John Bradley (Ivan Rassimov) is a British photographer working in Thailand. When he kills a local in self-defence in a bar, he heads up river into the jungle. One day his guide is killed and Bradley is captured by a native tribe, who keep him prisoner in their village and force him to adapt to their way of life.
Umberto Lenzi's Deep River Savages may for the most part be a forgettable Third World adventure yarn, but it has gained a reputation as the film that lay the template for the Italian cannibal cycle. Lenzi confines the actual cannibalism to one short scene, but all the familiar elements are here – graphic animal mutilation, a 'civilised' white man trapped and tortured by savage natives, strange tribal customs, ritualistic sexual violence. By the end of the decade, such elements were de rigeur in films such as Cannibal Holocaust, Prisoner of the Cannibal God and Lenzi's own Cannibal Ferox.
This earlier effort does attempt slightly more social commentary than any of Lenzi's later gut-munchers. At first the captured Bradley is horrified by the tribe's barbaric ways, as they chop tongues out of mouths as a punishment, gut alligators and scalp monkeys, and perform sexual rites on top of funeral pyres. In one scene, Bradley is tied down to bake in the sun for three days, and in another is strapped to a revolving totem as natives shoot blowdarts at him. Fun! Throughout he provides a ridiculous voiceover: "What do they want from me? They must think I'm some kind of fish, because of the wetsuit I had on!"
Bradley is saved by the love of a good woman, in this case a beautiful-but-dim native girl played by former TV personality Me Me Lai, who takes a shine to our hero. Months later, the pair are married and have a baby on the way, but tragedy – and cannibals – are just around the corner.
I suppose the underlying message here is 'they might be savages, but they are real people too!' – a tropical Dances With Wolves if you will. It's tedious stuff though, as Lenzi alternates ploddingly between the laughable and the unpleasant. Particularly hilarious is Rassimov and Lai's soft-focus romance, as the couple romp through the trees and he teaches her English (she's fluent after a couple of months), sappy music tugging at the heartstrings. The jungle does often look gorgeous, but I suspect that's due more to its natural beauty than any photographic skill on Lenzi's part.
As for the cannibalism, there's a bit of arm-munching when a cannibal tribe attack some of the 'good' natives (you can tell the cannibals are the bad guys because they're darker skinned and have teeth missing), but it's tame stuff compared to the atrocities Lenzi would deliver in Cannibal Ferox. Deep River Savages does have a place in film history, but it's still a rotten movie.
Aka: Man from Deep River, Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio
Prolific, workmanlike Italian director and writer who dabbled in most genres throughout his 40 year career. Started work as a film critic before making his directing debut in 1961 with the sea-faring adventure flick Queen of the Seas. The two decades years saw Lenzi churn out westerns, historical dramas, Bond-esquespy yarns and giallo thrillers among others.
It was his 1972 proto-cannibal film Deep River Savages that led to the best known phase of his career, with notorious gore-epics Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive and zombie shlocker Nightmare City quickly becoming favourites amongst fans of spaghetti splatter. Continued to plug away in the horror genre before retiring in 1996.