Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death
Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is a 1989 film starring Shannon Tweed and Bill Maher. The film sends up many pop culture motifs and societal trends, including feminism (and feminist movements' fragmentation around various issues), B movies (particularly Cannibal Holocaust), celebrities, major writers and political figures, centred around a spoof of Heart of Darkness. It was the first feature directed (under the pseudonym J. D. Athens) by screenwriter J. F. Lawton, who also authored Pretty Woman, Under Siege and its sequel, and television show V.I.P.
|Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death|
|Directed by||J. F. Lawton|
|Produced by||Gary W. Goldstein|
|Written by||J. F. Lawton|
|Music by||Carl Dante|
The U.S. government grows worried for the nation's avocado supply after some confrontations with the "Piranha" tribe of cannibal women, who live in the mysterious "Avocado Jungle" (westernmost outpost: San Bernardino) and ritually sacrifice and eat men. The government recruits Margo Hunt (Tweed), a professor of feminist studies at a local university ("Spritzer College"), to travel into the Avocado Jungle and make contact with the women to attempt to convince them to move to a reservation/condo in Malibu. Along the way, she and her travelling companions — male chauvinist guide Jim (Maher) and ditzy undergraduate Bunny (Karen Mistal) — meet a tribe of subservient men called the "Donnahew" (a reference to talk-show host Phil Donahue) and face dangers in their path.
Eventually, the trio (Margo, Bunny and Jim) meets the Piranha women, who have recently taken Dr. Kurtz (played by Adrienne Barbeau) as their "empress." Kurtz is Dr. Hunt's former colleague in feminist studies (the internationally famous author of Smart Women, Stupid Insensitive Men) and now her nemesis; she has joined the tribe of Piranha women with her own exploitative agenda. The two argue about the morality of sacrificing men and the exploitation of the Piranha women, and Bunny decides to join the tribe, her first sacrifice being Jim. Bunny cannot go through with the kill, however, and Dr. Hunt escapes, aided by the handsome, intelligent, and sensitive Jean-Pierre (Brett Stimely), who also was to be sacrificed.
Dr. Margo Hunt finds in the jungle a rival tribe of cannibal women, the Barracuda Women, who are at war with the Piranha women due to differences over which condiment (guacamole or clam dip) most appropriately accompanies a meal of sacrificed man. Hunt returns to the Piranha stronghold with this other tribe and rescues Bunny and Jim as well as Jean-Pierre.
Margo Hunt challenges Kurtz to a duel for supremacy, and they argue while fighting with various weapons; eventually, Margo impales Kurtz with a fencing sword. Kurtz explains her motives to Hunt in her last words: After ruling the Piranha tribe, she cannot return to civilization and the talk-show circuit. She then kills herself by plunging into a pit filled with water and piranha fish.
Having discovered the government plot to domesticate the Piranha women by providing aerobics classes and frequent exposure to Cosmopolitan magazine, Hunt refuses to bring the Piranha women with her, and instead persuades the warring cannibal tribes to reunite, maintaining the peace by means of consciousness raising groups.
The film ends happily for the trio of main characters: Bunny and Jim are to be married, and Jean-Pierre has enrolled at Dr. Hunt's university as a feminist studies major, becoming in the process the ideal companion for Hunt.
The film's plot loosely parallels that of novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, as well as Apocalypse Now, which was also partly based on Heart of Darkness. Both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now feature a character named Kurtz who has gone deep into the jungle to become the deranged leader of a group of "savages"; these peoples engage in barbaric rites as an alternative to the rigid and restrictive values of the outside world. The name of the character Ford Maddox, one of the men who recruits Margo to enter the jungle, refers to author Ford Madox Ford, who collaborated on three novels with Conrad (though not on Heart of Darkness). When Kurtz and Hunt battle with fencing swords, Kurtz is stabbed, and her dying words are: "You don't know what it's like, trying to face David Letterman with a book on male insensitivity ... All right, I was exploiting the Piranha women. You don't know what it was like. David Letterman, God, the horror ... the horror of that show ... the horror." In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz's dying words are: "The horror! The horror!"
Cannibal Women alludes to and/or satirizes a broad array of literary and pop-culture phenomena, including:
- The Indiana Jones films — Jim dresses like Indiana Jones and, in his first appearance in the movie, wields a bullwhip (though very ineptly, and nearly strangles himself with it). Bunny brings on the journey an Indiana Jones lunch box.
- The Star Wars films
- Akira Kurosawa's films — The ninja Bushito offers to help Dr. Hunt if she needs to "attack an impenetrable fortress" (The Hidden Fortress), but upon hearing that she seeks the Piranha Women, claims that he has just remembered he has plans to see Seven Samurai that night.
- Disneyland — The trio, in a boat, are menaced by a Palm Springs hippo, and Dr. Hunt shouts, "This is not the Disneyland Jungle Boat ride! Get real, folks, we were almost killed!"
- American anthropologist Margaret Mead - Kurtz carries a forked walking stick identical to that used by Mead in the later years of her career.
- Gulliver's Travels — the warring feminist tribes parallel the conflict between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians, and in the sacrifice scene the iconic image of Maher's character tied down like Gulliver.
- Cosmopolitan magazine
- Phil Donahue
- Alan Alda — This is a phrase the Donahew Men chant to placate women (along with other phrases such as "Walter Mondale").
- Consciousness raising
- The film 10 and its use of Maurice Ravel's composition Boléro
- Playboy magazine — Shannon Tweed is a former Playboy model, and the character Bunny's name alludes to the phenomenon of the Playboy Bunny; also, Jim says that real men "believe that nature designed women to cook, nurture children, and pose for Penthouse magazine."
- The film 2001: A Space Odyssey and its use of the Richard Strauss composition Also Sprach Zarathustra which was re-written and arranged for the film (titled 2000 1/2) by the composer, Carl Dante.
- The name of Col. Mattel, one of the men who recruits Margo to enter the jungle, alludes to both the character Col. Kurtz, Mattel toy company.
- In a quarrel over gender-based achievements, Margo and Jim make a score of allusions:
- Jim: Let's face it, who could have ever invented, but a man, the '64 GTO? Or, for that matter, the Corvette Sting Ray, any year, any model. All you women have ever done is, what? Some French chick invented kryptonite, or something. The important thing, like beer and meat, that was all men.
Margo (sarcastic): Yeah, it's hard to imagine a woman inventing nuclear weapons.
Jim: Exactly! And where would we be without them?
Margo: And the Nazi Blitzkrieg seemed like a male idea, not to mention South African apartheid. How about World War I? The Crusades? The Spanish Inquisition? The Rape of Shanghai?
Bunny: See, men have done a lot of things.
Jim: Uh, Elvis Presley.
Margo: Janis Joplin!
Margo: Joan of Arc.
Jim: How about Tammy Bakker?
Margo: Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart!
Jim: Jessica Hahn, Fawn Hall, Donna Rice.
Margo: Joseph McCarthy. Richard Nixon!
Jim: Joan Rivers.
Margo: Joan Rivers? I like Joan Rivers. I think she's funny.
Jim: Well, I think Nixon's funny!
- Author Daryl F. Mallett was an extra in this film.
- Filmed almost entirely on location at the University of California, Riverside campus, where J. F. Lawton's father, author Harry Lawton, was a professor.
- Is the source for the song "Piranha Women of the Avocado Jungle of Death" by Christine Lavin.
- Featured in 13 Nights of Elvira.
- Bill Maher, who acted in the movie, brought up the film during the January 29th, 2016 broadcast of his HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher.
Reviews for the film run the gamut.
One reviewer described it as "a brilliantly absurd story" and "a hilariously tongue-in-cheek premise, wonderfully layered humor that runs from broad slapstick to clever satire, and a cast that's filled to the brim with beautiful women wearing very, very little."
The Digital Fix's reviewer wrote:
Cannibal Women is [a] pretty smart picture, with Lawton's screenplay among its major qualities ... He's also fairly shrewd when it comes to the casting with Tweed (shortly before her move into 'erotic thriller' territory) capturing just the right tongue-in-cheek tone and Barbeau lending the requisite cult appeal. Mistal also acquits herself well — as you would expect from someone with the experience of Return of the Killer Tomatoes behind them — whilst Lawton also had the inspired idea of putting his pal Bill Maher in the male hero role.
TV Guide granted the movie 2 out of 4 stars: "This film is not nearly as bad as it might have been, thanks largely to the leads. Moreover, CANNIBAL WOMEN does manage to be on target with its humor from time to time. But there are far more misses than hits as the movie also goes for the corny, the obvious, and the ancient."
Julian White of Starburst (a British science fiction magazine), rated the movie 6 out of 10 stars, calling it "a light-hearted romp" and saying, "It's all unashamedly joky and facetious, but also very likeable. The look of the film is rough and ready ... Even the biggest fans of this film would have to admit that director J. F. Lawton is unlikely to go down in history as one of cinema's great visual stylists. That said, he's a very capable screenwriter (as he subsequently demonstrated by penning such perennial favourites as Pretty Woman and Under Siege), and there are some surprisingly sophisticated one-liners lurking among the slapstick. True, the constant ribbing at feminists now seems very dated, but it's never mean-spirited, and anyway the girls give as good as they get."
- "Cannibal Women in the Avacado Jungle of Death [retro review]". Mutant Reviewers From Hell. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- "Jungle Cruise". Disneyland. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- Nield, Anthony (10 October 2012). "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death". The Digital Fix. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death". TV Guide. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- White, Julian (19 September 2012). "Grindhouse Collection 1 - Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death". Retrieved October 20, 2012.