Me Me Lai Bites Back: Resurrection Of The Cannibal Queen
Edited, produced and directed by Naomi Holwill.
Once upon a time… sometime in the mid 1980’s… back in the darkest days of “video nasty” witch hunting… somewhere in Essex… police were raiding a suspected “nasty” dealer. We can only speculate as to the levels of apprehension and disgust felt by the officers as they bagged up tapes with such lurid titles as… shudder… Deep River Savages. Did they believe the shrill tabloid claims, amplified by publicity hungry politicians and misguided members of the judiciary, that people were “actually eaten” during the making of Italian cannibal films? One of the cops, at least, had good reason to doubt the veracity of such alarmist claims… starring, as she had, in Deep River Savages.
Spinning off of their Eaten Alive: The Rise And Fall Of The Italian Cannibal Film doco, the High Rising team have hit another home run with this riveting effort, which succeeds on levels of human interest and social history, over and above its obvious appeal to anally retentive horror nerds such as myself. While making EA:TRAFOTICF, High Rising’s internet researches turned up photos of Me Me Lai that had been posted by her daughter, via whom a contact was effected, after initial reluctance on the part of the retired actress. The story of her life after cannibal movie infamy laid bare, Ms. Lai was introduced to a demi monde which she could probably never have imagined, a fan scene and convention / festival circuit where her film career could be openly celebrated rather than hushed up. It’s good to see her striking up a friendship with Catriona MacColl, an actress for whom that particular penny dropped a little earlier.
On becoming a mother (one of the many fascinating insights we gain here is the fact that she was pregnant during the Last Cannibal World shoot) Me Me decided that her screen earnings were too precarious to support a family and briefly changed career to competitive body building (!) before becoming, yes, a policewoman in Essex, completely forgetting about her film career until that fortuitous contact was made. We see her on stage, reliving former glories with Ruggero Deodato and discussing the films she made with Umberto Lenzi. Me Me remembers Lenzi as being a bit of a screamer on Deep River savages, Deodato as a more laid back director (though plenty of others have attested to his own screaming fits) when they collaborated on Last Cannibal World. Apparently Lenzi had mellowed out by the time the made Eaten Alive, though this remains her least favourite of the films in which she’s appeared. She subscribes to the general view that Ivan Rassimov was a sweetheart. In turn, fan boy Eli Roth pays handsome tribute to our heroine, as do academic Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Sitges Festival programmer Mike Hostench and others. The documentary does not shy away from their thoughts on the proverbially thorny issues of how women, ethnic minorities and (thorniest of all) animals were treated in the films Lenzi, Deodato, Martino and D’Amato (among others) contributed to this genre, without coming to any glib conclusions. Those issues remain thorny.
This is a curiously moving film about the vicissitudes of life, changing social mores, personal self-discovery and the way that the internet has facilitated a micro universe of alternative fandom. Any quibbles I have would concern the lack of further information about aspects of Ms Lai’s career which are tantalisingly referenced, e.g. the body building and the films she made outside the Italian cannibal milieu, for the likes of Val Guest, Lindsay Shonteff, Blake Edwards and Lars Von Trier. But these are issues concerning the remit that the film makers set themselves (and as such cannot be second guessed) rather than of competence. Me Me Lay isn’t the only unsung heroine to emerge from MMLBB… Naomi Holwill, formerly something of a grey eminence at High Rising, makes her feature directing debut in confident and accomplished style (and I was particularly pleased to see her animation expertise making a welcome return in the film’s title sequence.) This documentary will gain its first general exposure as a bonus feature on the imminent 88 Films BD release of Man From Deep River (aka Deep River Savages.) Whatever the merits (or not) of that transfer, Me Me Lai Bites Back justifies the price of a copy on its own.