Cannibal Girls-a-Go-Go!

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Cannibal Girls-a-Go-Go!
Interviews with Italian Cannibal Film Starlets Me Me Lai & Francesa Ciardi

Just in time for Mark Pilkington’s upcoming lecture “I EAT CANNIBALS: ATAVISM, EXOTICISM & ATROCITY” at The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies – London on February 12th (featuring a screening of Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River (1972), British cult film writer Tristan Thompson gave us this exclusive interview with actresses Francesca Ciardi (Cannibal Holocaust) and Me Me Lai (The Man From Deep River, Jungle Holocaust, Eaten Alive)!

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Italian cinema’s foray into the world of ‘mondo cannibale’ may have been mercifully brief, but the cinematic imprint left behind is universally emotive and most often fuel-injects passionate and heated debates that question morality and ethical responsibility.

Mention Cannibal Ferox to Giovanni Lombardo Radice and his face will morph into a sneer of distaste and he’ll spit: “piece of shit”.  Umberto Lenzi will become increasingly exasperated and refuse to talk about it.

However, one to always embrace notoriety, Ruggero Deodato has long pondered returning to the Amazon wilderness to film an official sequel to his 1979 controversial masterpiece Cannibal Holocaust.  Indeed Cannibal Holocaust, while still considered one of the most ‘dangerous films ever made’, is now the subject of prestigious academic studies and presentations.

This interview was conducted with actresses Me Me Lai and Francesca Ciardi who both, in their own very personal way, were central to the genre.

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Me Me Lai came under the direction of Umberto Lenzi for Deep River Savages (aka The Man from Deep River, 1972) and again for Eaten Alive in 1980, also starring in Deodato’s Cannibal (aka The Last Cannibal World, aka Jungle Holocaust) in 1977.  In each of these roles Lai would play an indigenous tribesperson whose sympathetic traits would result in horrific punishment.

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Francesca Ciardi played the doomed news journalist Faye Daniels in Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, part of Alan Yates’ daring documentary team that ventured into the Amazon never to be seen again (almost).

[NOTE: Under instruction, questions were to be closely guarded.]      

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Thank you both for taking the time to talk with me today.  I understand that many of your fans are here to meet you today.  I guess the first question can only be what was it like to film in the Amazon wilderness?

MML:  It was incredibly difficult filming – especially for Cannibal (Jungle Holocaust)!  Ruggero Deodato, laughing, said that when we made Deep River Savages for Umberto Lenzi we went out clubbing, drinking and fucking every night!  With Cannibal all we had was badminton every night; hardly any food, certainly no booze, nothing to dance to!  It really was in the middle of the jungle, and it was hard work!

FC: The Amazon is very beautiful but a very scary place.  It was very dangerous with the insects and animals.

Did you have any encounters with creepy crawlies?

MML: Oh yes, lots. I sat on a snake!  I didn’t know it was a snake until it wiggled. I leapt up like a water skier.

FC: I was bitten on my arm by an insect – it was poisonous and very uncomfortable. It was called a ‘Black’ something…I cannot remember other than it was very uncomfortable.

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Did you ever go back and see your films are the cinema?

MML:  Well, I don’t like watching my own films on the cinema, certainly not the cannibal ones. Though I did see [my film] Au Pair Girls (1972) in the cinema!

The cannibal films…some have been labelled among the most controversial films ever made. How do you feel about that?

MML: I feel good about that now, though I didn’t at the time. Although they were horrific, people remember me because of these films and say how much they enjoyed them.

FC: I was extremely uncomfortable for a long time.  I was very surprised that Cannibal Holocaust became a cult movie.  I was upset at the animal scenes but Ruggero Deodato was correct to shoot this movie in that style.  I have to say today that Deodato was correct in making this film.

Francesca, tell me about the scene on the impaled native…this is singularly the most visceral image that represents Cannibal Holocaust.

FC: It was incredible to see in the film, but it was also an incredible fake.  If you could see the special effect that was built you would see it was fake and it looked ridiculous being done with the girl sitting on a kind of bicycle seat. But in the film it looked horrific.

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How do you think these films have endured?

FC: I’m very surprised that this movie is still alive today and I’m pleased the fans like it.  Now it has been 30 years on; it is very impressive but it was not impressive at the time.

MML: Well, they’re nothing compared to [films] today.  I’m glad now that they were controversial.  I wasn’t pleased at the time, but on reflection the more controversial they were, the better it was for me.  But at the time it wasn’t so good.

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You were in a series of these films – from Lenzi’s Man from Deep River (1972) to Deodato’s Cannibal (1977) then back to Lenzi again with Eaten Alive (1980) – at what point do you think the films became controversial?

MML:  Well, they changed the titles so many times I really didn’t know which was which.  The first one – Man from Deep River – was really tame. It really began to get quite hairy with Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal.  Many people have said to me that Eaten Alive was their favourite film but I can’t remember it too well.  I think I tried to watch it but there was too much blood and gore and I couldn’t get past the first 10 minutes.

FC: In the cinema there was a lot of trouble and Cannibal Holocaust got banned.  I did see it and I didn’t like it and I had forgotten it after a few months. Then it was in the newspapers and it was being reported that the actors were killed in making Cannibal Holocaust.

Can you give me an insight into the arrangements that Deodato made with you in regards to staying away after the film was completed?

FC: Yes, Deodato said it would be good for the movie if people thought that it happened for real, that the people really died.  And it worked – he had to go to court to explain and show the movie was a spoof movie and that the actors weren’t killed.

Did you have to go to court?

FC: I didn’t but another actor went along and explained that the actors are fine and no one was killed.

Well, despite being in the middle of the Amazon, you both looked incredibly beautiful in your films!

MML:  Well, I don’t know about being beautiful (laughing) but thank you!  We did have a make-up artist but all they did for me was to muddy up my hair every day!

FC: Deodato did not want beauty!  Deodato wanted me because I looked normal. He did not want a pin-up girl like Ursula Andress with big tits, blond hair and blue eyes.  Deodato wanted me for Cannibal Holocaust because I looked like a normal girl; this made the movie more real.

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Did you have difficulty in accepting the nudity that was demanded for these roles?

MML:  Well, I was very shy in the first one.  But the crew there was nice and so were the actors, everyone was so good about it.  I think we did two versions of Cannibal – one which was nude and one where I was covered up in something like a monkey suit. I was very uneasy at first, but I was treated with great respect and I wasn’t gaped at. But I wouldn’t want to do it now.

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FC: I felt uncomfortable in Cannibal Holocaust – not so much an issue with nudity but with how Deodato filmed the nude scenes.  This bothered me very much and I felt I was being asked to do something I didn’t want to do. But Ruggero Deodato was right: looking at the film some 30 years on, this was how it needed to be filmed.

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Me Me Lai’s last film was Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime in 1984, but after many years away from the screen, Francesca Ciardi has recently returned to acting with a role in Spencer Hawken’s upcoming horror film Death Walks (2015).

With thanks to Paul Brown at Midnight Media and The Camden Film Fair

Me Me Lai and Francesca Ciardi at the Camden Film Fair, October 2014:

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About the author:

Tristan Thompson

Tristan Thompson is the author of THE ILSA CHRONICLES (a study of the ILSA SHE WOLF OF THE SS movies) & BLAZING MAGNUMS (classic Italian Cop-Crime movies of the 70s). Tristan has contributed to various cult-horror movie websites and magazines including FANGORIA, THE DARKSIDE, SHIVERS, SEX MUTANTS GORE, DELIRIUM & IS IT UNCUT. Tristan also has great fun writing the on-going A-Z Guide of Cult, Exploitation & Horror Movies for Abertoir's Annual Horror Film Festival brochure.

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