Joe D’Amato (one of many, many pseudonyms for Aristide Massaccesi, this is the one that has stuck) is arguably the most infamous Italian exploitation director of all time. Getting his start as a director of photography for such genre journeymen as the ‘Spaghetti Western Ed Wood’ Demofilo Fidani (we’ll get to one of his films one of these days), he soon progressed to his own early directorial efforts, such as his Spaghetti Western Go Away! Trinity Has Arrived In Eldorado (1972), Heroes in Hell (1973), a Macaroni Combat movie starring Klaus Kinski, and the Giallo Death Smiles At A Murderer, also released in 1973 and also starring Kinski. However, he really managed to carve a niche for himself with his bizarre hybrid of Pornography and Horror, starting with his series of unofficial Emanuelle sequels in 1975. As they went on, these films introduced such transgressive elements as zoophilia, faked snuff footage and cannibalism. He continued this Horror-Sex-Sleaze sensibility through to the sister films Porno Holocaust and Erotic Nights of The Living Dead in the early 80’s. After the decline of the Italian film industry in the 90’s, D’Amato worked mainly in more conventional porn movies until his death in 1999. The relentlessness with which he churned out films from the 1970’s until his death has led to him being considered the most prolific Italian filmmaker of all time. Reading his IMDb page, which boasts some 197 directorial credits, is amusing in itself, boasting such gem titles as Cop Sucker II and Anal Perversions of Lolita. Though D’Amato clearly placed the potential financial outcomes of his productions above any pretensions to artistic merit, he was still by all accounts a competent and passionate director within his unique brand of exploitation. In the late 70’s and early 80’s directed several gory, non-porno crossover Horror flicks have gone on to become cult favourites. One of these is 1980’s Antropophagus. Holding a place on the UK’s Video Nasty list as a prosecuted film, it continues to dwell in infamy alongside such Italian titles as Zombie Flesh Eaters and Cannibal Holocaust for its rough gore.
Antropophagus begins with a German couple waltzing happily through a Greek village as an unsettlingly cheery piano jangles on the soundtrack. As the credits finish the couple end up on a beach, and the woman decides to go swimming as the man stays behind to listen to music on his headphones. As the woman plays happily the water, we get a Spielbergian shot of something approaching her pretty legs below the surface. A gust of red mist goes up in the water as the killer makes his first strike. Immediately the audience are thinking of Jaws due to this set up, and for a moment we might think the zombie-serial killer looking bloke on the DVD cover lied to us and this is actually a film about a killer fish. However. D’Amato marvellously subverts our expectations. Jaws is of course about it not being safe to go in the water, but by having the killers POV rise from the depths and hulk towards the boyfriend on the beach, D’Amato immediately makes it clear this is film where you aren’t even safe on land! The boyfriend, lost in his music, opens his eyes for the final time to scream as the killer lunges a hatchet into his face. What an opening! D’Amato uses the audiences knowledge of the earlier film to subvert their expectations, and hooks them in from the outset.
After such a potent opening, the next half an hour can feel like a drag as we are slowly introduced to our main characters and have to get them to the remote island seen in the opening. On the Greek mainland 5 travellers are preparing to take a trip to said remote island. They are soon joined by Julie (Tisa Farrow) who is looking to meet up with some friends on there. The trip to this Island, which is never named (presumably because they couldn’t think of a name funnier than ‘Matool’ from Zombie Flesh Eaters), is only objected to by Carol (Zora Kerova), something of a clairvoyant who is convinced via her tarot cards that something awfully wrong is going to happen on the Island (she’s not wrong). Upon reaching the island, the pregnant Maggie (Serena Grandi), hurts her ankle, so she stays behind on the boat with its owner. It isn’t long before the unseen man who killed the two Germans in the intro attacks the boat, decapitating it’s owner and kidnapping Maggie. Meanwhile, Julie and the rest of the gang find the island is almost completely abandoned save for a mysterious old woman who lives on a big house in the hills, and a blind girl whom Carol had actually been travelling to the island to babysit.
Antropophagus is truly a rough, grimy, nasty film that earned its place among the video nasties. Though it’s slow to get going, when it delivers the gore, it doesn’t pull any punches. George Eastman, as the cannibalistic serial killer Klaus, is a hulking, brutish boogeyman whose actions make Hollywood killers like Michael Myers look gentle by comparison. It’s never explained how exactly he went about killing and eating an entire island’s population, or why it caused him to transform to develop saggy, zombie-like skin, but it’s pretty impressive regardless. I’ve never been been into eating human flesh myself or hanging around those who do so I can’t speak for it’s effect on skin complexion. But this is a moot point, I don’t watch Italian gore flicks like this for their logic or richly developed storylines, I watch them for the awesome atmosphere and gore, and Antropophagus delivers on both of those fronts. I really like the isolated Greek island setting, and even though the premise of the entire island’s population being killed and devoured by one man is ludicrous, it’s hard to deny that being trapped alone there with the cannibalistic freak is one of the horrendous situations you could find yourself in on your summer holiday. It’s a great and original locale to stage a slasher flick, featuring such locations as the centuries old carvers on the seaside with rotten bones, and the aforementioned ghostly mansion on the hill which is the stage for the climax. These places are the perfect setting for the grotesque gore that unfolds, and D’Amato films them with all the Gothic flair they need.
Joe D’Amato may be seen as a seedy porn baron for the most part, but here he proves his ability as a competent genre director who was able to stage an effect horror atmosphere and gore scenes that still pack a punch. It’s interesting to note that a great many of his films revolve around cannibalism in some form, an obsession which comes to a head in Antropophagus’ Klaus, one of the most memorably offbeat and disturbing villains in Horror history.
One final note – I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the title Antropophagus is nonsensical and stupid. A quick search on Google actually reveals it to be a Greek word for a cannibal, so though it might sound silly, it actually makes perfect sense.