Once, there was a time when the world held mysteries. There were largely untouched exotic lands that were fraught with potential unknown danger. In these Discovery Channel days, it wouldn't be a big surprise if you found some remote amazonian tribe deep in the heart of the rainforest where the tribe leader was wearing a Beavis and Butthead t-shirt and complaining about how on his new album it sounds like Beck is just repeating past hits. The world has become a much smaller place, but I'm glad that within my life I can recall the dreamy notion that there might be corners of the earth that still held ancient secrets and heretofore unseen bizarre rituals.
Umberto Lenzi's The Man from Deep River (1972, aka. Deep River Savages, Sacrifice, Cannibal World) is the one that started the European (mainly Italian) cannibal or jungle film craze. Notoriously known for its copious amounts of animal cruelty, the mini-genre briefly flourished in the 70's with films like Cannibal Holocaust, Eaten Alive, Cannibal Ferox, and Jungle Holocaust.
Photographer John Bradley (Ivan Rassimov- Shock, If You Want to Live... Shoot!) is living it up in Thailand near the jungles along the Burmese border. After killing a man in self defense, he decides to take off and do a little exploring until the heat dies down. Going up river with a guide, one day he takes a nap, wakes to find his guide killed, and is captured by a tribe of primitives.
He is strung up, hung in a net for days, and then made a work slave. He is able to talk with one old woman (a missionaries child long ago captured by the tribe) and is the object of affection for a village girl, Maraya (Me Me Lai). The months pass and he witnesses their strange customs. After and escape attempt in which he kills one of them, the tribe has him undergo their punishing rites to become a warrior, which includes being shot at with blowgun darts and laying out exposed to the elements for days. He further wins favor with tribe and becomes Maraya's husband, but has John Bradley fully gone native or does the desire to escape to civilization still remain?
A merger of Mondo Cane documentary with A Man Called Horse, you can see the inspired exploitation potential of the genre from the very start of The Man from Deep River. Though later films would capitalize on the terror of man caught by brutal natives much better (mainly Jungle Holocaust), this early effort does have more humanized natives, whereas most of the films that followed made all jungles tribes out to be cruel, disgusting, flesh munching, pig rapers.
Now, it is a b-film and problems abound with the execution, from sloppy direction to sloppy storytelling. However, the basic appeal, like I stated in the review intro, is that notion of the exotic and dangerous. There was probably no better actor to play a white guy lost in the jungle than Ivan Rassimov. Looking like he just walked away from the lead role in a production of Flash Gordon, his Aryan features are a perfect contrast to the very real dark skinned natives. His romance with Me Me Lai is one of the least convincing relationships ever committed to film; the two share zero chemistry, and their first tryst plays like a 70's douche commercial. Though you can still get a good shameful giggle out of his un-PC pet names for her, like, "My little black savage."
Also worth mentioning is the bane of all cannibal films- the animal cruelty. Yes, we see a mongoose and a cobra in a cage match, a monkey gets scalped, cockfighting, and an alligator gets its head hacked and throat slit. Anticipating any outcry, the film does have disclaimer stating they were just documenting the tribes normal actions. Uhh, yeah. Sure they were. I look at it as a product of the times. I see it as no different than the racism in Birth of a Nation, something unfortunate and totally unacceptable by todays standards, but reflective of the era when the film was made.
The DVD: Media Blasters
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The opening title reel is really spotty, but from then on it is much better, crisper, cleaner, and impressive. For a low budget 70's film it looks quite good. There are, naturally, little image problems with the on the cheap filmmaking. But, all things considered the image has good sharpness and contrast. Especially nice is the color, which gives the lush greens of the jungle environs their due. Slight spotting here and there, but otherwise a very good transfer. It certainly looks much better than the ugly screencaps I've seen for the two Region 2 European releases.
Sound: English or Italian Dolby 2.0 Mono tracks. Optional English subtitles. Very basic stuff with the typical vocal dubbing. I swear on the English track that the dubber called, Chuan, Bradleys river guide, "Joe Ann." Yeah, it is pretty hollow and tinny, but that is the nature of the material.
Extras: Interview with director Umberto Lenzi (9:51). Lenzi covers a lot of ground about the film, from using a small crew, to communicating with the natives, to the peculiarities of how the genre continued.— Photo Gallery— Original Trailer, plus other Shriek Show release trailers.
Conclusion: While not exactly an anthropological treatise, it is some good ol' adventure fun from a bygone exploitation era. The presentation is a good meal for cannibal fans to sink their teeth into (sorry- couldn't resist), good image and sound, some extras, and an affordable price.