While vacationing in Haiti with his wife Grace (Anita Strindberg), Fred Wright (Gabriel Tinti) decides to make an impromptu visit on an old friend, Williams (Anthony Steffen), a doctor.
A classic giallo opening as the plane touches down
Fred's motives are not entirely pure, however, with it soon emerging that he is one of various parties interested in a new wonder drug that Williams has developed, some of whom will stop at nothing - including murder - to secure it for themselves. (Genre fans may be reminded of the plot of Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon in this regard, with the brightly coloured visuals and Piero Umiliani's not dissimilar lounge score reinforcing this intertextual connection.)
The touristic gaze at the exoticised other? Tinti and Strindberg on vacation
The first complication is that the idealistic Williams appears to have no interest in selling the drug, regardless of the price...
The second complication is that the drug, the sample of which has gone missing, may in any case also have potentially fatal side effects for those who take it, with one of Williams's native assistants turning up dead soon afterwards, his blood being almost like water in its appearance and chemical composition...
A representative of corrupt officialdom?
A western capitalist neo-imperialist?
The man in the white suit? Umberto Raho has a small but pivotal role
Although showcasing a number of characteristic giallo themes, being bookended by the arrival and departure of a Pan Am jet and featuring the obligatory unidentified black gloved killer (or killers) working their way through a swathe of victims, the gloves admittedly somewhat incongruous in the tropical setting, Death in Haiti AKA Tropic of Cancer offsets such routine elements thanks to its atypical setting (rum rather than J&B being the drink of choice) and the inclusion of some documentary style footage of cockfighting, a slaughterhouse and voodoo rituals.
Williams: Before I met you, I heard you had a reputation for deep sea fishing. Are you still handy with a rod?
Wright: I thought you were the one handy with a rod - or at least that's what I've heard.
Williams: I wouldn't enter the competition with you Fred
Wright: I thought you already had
A credit at the end identifies this footage as having been taken from reality, with one having no reason to doubt this; if the voodoo footage is deployed as “exotic” backdrop for a thriller, this still accords with that Griersonian definition of documentary as “creative treatment of actuality”.
A shocking discovery in the abbatoir
These elements also transcend the mondo label that they might unthinkingly evoke.
Yes, we can no doubt impute that they express the “civilised” white man's fear of the “primitive” black Other, with that inevitable racist emphasis on the “threat” black male sexuality poses towards the white woman, as the exclusive property of the white man, but the truth is more complex and the film's representational strategies and politics more subtle and intelligent.
In the slaughterhouse sequence the imaginary boundary between white / black, and civilised / primitive is dissolved by the rational, scientific and “humane” organisation of the plant, which Williams is required to inspect as part of his duties, the logic of its operations really no different from those of the Parisian slaughterhouse of Franju's Blood of the Beasts; it should also be noted that the sequence is not completely gratuitous in terms of plot either, insofar as the body of one of a henchman who had earlier beaten up Williams is found hanging from a meathook.
Likewise, whilst one of the voodoo sequences climaxes with the ritual sacrifice and slaugher of an cow, its throat being slit on camera, that the filmmakers also include a voodoo cum Christian wedding ceremony, an unfamiliar rite of passage becoming a familiar one as we transition from the naked bride and groom lying on mats on the ground to entering the church in black suit and white dress with veil, along with some quite extensive discussions from Williams of the origins and nature of voodoo practice, indicating a genuine anthropological interest as much as the wild eye of the stereotypical mondo filmmaker.
We can also note here a well-mounted voodoo-inspired hallucination sequence in which Grace unconsciously attempts to work through / out her contradictory feelings towards her husband, Williams and her present environment. Visually reminiscent of both Polanski's Repulsion and Fulci's Lizard in a Woman's Skin - the latter also coincidentally featuring Strindberg - the dynamic of attraction / repulsion that emerges is one that speaks of both hopes and fears, of repressed desires that return precisely because they can never be entirely eliminated.
In dreams I can rule your life
If it is probably fair to say that the attempt to combine documentary and giallo aesthetics and approaches does not always succeed, the filmmakers certainly deserve credit for trying to do something different. The combination of talent is interesting to note in this regard: Gian Paolo Lomi and Eduardo Mulargia co-directed, while Mulargia and Steffen co-wrote, perhaps suggestive of being both one of the Brazilian lead's more committed projects (generally just an actor, he also co-authored and produced Django the Bastard) and of a distinct division of labour amongst the directors. For while Mulargia can easily be characterised as a run of the mill filone filmmaker - albeit with films like Death in Haiti as a salutory reminder that there is frequently more to the formula film than simply following the formula - Lomi is something of a mystery man, with the IMDB listing only one other credit for him.
Death in Haiti
One of the film's most memorable presences, Alfio Nicolosi, who plays an admittedly rather stereotypically gay figure, would also appear to have only ever appeared in this film, something of a suprise seeing as his corpulent, cherub gone to seed form would seem to have made him a natural for playing decadent figures for Fellini or in the Decamerotics of the time.