So I decided on a comparative approach, matching the Deodato with an American counterpart. I happened to have one at home: Richard C. Sarafian's Man in the Wilderness, starring none other than Richard Harris. It actually isn't the ideal film for comparison, since its Indians are rather peripheral to its story, but there are a few moments with surprisingly exact counterparts in Last Cannibal World, leading me to wonder whether Deodato was commenting on or parodying Sarafian.
Man in the Wilderness is at the least a case of truth in advertising. It consists mostly of Richard Harris in the wilderness. He's Zach Bass, a member of a peculiar trapping expedition circa 1820. The trappers are hauling a big boat through our title wilderness, intending to ride it down the Mississippi. It's a powerful eerie image to open the film with, and its progress gives us a visual jolt whenever we see it, but it promises a stranger, more interesting film than Sarafian actually made.
John Huston and his ship-on-wheels often seem to be part of a different, more surreal or sinister film than Man in the Wilderness, but that's where they're stuck.
Sarafian's wilderness isn't a benign place. It tests people, but like many wilderness films it seems to argue that the hero's ordeal has a positive or purifying effect. The location work is the film's strongest suit apart from the imagery of the ship on land. Harris's performance is almost entirely physical. He has little more than a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole picture, it seems, but he does invest his role with nonverbal expressiveness. Apart from Huston, the trappers (including James "Scotty" Doohan) are a nondescript bunch. The Indians notice Harris's existence occasionally, but usually leave him alone because he wears some sort of Indian sign. Henry Wilcoxson is their chief, which rather limits their ability to represent natural authenticity. He has a big scene with Harris in which he talks entirely in untranslated native language. There are no initiation scenes of the kind that made Man Called Horse notorious. There is, however, a moment in which Indians teach Zach Bass about humanity, and this is where I found an evil echo in Last Cannibal World.
On his road to recovery, on the trail of the trappers, Zach comes across an Indian woman by a riverbank. She's there to give birth to a baby. Our hero watches raptly, and the sight inspires the flashback to his first and only sight of his son. His eyes appear to ache with sympathy for the mother as he suddenly and clearly misses his own child. This feeling grows stronger as he sees the father lovingly claim the new baby and take the mother home.This sets up what the writer wants to be the payoff of the final confrontation between Harris and Huston, and while you can see what his point was, it's still an anticlimax, and a fatal one for this sort of film. Still, we have to note this one moment when the taciturn, solitary white man learns the value of family from "savages."
Apart from scenes of violence against animals (which Deodato denies shooting in a video intro to the Shriek Show DVD), this business with the baby is the most appalling part of a pretty appalling film. Deodato's primitives have no family values that we can notice, and maybe no values whatsoever. Their collective feasts of human flesh or fresh-killed alligators are free-for-alls that see fellow tribesmen fighting each other for the best bits. They seem to be envisioned as sub-human; one civilized character claims that the tribespeople don't even have a language. This is meant to be more alarming to the audience because, while the American wilderness films are set in the past, the Italian cannibal films take place in the present.
Massimo Foschi is made to fly like an eagle (or an airplane) by the literal cavemen of the Last Cannibal World. Below, an eagle resents the comparison.
Critics have been speculating for nearly forty years about the roots of the Italian fascination with cannibals. If the cannibal films are a response to the American wilderness films they can be seen to some extent as a grim satire on American noble-savagery. I don't know if the notions about noble savages popularly identified with Jean-Jacques Rousseau had much influence in Italy, but I do know that Italians were little exposed to aboriginal peoples compared to other European powers that had more extensive colonial empires. Maybe they had no colonial guilt to drive them to idealize the primitive, and maybe they had a stronger sense of original sin than other nations that immunized them against noble-savage idealism. I have to defer to the experts on this one.
I've long been a defender of Deodato's magnum opus, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and having now seen Ultimo Mondo Cannibale I can definitely say that the later film is an advance on the earlier one. Holocaust is often taken as a satire on "Mondo" moviemakers, but in the context of Deodato's career it could also be an act of self-criticism, or willful self-parody. While holding no illusions about its cannibals, Holocaust takes their side, to an extent, against its predatory filmmakers. That's progressive compared to Last Cannibal World, but just about anything would be. More so than Holocaust, the earlier film is one whose power must be acknowledged in spite of, or perhaps because of the profound feelings of loathing it may provoke. It taps into an atavistic fear that most people had hoped to forget, or might prefer to experience in the sublimated or (strange to say) euphemistic form of the flesh-eating zombie film. Did the cannibal films fill a perceived void left by some supposed denial at the heart of the wilderness films? It depends on how you see the wilderness films, and how you see the wilderness.