Director/Screenplay – J.D. Athens [J.F. Lawton], Producer – Gary W. Goldstein, Photography – Robert G. Knouse, Music – Carl Dante, Art Direction – Kimberly Charles Rees. Production Company – Guacamole Film.
Shannon Tweed (Dr Margo Hunt), Bill Maher (Jim), Karen Mistral (Bunny), Adrienne Barbeau (Dr Francine Kurtz), Brett Stimley (Jean-Pierre), Barry Primus (Ford Maddox), Paul Ross (Colonel Mattel), James MacKrell (Dean Stockwell), Alan David Gelman (Donnahew Leader)
Dr Margo Hunt, a lecturer in feminist studies at Spritzer College, is approached by representatives of the Department of Agriculture and the military who want her to undertake a mission for them. They need her to go into the Avocado Belt in Southern California, an unexplored area of jungle that is vital to the US’s avocado yield, and persuade the tribe of Piranha Women that live there to be relocated so that the US can access the much-needed avocado crop. The Piranha Women ritually practice eating their men and have slaughtered an entire platoon of US soldiers. A previous feminist ethno-historian Dr Kurtz was sent in but has vanished and is believed has gone native. Under pressure from her dean, Margo sets off to the borderlands of San Bernardino, taking her student Bunny as assistant. Searching for a guide to take them through the Avocado Jungle, she meets and reluctantly teams up with Jim with whom she once had a one-night stand. Together, the three of them set off into the unexplored jungle and encounter the wild tribes that live there.
Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is one of the legendary tongue-in-cheek titles. What one initially assumed was that it was one of the deliberately absurd tongue-in-cheek titles that Troma Films based their company name on – the likes of Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986), Surf Nazis Must Die (1987), A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (1990), Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town (1991), Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell! (1992), The Killer Condom (1997), Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006) and so on.
In actuality, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is a very different film from the Troma staple – while they quickly make a beeline for abandoning all good taste, it is a much cleverer film in its satire. Similarly, the title phrase ‘cannibal’ leads you to expect something that falls into the genre of Italian cannibal films – Prisoner of the Cannibal God (1978), Cannibal Holocaust (1979), Cannibal Ferox (1981) et al – or at least a parody of that, but in reality we never see any cannibalism take place on screen.
Behind the pseudonym of director/writer J.D. Athens is J.F. Lawton, who is better known as a screenwriter. One year after Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, under his own name Lawton wrote the screenplay for the runaway hit of Pretty Woman (1990), which launched the career of Julia Roberts. Lawton went onto a number of other A-list screenplays including the Steven Seagal action film Under Siege (1992), the superhero comedy Blankman (1994), the action film Chain Reaction (1996) and the videogame adaptation DOA: Dead or Alive (2006), as well as created the Pamela Anderson tv series V.I.P. (1998-2002). Under the J.D. Athens pseudonym, Lawton also directed Bill Maher in the gonzo comedy Pizza Man (1991), and under his own name also directed/wrote the Yakuza film The Hunted (1995) and the homelessness film Jackson (2008).
It is hard to dislike a film where we go from the opening scene with shots of the cannibal women frolicking topless at a waterfall to Shannon Tweed, an actress better known for taking her clothes off in softcore roles, as a feminist studies professor. Not to mention a plot where J.D. Athens has appropriated the basics of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), which is probably better known to audiences as Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam era updating Apocalypse Now (1979). Adrienne Barbeau even gets to parody Marlon Brando’s famous line “the horror … the horror” at the end – in reference to her touring the talkshow circuit as a feminist expert.
The film tosses up some rather amusing lines such as when one of the men in the San Bernardino bar walks up to Shannon Tweed: “Can I buy you chicks a drink?” which gets the indignant reply “I am not a chick. I am an ethno-historian with a degree in cultural anthropology.” In fact, the element of softcore titillation is entirely absent from the film (apart from the opening scene) and Shannon Tweed does an admirable job in toning down her sexpot image and playing in perfect straight-face. Some of the lines – like the US government’s evil plot to tame the cannibal women by putting them in condos and giving them subscriptions to Cosmo and visits from Mary Kay cosmetics salespeople – had me in stitches.
One of the film’s big jokes is that it is spoofing the Indiana Jones type adventure with the explorers heading off into uncharted jungle territory – where the unexplored jungle wilds filled with cannibal tribes being referred to is Southern California. A San Bernardino bar is regarded as a frontier outpost filled with the dregs of civilisation, while the stepping off point where they finally arrive at the jungle is a fruit orchard. Bill Maher does a parody of Indiana Jones in the scenes at the bar – where he manages to get his bullwhip tangled up in the light fitting and trip over his own feet. One of the wild native tribes encountered is the Donnahews, a group of men who live in fear of the cannibal women and have been neutered to the point they now make sacrificial knitted potholders. The film even gets off a spoof of the flying bone scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) using a beer can. The film is sometimes goofy but holds an undeniable cleverness in its central joke, while J.D. Athens and the cast play it out with a far higher level of wit than anything one expected going in.
Of course, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is now an embarrassment to Bill Maher who went onto fame as a political satirist but at the time was better known as a stand-up comedian and had made only a handful of film appearances. Athens and Maher are clearly friends but you cannot help but think that Maher is miscast here. Maher comes from a stand-up comedy background and his forte is the dryly sarcastic one-liner. Required to play beyond that, he lacks the parody of the larger-than-life heroism that the role is meant to be spoofing and comes across as somewhat lame when he should be standing up to be stalwart.