Slave of the Cannibal God (1978)

I once made a promise to myself that I’d never watch the grotesque exploitation piece Cannibal Holocaust again, but between Slave of the Cannibal God and the much more recently-produced Bone Tomahawk, I feel as if I already have. Now, Bone Tomahawk is admittedly a much better film than either of the schlocky horrors I’m lumping it in with here, but it does traffic in some of the same “savage natives” fear-mongering in a way that’s at least worth discussing, if not admonishing. Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, however, Bone Tomahawk does not depict the same real-life-animal-torture-as-entertainment aesthetic that make that film such a memorably unpleasant (and perhaps genuinely evil) experience. Slave of the Cannibal God very nearly does. It’s not quite as cruel or as nihilistically empty as Cannibal Holocaust, but it does position itself comfortably within the same wheelhouse while clearly displaying a level of craft that indicates its producers should’ve known better.

Released as Prisoner of the Cannibal God in the UK (where it was briefly banned as a “video nasty”) and Mountain of the Cannibal God in its native Italy, this delightful romp stars Bond girl Ursula Anders as a woman searching for her lost husband in the jungles of New Guinea and a young Stacy Keach as her reluctant guide. The guide fears, correctly, that the husband may have been abducted & tortured by an especially brutal tribe of cannibals who live on a mountain many fear to climb. They embark on an Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness-style mission to recover the doomed man anyway, an expedition that drastically dwindles their numbers along the way and inevitably results in an elaborately staged cannibal ritual. If there’s anything interesting about the way Slave of the Cannibal God structures its jungle expedition, it’s in the way the film often functions as a by-the-books slasher. A masked serial killer who had broken off from the cannibal tribe the group seeks picks them off one by one in the style of a spear-wielding Jason Voorhees. The rest of the film, however, is all reveals of ulterior motives within the expedition and shocking displays of animal cruelty & casual racism/sexism. It’s not quite as grotesque as the same vibe achieved in Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s well-shot & well-acted enough to suggest that it never should have ever come close.

The animal deaths depicted for atmosphere in Slave of the Cannibal God are largely presented as if they were pure nature footage. There’s something oddly staged-feeling about its footage of snakes eating a monkey or an owl, though, whether or not those animals were already co-habitating in the Sri Lankan filming location. Worse yet, the film includes a religious ritual centered around the gutting of a live lizard that’s stomach-turning at best. It’s not nearly as grotesque as the animal deaths in Cannibal Holocaust and it at least appears as if the lizard were promptly eaten raw, but it’s still an entirely needless act of animal cruelty. Anytime the film pauses to depict animal violence it feels as if it’s borrowing a primal energy it can’t bother to muster on its own accord. This is doubly disheartening when things like the lizard-gutting are used to make New Ginea’s “primitive peoples” (in the characters’ words) seem like grotesque monsters. Gleeful violence against women, mocking fascination with little people, and just a generally sleazy vibe that typifies 70s grindhouse aesthetic do little to lighten the mood of these for-the-sake-of-entertainment atrocities. Very early in the film, around the time I watched a snake slowly scalp a monkey for what felt like minutes, I realized that I probably should’ve known better than to watch something titled Slave of the Cannibal God in the first place. Things did not improve from there.

I did get a couple quick glimpses of the movie I would’ve wanted Slave of the Cannibal God to be, though, the movie I hoped to see instead of the one I should have known to expect. There’s a brief moment in the expedition where a gigantic crocodile puppet yanks one of the native guides from the group’s raft and tears him to shreds in the water. In a later scene, the masked killer who terrorizes the expedition chops off another guide’s head with a machete. A focus on this kind of practical effects spectacle, preferably without xenophobic othering & the detriment of all women everywhere, could’ve saved this movie from achieving its lowly status as a slightly less gross Cannibal Holocaust. More of a dedication to its unexpected slasher tropes could’ve helped distinguish it as well, as it at least would cut down on grouping all New Guinea tribes together as personality-free hoards and help establish a basic sense of novelty. I’m not convinced this inherently imperialist exploitation genre is at all worth saving, however. I guess Bone Tomahawk finds a way to skirt its worst trappings and, from what I hear, Eli Roth’s Green Inferno supposedly finds a way to shame the explorers instead of the community they invade; I’m not sure either achievement is enough to justify keeping this monstrously ugly thing alive. Films like Slave of the Cannibal God & Cannibal Holocaust would likely better serve the world by not existing at all and I honestly feel a little complicit in their continued legacy by picking this one up second-hand at the thrift store, as if it had something worthwhile to offer.

-Brandon Ledet

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