It’s meandering. It’s poorly dubbed. But man, is it moody, and sometimes, that’s enough. Joe D’Amato (nee Aristide Massaccesi)’s massive filmography is practically a checklist of film genres and he did ‘em all. Erotic thrillers, comedies, biblical epics, fantasies, westerns, etc., but he’ll always be associated with two types of films: skin flicks and horror movies. The former, particularly his Black Emanuelle films, were certainly his bread and butter (that doesn’t sound right), but his love for the horrific often resulted in erotic-horror hybrids like Porno Holocaust (1981) and Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980). Working under numerous pseudonyms, he amassed a jaw-dropping 196 directing credits and although he died in January of 1999, his output was so prolific that five of his film were still released that same year. The period between 1979 and 1981 may have been his most fruitful as far as horror offerings go. He released the gore-tastic Beyond the Darkness (1979) and Absurd in 1981. But in-between and amongst his usual erotic fare, there would be “video nasty” Anthropophagus (1980).
To call Anthropophagus a slow burn would possibly be giving it a tad too much credit, but although the low-budget 16mm-shot effort might’ve benefitted from a higher cashflow, the limited cast and dreary, deserted Greek island town lend it an atmosphere of dread and isolation. Simultaneously known as The Grim Reaper and The Savage Island, sometimes literally credited with all three titles in certain releases, the film marked D’Amato’s third collaboration with the towering actor/screenwriter George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori) after Cormack of the Mounties (1975) and Sesso Nero (1980). Heavily censored upon its U.S. release, the uncut version of the film was screened in the U.K., which in turn caused it to be banned for decades, only to be certified by the BBFC in 2015. Written as both a vehicle for D’Amato’s co-writer and a reason to travel to Greece (which didn’t happen since most of the film was shot in Rome), Eastman’s impressive height made him a menacing presence and his arrival mid-way through the film is very much worth it. We’ve gotta spend a bit of time with his future victims before we meet his ghoulish cannibal with the black teeth and ghastly face, however.
Your standard “lambs to the slaughter” couple head over to the beach with their faithful (and soon to be unfaithful) dog. The electronic synth score by Marcello Giombini is bizarre, to say the least, and was lost for years until it was recovered and re-instated into the new digital transfers. It flip-flops between what could charitably be described as travelogue music, organ-style grand guignol, and creepy, simple tones. Of course, thanks to cutting-edge, late 70’s technology, the man can drown out the soundtrack by putting on gigantic headphones which wouldn’t be out of place in a World War II fighter plane while his girlfriend strips down to a skimpy bikini and takes a dip. She notices a long row boat nearby and, having no real reason to check it out, checks it out. As is the case in literally thousands of horror movies, this is a bad call and something yanks her underwater. The dog is the smartest character in the film because he practically says “Fuck this!” and scampers off. Classic stalker-POV is engaged, but with a minor twist. I’ve never seen blood dripping all over wet sand as the unseen killer approaches the unsuspecting man. One encounter with a very large butcher knife later and we’ve got a bloody mess on our hands and a movie.
We meet a mixed-bag of random travelers on a cable car who plan on touring the small Greek islands which speckle the coast of the mainland. There’s med student Andy (Saverio Vallone, Delitti), his sorta, kinda-psychic sister Carol (Zora Kerova, Cannibal Ferox), walking hard-on Danny (Mark Bodin, La Cage Aux Folles II), plain Arnold (Bob Larson, Fist of Glory), and most importantly, pregnant Maggie (future sex symbol Serena Grandi, Luigi Cozzi’s The Adventures of Hercules), along with an uncredited D’Amato looking on. Clumsy Arnold bumps into Julie, played by Tisa Farrow in her final role, fresh off her success in Lucio Fulci’s classic Zombie (1979) and the previous year’s Fingers, a fine, semi-forgotten James Toback film starring Harvey Keitel. Her camera falls down and either it landed on a pillow or a foley artist was on break that day since there’s no sound, but we’re led to believe it’s broken. No harm done, but can she hitch a ride to a remote island since you fucked up her camera? Sure! This is an especially exciting prospect for Danny, who hilariously delivers his line “Hell yeah!” in a husky, faux-sexy tone.
Onboard the ship, Carol is wicked jealous of Julie, whose feminine wiles are releasing a wave of pheromones on sex-starved Danny, who tries to seduce her with a very well-placed Coke. Carol gets some of the best dialogue in the film, evidenced by a legitimately eerie tarot card-reading scene. When Maggie draws a quartet of cards and Carol can’t decipher them, Julie jumps in and gives a reassuring reading. After preggo waddles off, Carol is concerned because “if you ask the cards about the future and don’t get an answer, that means there is no future.” It’s a great line and lends itself well to the odd, brooding tone.
The indication appears to be that the monstrous cannibal has eliminated nearly all of the residents on the small island, which is somewhat ridiculous but is at least a cost-friendly way of justifying the limited cast. Maggie unconvincingly sprains her ankle and Andy shows what a terrible doctor he’s going to be by taking a quick glance, prescribing some sea water, and continuing toward the village. She stays behind with the captain. An unseen, heavy-breathing creature is watching them and zeroes in on Maggie. As the captain is getting some more water for her ankle, he’s yanked overboard and disappears in a bloody, watery cloud. Maggie has to get the water herself and finds a very unconvincing severed head in the bucket. She’s dragged away, literally 20 feet from her compatriots, who are too busy admiring the somewhat drab surroundings.
The village is all white-gray alleys and corridors with no one in sight. Danny and Carol discover a dead body and claim that it looks partially eaten, but it’s so decrepit that it appears to be several years old. A mysterious woman wanders around the village, just out of sight. The group finds the boat floating offshore and instead of trying to signal it, they just decide to stay at the home of Julie’s friends for the night. Some vacation. It’s a testament to how much the menfolk are charmed by Julie’s looks and good-natured personality, because I’d be super pissed if some stranger were screwing up my vacation this badly.
As a thunderstorm rages outside, the group calmly eats dinner while Carol launches into an insanely apocalyptic but pretty well-written monologue.
“There's evil on this island. An evil that won't let us get away. An evil that sends out an inhuman, diabolic power. I sense its vibrations now. The vibrations are an intense horror. It will destroy us! The very same way it did all the others!”
This would be far more effective if fucking Andy weren’t sitting in the foreground, casually eating his meal while she warns them of impending doom! Later on, we get a fabulously-constructed jump scare when Julie and Danny investigate a noise, see an adorable kitten on a piano, then Danny gets stabbed in the back by a knife-wielding blind girl who springs out of a wine barrel looking as if she’s been drenched in blood. It’s really outstanding. This little lady turns out to be Rita (future screenwriter and novelist Margaret Mazzantini), whose missing parents pay Julie to accompany her in exchange for money and a vacation to Greece. It’s like Rent-A-Friend, only slightly less creepy. Rita is totally freaked out, claiming there’s a man about and “I can smell him. Only him. I’m the only one. He smells of blood!” Arnold and Andy head off to snag antibiotics because if there’s one thing movies have taught us; antibiotics heal everyone and everything immediately with no consequences whatsoever. Danny lays it on the line with Julie, commenting/alluding to the storm: “There’s still a lot of electricity in the air.” Not only is he a sleazebag, but he’s a shitty poet as well. Carol sees him try to kiss Julie, freaks, and runs off. Julie chases her and gets locked in a cemetery.
We get our first real look at Eastman, playing the deranged former head of the island Klaus Wortmann and now the titular Anthropophagus, and it’s absolutely worth it. His reveal is pretty great. As Rita is initially freaked out by something, Danny checks on her and leaves the room, locking the door. As he closes it, Wortmann is revealed lurking in the shadows. Danny re-enters and gets his throat bitten out. The rest of the cast find his body and the film abruptly cuts to morning. The group, sans Carol, wander around the island. I was reminded of the relationship between Maggie and her awful, annoying sister Beth on The Walking Dead. Like Maggie with Beth, Andy doesn’t particularly give a flying fuck about Carol or her well-being. Sister? What sister?
They come upon the Wortmann’s villa, where Klaus’ distraught and insane sister, who turns out to be the mysterious woman from earlier, saved Carol but then decides now would be the perfect time to violently hang herself from the staircase. Not the most welcoming host. The men head out and Julie and Carol reconcile. Awwww...
Andy disappears and Arnold heads down into some catacombs because the film needs him to. There’s an incredibly poor effect where what is clearly supposed to be a bat is literally thrown at Arnold from off-camera. It’s pretty rough. Passing skeletons (some real, some fake), he also sees rats gnawing on dead bodies before finding Maggie passed out. Turning around, they’re cornered by an approaching Wortmann. He’s hungry for blood. Baby Blood. Not to be confused with the awesome 1990 French film. A knife slides quite easily into Arnold’s chest, making way for one of the two most infamous scenes of Anthropophagus and the one that’s given the film most of its notoriety. To put it simply, he (it?) strangles her, which was the least he could do, all things considered, yanks out her unborn baby and takes a big bite out of the bloody fetus. It’s one thing to imagine this type of depravity, but it’s quite another to actually depict it onscreen. The baby in question was nothing more than a skinned rabbit, but the scene is shot in evocative shadows, so the illusion is quite convincing.
The plot thickens as Julie and Carol discover a burnt journal and we get a flashback of Wortmann in a lifeboat along with his wife and child. They were shipwrecked and like Mordred in Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower,” Wortmann is “a-hungry.” He’s all set to eat his (apparently) dead son, but his wife gets in the way and he stabs her. I was hoping for a moment like when Homer drops that pocket knife he stole from that Borgnine guy to bounce all over the life raft, but we have to settle for Eastman inspiring Mel Gibson’s “Freedom!” line by shouting to the heavens. The freakiest bit is his sister describing the “carnage panicking the whole island” and then the women realize that the monster might still be in the house. Julie discovers a hidden room and finds it filled with objects covered with white sheets. She lifts one off...and it’s a horribly decayed body. Oh no!
Scream, freak out, the usual. However, Julie foolishly decides to double down and check under another sheet. Really, Tisa? Do you really expect there to be anything other than another dead body? Whatever. Carol gets her throat slit by Wortmann and he chases Julie and Rita into the attic, which fortunately has a lock on the inside. Weird. We get another excellent jump scare as Anthropophagus stalks away and the ladies have a moment of calm. The scene is framed in a typical wide shot and it’s very unexpected when a hand smashes through the roof and pulls Rita out. She’s already covered in blood when he bites her neck, but whatever. There's a convenient pickaxe available and she gets him in the leg, causing the big guy to fall off the roof.
Julie just can’t help herself, so she heads down and looks into what appears to be a huge well. He pops up and yanks her down, causing her wrist to get tangled in a rope and she dangles a few feet above him. It’s a pretty suspenseful scene, especially for a filmmaker who once said he wasn’t very confident in his ability to stage tense cinematic moments. She manages to climb out but with the rope still tied to her, Wortmann grabs the other end and starts pulling her toward him. All seems lost, but remember Andy? Yeah, me neither, but he swoops in like goddamn Batman and slams the pickaxe into Wortmann’s chest. A rubbery, pinkish wound forms and Wortmann yanks his own guts out. In a hardcore moment that admirably pays off the lurid and exploitative cover art, Anthropophagus does indeed munch on his own guts before falling over as music that recalls A Clockwork Orange plays us out. D’Amato makes the right call by ending the film immediately, refusing to throw in a useless epilogue or a sequel set-up.
The cinematography, whose ownership has been debated for years regarding whether credited DP Enrico Biribicchi really did shoot the film or if D’Amato, who often shot many of his own films, is the real culprit, is fine, if undistinguished. It serves its purpose, but the real star is the editing, which is clear and concise. This should come as no surprise considering it’s the work of Ornella Micheli, an early Fulci collaborator who was responsible for Don’t Torture a Duckling, The Four of the Apocalypse..., and The Psychic. Her work is exemplary as always and proves why women often make the best editors.
Anthropophagus is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s surprisingly effective and well-written, with some evocative and fun dialogue. What might’ve been a boring slog with a few flashes of gore to wake people up turns out to be a treatise on the nature of madness and a broken man’s awful descent into cannibalism.