The Adventure Trilogy of Sergio Martino

*contains spoilers

There are a trio of movies by Italian director Sergio Martino (1938-) made all around the same time of each other known as his “Adventure Trilogy”.

Director Sergio Martino

They are Mountain of the Cannibal God aka Slave of the Cannibal God (1978), The Great Alligator River (1979) aka Big Alligator River aka Alligators and Island of the Fishmen (1979), which had scenes added for its US release and went under the titles Something Waits in the Dark as well as Screamers.

While this latter film was made before Great Alligator River, I will discuss it last as it is by far the best of the trilogy.

Sergio Martino often worked in collaboration with his brother the producer Luciano Martino (1933-3013 pulmonary edema). These films are examples.

Mountain of the Cannibal God is set in the wilds of what was present day New Guinea, where cannibalism and primitive natives still live in the wilderness.

Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962)

Actress Ursula Andress (1936-), nicknamed Ursula Undress in the 1960s for her propensity of stripping in movies, plays a woman who wants to find her husband who has disappeared in the wilds.

Andress was, of course, one of the first Bond girls with a substantial role in the first Bond film Dr No (1962) as Honey Ryder. The bikini she wore in that film sold for about $60,000 some twenty years ago. She was also in one of the best Elvis Presley vehicles Fun in Acapulco (1963). It is a film which gets better with each viewing although Andress thought the bikinis used in that film were tame.

Andress and Keach in a bad wig in Cannibal God

In Cannibal God, Andress’ character is one that rips-off King Solomon’s Mines as she employs Stacy Keach in a bad wig to take her and her brother into the jungle to find the missing man. Keach would find a believable balance with his hairline in Roadgames a couple of years later.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) trailer

Cannibal God is a bit of an atrocity movie like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) in that there is a lot of real live killing of animals and apparently people. Director of Cannibal Holocaust Ruggero Deodato (1939-) did such a good job of killing characters off in that movie that he was taken to court and had to produce the actors to prove he didn’t kill them. That film was banned in dozens of countries and the director has since apologised for killing the animals and making the film altogether! Cannibal Holocaust was the second of Deodato’s “Jungle Trilogy” which includes Jungle Holocaust (1977) and Cut and Run (1985).

Cannibals making a meal of it in Cannibal Ferox (1981)

While still on the subject, Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981) aka The Woman from Deep River is another inspired by Cannibal Holocaust. Both were deemed video nasties in the UK in the 1980s.

All of these films were in turn inspired by another cannibal film by Lenzi, considered the granddaddy of them all – The Man from Deep River (1972) aka Sacrifice! It stars Ivan Rassimov (1938-2003 motor cycle accident) and with its scenes of torture, director Lenzi is said to have been inspired by the Richard Harris movie A Man Called Horse (1970). While it is the first cannibal atrocity movie, the film was seen as a dramatization of the Mondo Cane documentaries of the 1960s.

The Man from Deep River (1972) trailer

Back to Cannibal God, and in terms of atrocities, we see a monkey killed by a python, and a snake eaten alive by a native. Meanwhile a native has his penis cut off and there are various human killings, not to mention a native having it off with a pig from behind. Yes, it’s all very charming and I have to admit not a favourite genre of mine.

The other male star of the film is Claudio Cassinelli (1938-85). This actor perished in a helicopter crash during the production of Sergio Martino’s Hands of Steel at the Navajo Bridge in Arizona. It is a shame the film he died for is no classic. Cassinelli left behind an infant child.

The helicopter at Navajo Bridge before the fatal crash in Hands of Steel

As for his performance in Cannibal God, he picks up a cobra with his bare hands – defanged no doubt. And as a part of the cannibal cycle of movies, Andress tastes human flesh after stripping and being sensually body painted by natives with their hands, while the others, except for Cassinelli get killed.

Andress gets sensually painted in Cannibal God

While it is set in New Guinea, it was actually filmed in Sri Lanka, which you can tell as the natives aren’t Papuans.

Climaxing in a giant cavern where the body of Andress’ husband is preserved with a Geiger counter stuck in his chest and worshipped as a god, the natives have mistaken it for his heart as it ticks away.

Bach in Force 10 from Navarone

Sri Lanka is also used as the location for Great Alligator River. Cassinelli stars in this alongside the beautiful Barbara Bach (1947-). She was also a Bond girl in The Spy who Loved Me (1977). Other stars of Alligator River include Richard Johnson (1927-2015) who had a role as the doctor bringing the dead back to life in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979). Johnson was also a very good Bulldog Drummond in the 1967 film Deadlier than the Male and its lesser follow-up Some Girls Do (1969). The year 1979 must have been a big one for Johnson in Italian produced films as he is also in Island of the Fishmen.

Deadlier than the Male (1967) trailer

Alligator River is set in a remote jungle resort where the guests and staff, which include Bach and Cassinelli, are killed off by a marauding alligator, and it’s a big one at that.

Lastly in the cast is Mel Ferrer (1917-2008), the first husband of Audrey Hepburn and sometime director. He made a Lenzi directed horror film around this time entitled Nightmare City (1980) which is a cult item.

We don’t see much of the alligator in this movie but it was obviously part of the Jaws inspired rip-off era along with other Italian offerings such as Killer Fish (1979) and Great White (1982) just to name a couple.

Cassinelli and Bach are confronted in Alligator River

Bach is beautiful as usual and was a familiar face in Italian movies in the early 1970s before Bond and her appearance in another cult fave of mine Force 10 from Navarone (1978). She met former Beatle Ringo Starr (1940-) on the set of Caveman (1981) and they married the same year. They were alcoholics together before they both entered rehab.

Long-time couple Ringo Starr Barbara Bach in Caveman (1981) were alcoholics

Bach is not surprisingly fluent in Italian and has two children from a previous marriage to an Italian businessman. I admit to being a fan of her in what is now probably a politically incorrect horror film The Unseen (1981) which has its killer suffering Down Syndrome.

While Cannibal God has epic qualities, it is just that which is missing from Alligator River. There are also long stretches without any thrilling kills by the gator in question.

The Unseen (1981) trailer

This film was featured on the DVD The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made but I can think of plenty more worse movies.

Sadly though, watching Alligator River is like going to a restaurant and they take too long to serve the main course. With its low budget, the titular alligator was always going to be hokey and we are not disappointed in that respect. There are flashes of the reptile’s body but little more to excite us apart from the local natives being on a war footing over the resort and the creature they consider a god.

Tragic star Cassinelli

Johnson’s part in this film is minor. He plays some sort of nutty religious hermit living in a cave who is visited by Bach and Cassinelli. He gets a much better role in Fishmen. Caveman Johnson has seen the local natives God “Kuma” who has killed again. What the pair also learn is that it’s not a crocodile but an alligator which is “foreign to the Orient”. Why it just isn’t a crocodile I don’t know!

It is around this time we have our first substantial glimpse of the alligator. It is a small rubber figure, unfortunately, as it attacks and kills a native, overturning a small boat with an outboard with Bach and company on board. With a flash of pointy teeth it’s all over.

One of the many titles for Alligator River (1979) trailer

The script, as per usual for sub-par Italian productions is not terribly inspiring and it is movies like these which rely on their special effects and ingenuity of the kill. And since this is not an atrocity movie either, that “entertaining” aspect has also been removed, with only shots of snakes hissing rather than being mutilated.

It’s over quickly in a flash of pointy teeth!

The film climaxes with a party on the river on what looks like a badly constructed barge, while Cassinelli confronts another cobra. With the partygoers enjoying themselves to rather boring disco music and the viewer’s long wait for a mass kill… we can’t but help but think it’ll be a good climax.

Obviously a little piece of plastic or rubber and a disappointment

With Bach kidnapped by the natives as some sort of sacrifice – echoes of Andress in Cannibal God – the rubber alligator attacks the barge, knocking disco dancers overboard to their doom. Sadly the special effects make the alligator look like a gecko as it disables the barge’s engine. Meanwhile the rest of the resort has been massacred by natives off-screen and things pick up a bit as Bach is rescued by Cassinelli… the barge is torched along with the resort…Ferrer gets a spear in the chest… and finally there’s some good bone crunching deaths as the partygoers swim to the river bank.

Alligator River poster

It’s all too little too late, but that alligator is bloody hungry in the end though. The finale where Bach and Cassinelli drive off in a Kombi van only to crash off a bridge and sink in the river shows some imagination. Trapped underwater in the van with the alligator attacking them, they manage to explode dynamite in the mouth of the alligator, somehow surviving themselves. We are cheated of the alligator blowing up, as there is no master shot in this kind of Jaws and Great White finale.

The gator dead, the natives are happy and now the survivors can go home.

Slave of the Cannibal God (1978) trailer

That this is the third and final of Martino’s trilogy is not surprising as it is a slipshod affair. It is Island of the Fishmen which I think is the classic of the “Adventure Trilogy”.

It is set way back in 1896 somewhere in the Caribbean and is a kind of cross between The Island of Doctor Moreau and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Screamers rip-off poster for Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Here we have a shipwrecked bunch of prisoners in a lifeboat with Cassinelli the only non-criminal who must stay awake lest they throw him overboard.

The lifeboat runs into rocks in the middle of the night and is attacked by some sort of underwater creatures as the survivors make it to shore. It is there that they fight among themselves as they seek a fresh source of water while these creatures, which live in the waterways, knock them off one by one.

One of the Fishmen up close

A woman on a horse, played by Bach, tells Cassinelli and surviving friends that they are on a private island run by her “husband” Johnson. There’s a volcano rumbling in the background but soon enough Cassinelli is dining with Bach and Johnson, while Bach’s father played by veteran actor Joseph Cotton (1905-94 heart attack) spies on them through a hole in the wall. Cotton was another favourite of Italian filmmakers over the years, appearing in Lady Frankenstein (1971) and Mario Bava’s Baron Blood (1972). He would retire a couple of years after Fishmen following a busy couple of years, making his last movie in Australia, The Survivor (1981) directed by David Hemmings, who had starred in a cluster of films down under around this time, including such Ozploitation classics as Thirst (1979) and Harlequin (1980).

The Survivor (1981) was based on a James Herbert book (1981) trailer

But back to Fishmen and Cassinelli is asked by Johnson to save the badly infected Cotton from death by blood poisoning, so he can help use the creatures to plunder the ruins of an underwater city – Altantis no less – of its treasures.

Bach feeds the Fishmen nectar to keep them happy

These creatures are the underwater dwelling descendants of the sunken city. These Fishmen are very primitive but are controlled by Bach who feeds them a milky nectar which seems to keep them happy. Otherwise they’ll rip your throat open with a claw.

An Italian Fishmen (1979) trailer before it was turned into Screamers

 There is great use of location in this movie, especially the cavernous grotto where the Fishmen come and go beneath the house and where the treasure is stored on a small boat by Johnson, who is ready to leave before the volcano erupts. The special effects are all obvious miniatures, but that goes with the territory.

Johnson with Bach in Fishmen

Bach is at her most beautiful and Cassinelli at his most intellectually heroic. If he had to die for a movie, it should have been this one. On those terms it is a match for the original Creature from the Black Lagoon but the Fishmen themselves is where the similarity ends.

The dubbing is good, even if Johnson’s accent is a bit plummy, but it’s Cotton’s original voice. The English track of Italian movies made for the English speaking market can often make or break a movie – here it works.

Cassinelli’s voice is iconic in the original dubbing track

It all ends with the volcano erupting and Cassinelli almost drowning cliffhanger-style in a water tank where he is left behind by a fleeing Johnson. With no more nectar left, the Fishmen are now marauding as Johnson tries to flee on his boat with the gold. As the formula decrees, he won’t, with only Bach and Cassinelli escaping to sea with their lives.

The Screamers (1981) trailer is deceptive

There is an alternate version of Fishmen, entitled Screamers. Roger Corman’s New World Pictures picked up Fishmen and filmed new footage in the US for its American release. This includes a gory first 12 minutes which adds stars Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell, who along with a woman, come to the island in search of the lost treasure only to get mauled to death by the Fishmen. Ferrer is attacked so badly, and the budget so low, that he seems to lose his moustache when he falls dead to the ground. With these scenes added, several were dropped from the original film and more shots of very sharp claws attacking people were added throughout.

The effects comparison between the two movies after reshoots

There is also a new scene inserted into the one where one of Cassinelli’s companions, transformed into a fish creature by Cotton, is killed by Cassinelli much to Cotton’s annoyance. It is obviously a more Creature from the Black Lagoon looking type experiment shown in Screamers and there is further gore oozing from its fatal wound. The ad campaign for Screamers also seems totally unrelated to the movie whatsoever.

The original Italian Island of the Fishmen poster

The film is no better for these scenes although no worse either. I prefer the original unadulterated Fishmen because Screamers also has a new English dubbing track which I don’t think is as good. I prefer Cassinelli’s voice in the original. Fishmen also has a good music score, especially when compared to the disco beats of Alligator River.

While Fishmen doesn’t use gore like Cannibal God, it achieves its aim of capturing the Island of Dr Moreau milieu of experiments and creatures isolated in the 19th Century.  It succeeds very well on that level and has done wonders on a low budget. It is a far more tasteful film than Cannibal God and scarier than Alligator River. The creatures themselves manage to lift themselves from just men in suits to something menacing with the trumpet like sound effect that happens upon their sudden appearance.

The Fishmen looking ominous in the underground grotto

Island of the Fishmen is an unexpected classic of the genre and one I have watched many times over the years. There is simply nothing quite like it in the canon of Italian horror movies of the era.

And so that is Sergio Martino’s “Adventure Trilogy”.

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