Umberto Lenzi’s cannibal classic is a gory, goofy dose of vintage Italian terror
Out of all the vile, debaucherous post-Mondo Cane Italian junglesploitation movies ground-out in the 1970s and 80s, Umberto Lenzi’s 1980 chunk-blower Eaten Alive (Mangiati Vivi) is the one that Canadians love the most. Why is that? Because it’s the only one – perhaps the only Italian horror movie, full stop – that actually sets part of its action in the country, opening as it does in Niagara Falls, with a poor sod getting a poison blow-dart spat into his neck.
Now, this point may seem a silly way to open up a discussion about a Lenzi-lensed gorefest but it’s subjectively important for me, glutting as I did on all of these sorts of films as an impressionable teenager. Seeing my country represented on-screen in an Italian gore movie – which then felt as though they were being beamed in from another dimension entirely – was disorienting and gave the film a sense of tangible reality that other pictures of its ilk lacked. None of this is to say that Eaten Alive is better than other more notable films like Ruggero Deodato’s punishing Cannibal Holocaust or earlier Jungle Holocaust or even Lenzi’s own notorious dick-ripper Cannibal Ferox, but it does have the distinction of being the weirdest entry in the cannon and not just because of the curious Canadian connection. No, Eaten Alive is an utterly insane dose of jungle horror delirium that earns its unsavory reputation, ladling on the flesh-ripping, tempering it with animal snuff and tying it up with a charming rapey bow. And yet the entire enterprise is so daffy, it’s impossible to take it terribly seriously.
The films stars The Gates of Hell‘s Janet Agren as Sheila, a young woman whose sister Diana (Paola Senatore) has gone missing in the jungles of New Guinea. Seems the dudes running around Niagara Falls (and New York) jabbing needles into people are kidnapping average citizens and dragging them to sweltering jungle where they are then drugged and brainwashed by a maniacal cult leader named Jonas (Ivan Rassimov, who himself starred in Lenzi’s 1972 shocker The Man From Deep River and the aforementioned Jungle Holocaust). Sheila hires a smart-ass, cynical mercenary named Mark (Cannibal Holocaust‘s Robert Kerman, who also – under the name R. Bolla – appeared in many a hardcore porn flick) to help her liberate her sibling from the clutches of the cult but – surprise! – the kool-aid soaked community is surrounded by a savage tribe of cannibals who love to butcher and dine on human intruders when they run out of crocodiles and other beasts to rip to shreds.
As per many of these movies, those real deal animal murders are the toughest thing to take in Eaten Alive, heart-wrenching scenes of screaming critters stabbed and skinned by cackling natives. Lenzi’s defense – along with Deodato’s, whose Cannibal Holocast truly set the nauseating bar for this snuffy stuff – was that the natives would kill and eat these animals anyway, so hey, why not splice it Mondo-style into the fabric of a low-budget horror picture? We won’t cast judgement on their exploitative decisions but the sequences in question are rough stuff indeed. In fact some of said scenes – along with select shots of flesh chomping – were lifted wholesale by Lenzi from his own The Man from Deep River as well as Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God. This oddball, corner-cutting cut-and-paste padding stunt has – in many serious fan circles – further pushed Eaten Alive to the bottom of the Cannibal flick barrel, but to me, these redux shock-scenes just add to the wanton weirdness of the picture.
There’s plenty of Doctor Butcher M.D./ Zombi Holocaust narrative thrust in this picture too, as it shares a similar framework of natives in North America up to no good and leading a bloody trail to a tropical inferno where a madman ex-patriot holds court and cannibals run rampant. Agren even gets stripped and painted in a scene that echoes Alexandra Delli Colli’s show-stopping scene in Zombi Holocaust. But what really sets Eaten Alive apart from the pancreas-snacking pack is Rassimov’s Jonas and the central story of how the delusional self-professed prophet manipulates and abuses his “followers”. Jonas is clearly a stand-in for Jim Jones and Rassimov – with his cruel good looks and scowling mouth – is alternately chilling and outrageously, endearingly over-the-top in the role. And while seeing him assault Agren with a snake-venom dildo SHOULD be offensive, Rassimov’s comic-book leer and Agren’s reactions push the sequence into the level of near-HG Lewis camp.
Eaten Alive is a revolting gem of cartoonish depravity and yes, the titular promise of characters being consumed while conscious does in fact play out, with a cheerfully fake (love those “severed” limbs hiding in the sand gags!) and wildly sickening final-reel gross-out where Senatore and cannibal movie legend Me Me Lai get assaulted and devoured by a gaggle of happy savages. Adding to the cross-eyed, gore-drenched groove is a schizophrenic score by “Buddy Maglione” (a pseudonym for composers Fiamma Maglione and Roberto Donati), that veers between ambient terror, stinky-funk sleaze and prog-rock doom. Eaten Alive is a grandiose piece of gonzo Grand Guignol and you don’t even have to be Canadian to love it off.