Celebrating the arrival of Eli Roth’s cannibal opus The Green Inferno, Mark Fraser looks back at another controversial work from this peculiar genre and ponders how its director got away with shamelessly exploiting one of the most tragic crimes in modern American history.
During November 1978, US-born cult leader Jim Jones oversaw the poisoning of children – and most likely the murder of many of their (foster) mothers – when the congregation of his Peoples Temple took part in a mass suicide at its Jonestown jungle compound in the small South American country of Guyana.
The means of death was via cyanide-laced Grape Flavour-Aid which, in the official version of the story at least, adults administered to the offspring (babies reportedly had the liquid squirted down their throats with syringes) before guzzling down the lethal concoction themselves.
Some 909 of the 1000-plus who were residing at Jonestown – including 300 children – died what must have been horrible and painful deaths at the request of the self-proclaimed Reverend Jones (1931-1978), who founded his temple of doom during the mid-1950s, and had been looking at Guyana since the 1960s as a possible location for what eventually became the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.
It was an event so horrifyingly insane that even the likes of Eva Goebbels may have found quasi-ritual infanticide on this scale a bitter pill to swallow.
Considering the scale of this crime – and the fact it involved a large number of American citizens – it seems a little surprising that this deplorable story of human exploitation and frailty found its way into a shameless exploitation movie so quickly after the event without much public protest.
Within two years of its passing, a Jonestown situation was recreated by writer/director Umberto Lenzi as a dramatic backdrop for his 1980 Italian cannibal tale Eaten Alive! (Mangiati vivi!), in which a crazed despot called Reverend Jonas (Ivan Rassimov) keeps his followers imprisoned in a compound (named Purification Village, but perhaps it would have made more sense to call it Jonastown) somewhere deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
In the case of Jonestown – which was reportedly policed by a cadre of armed guards, some of whom no doubt assisted with the “suicides” – the occupants couldn’t realistically escape as the Guyanese capital of Georgetown was not only 240 hostile kilometres away, but they had no money or passports to exit the country once they got there.
With Purification Village, however, the 70 members of Jonas’ sect can’t leave because they know they’ll get consumed by the cannibals who occupy the surrounding jungle terrain. Just how they all ended up there in the first place is never properly explained.
Into this strange world stumbles Sheila (Janet Agren), a New Yorker with a Southern accent who is looking for her missing sister Diana (Paola Senatore), and Mark (Robert Kerman), a gun-for-hire, arm wrestling, Vietnam War deserter/mercenary who Sheila has recruited to help with the search. Somehow they manage to navigate their way through the cannibals and crocodiles into the compound where, Jonas tells them upon arrival, they are “far from the forces of corruption and pollution”.
Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth, as it turns out the self-proclaimed reverend is as loopy as they come, his iron fisted rule including public gang rape, ritualistic sexual torture and decapitation. Given this, it’s not surprising that when Sheila and Mark finally do catch up with Diana, they find she has pretty much had her fill with it all and is itching to pack her bags and leave.
The problem, however, is the part despot preacher/part witch doctor lookalike isn’t exactly keen for them to go. Furthermore, they face the prospect of being intercepted by the hungry natives who are watching the camp’s perimeter with sharpened spears and rumbling stomachs. Thus the stage is set for a hairy escape through the jungle.
One doesn’t have to be a fan of Italian cannibal cinema (which I’m not) to realise that Eaten Alive! – while containing its share of ultra-vile moments – is driven by an underlying, albeit dubious, intelligence.
First of all, it’s a clear example of how exploitation cinema can sometimes undermine, and feed off, itself – of how nothing is really sacred in a squalidly sexist genre which celebrates slaughter, brutal torture, degradation, rape and animal cruelty.
According to some reliable literature sourced from the web*, the movie unashamedly (my emphasis) lifts shots from Lenzi’s own Man From Deep River (1972), Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World (1977) and Sergio Martino’s The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978), effectively making it a work that brazenly plagiarises (or cannibalises) its own kind in order to cut corners and fill gaps.
If one didn’t know better, it’s almost as if Lenzi was purposely attempting to expose the exploitative nature of the film making process by using blatant theft as some kind of metaphor. Although Eaten Alive! doesn’t have enough tricks up its sleeve to warrant too close a look, it nevertheless is ultimately about consumption and the limits that will be pushed in order to satisfy humankind’s need to consume. In this regard it’s not just the hungry cannibals who are guilty of going too far – within this milieu are also the film makers who consume each other’s work (and compromise their own) by stealing shots as well as the members of their just-as-complicit audiences who embrace these extreme movies in order to satiate some kind of cinematic hunger.
Secondly, Eaten Alive!’s depiction of actual cannibalism (especially the slaying and eating of Mowara [Me Me Lai] which, apparently, is taken from Last Cannibal World) is far more brutal than anything featured in what some consider the grand-daddy of all Italian cannibal films, Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), where the onscreen killing and dismemberment of real animals is far more distressing than anything staged by the director and his actors.
For a slew of reasons Cannibal Holocaust has become something of a poster child for this hideous genre. Yet, in many regards, Eaten Alive! is a far superior film – particularly when it comes to cannibalism per se.
And, unlike the more solemn Deodato movie – with its ponderous verite-based lost footage narrative – Lenzi’s effort is pretty much an amusing action thriller of sorts, with plenty of reasonably paced mayhem and a climatic jungle chase sequence (which admittedly is no Apocalypto) that culminates in a low rent helicopter rescue.
Adding to the fun are all the usual sexist gimmicks found in this type of film – including the babes who wear hot pants in bug-infested jungles (always a strangely perverse touch) and the enslaved white women who are forced to parade topless like their native counterparts.
Then there’s the clunky exposition that gives the movie a truly international flavour, in which one of Jonas’ assassins kills village temple escapees at Niagara Falls and in downtown Manhattan before getting it himself; the latter incident prompting a brief police enquiry that results in one detective picking up the phone and saying: “Sergeant – I want to call New Guinea”.
Another mildly humourous aspect of Eaten Alive! is the fact that just about all of the jungle huts have wooden door frames with hinged doors. Sure, there might have been that level of that carpentry in the Guyanese jungle settlement, but there wouldn’t be anything like it in rural Papua New Guinea. If one assumes, as suggested above, that a dubious intelligence is really at work here, then it’s possible Lenzi was making a sly homage to the out-of-place castle doors in Robert Bresson’s hilarious 1974 opus Lancelot du Lac.
On top of all this is the amusingly stoic performance by the late Rassimov (1938-2003), an Italian of Serbian extraction who pretty much spent his entire career starring in cannibal and horror movies, working for the likes of Deodato, Mario Brava, Mario Camus and, believe it or not, John Huston (an uncredited part in 1966’s The Bible: In the Beginning) over a 23 year period.
From the time he enters the story until the mass suicide towards its end, Rassimov’s theatrically straight-faced Jonas is Eaten Alive!’s dramatic centre, with the actor playing the cult leader as a megalomaniac sadist who has no second thoughts about knifing a baby, but shows a fleeting moment of regret when one of his faithful guards stabs himself to death with an arrow while participating in the suicide pact.
It’s a strangely impressive role, enhanced greatly (at least on the DVD version I sat through) by a dubbed English-speaking voice which sounded very similar to that of the eccentric Peterman (John G Hurley) in the TV comedy series Seinfeld.
Arguable the most audacious aspect of Eaten Alive!, however, is not its cannibalism, sexual violence, animal cruelty or the fact Jonas gets away with it (at the end of the film his body is, according to the press, “yet to be found”). Rather, it’s that someone actually had the balls to use a Jonestown-type tragedy as a backdrop for a piece of Italian jungle schlock so soon after it happened.
Let’s face it – if anyone had made a movie utilising the events of September 11, 2001 in remotely the same way, they would have been publicly hung, drawn and quartered (a situation that is still likely 13 years on). Yet Lenzi never really copped too much flack for his insensitivity, with his detractors focusing more on the film’s violence and gore rather than its trivialisation of the biggest mass suicide (some believe it was a mass murder) in modern history.
Indeed, Jonestown was so significant that it represented the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until 911 some 23 years later.** Furthermore, its body count was almost one-third of that of September 11, which clocked up 2977 civilian victims. Given this, why wasn’t there more public outrage at Lenzi’s somewhat frivolous approach towards a large-scale tragic event which cost almost 1000 lives and saw the murder of many innocent children?
Part of the answer must surely have to do with the fact that most of the victims were poor African-Americans*** who were ultimately deemed as having no real importance to society. They weren’t white collared, money-making financiers, bankers, stock brokers or public servants who had something to contribute to the machine; rather, they were desperately vulnerable and gullible people who went looking for an alternative life after realising that the US, with its rampant class system, didn’t have much to offer except a seat at the table of the working poor. Unfortunately, these poor souls ended up following the wrong piper.
Finally, there is a trivial aspect of Eaten Alive! which should tickle the fans of the late American rock musician/composer Frank Zappa (1940-1993).
When Sheila is first introduced at the start of the picture, she is walking the streets of downtown Manhattan, at one point coming across a cinema marque advertising Zappa’s 1979 opus Baby Snakes (it’s possibly the Victoria Theatre on Broadway, where the film premiered on December 21 that year).
In 1984 the musician closed his semi-classical album The Perfect Stranger with an electronic track called Jonestown which, according to the LP’s liner notes, was meant to be considered as “a boring, ugly dance evoking the essential nature of all religions”.
Unlike Lenzi, who used this monstrous tragedy as a convenient backdrop for his cheesy cannibal yarn, the enfant terrible of rock’s take on it was far more solemn, with his accompanying written description of the tune further stating: “A person pretending to be a messenger from God bangs on the side of the communal beverage tub with the skull of a former child, silently mouthing the words ‘Come and Get it!’”
Throughout his life many of Zappa’s sometimes misguided detractors accused him of being sexist, homophobic, puerile and, at one point in time at least, anti-Semitic. Yet on this occasion no one in their right mind could have taken umbrage at his brief analysis of the South American massacre. One can now only wonder if he knew his name had somehow been connected with the Lenzi film when he wrote the composition.
Of course it’s undeniably true that a short piece of dissonant electronic music and an accompanying paragraph-long blurb can only say so much. With Jonestown, however, Zappa – in a small and modest way – managed to evoke some of the grim reality of what transpired in Guyana during November, 1978.
With its Z-grade cannibal antics Eaten Alive! can make no such claim. Nor, it’s fair to say, does it even try.
Written by Mark Fraser.
*Namely Wikipedia, where this statement is made but there are no footnotes to back it up. I could have tried watching the films myself to verify this point, but I really can’t be bothered wading through them. Instead I’ve thrown fact finding caution to the wind and hoped this is all correct.
**Richard Rapaport, “Jonestown and City Hall slayings eerily linked in time and memory”, San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 2003 (also sourced from Wikipedia).
***According to nzstarzone.com’s Robert Sterling, 80% of the 909 Jonestown victims were African American, while an astounding 90% of them were female (again lifted from Wikipedia).