Deep River Savages (AKA The Man From Deep River) (1972)
First Released: 1982
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Current UK Status: Passed as an 18 certificate with 3:45 seconds of cuts
It was in 1975 when this film first attempted a cinema release here in the UK, and going under the name of The Man From Deep River, it was never granted. It was ten years after the film was made that it finally made its way on to VHS courtesy of Derann who released the film uncut. The film made the Video Nasties list in March 1984 and was removed from shelves, only to be taken off the list in September 1985. The film was then re-released in 2003, however to get an 18 certificate, 3:45 seconds of cuts were made for animal cruelty. This is the same version that is available now.
Italian director Umberto Lenzi, rumoured to have started the jungle cannibal movement with Deep River Savages, was a film enthusiast from an early age. While studying law he created a number of film clubs, and later became a journalist for local newspapers and magazines. Putting his law studies on hold, Lenzi decided to focus on the technical arts of filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale de Cinematografia. Lenzi graduated, however continued to work as a writer and film critic until getting some jobs as an assistant director. He made his first film in 1961, called Below Deck, the film was based on pirates, he continued to explore this genre of film with a number of ‘swords and sandals’ flicks before turning to adult comic books for inspiration for his 1966 movie Kriminal.
After a few spaghetti westerns, Lenzi turned to the classic Italian Giallo genre for the film Orgasmo (1969). The film was a personal favourite of Lenzi’s, and he continued directing Giallo’s for his next three films, So Sweet, So Perverse (1969), Seven Blood Stained Orchids (1972) and Eyeball (1975). Sadly these were no very successful, with the director blaming tight budgets for their failures. Lenzi’s popularity was reclaimed after a spell of police based thrillers, Almost Human (1974), Free Hand For A Tough Cop (1976) and Brothers Till We Die (1978). However, two years before Almost Human, he directed Deep River Savages (1972), the film believed to have kick started the Italian cannibal sub-genre, and the first in his trilogy of cannibal films. Ruggero Deodato jumped on the cannibal bandwagon with The Last Cannibal World (1977) and the terrific Cannibal Holocaust (1979), and Lenzi responded to these films with two of his own cannibal films. Attempting to out-do Deodato’s savagery, Lenzi directed the next two films which make up his ‘cannibal trilogy’, Eaten Alive (1980) and the superb Cannibal Ferox (1981). Cannibal Ferox was so violent, it got banned in 31 countries, and scared Lenzi into leaving the cannibal sub-genre for good. However, he didn’t leave the horror genre, and while the majority of the 80’s saw the director focus on more action, adventure and war films and made for TV dramas, he still managed to direct a couple of horrors, most notably the zombie flick Nightmare City (1980). This film was special because Lenzi decided to ignore the unwritten rule of a zombie ‘crawling’ and he allowed his monsters to use weapons and move much quicker. In 1989 he directed the ultra low budget horror Hell’s Gate, a film set entirely in a cave. During the 90’s his budgets got smaller, and many of his made for TV productions didn’t even get broadcast, and he is now pretty much retired.
Said to have started the Italian cannibal sub-genre, Deep River Savages does not compare to later films like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox for brutal, horrific violence toward people, but it does match those films in its animal cruelty. In fact, there is very little violence here to get upset about regarding the cast, but the scenes of animal killings are very hard to swallow, and even today these scenes have had to be cut by nearly four seconds. However, the scenes here are necessary because essentially what this film is is a study of native life in the jungles of Burma. Ivan Rassimov plays John Bradley, a London based photographer who has come to Thailand, but while there he gets into a spot of bother with the locals and ends up stabbing and killing one in a bar. Panicking, he goes on the run and heads off to Burma to continue his journey and study of this different way of life. While diving in a river, he and his guide are attacked and Bradley is taken captive by a local tribe, and after months being held captive, he soon learns to appreciate how the tribe lives, and eventually becomes one of them, even marrying the Chiefs daughter. Things do not work out though, as his wife appears to have been made ill by her pregnancy, and a neighbouring tribe starts a violent war. There is very little else to the story other than that.
However, Deep River Savages set the standard for the Italian cannibal sub-genre, with its calm, relaxing opening music, jungle setting complete with proper natives and tons and tons of animal cruelty. The acting is questionable at times, and the brilliantly dodgy sound for the music, action and dialogue help give these sorts of films their natural charm and sense of some sort of back alley realism where there is the possibility that the violence towards the cast could be real. We know it’s not, but the low production and notoriety of these films does give you reason to question everything. The film pounds its way in as the calm opening music is shattered by the sound of kicking, punching and a roaring crowd as we witness some superbly shot Thai boxing. However, the brief spell in Thailand is just there to guide us into the story, the proper film kicks off once we hit the jungle of Burma, and poor old Bradley gets taken captive.
Clearly annoyed (why wouldn’t you be) and confused, we are granted with a number of voiceovers from Bradley as he attempts to work things out in his head. In hilarious fashion, the voiceover bellows out louder than expected, and is undeniably funny both in the sound and what he actually says. Having been captive for a few days, he ponders “when will this nightmare end, what do they want from me? Maybe they think I am some type of fish due to my wetsuit” See, Bradley was caught while swimming underwater. The mention of being a fish is guaranteed to raise a chuckle, but is actually a clever choice of words as it points out exactly how different these people are if they don’t recognise another human. It shows off man’s ignorance to different ways of life perfectly: of course they don’t think he is a fish, they are not idiots! The tribe are bizarre though, chaining the poor guy up, feeding him and eventually wearing him down to fit in with their way of life, but it is not an easy journey for him to get there. The Chiefs rather gorgeous daughter keeps eyeing him up and saving him from certain death, some old lady who miraculously speaks English keeps trying to free him, and when he does escape he is punished so that he will never attempt it again. His punishment for escaping is severe, and is probably the turning point to where he gives up wanting to escape and accepts his fate, and starts to become happy. He is tied to a rock and left out to burn in the sun, and here comes that voiceover again: “Don’t fall asleep, whatever you do don’t fall asleep. I could use a drink, a nice cool beer”
His other punishment consists of wearing a bizarre head piece and he is spun around while the men shoot darts at him. He also witnesses bizarre rituals which the natives swear by, like the gang rape of a woman who has just lost her husband. The English speaking old lady explains that the reason for the rape is that she is now free for the taking! He witnesses the girls prancing about naked in the river, and he is baffled by the local witchdoctor and his methods. It is during a scene with the witchdoctor that Bradley starts to gain respect from the tribe as he saves a young boy using more Westernised methods, and it works. Hilariously, the witchdoctor is later seen throwing out his tools, like a baby throwing its toys out of the pram. As Bradley starts to fit in, he no longer longs for the re-appearing helicopter to come back, he is allowed to roam free and even starts learning the language, and eventually marries the Chiefs wife after yet another bizarre ritual where she chooses her husband as men put their arms into a hole in the wall to have a feel of her naked body. Bradley and his new wife quite literally become Tarzan and Jane, he even declares their unborn baby as “my little black savage!” All is happy in the world, and Lenzi expertly presents not only a terrific study of tribal life, but also a carefully realised presentation of a man changing his habits and becoming someone completely different. The almost documentary feel makes the transition from civilized Westerner to a simple ‘savage’ all the more credible. Yes the film has lots of moments of daft silliness, but all in all it is a superb creation, and take out the animal cruelty and you have yourself the perfect National Geographic study of a different world. And while Bradley’s voiceovers will conjure up laughs more than worries, Rassimov perfectly plays him, and you really do believe you are watching a man change.
However, things do go wrong for him as his wife becomes ill, and a neighbouring tribe savagely attack one of his tribes girls. She is ripped apart and eaten in possibly the film’s most shocking display of savagery against another human. The end battle is also violent, but it doesn’t feel half as bad as the attack on this poor woman. However, what gave this film its notoriety, and what caused it to be banned is its animal cruelty, and there is a lot of it. Granted Cannibal Holocaust, Ferox and all the other films of this genre featured a lot of animal cruelty, but here in Deep River Savages, there is a lot more than in the other films, and most of it is almost unwatchable. Included here are a vicious cock fight, a savage battle between a snake and a mongoose, monkeys having the tops of their head chopped off, a goats throat cut, a brutal killing of a croc and a load of other unwatchable scenes of horrific cruelty that easily surpass what can be regarded as tasteful. Yes I appreciate these things are added in to show just how these people live, and yes I am sure it goes on, but it is filmed in an almost glorifying way, and that is where this film begins to lose credibility. The snake and mongoose fight, for instance, goes on for a good few minutes, with close ups and even someone forcing the fight by having rope tied around the mongoose. Yes, it is all very real, and very distressing. I can pretty much watch anything on screen, but some of these scenes I really struggled with, and it is a shame because apart from these horrendous moments, Deep River Savages is actually a highly impressive film.
As the start of the Italian cannibal craze, Deep River Savages commands respect, but as I said, as an actual film it is also very good. Yes it has its bad points, like the low budget, dodgy sound and picture, bad acting and too much animal cruelty, but the film is also very well directed. It is well paced, the documentary-like feel makes the entire story very interesting, and the Natives all convince. This is a powerful study of a man broken and forced into a new way of life he never imagined possible, and it is about this man eventually embracing this new life to the point it is all he wants to know. It is about the divide in cultures, and also about how these two different cultures learn from each other. Oddly for a cannibal film, it is also about love, compassion and respect for each other, and it is ultimately a very impressive film. However, Lenzi made sure his film was upsetting by adding in the violence, and why wouldn’t he, this is a cannibal film after all.
Did this film deserve to be on the Video Nasties list? Yes, for the animal cruelty, it most certainly did.
Does it still need the 3:45 seconds of cuts today? On the evidence of how much animal cruelty is shown on screen, I don’t think I would want to see another 4 seconds of it, so yes, keep it out!