up for that. Crichton’s book described a more elaborate perimeter defense system, which included small but effective moats of water dug by the expedition members to exploit the fear of water that all great apes have. I don’t recall this shown in the film, but the moats were hardly missed due to the movie’s far faster pace than the book.

Dr. Karen Ross was perhaps the main character in both the book and the movie, but in the film (where she was played rather well by a young Laura Linney) this tough-as-nails dame was given more humanity. The book version, while not truly malicious, was more or less totally self-centered, focused on finding the diamonds and making a name for herself in the company at all costs. The movie version was equally driven and determined, but she was greatly humanized by having screenwriter Shanely provide her with a fiancee that her literary counterpart lacked: Charles Travis (the inimitable Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead  fame!), the doomed son of R. B. Travis, who was pulverized by the Zinj Apes during the first expedition sent by the company to find the diamonds. The cinematic Ross had a clear conscience that caused her to turn on Travis when she discovered the mutilated and largely decayed body of her fiancee in one of the lost city’s stone temples, and realized that her employer and almost-father-in-law cared nothing for his murdered son and everything  for the diamonds and bottom line. In other words, he was a good CEO at the expense of being a bad person, very much in the mold of the Evil Capitalists Obadiah Stane and Darren Cross, whose film versions we saw in Marvel Studios’ Iron Man  and Ant-Man  respectively. The cinematic Ross was ultimately glad to sacrifice her career to make R. B. (“rat bastard”?) pay for his callous attitude towards everyone he ever met, including his son and her fiancee. That was nothing Ross’s page-bound counterpart would have done. The viewers of this movie left the theater with much more respect for that version of Dr. Ross than the readers of the book did for the literary version, I’d wager.

Taking the place of the self-centered, avaricious, and deceptive literary version of Karen Ross in the film was the added character of the bogus Romanian philanthropist Herkermer Homolka (try to say that five times fast; he was played by Tim Curry). Perhaps more accurately, Homolka actually acted as the human repository for the base characteristics of Ross’ literary version, rather than a replacement for the character herself. The movie iteration of Ross was similar enough to the book version to be considered the same character, but one might say she was a different variation  of the same character, with the possibility that the iteration native to the movie reality had her dark side tempered by having a positive love interest in Charlie Travis. The book version seemed to love nothing beyond her career prospects, and the mission that she hoped would bolster her status within it was always her primary concern. Nothing wrong with a dedicated career woman, of course, but one who loves nothing but herself may leave a bit to be desired as a person. Of course, we all knew that from the moment Homolka was revealed as a fake who was simply after the diamonds that he would be gorilla fodder before the closing credits rolled (does anyone seriously consider this to be a spoiler?).

 

Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), the scrupulous but in-over-his-head primatologist, and the sign language fluent young female gorilla Amy (Misty Rosas; I once had a best friend named Amy! And no, she wasn’t an ape!), whom he raised infancy and was in charge of, came into the movie with their literary personas mostly intact. The movie made the improvement of including a device worn by Amy that included a computerized audio device enabling a crude verbal translation of her signs so that individuals not fluent in American Sign Language could understand her. This was a good replacement for the very frequent and tedious signs between Elliot and Amy that occurred in the book, with only the primatologist being privy to what she had to say.

The best character improvement was the book’s Scottish mercenary Charles Munro being modified into the British African-American tour guide Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson). The book version was an interesting character with heavy knowledge of the continent and the unsavory business that went on within its borders, but Hudson made his version of Munro a true  character. The tough but witty and agreeable mercenary from the book was given a suave, affable, and quite charming personality courtesy of Hudson’s great acting talent. I’ve always believed that Hudson may be rivaled only Michael Ironside (and possibly Lance Henrikson) as one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. The range of characters he plays well is impressively varied, and he was clearly having fun in this movie. The end result was therefore much more of a treat to behold than the written version of Munro in Crichton’s book.

Also included from the book was Mahega (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – try typing that  name five times in a row!), leader of the expedition’s team of African porters. The book version was actually a bit more interesting than his movie counterpart, simply because the latter had a “jolly,” good-spirited nature that intermittently offered relief from the grim situation the expedition crew found themselves in. The movie version had much less to say and do, thus making his character, though important to the expedition, largely come off as “just there.” Still, since neither version of the character had any major bearing on the main plot, so I was able to overlook this personality modification.

III. Why I Think the Book Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype

For one thing, I should note that Crichton, despite being rightfully renowned as a great novelist with a lot of talent, frequently breaks what writing instructors frequently tell their classes to be one of the cardinal rules of writing: show, don’t tell. He never hesitates to include long paragraphs of explanatory prose to describe every bit of scientific information and/or historical background behind anything of even moderate relevance that his cast of characters come across. This includes a long historical perspective of Zaire, and the chaotic political situation going on there since time immemorial throughout the 1970s decade; the scientific process of boron-doping; the history and technical workings of computer, munitions, and satellite technology, and precisely how such tech was all interwoven by 1980; the history of American Sign Language (ASL) being taught to simians and the details of various famous great apes who used it; the fully scientific skinny on the rain forest; the nature of mountain gorillas and the full range of their intelligence in captivity; the historical background of prevalent cannibalism practiced amongst so many African tribes right into the 20th century; the history and status of the various human tribes living there; the nature of vulcanism, complete with an overview of many of the world’s most active volcanoes; etc., et al.

He is also fond of using this info to make largely incorrect future predictions. Then again, he didn’t suggest there would be a skyline full of flying cars, numerous kids enjoying the use of hovering skateboards, and giant holograms on movie-advertising billboards engaging in simulated attacks on people who walked past the theater by 2015, so I’ll give him a break on that.

Large swaths of the above were not presented to the reader via the dialogue and actions of the characters, but through countless paragraphs of textbook style documentation. Don’t get me wrong, I consider few rules presented by writing instructors to be the equivalent of holy writ, and to be much more than a combination of the instructor’s personal tastes or popular convention amongst the writing community at any given time (for example, look at how many college and graduate school instructors frequently pontificate about how they loathe genre writing and consider it the nadir of the literary realm). Every reader’s preferences differ outside of a basic united desire to see coherent grammar, spelling, and formatting. For those who, like myself, enjoy absorbing knowledge off the page like Superman’s arch-enemy Parasite sponges the life energy from others, you may find Crichton’s work–including this novel–an excellent source of info. I was highlighting passages of such dry information-laden text left and right for this reason.

Amy the Gorilla01

Behold the glorious days before Andy Serkis came along.

But for those who prefer storytelling over big helpings of raw information, they would likely find Crichton’s writing style to be ponderous, not to mention an unwelcome diversion from the main plot and characters of the story. This is a problem you will not have with the movie. I suspect that this is why so many critics and reviewers applaud Crichton’s novel as being brilliant in comparison to the movie. The thing is, it can well be argued that his genuine brilliance may be better served writing textbooks than prose fiction, or at least leaving the heavy helpings of scientific and historical information out of a tome devoted to telling a fictional narrative rather than simply providing paragraphs of facts. This happens so often that the novel often reads like an educational book for grad school students rather than grammar school kids.

The pacing of the book is also incredibly slow. I made no exaggeration when I said that you don’t even get to see the expedition encounter the Zinj Apes and volcanic bedlam until 70% of the way into the book. We barely see the killer gorillas prior to that, save for an early prologue sequence at the beginning of the book where their handiwork is shown inflicted upon the first expedition, and a brief image of one of the apes is caught on one of their cameras. Dr. Elliot also takes long stretches of time to  analyze and theorize on what type of animal is shown in that hazy image.

The day-to-day travails of an inexperienced group trekking through the unforgiving rain forests of Africa take up a huge bulk of the story, but it never really becomes interesting enough to build a compelling narrative. No real tragedy occurs amongst the expedition during this time, and their encounter with the Ghost People tribe is pretty much a diversion to get them to encounter the traumatized and soon to die sole survivor of the first expedition so they can learn something horrible happened. The only hint as to what that horrible thing may have been was the man’s horrified bellow upon seeing Amy the ape just before he collapsed dead. And that’s another thing: a further huge portion of the book is taken up with Elliot’s cute relationship with Amy. Charming interactions to be sure, but hardly necessary in their entirety. This relationship between man and ape was made pretty clear in the movie without it taking up huge portions of the allotted time.

Then there were the many changes in the cast of characters I noted in the previous section. With the exception of Mahega, all of the character alterations in the movie improved over the versions seen in the book. Some of the humor in the film was strained and forced, but it was usually quite welcome, particularly those moments provided by Hudson. The subplot of the consortium composed of foreign corporate agents mounting a rival expedition to Zinj, and the Phileas Fogg-ish race between the two to be the first party to reach the ancient city, was left out of the movie. No great loss there, since despite the suspense it may have added to the book, it was hardly necessary to the plot and simply served to pad the book further. If anything, it took up further space in the book simply to keep the page count up.

Amy the Gorilla02

Nothing “great” about this ape.

[in sign language]: “You fuck off you, Nigro. Amy know you can’t sing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in sign like Amy. Amy good gorilla.”

Let me also make it clear that the enormous length of novels prior to the previous decade was often insisted upon by publishing houses of the era, since a bloated page count allowed them to justify charging more for the books and the establishment of monopoly price control. As a writer who worked during the era prior to the new possibilities offered by digital publishing, Crichton may well have inured himself to filling a book with 600 pages as an editorial demand. It’s just how it was done back then. The self-publishing revolution which began in the previous decade has alleviated that requirement, but in those days there was little way around it if you were serious about being published, at least by a major label. Nevertheless, it doesn’t make the reading experience any less exhausting or tedious.

More action was featured in the book regarding a short span of pages following the expedition’s departure from Zinj (leaving the vicious gray gorillas behind for good) where the surviving members had to contend with repelling a savage attack from a group of deadly primitive tribesmen from the  remains of their airplane (those bastards even shit on the seats of the plane, I kid you not!). Moderate suspense was to be had here, but considering how much more exciting the confrontations with the gorillas were in the movie than the book, the removal of this sequence in the film version was no biggie. In fact, the earlier scene of the expedition members dodging hostile government missile fire while traveling over Zaire airspace was even more exciting in the movie version, with Dr. Ross finding a most clever way of diverting the government’s heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. The very suspenseful volcano erupting sequence from the book was retained in the movie, with the latter going much further with showing cool scenes of the killer gorillas getting filleted by the raging rivers of red hot liquid rock.

I have since found a few others voices of agreement with me in regards to the quality of the movie, despite the legions of naysayers out there. This includes both my friend and colleague Derrick Ferguson, who describes the film version of Congo  as a cool modern pulp adventure on the Blood & Ink blog here; and the detailed analysis of the movie provided by PhilipJames1980 for the IMBd entry on this movie (just scroll down the page to the top of the ‘User Reviews’ section). I was also recently informed by a valued member of one of my writing groups that Amazon has several reviewers who likewise enjoyed the movie and were not so keen on the book. Even though the absence of these other praises wouldn’t have affected my opinion, it’s always a bit refreshing to find out that you aren’t the proverbial lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to a certain strong minority view. Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong, but it’s certainly important to question it on matters where we happen to feel that it is. As such, I fully recommend that everyone who enjoys good, fun pulp-style adventure to give the movie a chance, and to only take the time required to read the book if you happen to be enamored of Crichton’s specific style of writing. To each their own, bro.

Ceasar01

“Okay, I may be from that other  movie about apes who war against humans, but since I’m sure lots of humans can’t tell the difference between a chimp and a gorilla anyway, who cares, right?”