CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH
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 throws 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.