The Great Alligator River (1979)
Studio: Code Red
Release date: July 18th, 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Before the Italian film industry set its sights on directly ripping off Jaws, Sergio Martino caught the still-swelling wave of eco-horror cash-ins with The Great Alligator River (aka The Great Alligator River). A confluence of various drive-in trends, this killer alligator film also arrives in the tradition of Europe’s obsession with jungle horror, making it a decent snapshot of the era’s rampant exploitation scene. And by “decent,” I only mean that in terms of accuracy and entertainment value, as that’s just about the only way The Great Alligator River could be considered “decent." Otherwise, this is scummy, disreputable trash engineered with the express purpose of coaxing maximum pearl-clutching—no that we’d have it any other way when the formula involves Eurohorror, vengeful natives, and a man-eating alligator.
Admittedly high-minded in its setup, it features a greedy American land developer (Mel Ferrer) making an ill-advised conquest of an island in the Asian Pacific. Virtually untouched by the rest of the world, this place is quickly plundered and ravaged to make way for a luxurious resort, where the rich and famous will cavort, oblivious to the natives who have called the island home for centuries—unless Kroona, a purportedly godlike crocodile (yes, crocodile—something was clearly botched in translation when the film was distributed to America) and local legend, has something to say about it. Spoiler: Kroona has a lot to say about it, as this beast sets itself to munching down on anyone who treads into his river, starting with an interloping woman looking to have a tryst with a native man. When more people begin to vanish without a trace, anthropologist Alice Brandt (Barbara Bach) and photographer Daniel Nessel (Claudio Cassinelli) set out to uncover the truth about the legend of Kroona.
Thanks to this flimsy pretense of a story, The Great Alligator River isn’t quite a non-stop chomp-fest—not that the early attacks are especially gruesome, anyway. Most involve the lethargic beast purposely charging at the screen before eating its victim and leaving a trail of blood in the water in its wake. Martino—whose previous work before Alligator River was more suited for such an approach--is initially more concerned in taking the character drama and the gorgeous, exotic locales.
The latter is much more interesting than the former since the characters are largely disposable, despite all the familiar faces (Richard Johnson, Romano Puppo, and even Bobby Rhodes!) making an appearance. Bach and Cassinelli are serviceable leads, with the latter adopting that typically 70s machismo in his clumsy efforts to woo his colleague. One standout here is Sylvia Collatine (another familiar face from House by the Cemetery) in the role of a precocious girl who says whatever the fuck is on her mind, even if it involves revealing her own mother’s affair. She nearly fills the gonzo Italian horror on her own because she’s such a jarring, almost inappropriate presence among the carnage.
Whatever slack she does leave is more than adequately picked up by Ferrer, here playing the outrageously racist land tycoon who constantly dismisses the natives as “savages” and “primitives,” doing so in such a way to reveal the distinct lack of fucks given during this time period. The Great Alligator would inspire legions of hot takes and think-pieces if it were released today—not that it ever would be, I imagine. This character’s callous indifference makes him a natural heel, and the film is cut from the same cloth as Cannibal Holocaust in its eventual (and obvious) musings on “bringing civilization” to these far-flung places. When speaking about a former missionary turned eccentric hermit (Johnson), Nessel muses that “he came to spread his religion but ended up learning theirs,” so the script (co-penned by George Eastman!) seems to have its head on straight at certain points when it comes to pointing out the crass exploitation of undeveloped countries.
Of course, the film itself is completely in on the exploitation itself, preying on that fear of the unknown and the exotic and turning it into a nightmarish ordeal for the Westerners who have brought hell upon themselves. At times, there’s a straight-up mondo vibe to the proceedings as Eurotrash stalwart Giancarlo Ferrando’s camera soaks in the surroundings, capturing the wildlife in its natural state in some incongruously gorgeous sequences. Some stretches of The Great Alligator River could double as a fine travelogue or documentary, at least until the scummy characters begin to intrude, prompting nature—and its natives—to exact vengeance.
It does so in a gloriously unhinged climax here, as the final 20 minutes or so are packed with nonstop bloodshed. Not only does Krooma emerge from his muddy depths to chow down on unsuspecting tourists, but the pissed-off native tribe also takes it upon themselves to appease their gods by kidnapping Alice and razing the resort to the fucking ground. Because they’ve “sinned” by co-mingling with the outside world, their gods compel them to chuck flaming spears right into these poor tourists in a deliriously entertaining sequence that’d be horrifying if it didn’t feel so wrongheaded. With this unrepentant climax, The Great Alligator cements itself as crass exploitation, mostly existing as a vehicle for sex, sleaze, and violence, its sociopolitical pretenses all but consumed by blood and flames.
Like most great trash cinema, The Great Alligator River leaves behind a certain distaste that might lead you to question yourself for delighting in such abhorrent junk. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be much of an exploitation movie, after all. Sergio Martino is much more likely to be remembered for his refined, elegant giallo work, but this one is arguably just as worthwhile, if only because it truly does capture the wild, chaotic spirit of the late-70s Eurohorror free-for-all. No, these films were certainly not made to appeal to delicate tastes or sensibilities, much less were they designed to weather the scrutiny of a modern landscape that would (perhaps) rightfully savage it for its tastelessness. But that’s exactly what makes something like The Great Alligator River interesting as a cultural artifact—though, if I’m being honest, watching a giant reptile devour people is a timeless pleasure.
After bowing on DVD twice, The Great Alligator River finally receives a Blu-ray upgrade courtesy of Code Red, who has sourced its transfer from a new HD scan with “extensive color correction done here in America.” (Oh, Code Red—never stop being you.) It’s a pretty sterling transfer, too—you’d expect something like this to be in rough, grungy shape, but this restoration is beautiful and pristine.
In addition to porting over an interview with Martino and production designer Antonello Geleng from a previous release, Code Red has also produced a couple of new interviews with underwater photographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, camera operator Claudio Morabito, plus a roundtable discussion with Paolo Ricci, Giancarlo Ferrando, and Geleng. A trailer rounds out the supplements for another solid release from Code Red, which has been on a decent run of late releasing underseen slashers (Twisted Nightmare, Hide and Go Shriek) and other creature features (Kingdom of the Spiders). It’s an embarrassment of riches to have films like this and The Great Alligator River on sterling Blu-ray releases—I know this can be an…erm, eccentric company to deal with at times, but Bill Olson certainly makes it worthwhile with discs like this. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: