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Plot: tourists are stalked by cannibalistic killer on remote Greek island.

The nineteen-eighties were an interesting time for American cinema. The old fashioned terror and suspense films were given a new coat of paint and updated for the new decade. Halloween (1978) was instrumental in that regard. John Carpenter’s little fright flick was just as much indebted to grindhouse features as Wicked, Wicked (1973) and The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) as it was revolutionary the way it upgraded worn-out conventions of the decade past making them relevant again for a completely new audience. It was Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) that, for better or worse, codified and cemented the slasher as it’s known and understood today. Whereas Halloween (1978) was a murder mystery (although there’s never any doubt about who’s doing the slashing and hacking) Friday the 13th (1980) had no such aspirations. First and foremost, Friday the 13th (1980) was horror with not an ounce of suspense. Stylistic decisions aside, it was a critical failure but a resounding box office success. Naturally, European producers/directors wanted to get in on the international slasher boom and wasted exactly zero time in formulating their own slashers. Who better to imitate yet another American art form than the birthplace of such things, la bella Italia?

That Europeans, especially those in the continental regions such as Italy and Spain, had an entirely different concept of what a murder mystery entailed, should surprise exactly no one. The Italian giallo and the German krimi existed and evolved parallel from each other all through the sixties and seventies. While they’re generally considered the common ancestor to the American slasher and frequently overlap in terms of conventions they don’t strictly abide by those rules or parameters. By 1980 Italy had accumulated around 15 to 20 years of giallo tradition. Spain had a tradition of horror and macabre cinema that existed for about as long. They were in a habit of imitating their Italian brethren when the occasion arose but never with any regularity. Spain responded to the American slasher with Pieces (1980) and Bloody Moon (1981). Leave it to professional pornographer and part time smut peddler Aristide Massaccesi (under his English nom de plume Joe D'Amato) to throw a wrench into the slasher formula. Before he introduced the world to Jessica Moore with Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988) there was this. Old Joe had just made Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Beyond the Darkness (1979) and wasn’t ready (or willing) to meet American tastes fully. He hadn’t gotten that cannibalism itch out of his system yet. Something had to give. Filmed in a month (31 March 1980 to May 1980) on location in Greece (mostly around the Acropolis in Athens) and in Sperlonga, Viterbo and Ponza, Italy as the launch title of his Filmirage Anthropophagus (released in censored form in North America as The Grim Reaper and as The Savage Island in the rest of the world) is a slasher on the American model but one that’s all all’Italiana.

American tourist Julie (Tisa Farrow) has come to the Greek islands to reconnect with old friends. En route to her destination she tries to charter a boat making her acquaintance with a party of five friends about to go on a boat tour of the Aegean. She’s first approached by medical student Arnold (Bob Larson) and his very pregnant wife Maggie (Serena Grandi, as Vanessa Steiger), their friend Alan (Saverio Vallone) and his superstitious sister Carol (Zora Kerova) as well as the group’s would-be playboy friend Daniel (Mark Bodin). When Julie asks the group to sail to a remote island only Carol, an avid believer in Tarocco Piemontese lays her cards and has a chilling premonition. She insists that something terrible will befall them if they do choose to travel there. As they make landfall on the island Maggie sprains her ankle and stays behinds with the boat. She’s attacked and dragged off by an unseen assailant. While the group explores what appears to be a ghost town a mysterious old lady gives them ominous cryptic warnings to steer clear from the island. The woman eventually identifies herself as Ruth Wortmann (Karamanlis in some versions) (Rubina Rey) and when the group reaches the abandoned house of Julie’s French friends Carol senses an evil presence that she can’t explain. The discovery of an assortment of desiccated corpses don’t help her fragile mental state nor for do things improve when the group happens upon Ariette (Margaret Mazzantini, as Margaret Donnelly), the blind daughter of Julie’s friends, blood-caked and screaming murder about a madman who smells of blood.

In the mansion they find a diary about one Klaus Wortmann (Nikos Karamanlis in some versions) (Luigi Montefiori, as George Eastman), his wife and their son having been presumed dead after a shipwreck. Then the terrible realization dawns upon them that Ruth was Klaus’/Nikos’ sister and that the incident sundered her sanity. They learn that Klaus/Nikos had been stranded at sea and in his desperation accidentally killed his wife in an argument about eating their son to survive. Driven mad by hunger he ate the remains of both his son and his wife and now has developed a cannibalistic appetite. As the shades of night descend upon the abandoned mansion and the group falls apart through arguments and romantic conflicts they realize that Klaus/Nikos is aware of their presence and surely will come to hunt them down. What was supposed to be a relaxing holiday soon will become a terrible ordeal for all involved. Soon they will come face to face with the prowler of the Greek islands, the eater of man, the Anthropophagus.

Headlined by a would-be American star, an accidental one and domestic one in the making and supported by no one in particular Anthropophagus has the good fortune of featuring a few familiar faces. The biggest name here is Tisa Farrow, Mia’s less popular sister who had starred in Some Call It Loving (1973) and played a small role in Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). Somehow she got got mixed up in Italian exploitation and etched her name into the annals of cult cinema history with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979). Apparently she took fashion advice from German sexbomb Olivia Pascal. Zora Kerova hailed from East-Europe and commuted between her native Czech Republic (then still Czechoslovakia) and Italy. While hardly an actress of great talent, she had much more of an actual career than, say, Mónica Zanchi or Cindy Leadbetter. Although she had starred in The House of the Laughing Windows (1976), and Escape From Women’s Prison (1978) Kerova would be the Italian exploitation pillar of the 1980s with roles in Umberto Lenzi’s patently ridiculous Cannibal Ferox (1981) as well as latter-day Fulci romps as The New York Ripper (1982), The New Barbarians (1983), as well as Fulci adjacent gore epics as Touch Of Death (1988), Sodoma’s Ghost (1988) and Escape from Death (1989) (often in tandem with Luciana Ottaviani). The other nominal star is Luigi Montefiori (or George Eastman) who had worked with D’Amato on Emanuelle Around the World (1977) and would star in, among others, Ironmaster (1983), Hands Of Steel (1986), and the Lamberto Bava giallo Delirium (1987). The remainder of the cast comprised of Mark Bodin from Alien 2: On Earth (1980) and Bob Larson from Filipino topless kickboxing sub-classic Angelfist (1993).

Looking almost matronly and modest compared most of her work by mid of the decade Anthropophagus introduced the world to one of the prime pin-up girls of the day, she who was loving dubbed the Italian Dolly Parton, miss Serena Grandi. Serena was a graduate in computer programming and initially employed in a scientific analysis laboratory and like her contemporaries Donatella Damiani and Pamela Prati her curvaceous, plus size figure soon to led to bigger opportunities. After playing roles of no real weight in the comedies The Traveling Companion (1980), The Women of Quiet Country (1980) and My Wife Is A Witch (1980) la Grandi got her first big break here and she had dialogue and actual things to do. Serena’s body of a goddess – an eye-watering 38D (85D) bust with an ass to match - didn’t go unnoticed and by 1982 she was in the Italian Penthouse. This brought her to the attention of professional worshipper of the female form Tinto Brass, who casted her in and as Miranda (1985), a high-profile role requiring extensive (partial and full frontal) nudity. From there Serena became a regular in glossy men’s magazines. First she landed a role in Luigi Cozzi's The Adventures Of Hercules (1985) and spent the rest of the decade showing off her divine dimensions in erotic romps as Desiring Julia (1986), Exploits Of a Young Don Juan (1986), Rimini Rimini (1987), and Delirium (1987). By the next decade her star had faded until Brass casted her again in Monella (1998). Grandi continues to act to this day and has settled into supporting maternal roles. Also making her screen debut was Margaret Mazzantini who, unbelievable as it may sound, was poised to become one of Italy’s leading figures in literature and who as an award-winning novelist saw her work translated into thirty-five languages worldwide.

Anthropophagus is interesting in how it adapts an old favorite into a newly codified subgenre. In 1980 the Italian cannibal craze was still in full swing and despite yielding a classic or two in the prior decade the classics were very well a thing of the past. This in no way slowed down to pretenders and wannabees from hacking out a few memorable hybrids and creative experiments during the ongoing feeding frenzy. D’Amato had dabbled with cannibalism in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and to a lesser extent in his necrophilia epic Beyond the Darkness (1979) and Eastman was very much his go-to man for his greatest gross out and sleaze fests. As a collaborative effort between the two Anthropophagus bears hallmarks from both (D’Amato and Eastman shared writing and production credits on this after all). Director of photography Enrico Biribicchi had worked as a camera operator with Fernando Di Leo and Roberto Rossellini but by the late ‘70s was working with shlockmeisters Andrea Bianchi and D'Amato.

As one of the more prolific composers of the day Marcello Giombini is known around these parts for the Bella Cortez spectacular Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter (1962), the gialli Murder Mansion (1972), The Flower with the Deadly Sting (1973), the enjoyable The Exorcist (1973) imitation Enter the Devil (1974) (with future realtor of the rich and famous Stella Carnacina), the Venezuelan Laura Gemser jungle romp A Beach Called Desire (1976) and his association with Alfonso Brescia. None of which really changes that Giombini completely phoned it in here with disconnected washes of tranquil ambient, random sci-fi blips and plops and a vaguely Greek sounding theme. He wasn’t exactly giving Klaus Schulze, Michael Stearns or Vangelis a run for their money. The special effects by Giuseppe Ferranti and Pietro Tenoglio are effective in their brutally utilitarian minimalism. Then again, Ferranti was busy that year with Hell Of the Living Dead (1980) from masters of disaster Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) and Fernando Di Leo’s Madness (1980). No wonder then that Anthropophagus is hardly remembered as any of these men’s (or the director's for that matter) finest hour.

Had things been allowed to run their natural course than perhaps Anthropophagus would have been remembered as nothing but a curious footnote in D’Amato’s massive filmography. Yet never underestimate a zealot on a mission. By the early eighties Great Britain was in the grip of yet another moral panic: the unregulated home video market and the corruption of the minds and hearts of the youth it (supposedly) threatened. In a crusade spearheaded by conservative activist (and teacher) Mary Whitehouse the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVALA) compiled a list of 72 films they believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act 1959. An additional 82 titles were confiscated under the Act's forfeiture laws. The entire sordid episode became known as the Video Nasties. If it weren’t for Whitehouse perhaps a great deal of these admittedly shoddy shockers wouldn’t be as legendary as they (often unjustly and most of them undeservedly) became in the aftermath. Then again, what are conservatives without a good moral panic; manufactured, imaginary, or otherwise?

The outrage and moral panic was perhaps indirectly responsible for spawning the nominal sequel Absurd (1981), which also ended up on the Video Nasties list. Almost twenty years later German gorehound Andreas Schnaas unofficially remade it as Anthropophagus 2000 (1999) and another twenty years later the D’Amato original begat a very belated spiritual sequel with Antropophagus II (2022) from director Dario Germani and sometime D’Amato producers Franco Gaudenzi, and Gianni Paolucci. For those in the know, Gaudenzi was the man that produced some of Bruno Mattei’s prime works in the ‘80s and Paolucci, lest we forget, facilitated a late-stage career revival for Mattei when he allowed him to direct shot-on-video sequels to his beloved/detested classics. Anthropophagus does a lot with very little and that was always D’Amato’s forte.

Plot: who are the three on a meathook and who killed them?

The 1957 case of Ed Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield or the night ghoul of the graveyards, continued (and continues) to fascinate. In 1959 American novelist Robert Bloch wrote Psycho which formed the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). In between The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) on one side and Maniac (1980) on the other there were two other big screen adaptations loosely based on the life and work of Wisconsin’s most infamous son, Three On A Meathook (1972) and Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974). Whereas Deranged (1974) was a surprisingly chilling slowburn of a character study Three On A Meathook is straight up grindhouse gunk. While there’s no denying that both have, deservedly or otherwise, fallen into obscurity they were (in)famously sampled by New York/Las Vegas death metal ingrates Mortician on their 1996 “Hacked Up For Barbecue” album and 1995 “House by the Cemetery” EP, respectively; for those who care for that sort of thing.

Somewhere in between the blaxploitation of Jamaa Fanaka, the rough 'n ready grindhouse gunk of Serafim Karalexis and Florida swamp dweller William Grefé lies the dominion of Louisville, Kentucky one-man industry William Girdler. Girdler made films fast, cheap and always had his finger on the pulse and the latest trends. He shot nine movies between 1972 and 1978. He wrote six of his films, produced two, and scored another three (two of which were his own). He worked where the money took him, whether that was Kentucky or the Philippines. His modest filmography runs gamut of genres and budgets, starred absolute nobodies as well as name actors of the day (including, but not limited to, Tony Curtis, Pam Grier, Austin Stoker, pre-comedy Leslie Nielsen, Christopher George, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, and Burgess Meredith). In other words, Girdler was a consummate professional. Girdler debuted with the Satanic cult nonsense Asylum of Satan (1972) and this Ed Gein inspired romp.

From there he forged an alliance with American International Pictures for his next three blaxploitation pictures: The Zebra Killer (1974), the The Exorcist (1973) knock-off Abby (1974) and the Pam Grier thriller Sheba, Baby (1975). Abby (1974) cost a mere $100,000 and made a fortune at the box office and was sued by Warner Brothers for alleged similarities to the William Friedkin evergreen. All of William Girdler’s first five features were shot in his native Kentucky. He then moved shop to the Philippines where he shot the Leslie Nielsen actioner Project Kill (1976) which became an early hit for Troma. For his next two features Girdler allied himself with Film Ventures International resulting in the very lucrative Jaws (1975) imitation Grizzy (1976) (changing the shark for a grizzly bear and grossing an impressive $39 million at the box office) and the eco-horror Day of the Animals (1977). His final venture was The Manitou (1978) for Avco Embassy Pictures that cost a mere $3 million and made fortune, domestic and abroad. As is often the case Girdler’s life and career was tragically cut short on January 21, 1978 when he was killed in a helicopter crash while location scouting for his next feature in Manila, the Philippines. William Girdler was killed just when he was about to legitimize himself in the face of Hollywood. Giving it all an even more ominous spin is that Girdler allegedly was preoccupied with his death and had premonitions about dying at age 30, which is exactly what happened.

Filmed in about a month in Louisville, Kentucky in the spring of 1972 with a cast of regulars on a budget estimated anywhere between $18,000 and $30,000 (sources and accounts vary on the exact number) Three On A Meathook was a labor of love for all involved. Most of the budget came from realtor Joseph Schulten, Girdler’s trust fund and contributions from Lee S. Jones, Jr. and John Asman. Handling the special effects was local magician, horror host and friend to exploitation monument H.G. Lewis and Girdler, J.G. Patterson, Jr. As a thank-you Girdler scored his The Body Shop (1972). Most of principal photography happened in a farmhouse that also could be seen in Invasion Of the Girl Snatchers (1973). To the surprise of absolutely no one the property was later torched by religiously deluded arsonists convinced it was used by a Satanic cult. As an avowed Hitchcock disciple Girdler build Three On A Meathook on the Psycho (1960) model with only minimal adjustments to some of the variables. Typical of regional productions on a limited budget Three On A Meathook is rife with matter-of-fact cinematography including lots of static shots and amateurish composition. None of the visual are particularly arresting or well put together and Girdler has none of the visual flair that Tobe Hooper or Sam Raimi had. Girdler’s score is sometimes plaintive, sometimes pensive, regularly psychedelic and full of folksy guitars and harmonica. Not only that, there’s an entire song by The American Xpress that sounds like late 60s Tommy James & The Shondelles on a bender. The special effects are cheap but good considering how little they probably cost. The audio is of equal dubious quality with persistent echoes, jarring cuts, and extended periods of silence. Even though it’s called Three On A Meathook four women actually end up impaled on hooks. As legend has it Girdler used to show Three On A Meathook around Hollywood studios as a technical demo on what he could accomplish on a tight budget and schedule.

In some nondescript Midwestern town Debbie (Linda Thompson) wakes up topless in the bedroom of her middle-aged teacher-cum-paramour (Hugh Smith). She catches up with her three friends (Marsha Tarbis, Carolyn Thompson, and Kiersten Laine) and then goes for a trip in the country, which inevitably leads to the usual skinny-dipping. Meanwhile they are being watched from a distance by a suspicious young man (James Carroll Pickett, as James Pickett). When later that night their car breaks down the same somewhat shy country boy, who offers them bed and board at the secluded farm he lives in with his over-protective father Frank (Charles Kissinger). "so, uh, what are all your names?" the boy inquires to which Debbie yelps, "I'm Debbie, this is Christine, Bobby, and Carla." The gentle stranger smiles in return, and introduces himself with, "I'm Billy. Billy Townsend." Arriving at the farm one of the more perceptive of the girls keenly observes that “it looks spooky!” After being fed a proper meal, and shown to their rooms for the night, Debbie strips once again and sinks into the bathtub. As night sets on Townsend Farm the four girls are killed through stabbing, hatchet decapitation, pick-axe to the gut, two gunshot slayings, and a meat cleaver to the back. Paw assures Billy that he will take care of everything and sends him to Louisville to wind down.

Young Townsend goes to see The Graduate (1967) in the city and ends up getting criminally drunk in the nearest watering hole. There he meets free-spirited college-dropout-turned-cocktail-waitress Sherry (Sherry Steiner) and the two embark on a storming romance. The two spent a day in each other’s company in Cherokee Park. Sherry is so enamored by the naïve country boy that she can’t stop talking about him to her best friend Becky (Madelyn Buzzard). When the two girls then are invited by Billy to spent the weekend on Townsend Farm they are ecstatic. Billy’s enthusiasm is brutally tempered when Paw lectures him on why he can’t mingle with the womenfolk. By this point you’d imagine that Billy has put one and one together on the mysterious death of his late mother, the strange homicidal episodes he can’t recollect and the unseen assailant producing all the bloodshed and mutilated corpses. Things come to a violent, sudden climax when Sherry finds the titular three on a meathook.

Charles Kissinger, James Carroll Pickett, and Sherry Steiner were Girdler regulars, but the true star of Three On A Meathook is blonde bombshell Linda Thompson who plays the often naked Debbie. Thompson was Miss Tennessee-Universe 1972, and the winner of numerous pageants including Miss Memphis State, Miss Shelby County and Miss Liberty Bowl. She was one of the former partners of iconic rock ’n roll singer Elvis Presley (1972-76), who she aided in songwriting. Thompson was married to Caitlyn (then still Bruce) Jenner from 1981-1986, and has since written songs for domestic and international versions of Idol. James Carroll Pickett, another Kentucky native, appeared in Girdler’s The Get-Man (1974) also met an equally tragic end. He turned to activism in 1991 and founded the Artists Confronting AIDS group. He would pass of from AIDS-related complications, age 44, a brief three years later in 1994.

Carolyn Thompson later reinvented herself as Caroline Thompson the novelist. Her novel First Born managed to impress none other than Tim Burton. During pre-production of Beetlejuice (1988) Burton read her novel and was duly impressed. He hired her to write a spec script for his latest project, Edward Scissorhands (1990). William Girdler on the other hand was keenly aware of how he and his movies were viewed. In an 1977 interview in the Louisville Times he observed, "I know what my other pictures were. I know what was bad about them. I also know that they were pretty good when you consider how inexpensively they were made. Anybody should be able to make a good movie if they spend $20 million the way they did on The Exorcist. Comparatively speaking, for what we spent on it, Abby was probably a better picture than The Exorcist.” In the same newspaper he noted, “Other people learned how to make movies in film schools. I learned by doing it. Nobody saw Billy Friedkin's or Steven Spielberg's mistakes, but all my mistakes were right up there on the screen for everybody to see."

While Three On A Meathook may have ensured Girdler’s legacy in the cinematic pantheon of skid row exploitation horror it has not experienced the same kind of enduring longevity as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) two years year later, but it is remembered fondly by those with a knack for little genre obscurities. Closer in spirit to Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974) than any of the later Ed Gein inspired cinematic exploits Three On A Meathook is equal part backwood horror as it is early slasher. As such it’s absolutely the last place to expect social commentary, especially on a subject as thorny and difficult as the ill-advised Vietnam War – but that’s exactly what transpires. Continuing the early 2000s trend of remaking old horror titles on ludricrous budgets, supposedly easier than re-releasing forgotten genre gems to a new audience, a reimagining of Three On A Meathook is currently in development with further details pending. When and if it ever will see the light of day remains to be seen. If one movie deserves a meticulous digital remaster/restoration, it is this little-seen William Girdler drive-in shocker. Hopefully one company, or the other, will rise to the occasion and give Three On A Meathook a much-needed second lease on life. Sam Raimi’s Within the Woods (1978) might hold more significance in light of his later horror exploits and Hollywood career, but Girdler’s packs far more punch.