A few weeks ago in Austin, Texas, during this year’s South by Southwest film festival, I saw a documentary called Rewind This!, a loving tribute to the VHS format especially during its prime in the 1980s. But wait, I said to myself going into the screening: VHS has been widely recognized to be an inferior format as far as visual quality goes. Why should we be nostalgic about it if DVDs and Blu-rays have been demonstrated to be superior home-video formats? But the film’s director, Josh Johnson, offered at least one persuasive reason for not completely tossing the medium overboard just yet: With major studios now exercising near-total control over what films make it to the new digital formats, there is the strong possibility that a lot of hidden treasures will get lost in the shuffle, maybe forever. After all, silent masterpieces like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and King Vidor’s The Crowd still have yet to make it to standard-definition DVD, much less high-definition Blu-ray—but of course, there are far less widely celebrated films that are facing the threat of biting the dust with the end of the popularity of VHS.
I couldn’t help but think of Rewind This! as I watched my White Elephant blogathon assignment this year, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989). Here’s a direct-to-video item that one would expect to be little more than curiosity for VHS fetishists by now—so imagine my surprise when I finally sit down and watch it…and discover myself not only enjoying it immensely, but finding something legitimately worth talking about (and you bet I’ll be doing so below). Granted, this film, for some odd reason, actually did make it into the DVD ranks; that’s how I watched it, after all. But if this is an indication of the kind of sneakily intelligent visions that can exist even in direct-to-video material—well, one can only imagine the kinds of films of this sort that aren’t making it to digital formats.
And yes, I do mean “sneakily intelligent” when it comes to Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, which credits a “J.D. Athens” as its writer/director, but which is in fact the writing/directing debut of J.F. Lawton, the man who would soon afterward be best known as the screenwriter of Hollywood hits like Pretty Woman(1990) and Under Siege(1992). In Cannibal Women, one can already see bits of the underlying social concerns of Lawton’s Pretty Woman script allied with the kind of refreshing sense of the absurd that made Under Siege far more entertaining than it had to be.
With the presence of former Playboy centerfold (and soon-to-be erotic thriller queen) Shannon Tweed in the cast, one would expect this film to feature all sorts of gratuitous female nudity…and Lawton obliges us in the film’s first five minutes, as two guys lost in the titular avocado jungle encounter, to the vocal delight of one of the guys, a bunch of scantily clad women—some of them more topless than others—washing themselves in a waterfall. But then, one of the women fires a couple of arrows and kills one of the men, and then the rest of the women pursue the other guy into one of their traps. Here, in miniature, is an encapsulation of the kind of purposeful overturning of viewer expectations, especially when it comes to the so-called “male gaze,” that Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death gleefully engages in throughout. Perhaps the biggest subversive element of all: Shannon Tweed never, ever gets naked in this film.
Instead, she plays, believe it or not, an academic: Dr. Margo Hunt, a women’s studies professor with a strong anti-male bent. She’s recruited by a couple of government officials, with the coercive help of her college dean, to track down a tribe of “piranha women”—a bunch of extreme feminists who capture, cook and eat men with guacamole dip—at the edge of the avocado jungles in San Bernardino, Calif. Dr. Hunt develops her own personal interest in the mission when she discovers that a celebrity feminist scholar named Dr. Kurtz (horror scream queen Adrienne Barbeau) recently disappeared, presumably at the hands of these piranha women. One of Dr. Hunt’s students, a ditz named Bunny (Karen Mistal) who says she wants to learn how to be an independent woman, accompanies her on this adventure…and later on, these two are joined by Jim (Bill Maher—yes, that Bill Maher, of Politically Incorrect and Real Time fame), an alpha male who was once Dr. Hunt’s boyfriend before she broke it off.
Reading that brief plot summary is bound to inspire lots of raised “are you kidding me with this movie?” eyebrows…but one of the more disarming things about Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is the realization that Lawton knows how silly all of this is and proceeds to have fun with it. This film practically overflows with comic grace notes: the two government officials who go by the names “Ford Maddox” (as in writer Ford Madox Ford) and “Col. Mattel;” a tribe of emasculated men named Donahues (as in talk-show host Phil) whose vocabulary consists entirely of either “Alan Alda,” “Mark Harmon” or “Walter Mondale;” gender-war-inflected parodies of 2001: A Space Odyssey (to tie in with the Donahues triumphantly locating their inner macho men) and Apocalypse Now (this film’s version of Col. Kurtz’s “the horror” lies not in the atrocities of war, but in the prospect of facing David Letterman on the talk-show circuit with a book about male insensitivity). That’s really just the tip of iceberg.
Perhaps most surprising about Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, however, is the realization that there is actually a vision underneath the breezy surface frivolity. Granted, Lawton presents a broadly cartoonish vision of the battle of the sexes here, with Shannon Tweed’s bespectacled ultra-feminist college professor pitted against a slew of macho caricatures—not just former boyfriend Jim (whose chauvinism is frequently subverted by his own slapstick pratfalls), but also Ford Maddox and Col. Mattel, both of whom want to relocate the piranha women to “reservations” in Malibu that will no doubt anesthetize their feminist leanings in a wave of numbing domesticity; and three brutish action-hero types—a crazed Vietnam vet, a samurai and a wrestler—she encounters at a bar, all of whom slink away in cowardly fashion when they realize she’s going after the piranha women. (This, Dr. Hunt concludes, is proof that the threat of a strong woman is the one thing that punctures their male machismo.)
But Lawton doesn’t just reserve his burlesques for those feverishly macho types; he’s a classic equal-opportunity offender, it turns out. The aptly named Bunny, for instance, is ridiculed for wholeheartedly embracing the objectifying male gaze, despite the lip service she offers about desiring feminist enlightenment. Later on, though, even the extreme feminists come in for comic ribbing, most notably in a late plot twist in which it is revealed that the piranha women are also engaged in a battle of their own—an ideological one with so-called “barracuda women,” who, Dr. Hunt discovers to her horror, aren’t so much against the more extreme feminism of the piranha women as they are against their choice of dip on the men they cook and eat (they prefer clam dip).
Throughout the film, Dr. Hunt stands as the voice of reason amidst a sea of gender-war insanity, the outspoken but level-headed academic who prefers consciousness-raising over radicalism—and Lawton seems to align with that mindset. It’s because of his commitment to a more moderate brand of feminism that he manages to get away with the most potentially problematic late development with her character: her love-at-first-sight attraction toward Jean-Pierre (Brett Stimely), a to-be-sacrificial lamb of the piranha women that she meets at their compound. In the context of a world in which men are either chauvinists or wimps, Jean-Pierre represents the “perfect” man: one who exudes a brand of masculinity that is tempered with sensitive and intelligent impulses (he learned a bit of English from listening to Dr. Kurtz and audibly laments about how the piranha women value men not for smarts but only for their muscle tone). Dr. Hunt—who earlier had been complaining to Bunny about how her feminist beliefs have had the unfortunate side effect of leaving her unable to make any romantic commitments—finds in Jean-Pierre the man she has perhaps been looking for all her life; naturally, her convictions are strengthened when he ends up being the one rescuing her from doom at the hands of the piranha women at a crucial juncture. By the end of the film, Jean-Pierre is now enrolled in Dr. Hunt’s class, and teacher and student appear to be carrying on an affair. Is the movie going a conservative route in suggesting that all Dr. Hunt needed was the right man after all? I’m more inclined to give Lawton the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this was his way of acknowledging that hardcore political ideology can’t always account for matters of the heart.
Who knew a film with a title like Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death could not only be often genuinely funny, but also somewhat politically intelligent as well? Who knew such a film would actually have thematic ideas worth grappling with? It’s heartening to know that the world of cinema can still offer up surprises, no matter how long one has been immersed in it.