Etymologies fascinate me. So when I first saw the word “anthropophagus,” I easily broke it down to “one who eats man; cannibal.” That I first saw it as the title of a cheaply made, sleazy Italian horror flick made me stay far away from Anthropophagus for years. In that time, I’d heard and read a slew of nasty things about the film: it was beyond tasteless; it had two infamously ghastly scenes; it had been banned in several countries. All of the above are true. In fact, it was among the “video nasties,” a number of horror films that Britain’s Parliament had excoriated in the 1980s. This is one of those titles that I had only seen for sale at vendors’ tables at cons, and at 112 Video on Long Island. That video store carries an impressive selection of horror titles that one would never find at Best Buy. And yet, the other day at the Best Buy around the corner from my house, sitting on a shelf was Anthropophagus. Two discs. 10 bucks. Given the price and the controversy, I had to buy it. And I got exactly what I expected– a lowbrow piece of Italian exploitation with some extravagant gore.
A little history is necessary before a synopsis. Sleaze merchant Joe D’Amato, whose real name is Aristide Massaccesi, had a script about a cannibal. He showed it to his friend, actor/screenwriter Luigi Montefiori, also known as George Eastman, who thought it was garbage. He struck a deal with D’Amato: he would rewrite the screenplay if he could play the cannibal. The two then tried to outdo one another by coming up with the goriest, most outrageous scenes. They released Anthropophagus in 1980 to a public that found it absolutely stomach turning. The film was banned in corners of the world near and far. In America, it reached the public in an edited version under the name The Grim Reaper. Not until 2005 with Shriek Show’s release of the film under its proper title would the U.S. get the uncut version.
The movie starts off with a couple walking down a beach on a Greek island, as a musical motif that sounds like a cheesy carnival tune blares behind them. The woman peels down to her bikini and hits the water. The man puts on humongous headphones and soaks in some sun. The woman swims out to an abandoned boat. This is a cannibal flick, so it’s not hard to figure where this is going. In the next scene, traveler Julia meets a group of Italians, including a pregnant woman, who are going on a month long boat cruise. They invite her to join them, and offer to drop her off at a Greek island. When they arrive to find the island basically deserted, the carnage begins.
Anthropophagus goes wrong in so many places, it’s hard to believe. Even if one casts aside the incompetent acting, utter lack of logic, amateur cinematography and woefully ill fitting score, all par for the course with early 1980s Italian horror, there’s still very little to save this from being total trash. Yet I get the feeling that D’Amato, a director who split his career between lowbrow horror and pornography, wanted it that way. It seems he knew the extreme limitations of his, ahem, talent, and figured he could make a living through sheer exploitation that went way past any boundaries of good taste. Whereas Wes Craven assaults those boundaries with Last House on the Left, for example, to comment on the human condition, D’Amato assaults them solely to induce vomiting.
D’Amato’s attack on taste comes mostly through extreme violence, the most noteworthy examples being those two scenes that got it banned. Ironically, much of the earlier gore is poorly done; a head in a bucket looks so phony, I almost laughed. There’s a hanging, several stabbings with a variety of sharp implements, and an interesting (though badly done) scene with a character’s face getting skinned by roof tiles. But let’s face it: no one would remember this film if not for the two infamous scenes. One involves the pregnant lady, and the other ends the film. It kills me that it would reveal too much if I described them (and it’s no small spoiler that the Shriek Show cover outright shows the last one; shame on their marketing department!). But I can say that they’re not only extremely shocking, but highly effective and creative. If more of the film’s deaths had been designed like these two, it might have almost saved the movie from lining the bottom of the exploitation barrel.
The only times the movie truly succeeds are when Anthropophagus himself is on the screen. Eastman’s makeup is grotesque, and he does a creepy job as the monster. His grimacing face, with demented eyes and chilling sneer, are terrifying. A scene where a character dangles from a rope as Anthropophagus climbs up from a pit scared the Hell out of me, which is no small feat. Unfortunately, the monster doesn’t actually appear onscreen until the movie is well along its course. D’Amato tries to sell the mystery of what happened to the island’s inhabitants at the expense of the movie’s best character, and the film lacks for it.
The DVD, however, does not lack in special features. The first disc boasts both Italian and English language tracks (I’m a purist, so I only watched it in the Italian) and English subtitles. There are also a multitude of promo trailers that give away about 85% of the goods (and another three– yes, three– alternate titles, The Grim Reaper, The Savage Island, and The Beast; when the director, lead actor and film all fall under the auspices of the Horror Movie Relocation Program, everybody’s got something to hide). These are of varying quality, repeat the same material ad nauseam, and boast either Italian or English text. There are also trailers for four other cheapjack Shriek Show features, one of which sports the acting skills of the great George Kennedy. But the disc’s best special feature is only accessible after you go to the scene access. Return to the main menu, and when you shift between options, Anthropophagus’ jaw and eyes move!
Much like Anchor Bay, Shriek Show seems to think every movie deserves the star treatment. For Anthropophagus, the company provides a whole second disc of extras. There’s a section for four more cheapjack foreign horror films, that also includes a hidden trailer for D’Amato’s magnum opus, Death Smiles at Murder (I couldn’t make this up, folks; click on the red face for this secret gem, and see for yourself). For completists, there are two alternate openings. One merely changes the credits to English, for The Savage Island. The other is for the Grim Reaper; with its visuals and striking music, it’s better than the film’s actual opening. A photo gallery reveals a small number of lobby cards and the like.
Then there’s the meat of the second disc. Actress Zora Kerova and Eastman himself appear together in “Spilling Their Guts,” an 11 minute interview. They’re both very forthcoming about working with D’Amato. Eastman has a good sense of humor, and relates some decent stories, while Kerova also discusses working with Lucio Fulci. For fans of Anthropophagus, it’s worth a watch. To watch “Totally Uncut Two,” one really needs to be a fan of D’Amato’s body of work, and I wonder if any exist. The hour and seven minute documentary functions mostly as an interview of D’Amato, splicing in comments from Eastman and Al Cliver of Zombie fame, and acts as a career retrospective. As with other Italian schlockmeisters, D’Amato directed and produced in a number of exploitation genres, including sword and sandal flicks and action movies. Fortunately, he makes no pretenses about being a great director, and seems to understand that his output is generally trash. Accompanying the discussion are scenes from many of his films. I didn’t really appreciate it for its full worth, but it’s a nice piece for Shriek Show to include.
In the hands of a talented filmmaker, Anthropophagus could probably have been a seminal film. The cannibal roaming the creepy village could have amounted to a Texas Chainsaw type experience. Unfortunately, in D’Amato’s hands, it evolves into nothing more than another piece of Eurotrash, meeting the director’s low expectations and talent level. Yet there’s something I like about this film. Eastman’s cannibal stuck with me after the movie ended, which is an accomplishment. Any fan of the Italian zombie and cannibal cycles will eat this flick up and love every bite. All others will likely be left starving for what could have been.
Buy Anthropophagus – The Grim Reaper on Amazon.com!