I don’t want much from a film – just cannibals, soft-porn bass and a boa constrictor eating a mongoose

From Cannibal Apocalypse to Cannibal Holocaust, the Italian video nasty was a vivid cultural moment.

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I’ve long thought we could do with a piece of software which helps us select films to watch based not on reviews, director or plot, but on the more abstract cosmetic and sensory elements you want from a movie at a particular moment. A kind of mood-film aggregator, if you like – no criterion too small.

I like films that show the streets of Manhattan in the late 1970s (preferably including the Twin Towers), soundtracked by a wacka-wacka bassline of the kind you hear in vintage soft porn. I like to start in an institutional setting – a university, or scientific research station – full of highly functioning academics in yellow woollen polo necks planning an important excursion. Then I like an abrupt loss of civilisation; a helicopter to the heart of Congo, gliding over brown rivers with a cheap orchestral soundtrack. I like chaos to descend quickly, in the form of a tribe of natives covered in white chalk and wielding blow pipes. I want an inordinate amount of politically incorrect stereotyping, casual sexism and bright red entrails – and ideally, an extended scene of a boa constrictor eating a mongoose, soundtracked by more porn bass.

Specific as these criteria may seem, there are fortunately about 72 such films at my disposal, all listed under the edict casually known as the Video Nasties Act from 1984. Most were produced in Italy in the 1970s, have five or six titles, and occasionally you’ll get a glimpse of an actual (rather than porn) star in them, only dubbed in a different language for reasons that aren’t clear.

The Italian video nasty was a vivid cultural moment: an obvious mark of decline after the high point of the Renaissance and the Romans; a poignant reminder of the epic highs of Italian culture and its degrading lows. These lows were proudly embraced in pinnacles of movie dreadfulness such as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Apocalypse or The Gestapo’s Last Orgy. There is simply no better way to spend your Sunday night in the winter.

The first one I ever saw was Anthropophagus (1980) by Joe D’Amato: also known as The Grim Reaper, The Beast, Antropophagus,  Maneater – Der Menschenfresser, The Man Eater, The Man Beast, Gomia: Terror en el Mar Egeo and The Savage Island. Slim-hipped couples take a yacht to a Greek island which is all but empty, save for a man, driven crazy by thirst and the sun, who snacks on his own intestines. Its pauperous production values make it effective: the deserted town is filmed mostly in the dark. It stars Tisa Farrow, Mia’s sister, who’d been in Lucio Fulci’s  Zombi 2, and no longer acts.

I also enjoyed, by the same director, Love Goddess Of The Cannibals (also known as Papaya) from 1978, in which a Cher-like actress listed simply as “Melissa” bites off the penises of men who visit her beautiful island. Politics lurk in the cannibal movies: there is often an environmental subtext – a nuclear reactor planned for a tropical paradise; a vengeful native whose culture is trampled by modern imperialist douchebags; and sometimes – in the case of white folk eating human flesh – there is a trace of post-Vietnam madness, the likes of which had already been explored perfectly well by Michael Cimino, or Francis Ford Coppola.

I love how pulp culture takes the serious themes of the day and replicates them thoughtlessly in a sequence of faded and increasingly crappy screen prints. Behind the nasties were worlds darker than the troubled paradises on screen: lead actors, finally breaking out of porn roles, who would succumb to Aids in the 1980s. And in the case of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust – which was directed by Ruggero Deodato and starred the guy from Debbie Does Dallas – there was a legendary set, deep in the Bogota rainforest, which became known for its terrible cruelty and “sadism”, as though its director, stuck so far from civilisation, had turned mad and mean with his own creation. Deodato is now 78. He had a bit-part in the movie Hostel: Part II a few years backplaying an Italian cannibal.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship