I’ve been a fan of man-vs.-nature flicks ever since I saw Henry Silva get his ass eaten by a giant gator in John Sayles’ magnificent and appropriately named exploitation flick Alligator. As a kid, I ate a steady diet of these films—movies featuring fearsome creatures just itching to take a bite out of our hides. My interest would be especially piqued if these creatures dwelled underwater. The idea that something ferocious is living just beyond our view is a fear that resonates with all of us. My fave, of course, is Jaws. But a multitude of Jaws knockoffs such as Orca: The Killer Whale, Piranha (another John Sayles classic!) and Tentacles still hold a warm place in my darkened heart. And then there is the gloriously goofy, blatantly racist piece of cinematic trash known as The Big Alligator River. Now, don’t get me wrong; I mean “trash” in the best way possible.
Originally released in 1979, The Big Alligator River marks director Sergio Martino's 17th collaboration with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. These two guys had the Italian exploitation genre locked down (Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Torso, 2019: After the Fall of New York, Hands of Steel). Essentially a low-budget Roman rip-off of Jaws, The Big Alligator River never fails to deliver on the exploitation cheese, brought on in large part by some extremely un-PC characters. The indigenous people act like they stepped right out of an episode of “Johnny Quest” (quite possibly the most racist mainstream cartoon series ever), and the white characters are your typical know-nothing, arrogant foreign shitheads. Given all of this, who are we left to root for? The giant goddamned alligator, that’s who!
The plot is essentially Jaws in the jungle. Which is more than enough to sell me on the concept. Your typically greedy businessman Joshua (Mel Ferrer, who was married to Audrey Hepburn before doing this kind of schlock) is opening a gaudy resort on an unnamed jungle island. Of course, something huge just so happens to be feeding on prospective guests. Joshua is desperate to keep everything under wraps, lest the lucrative tourist season get ruined. Along for the ride are photographer Daniel Nessel (Claudio Cassinelli, Flavia the Heretic) and his foxy model Sheena, who have been hired to produce advertising pieces for Joshua’s island paradise. Now, I suppose Daniel is meant to be the protagonist, acting as our connection to the story, but the guy comes across more like a smug prick than a likeable hero. You’ll spend a great deal of the movie wanting him to get eaten next.
Sheena mysteriously vanishes (She sneaks off to get it on with one of the natives—care to guess what happens to them?), so Daniel hooks up with the sexy anthropologist Alice “Ali” Brandt (Barbara Bach, The Spy Who Loved Me) to head into the jungle and search for clues. After meeting a crazy old hermit who claims to have seen the jungle monster, their canoe is attacked and their guide chomped. The two confront Joshua, who quickly conspires to have them removed from the island by force. Of course, while all of this is happening, the giant gator (dubbed “Kruna” by the local Kuma tribe) is having a field day eating everyone in sight. The tourists blame the Kuma tribe for the killings, and the Kuma tribe blames the white invaders for angering their river god. Things come to a head when Kruna attacks the big riverboat party while the Kuma tribe lays waste to the resort. Lots of people die and lessons are learned. (Never mess with Mother Nature, I guess?)
As far as the disc itself is concerned, No Shame films did a pretty good job. The DVD extras include an interview with director Sergio Martino and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, a poster gallery and the original theatrical trailer. The soundtrack is appropriately funky, and we get both the original Italian language track as well as the English dub track. This is one of the few movies where watching the English dubbed version actually adds to your viewing enjoyment. The film has been digitally remastered and is presented in a gorgeous 16x9 print. Throw in a little ’70s-era Italian jungle exploitation and you’ve got one hell of a flick.
(No Shame Films, $19.95)