Umberto Grisario's Cannibal Apocalypse

Michael Panush

It is 1978 and the prestigious and world-renowned Trota Argento Film Festival is in full swing. Everyone is waiting with baited breath for the entry of Umberto Grisario. Famous personages, glamorous and gorgeous actors and actresses, famous directors, and watchful critics make up the audience in the greatest move palace in Palermo, Sicily. The men are dressed in multi-hued tuxedos, the women in shimmering gowns. All eyes are on the screen as the projector turns on and the opening credits roll.

"Umberto Grisario's Cannibal Apocalypse," the title declares in red letters that drip like blood down the screen. Everyone has heard the hype, the excitement that went into making this movie. Everyone has heard how it is to push the parameters of film-making, just as Grisario's first movies, the universally praised Dog's World and the blood-spattered stark glory of Rage, and that this movie will be much better than Grisario's latest, trying and pathetic efforts, a return to glory for the celebrated Italian. Everyone has heard, and now, everyone is watching.

Umberto Grisario himself sits in the seat of honor, a booth in the center of the theatre. His powder-blue tuxedo matches the tinted shades of his sunglasses and his thick sideburns, thick moustache, and curly black hair make his face look like a wild beard. His wife, blonde, tall, and beautiful, sits next to him.

Suddenly, the projector stops. The image on the screen fades away as the audience gasps in surprise, then begins yammering in anger at the unknown delay.

"This film is hereby banned!" someone shots. A policeman, the local magistrate, walks onto the stage, holding the reel in his gloved hands. He is a portly man with a moustache. "It is banned for obscenity and the film's creator, the deranged Umberto Grisario, is under arrest!"

Umberto rises in his booth, shaking his fist and spiting obscenities at the magistrate as the crowd boos. "You are persecuting an artist!" he calls. "You don't know how much it took from me to make that film! You are destroying art!"

"This vulgar movie is not art!" the magistrate calls back as officers make their way into Umberto's booth. They slam handcuffs on him and drag him away, away from his hysterical wife and the enraged audience. The magistrate's voice echoes in the theatre as Umberto is led to the town police station. "This is not art! This is a snuff film!"

In the police station, Umberto Grisario watches the magistrate with baleful eyes, from across a wooden table. The reel of Cannibal Apocalypse sits between them like an uneaten, unwanted wheel of cheese.

The magistrate speaks first. "Umberto Grisario, you stand accused of creating a snuff film, of murdering much of the cast of Cannibal Apocalypse, and of conspiring to show this gory and pointless piece of celluloid before a full ground, disgracing the name of Italy. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"You do not understand what I went through to make that!" Umberto shouts. "Please, let me explain, let me tell you what happened, and you will see that I am innocent." He takes off his tinted sunglasses, revealing tired blue eyes, sacks of pain and heartache resting beneath them. "Please, you must know the truth."

The magistrate stares at Umberto and then nods. "Very well, Mr. Grisario, defend your filth and your insult to decency."

Umberto reaches into his jacket and withdraws a cigarette pack. They are Lucky Strikes, and Umberto sticks one into his mouth, offers another to the magistrate and is refused. "For luck," Umberto says with a shrug as he draws out a lighter and clicks it on. He sucks in the smoke deeply, and then begins.

To understand my plight, honorable magistrate, you must first understand my financial situation. My first films had made a great amount of money, both here and abroad, and the standard of living of my family and myself had increased. I slept in a great bed between silken sheets, I drank the finest wines, my wife always had the latest item of clothing or domestic gadget to impress her friends, and my two children went to the best schools in Europe.

But lately, my fortunes had declined. You see, my latest films, the dismally received You Will Die Before My Lawnmower and the completely misunderstood Love the Pig, Kill the Farmer had somewhat 'ahem' bankrupted me. In order to finance my latest film I made a deal with some unscrupulous individuals. La Cosa Nostra, you know them as. The Mafia.

I took out a loan big enough to make two motion pictures. The first was called Zombie Volcano. The New York Times called it a, and I must apologize for my memory fails me somewhat, but I believe they referred to it as a 'heaping pile of donkey crap vomited onto the big screen by a retarded Italian hoping some of it sticks.' Needless to say, I was quite desperate that I would not be able to pay back my 'ahem' associates in the Mafia, and that they would be forced to cut off fingers and toes and such until I was finished.

Then, my scriptwriter, a genius named Benito, alas, no longer with us, called me and told me about this great new script he had created.

"It is a tale of human darkness and savagery!" he exclaimed into the phone. "A story of the gripping battle between chaos and order that exists in the hearts of even the most mild-mannered men!"

"Sounds great," I remember myself saying. "How much will it cost?"

"Well, to do it justice, the film must be shot in South America, on location. To get a cast and crew over there, and then to take them into the jungles near the Amazon, it may have a substantial price. But it is worth it, Umberto! This is the defining moment of my career, the ultimate result of decades of work! This will be remembered as Bentio's finest, and if you direct, it will be Umberto's finest as well!"

I was sold. "What is this master piece called, Benito?"

"Cannibal Apocalpyse!"

"And the plot?"

"It will be about how a group of explorers enter the darkest reaches of the Latin American jungle, and discover a cruel and sadistic race of cannibalistic natives who devour them, and then take revenge in a brutal fashion that shows how the savage killer instinct lurks in all people!"

Benito was a good writer, and the Mafia was getting very impatient. So, I said goodbye to my wife and my dear children, who were very sorry their daddy was going so far away, but excited about the exotic souvenirs he had promised to bring them, and I departed for South America.

The country Benito and I chose for the shoot was Balboa, a little sovereign strip of land between Colombia and Ecuador. The reasons for this choice were quite simple. Balboa featured a good amount of untouched and pristine jungle, it was connected to the Amazon River, and it contained several primitive tribes, descended from Tupi and Caribs, that dwelt in the dense jungles, still unknowing of civilization. Plus, because the country was in the throes of a civil war, it would be much cheaper to acquire certain props. It was a hard sell, but the name of Umberto Grisario still carries some wait, and we got a good amount of top talent to create a truly exceptional movie.

I remember going into the jungle on the first day of filming, the first day things started going wrong. I had never seen trees growing so close together, intertwining like they were folded fingers, and how alive the place seemed. Animals were everywhere, underfoot, overhead, and behind every tall tree. It was hot too, oppressively hot, so that you would get tired out simply standing still and sweating.

For guides, we had hired some local mercenaries who were fresh from fighting in the Balboan Civil War. The Lobo Negro, or Black Wolf Regiment, I think they were called. The other side in the Balboan conflict was communist, and the Black Wolves were not, and so the Americans had given them a variety of lethal firearms, which they carried with them like precious talismans.

So, the first thing we filmed, after a couple shots of the jungle, to give the viewer a feel of the wild nature of this place, was a nude scene. Our leading lady, an American named Jessica Twelp, a lovely actress, alas, no longer with us, was to be bathing in the nude in a nearby stream, when the hero was to stumble upon her and tell her that a ferocious cannibal tribe was drawing near.

Well, Jessica began bathing with gusto, and I felt my heart race just watching her. Unfortunately, for poor Jessica, a school of piranhas happened to be passing by at that moment, and I suppose they must have been quite hungry for they devoured her in a few seconds. Though it did happen much to fast to help her, the camera caught it all.

As the crew was fishing bits and pieces of Jessica out of the river, Benito and I discussed what was to be done.

"We have to go back," I said. "We have to alert her relatives, get her buried, and call this whole thing off."

"No!" Benito screamed. "We have come too far to turn back now! Let's film the rest of the movie, and then we can alert her relatives and get all the pointless mourning out of the way! Don't worry, the camera didn't see her too much, it will be easy to replace her."

I was about to argue for leaving, but then Benito said, "Besides, if there is no movie, how will you pay back your debts?"

He was right. And so we soldiered on and our troubles began in earnest.

Our leading man, a handsome Swiss fellow named Fritz, alas, no longer with us, was to be running from the cannibals through a patch of muddy ground. He got about halfway, before he tripped and fell into a patch of quicksand head first, with only one foot sticking out to mark where he fell. We pulled on that foot for hours before we realized that perhaps it would rip off and then we would have a foot and nothing else.

Then the cameraman, a cinematographer extraordinaire by the name of Lucca, wandered off to pee and never came back. We saw a pleased-looking jaguar carrying Lucca's baseball cap in his mouth an hour later, and then we deduced what had happened. The camera caught it all.

"Benito, I have had enough of this," I told him as we waited for some of the Black Wolves to hunt down the jaguar and find what was left of Lucca. "We have lost three people in two days! My movies cannot have body-counts!"

"What about Zombie Volcano?" Benito countered. "That one had, like, forty zombies getting killed, not even counting the heroes."

"That was on screen," I said, exasperated. "Look, Benito, we can't go on filming with these kinds of casualties. We have to get out of the jungle, and get back to Italy."

"But don't you remember who's waiting for you in Italy?" Bentio asked me. "Do you think they will be happy when you come back empty handed?"

"No," I grumbled. "Very well. We will continue filming."

That night I received a letter from my family. My youngest child, little Nestor, sent me a drawing he had made in his kindergarten class. It was a picture of me, and he had drawn my hair black, even though I know it is turning gray.

The next day our script girl Veronica was devoured by a caiman, our stage manager Hugo was bitten by on the nose by some venomous snake, and his head swelled up and then exploded, and two more of our actors were mistaken for communists by our guides and shot dead. Luckily, our camera was rolling when all of this happened, and we captured it on film.

After another actor was felled by a skillfully thrown coconut hurled by a malicious monkey, on camera of course, Bentio and I did not even talk about it. We went on, deeper into the jungle, always filming.

We came across a small collection of wooden huts, carefully assembled in the middle of a clearing. I gasped. This must be an undiscovered village of the natives, who still lived in a pre-civilized state. There were no men in the village, for they must have gone out hunting, and it was filled with naked brown children and women in grass skirts who marveled at us.

The Black Wolves looked at the natives hungrily. They talked to each other in Spanish and pointed to the women and the huts. One of them walked over to me. "This is a communist village," he said. "We must purge it. It is out duty."

"How can they be communist?" I asked. "They are uncivilized natives! They don't know anything of the outside world! Look at how they marvel at us, and how fascinated they are!"

"No," the Lobo Negro said. "They are communists. They must be purged." And then they began to do their jobs. With glistening rifles given to them by the United States, they gunned down women and children. We matches and petrol they torched the huts. They laughed madly as they did it, some of them drawing machetes and hacking away the screaming, terrified, uncomprehending villagers.

I couldn't stop them from murdering the natives. All I could do was man the camera and film every gory second.

Just as the massacre was almost over, the men of the village returned from their hunt. Natrually, they were shocked when they saw their wives and children slaughtered, and so enraged they attacked the Black Wolves. For all of their fancy U.S. weapons, the Black Wolves were cowards, and were taken by surprise. The natives had spears and stone axes, and they fell upon the Black Wolves from behind, skewering, gutting, and eviscerating without mercy. Then they saw my cast and crew, alas, no longer with us, and of course, took out their anger on them.

My supporting actress took a spear in the chest, my comic relief was decapitated, and my caterer was torn apart. I took a blow on the head and fell to the ground, staring at the camera as I fell into oblivion.

When I awoke, it was in one of the few unburned huts, and a system of wooden bars prevented my escape. Benito was sitting next to me, the camera rolling in his hands. He was filming.

"Benito…?" I asked. "Are we the only ones left?"

"We are, my old friend," he said sadly. "There was a third, a while ago, but then-" He stopped. "Oh no, they are coming!" Two natives, bone necklaces around their bodies, grass loincloths at their waists and fire-hardened wooden spears in their hands, entered the hut, and grabbed Benito. He fought them and begged for help and tried to get away, but it was no use.

I picked up the camera and aimed it at him as he was taken away to the center of the village where a fire was burning. And as the camera and I watched, Benito was hacked apart, roasted on the open flame, and then eaten by the natives.

My hands balled into fists as I saw my friend eaten. Rage consumed me, and I gently set the camera down, as I began to look for a way out. I soon found it. Not knowing what they were, the natives had stored one of the machine guns of the Black Wolves in the hut, hidden behind some pottery, and I picked up the gun and held it in my sweating hands.

It didn't take long before I figured out how to use the grenade launcher attachment.

I blasted a hole in the cut and came out shooting. I gunned down the savages around the fire, laughing madly as my bullets flew and hit home, and then I turned my leaden messengers around and began gunning down every moving thing I could see. The natives fled into the woods, and began popping out grenades at some of the other huts. I saw movement in one and walked over, determined to wipe out whatever was living there.

It tore open the door flap and jabbed the gun inside. There on the ground was a small brown child, a boy, completely naked and crying. He reminded me of my own son, my Nestor. I stared into his eyes, and my finger hovered on the trigger as the rage and anger flowed out of me. Slowly, I turned around and closed the tent flap behind me. I threw the gun into the woods and did not see where it fell.

Then I went back to the hut where I was held captive and found the camera. I had recorded most of my assault, lying sideways on the ground. I carried it under my hand and left the village.

Three days later I walked out onto a dirt road and some loggers picked me up and took me with them. It took another week to get back to Italy. I took the camera with me, and I spent the rest of the year editing what had been filmed, far away in the Balboan jungles.

Umberto Grisario finishes his story and extinguishes his cigarette, tossing it in a nearby ashtray. "So, you see, magistrate, this is no snuff film. This is life, caught on camera in all of its brutal glory. And though it is gory and disgusting and it makes the stomach churn, it is Benito's vision, and it is my vision. The camera did capture the end as well, where I took pity on the child, and I would like to think that it somehow makes sense. But perhaps, like life, it does not."

The magistrate stares at the famed director and shakes his head. "That's quite a story," he says. "You know, when I was young, and Mussolini and his fascists were in charge, I remember watching a group of partisans being executed…" the magistrate stares into the distance. "They looked so peaceful lying there on the ground, and the men who had gunned them down seemed so fraught and upset over what they had done."

There was silence in the room for a long while, and then the Magistrate speaks. "You may go back to the Trota Argenta Film Festival and show your movie, Mr. Grisario. I am sorry I detained you."

Umberto stands up to go and shakes the magistrate's hand. He is driven back to the movie palace with the reel resting in his lap like a prized child. But he shoves it into the projector as soon as he gets there and, starts it up, and abandons it, abandons the theatre and heads to his parking lot, to his car. He can hear the audience

He drives through the night, all the way to his villa nestled in the Sicilian hills. He parks in the driveway of his home and runs inside, leaving the door open behind him. He takes the stairs two at a time until he comes to his son's room.

Slowly, Umberto opens the door and sees the little boy fast asleep in his bed, his dark hair rumpled as he clutches a stuffed jaguar in his hands. Umberto picks up a chair and sits down in front of his son, and watches the boy sleep.

Back at the Trota Argenta, Cannibal Apocalypse holds the audience to rapt attention. When it ends, the audience explodes in cheers for the bold and groundbreaking look into the darkness of the human spirit. When it is released in Italy, and then in theatres all over the world, it will bring in enough money to pay back the mafia tens times over. The brutal violence will change film-making forever, and Cannibal Apocalypse will become a cult classic, it's meaning and morals debated constantly in film classes and the homes of fans. It will be remembered as Umberto and Benito's finest.

But back in villa, watching his young son sleep peacefully, Umberto Grisario could not care less.

-The End-