Exploring Ruggero Deodato

Plenty of directors have made extreme cinema. However, only a few have been arrested for murder and owned the title Monsieur Cannibal.

Ruggero Deodato started life as a music prodigy, directing an orchestra by the age of seven before quitting once his teacher sent him away for playing by ear. Through his friendship with Renzo Rossellini, he started working with Renzo’s father Roberto and Sergio Corbucci, who he worked with as the assistant director for Django.

Deodato also made three movies of his own, Hercules, Prisoner of Evil; Phenomenal and the Treasure of TutankhamenGungala, the Black Panther GirlDonne… botte e bersaglieriVacanze sulla Costa SmeraldaI quattro del pater nosterZenabel and the TV series Il triangolo rosso and All’ultimo minuto before leaving to work in advertising.

It was during this period that he met his first wife, Silvia Dionisio, who you may recognize from Blood for Dracula and the two films that brought Deodato back to directing, Waves of Lust and the astounding Live Like a CopDie Like a Man.

It was in 1977 that Deodato would plant his flag in the genre that he is best known for: the cannibal film. While these movies have their roots in the jungle adventure genre, they really took root when Umberto Lenzi made The Man from Deep River in 1972. Released as Sacrifice! in the U.S., it was basically a remix of A Man Called Horse yet set in the Green Inferno. Deodato would take that film and push it with a series of cannibal-themed movies like Jungle Holocaust (aka Last Cannibal World) and Cannibal Holocaust, the watershed of all cannibal and found footage films.

Lenzi claims that the only reason Deodato got to make Jungle Holocaust was because he was busy making Almost Human and wasn’t offered enough money by the producers; this could just be part of the somewhat feud between the two directors, as when Lenzi made Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly) in 1980, Deodato said, “I think the forefather of the cannibal genre was me. I had not seen Umberto Lenzi’s movie Man from Deep River. So my film, Last Cannibal World, really originated, and was written to start this whole cannibal trend. I studied a lot of books on the subject and documented some of it from National Geographic magazine as well. I also looked closely at the ritualism of cannibalism and I don’t believe Lenzi did that with his film. Maybe Lenzi did it after I made Last Cannibal World. You know, when he went on to do Cannibal Ferox. He didn’t do it first, that’s for sure. When I finally saw his film, it was more of a copy of A Man Called Horse.”

Maybe Luigi Cozzi is the arbitrator of this argument. He said, “To me, the real beginning of the cannibal genre is Cannibal Holocaust. It was a legitimate success at the box office, but not in Italy as it was banned, blocked and withheld. They distributed it at a later date, but it was dead by then. However, it did astonishing business abroad.”

Cannibal Holocaust is either a work of exploitation junk madness or an art film inspired by the political unrest of Italy at the time. Can it — perhaps by accident — be both? How strange is it when the filmmakers — particularly Deodato if interviews by the cast are any indication — are just as bad if not worse than the characters on screen?

Ten days after the movie’s premiere, it was confiscated under the orders of a local magistrate and Deodato was charged with obscenity, which if you’ve watched any Italian films is incredible with the sheer outrages one sees in these films. And then, in one of those no news is bad news PR moments, the charges against Deodato soon included murder, as some believed the actors who portrayed the missing film crew and the impaled actress were actually murdered. This could be the ultimate kayfabe press story, but the actors — who some claim were told to hide for some months to get across the idea that this was a real snuff film — and special effects crew were called to court to prove Deodato’s innocence. That said, he received a four-month suspended sentence for obscenity and animal cruelty as eight real animals were murdered during the making of the movie. The film didn’t play Italy uncut until 1984.

It’s also on the list of films distributed on video cassette that were criticized for their violent content by the UK press and various organizations such as the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. You can read more about the Video Nasties in our three-part article. Start with part one, which has Deodato’s cannibal film, right here.

The director also made Last Feelings and Concorde Affaire ’79 during this period as he fought to retain his directing license.

As groundbreaking as Deodato was before 1980, I believe that he made movies just as interesting and wild after, starting with his Last House on the Left-influenced House on the Edge of the Park, a movie so indebted to Craven’s movie that it even has star David Hess in the cast. As I wrote in my initial review of the film, “Deodato makes a film that continually assaults not just the characters” and again, it found one of his movies on the section 1 Video Nasty list.

Billed in the U.S. as Richard Franklin, Deodato’s next film would be the improbable Raiders of the Lost Ark/Road Warrior mix and match that is Atlantis Interceptors (aka Raiders of Atlantis), which has an all-star — well, Italian exploitation all-star — cast including Christopher Connelly, George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov and a young Michele Soavi.

The slasher boom in the U.S. led to two larger budget films for Deodato.

Cut and Run was intended as a Wes Craven film and had an R-rated and international cut packed with more of the wildness that Deodato was known for. Fran Hudson (Lisa Blount, Prince of Darkness) is investigating a war in the jungles of South America between drug cartels and the army of Colonel Brian Horne (Richard Lynch), who has a gigantic assassin named Quencho (Michael Berryman) on his side. Plus, you get Willie Aames in a Mickey Mouse shirt, Karen Black, Eriq La Salle, Gabriele Tinti, John Steiner and Barbara Magnolfi. It’s as if the big world of Hollywood has met the Italian industry for this one, which features bodies torn in half and crucified, as well as references to Jonestown.

The second larger budget film Deodato worked on was Body Count, which has Charles Napier, Ivan Rassimov, John Steiner, Cynthia Thompson, David Hess and Mimsy Farmer in a movie that combines the stalk and slash camp action of Crystal Lake with the haunted burial ground of Cuesta Verde. It also has an RV, dirt bikes and a blaring synth score from Claudio Simonetti. It’s also the kind of movie that claims to be in Colorado yet was shot in the Cascate di Monte Gelato forest park.

Like most Italian exploitation directors, Deodato tried nearly any genre that was hot at the time. The Lone Runner is the next example. This post-apocalyptic film stars Italian mainstay Miles O’Keefe (the Ator series), Raiders of the Lost Ark bad guy Ronald Lacey, John Steiner, Hal Yamanouchi and Yugoslavian actress Savina Gersak, who ends up in all manner of movies I obsess over, including Iron WarriorAfghanistan – The Last War BusCurse II: The BiteBeyond the Door III and Midnight Ride.

Deodato’s next film, The Barbarians, moves into another Italian-beloved genre, the peplum film by way of Conan the Barbarian pastiche. This was a well-trod genre for the director, as the first movie he made was Hercules, Prisoner of Evil.

What would be better than one barbarian? How about two? Twin brothers — The Barbarian Brothers! Made for Cannon Films, with a script by James R. Silke (Ninja 3: The DominationRevenge of the Ninja), this takes the best of the venerable Cannon and throws in Italian stars with America talent, so Richard Lynch and Michael Berryman appear in the same movie as George Eastman and Virginia Bryant.

A movie that is almost the entire Conan movie redone with double the brawny beefcake swordsmen, this movie is fun from start to finish, with an episodic story that takes the brothers from young members of a circus to battle gigantic monsters.

The next film that Deodato would direct was Phantom of Death, a way late in the cycle giallo with horror elements that boasts Michael York as a man aging prematurely, Donald Pleasence as an inspector and Edwige Fenech as the love interest. This is one of the few films in which you can hear Fenech’s voice undubbed.

Dial:Help is one of the strangest films in Deodato’s career, a mix of horror, giallo and telephones acting as both protector and antagonist for Charlotte Lewis. Working from a script by Franco Ferrini (PhenomenaSleepless, Opera), this is probably the most gorgeous of all the movies Deodato would direct, including a wild scene that shows the reason behind these murderous phones: an abandoned phone line for people who had their hearts broken, an office where all of the operators are dead and can reach out from the other side. It’s a crime that this movie isn’t yet available on blu ray.

Deodato also worked in Italian TV, making two episodes of Il Racatto, the mini-series Ocean (which features David Hess, Michael Berryman and Martin Balsam), eight episodes of I ragazzi del muretto, six episodes of We Are Angels (featuring the wild team of Bud Spencer and Philip Michael Thomas as criminals hiding out as monks; it also has appearances by Hess, Berryman,  Richard Lynch and Erik Estrada), ten of the Carol Alt-starring Thinking About Africa, an episode of Incantesimo 8 and the TV movie Padre Speranza (Father Hope), which stars Spencer.

Deodato also made two theatrical films in the early 90s, the child-friendly drama Mom I Can Do It, starring American actors Chistopher Mattheson and Elisabeth Kemp (He Knows You’re Alone) and The Washing Machine, a sex-packed giallo tale of three sisters, murder and dead bodies found inside washing machines. Again, sadly, this has not yet been reissued in the U.S. so it hasn’t found an appreciative audience.

An appearance by Deodato in big fan Eli Roth’s film Hostel: Part II — which also has a cameos by Fenech as an art class professor — led to the director appearing in films like The Museum of WondersEndless DarkPhantasmagoria and the Italian horror history-referencing Lilith’s Hell in which he plays himself.

After an eight year break, Deodato would direct a segment in The Profane Exhibit, the short Io e mia figlia and a segment in Deathcember. He also would make Ballad In Blood, his first full-length movie in a quarter century. Based on the Meredith Kercher murder case, it retains much of the headline chasing, boundary pushing blood and sleaze that Deodato has traded in for his entire career. Recently available from Severin in the U.S., one can only hope that the label finds a way to bring official releases of his other films to American collectors.

Deodato has also found his way into numerous documentaries — Shudder devoted an entire episode of Cursed Films to his most notorious movie and he’s one of the main interviews in The Found Footage Phenomenon — and has even been the subject of several himself, including Deodato Holocaust.

While Deodato’s films aren’t for everyone, they are important movies to study and enjoy for those willing to take the journey. He’s certainly one of the more interesting Italian filmmakers and one of the last surviving links to the heyday of 70s and 80s darkness that emerged from the country.

Sadly, died on December 29, 2022 at the age of 83. He leaves behind not just a cannibal that changed movies forever, but a rich career filled with movies worth exploring.

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