When a film goes by the name of Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, you can pretty much guarantee that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Indeed, J.F. Lawton’s 1989 feature (made under the pseudonym of J.D. Athens) is a piss-take, setting its sights on the various jungle adventure flicks Indiana Jones had left in his wake throughout the decade – and there were quite a few. The mainstream gave us Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone, whilst Cannon gave us Richard Chamberlain as Allan Quartermain and the Chuck Norris vehicle Firewalker. Meanwhile, the Italians offered up plenty of cheap exploitation fare. Those with excellent memories might also recall Nate and Hayes (aka Savage Islands) with a pre-frame Tommy Lee Jones or the ill-fated Disney dinosaur pic, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. There were also plenty of variations involving Vietnam veterans, martial artists (No Retreat, No Surrender 2: Raging Thunder relocated its action to Cambodia) and even the occasional female lead, as the likes of Gwendoline, Jane and the Lost City (based on the Daily Mirror comic strip) and Sheena: Queen of the Jungle ably showed.
Cannibal Women targets Sheena and her ilk especially. Instead of a scantily-clad Tanya Roberts, it has a bespectacled Shannon Tweed as its lead, here playing the academic and “middle of the road feminist” Dr. Hunt. According to an opening preamble delivered by a guest-starring Barry Primus, the avocado jungles of California (the last remaining sources of the fruit in the free world) are overrun by a tribe of man-hating and man-eating female tribe. Their leader is one Dr. Kurtz, a former celebrity on the chat show circuit played by Adrienne Barbeau, who has disappeared from public view and taken to acting out her feminist convictions in the wilderness. Only Hunt (with Karen Mistal’s bimbo in tow) can take on the tribeswomen and bring Kurtz back to civilisation. If this sounds ever so slightly like Apocalypse Now then the reference, of course, is wholly intentional.
In other words, Cannibal Women is pretty smart picture, with Lawton’s screenplay among its major qualities. Certainly, you’d expect him to be smart given how he would soon pen both Pretty Woman and Under Siege, the latter securing him a million-dollar payday and all before he turned 30. He’s also fairly shrewd when it comes to the casting with Tweed (shortly before her move into ‘erotic thriller’ territory) capturing just the right tongue-in-cheek tone and Barbeau lending the requisite cult appeal. Mistal also acquits herself well – as you would expect from someone with the experience of Return of the Killer Tomatoes behind them – whilst Lawton also had the inspired idea of putting his pal Bill Maher in the male hero role. His best-known work, namely Politically Incorrect for Comedy Central and Real Time with Bill Maher for HBO, was still to come, but he’d been steadily working in stand-up (plus the occasional movie and spot of TV work) and building up his deadpan demeanour. Which just so happens to work perfectly for his Indiana Jones knock-off supposedly dripping in machismo.
Unfortunately, Lawton’s skills as a director don’t always match up. In part it’s safe to say that he was constricted by his minimal budget (and Cannibal Women certainly is cheap), but there’s little of the energy found in his screenplay. Whilst Tweed, Maher and the rest ensure the one-liners come quick enough, the physical humour falls horrendously flat. Indeed, flat is something of a watchword here with Lawton rarely overcoming his limitations. Nevertheless, I suspect most audience members will come to Cannibal Women with low expectations and it would be a shame for them to come away short-changed! Elsewhere it proves itself to be surprisingly sharp and worthy of a look.
Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death comes to UK DVD courtesy of 88 Films and their Grindhouse Collection. The dual-layered disc is presented in the PAL format, encoded for all regions and houses just the feature and a collection of trailers. Picture quality is merely so-so with the image a touch on the hazy side, though colours are strong and damage is at a minimum. The film is framed at 1.37:1 which doesn’t surprise given how it went straight to video in both the US and UK. (Cinematographer Robert Knouse appears to have protected the image for theatrical masking, although with a film as visually flat as this it doesn’t make a huge amount deal of difference.) The soundtrack, meanwhile, presents the original mono in DD2.0 form and is fine so long as it has nothing too complicated to handle. Louder moments have a tendency to prompt some digital distortion. There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise.
Shannon Tweed, Bill Maher and Adrienne Barbeau send up Indiana Jones and his ilk.