Married couple Grace (Anita Strindberg) and Fred Wright (Gabriele Tinti) are on vacation in Haiti, hoping to revive their troubled relationship. Staying at the swanky tourist resort the Hotel Rancho the pair reunite with Fred’s old pal Doctor Williams (Anthony Steffen), philanthropist, biologist and philosopher (“He could have had everything but instead he’s nothing”, goes Fred’s cryptic put-down) whom they discover is searching for two missing lab assistants. It turns out Williams discovered a remarkable new drug. Now sinister forces are after the formula. One by one these ruthless businessmen are bludgeoned, garrotted or strangled to death by an unknown killer. Meanwhile, Grace starts having fevered erotic nightmares possibly the result of a strange voodoo curse.
Unrelated to the infamous Henry Miller novel adapted for the screen two years prior, this Tropic of Cancer (Al tropic del Cancro) can be filed under the exotic intrigue sub-section of the giallo genre. It is an enjoyably daft albeit faintly racist fusion of giallo tropes and supernatural horror with a little bit of the mondo genre thrown in for good measure. Edoardo Mulargia, a spaghetti western veteran whose Why Kill Again (1965), Don’t Wait, Dango... Shoot! (1967), Shango (1970) and A Man Called Django (1971) also starred Anthony Steffen, includes undeniably atmospheric though questionable voodoo rituals involving real animal slaughter, blood drinking and topless dancers that look authentic but could have easily been staged for the sake of close-ups on jiggling breasts. “Just like being at a square dance”, snarls Fred.
Though the script, co-authored by Mulargia and writers Giampaolo Lomi and Antonio De Teffé waxes eloquently on the specifics of the voodoo religion, Haitian politics and the legacy of the slave trade, beneath its faux liberal outrage the film is as guilty of projecting paranoid fantasies about the dark continent as any other exploitation movie. Its conflicted attitude towards the locale is best surmised by the bizarre line: “We came to this miserable place to enjoy a nice holiday.” Mulargia invites viewers to look aghast at the antics of the rich European hedonists as they abuse, exploit or patronise the Haitians but somewhat hypocritically stresses they are American, because Italians are never rude to foreigners, right? Mind-bending story structures are something giallo fans can savour with love, though the less patient will likely wonder what the hell is going on.
While the disjointed plot takes a fair while to establish a definitive direction the action is certainly vivid. Shot in lingering slow-motion the murder set-pieces are pretty gruesome with an obese homosexual (Alfio Nicolosi) spear-gunned in the chest and his face ground in the mud, a hotelier (Umberto Raho) burned alive and a corrupt businessman (Stelio Candelli) having his face melted off then buried underground. It is among the few gialli where the victims are not desirable young women but sweaty middle aged guys, though it is down to the viewer to decide whether this choice serves a specific sociopolitical point. Aside from the murder scenes the other memorable high point derives from a sub-plot with Grace attracted to a Haitian youth that proves largely superfluous save for enabling Mulargia to stage a delirious dream sequence with beautiful Anita Strindberg, naked (of course) under a diaphanous gown, sprinting down a crimson corridor pursued by studly black men and other nudie co-stars (Kathie Witt is especially fetching). All set to a pulsating funk score by the great Piero Umiliani. Nice.
Grace actually ends up in the arms of the heroic Doctor Williams, though you can’t blame her given macho medallion man boyfriend proves an absolute shit-bag who seemingly can’t go five minutes without screaming at some poor local. The climax is effective on a horror movie level but reinforces the very idea of Haiti as a stagnant, backward tropical paradise the plot supposedly set out to dispel, further implying that only glamorous but morally dubious rich folk would want to venture into foreign climes and therefore deserve to die.