Whether by accident or design there's a certain affinity between Savage Beasts' setup and that of Jorge Grau's excellent Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, the main difference that Franco Prosperi's technology gone awry scenario is that bit more plausibly grounded.
For rather than seeing an experimental pest control machine bring the recently dead back to life, what we have here is the contamination of the water supply of a city with PCP causing the animals that drink it to become aggressive and run amok.
Man and the City
The ensuing gory highlights include a couple being devoured by rats; a blind man being savaged by his seeing eye dog; a cheetah pursuing an open-topped VW beetle and an elephant crushing a man's head underfoot.
Dottoressa de Selle
In the midst of the chaos a team of scientists, led by the always welcome Lorraine De Selle, try to work out what has happened and how to stop the madness before it spreads further...
A film with a message?
If its difficult to take Savage Beasts' quasi-ecological message all that seriously given writer-director Prosperi's background in mondo, this selfsame background also shows through in his willingness to take on a challenging assignment of the “never work with children and animals” type with largely successful results.
The main difficulty many will have with the film is the element of unpleasantness that pervades it, most notably with the burning alive of several dozen rats, some butchery footage and the unleashing of a tiger on some penned-in cattle.
Gore, but perhaps not of the sort the fan wants
Though perhaps inherently distasteful at a visceral level these images also reminded me somewhat of Georges Franju's brilliant documentary about a Paris abattoir, Blood of the Beasts, in that they're showing us things going on all the time but which we generally prefer to bracket out of our existence.
After all, in any sizeable city there will be pest controllers whose job it is to exterminate vermin, and slaughterhouse workers and butchers responsible for turning animals into abstracts, those cattle into beef or those pigs into pork, bacon and so on.
A mondo-style juxtaposition of the butchery footage, by which the tiger is fed in an unnatural manner, and its own bringing down of one of the cows, by which it follows its natural instincts, is also interesting from a philosophical perspective if we think about the German philosopher Heidegger's notions of authentic and inauthentic being. (The film's setting in a northern European city, identifiable as Frankfurt, is a happy coincidence in this regard.)
For, from a Heideggerian perspective a caged tiger in a zoo is not an authentic tiger, being unable to roam around and hunt for food as it would in the wild.
Contrary to appearance, this is not a real tiger
Following from this, as in so many other aspects of life, modern, 'fallen' man has been conditioned to accept an inauthentic ersatz substitute for the real experience, or a pacified un-nature in place of authentic nature, often red in tooth and claw.
If such ideas seem far removed from the Italian exploitation cinema, it can also be argued that they are at the heart of Prosperi's own filmmaking practice, given that the mondo is a form of cinema which trades on notions of documentary realism for much of its effect but which has always attracted criticism for its dubious claims to authenticity in fabricating scenes.
Moreover, if we think about it these scenes are often about the contrasts between modern and primitive and civilised and savage forms of life, with the division frequently also breaking down along lines of the fallen and the authentic.
While Savage Beasts is a fiction film, as foregrounded by the obvious reference point of Suspiria for the seeing eye dog attack, similar questions can still be asked of other aspects of it. Note, for example, the way in which Prosperi establishes the situation with his opening montages of the urban jungle: were those discarded needles that the camera picks out on a U-bahn escalator found or planted? If found, were they a lucky find or near ubiquitous? If near ubiquitous, what does this say about 'our' way of life, when so many need to find escape in drugs...