The classic 1939 MGM musical fantasy starring Judy Garland, …
When it comes to horror cinema, there are two types of films I love above all others: zombie films and cannibal movies. Zombies have been harder to love over the course of the past decade—a renaissance of walking dead flicks (many of dubious quality) have nearly killed the subgenre. Gone are the days when Fulci and Romero were king and blood and brains threatened to turn theater screens crimson. I miss those days—give me the original Dawn of the Dead over the remake any day. The cannibal film (a distinctly Italian cinematic construct) has fared much better. Given the taboo subject matter (and while horror filmmakers will spend all day telling you how they love to "push the envelope", most of them don't), the cannibal film has long been relegated to the annals of European exploitation cinema—coexisting with the zombie film through the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s and then vanishing back into the jungle just like their savage antagonists. Cannibalism has turned up in films over the years, but there's never been a full-fledged jungle epic like Ruggero Deodato's seminal Cannibal Holocaust or Umberto Lenzi's uber-sleazy Cannibal Ferox…until now.
With Holocaust and Ferox widely available on DVD (and even lesser films in the canon like Eaten Alive, Ultimo Mondo Cannibale, and the genre's birthing point, Deep River Savages are easy enough to find) it was probably only a matter of time before someone got the gumption to create a new cannibal flick in the vein of the originals. Welcome to the Jungle is that film. It's an interesting updating of the jungle holocaust films the Italians churned out three decades ago, but it ultimately fails as a worthy successor to the classics it was so clearly inspired by.
Four friends vacationing in Fiji get the bright idea to travel to New Guinea in search of Michael Rockefeller. Rockefeller disappeared in the region back in 1961 (which is true) and was never found—despite his wealthy family assembling the largest manhunt in history in hopes of finding him. There's no shortages of theories about what happened to Rockefeller—everything from him drowning, being eaten by crocodiles, to the ultimate ghoulish delight, being devoured by local cannibals has been put forth as a possible cause of his demise (and there are those who believe he's still living in New Guinea after all these years). To travel into the wilds in search of this guy (a friend of a friend saw a gray bearded white man from his helicopter—which is all our intrepid leads need in order to set off on their journey) is a fool's errand—but the allure of easy money (they plan to find Rockefeller, interview him, and sell it to the tabloids for a million bucks split four ways) sends them to their destiny.
As a genre film, Welcome to the Jungle isn't the all-out splatter fest so many of the Italian cannibal films were. Instead, director Jonathan Hensleigh spends over half the film setting everything up. We meet the four main characters, Mandi (Sandy Gardiner), her new boyfriend Colby (Callard Harris), her hard-partying best friend Bijou (Veronica Sywak), and Colby's friend Mikey (Nick Richey) and follow them from the planning stage into the jungle and watch as their friendships disintegrate in front of our eyes. Mikey's a jerk, Bijou wants only to drink and smoke, and Mandi and Colby are genuinely serious about trying to find Rockefeller. A brash act by Mikey brings down the natives' wrath, but nothing much happens until the one hour mark of the film. Since the entire film barely runs 85 minutes, this build up isn't so much a build up as it is the bulk of the movie.
Hensleigh tries to keep us interested when there's no cannibal action happening by having his characters run into roadside bandits and fighting amongst themselves, but let's be honest—these characters are neither interesting nor likeable. Welcome to the Jungle features a cast of characters so obnoxious I was actually rooting for them to die painfully. One could make the argument that Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust features a similar set-up (the film crew is particularly despicable to be sure), but that film benefitted from the sympathetic Robert Kerman character tracking along in the aftermath to find out what had happened. There is no such character in Welcome to the Jungle—the four annoying leads are all you get.
The film is at least presented in a visually interesting fashion, aping the faux documentary style of The Blair Witch Project (which, it should be noted, aped the faux documentary style of Cannibal Holocaust), but the finished product is too slick to play as genuine. This is what a Hollywood filmmaker thinks a handheld camcorder documentary would look like, not what one really looks like. There are rough edits and other technical trickery to try and make the footage look real, but it never truly works. Hensleigh has directed numerous big budget films in his career, and even when "slumming it" on a genre piece, he can't help but make it look as pretty as possible. The cannibal film is one of the rare kinds of films where this is actually a detriment.
The film's other problems are that it so desperately wants to embrace its inspirations (particularly Canibal Holocaust) that it feels derivative. Compounding that problem is that if you really want to pay homage to Cannibal Holocaust, you can't skimp out on the gore or keep the cannibal gut-munching off-screen. Welcome to the Jungle commits both of these sins. Even when it does finally give us some gore (one character impaled on a bamboo pike) it's just a less effective imitation of a similar sequence in Deodato's film. Even the final sequence mirrors the last minutes of Holocaust's film crew—only shot at night so the gore can't be seen. When it comes to the gore, Welcome to the Jungle is sort of like the Disney-fied version of Cannibal Holocaust.
Even as a suspense film, it doesn't quite measure up. The Italians made jungle epics where there were not only cannibals lurking around every corner, but the jungle itself was an enemy. Dangerous animals, booby traps, getting lost—these all added to the tension in the classics. None of that is present in this updating. These characters are out in the wild, but we never see even a single wild animal. It's more like they're walking through an overgrown backyard.
I could complain about Welcome to the Jungle all day (don't even get me started on the stupid final shot…) but I think you get the picture. If you're new to cannibal films, you might find this "shocking" or "horrifying" and think of it as "really gory"—but trust me, it's not. With the classic Italian cannibal films so readily available on DVD (be thankful you can actually pick up copies of films like Cannibal Holocaust with tons of extras and great pictures at your local mall—I suffered through a grainy 8th generation bootleg that I had to go to the ends of the Earth to get when I first saw it) I can't imagine why anyone would actually waste their time on something like this instead of just going right to the classics. If you're a cannibal completist (like me), you'll have to check this out. Otherwise, feel free to skip Welcome to the Jungle.
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