DVD Review: TROPIC OF CANCER (Camera Obscura)

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
Giampaolo Lomi and Edoardo Mulargia's Al Tropico del Cancro (Tropic of Cancer/Death in Haiti) is the kind of weird genre mish-mash that could only have come out of the '70s. The film is a combination of the best and worst conventions of mondo movies, gialli, and supernatural horror films from the era, spun together in a very entertaining, though markedly unfocused way. As if the bizarre construction of the film weren't enough to pique one's interest, the story behind the film's production is as interesting as any, given that it was shot in Haiti during the dictatorial reign of Papa Doc Duvalier. All things considered, Tropic of Cancer is a film that manages to transcend its intentions both through its blend of exploitation genres and its fascinating back story. Germany's Camera Obscura bring the film to English subtitled DVD for the first time, and it's well worth checking out.

Tropic of Cancer was shot in Haiti in the immediate wake of Jacopetti/Prosperi's incredible Goodbye, Uncle Tom. The production manager on that shoot was Giampaolo Lomi, who used his contacts in Haiti to secure locations for this new film. Along for the ride was Italian spaghetti western vet Edoardo Mulargia to supervise and co-direct the film. Who did what is certainly a topic for discussion, but the film effortlessly mimics the documentary style of the Mondo films both in editing and cinematography, which pretty much confirms that Lomi shot those sequences, which include a stunning voodoo blood sacrifice ritual that is among the film's high points.

The story is far too confusing to attempt a clean, quick synopsis. However, suffice it to say a couple flies into Haiti in an attempt to resuscitate their failing marriage, only to get drawn into a web of murder, voodoo, intrigue, and sex. In the aftermath of Dario Argento's massive success with The Bird with Crystal Plumage, gialli were suddenly a hot commodity, and Tropic of Cancer features its own black gloved killer among the many sinister tropes permeating the film. Lomi's ability to take advantage of the unique culture and heritage of Haiti was a strength that he utilizes expertly as he injects local flavor into the distinctly Italian film.

Far be it from me to imply that the film is some masterpiece of modern cinema, because at its heart, Tropic of Cancer is still an exploitation film, and we are reminded of this fact early and often. No one keeps their clothes on very long, least of all giallo mainstay Anita Strindberg (The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Escape From Hell), who has a brilliant shower scene during which she turns on the faucet and strips down but never even gets in the water, instead roaming her hotel room nude for no reason at all. Apparently, Lomi and Mulargia didn't want to disappoint the ladies either, as there is plenty of beefcake to go around, and numerous sequences with frontally nude natives.

Tropic of Cancer is unfocused and occasionally silly, but it is a load of fun. If you are a fan of all of the genres depicted, it's almost like a dream come true to watch them all collide like this and pick up the pieces that fall out. I really enjoyed this film, and wonder why I hadn't heard about it before Camera Obscura's release. Definitely check it out if you can!

The Disc:

Like our previous review of Mondo Candido, I have nothing but good things to say about Camera Obscura's DVD release of Tropic of Cancer. The image is spectacular, and the cinematography from Marcello Masciocchi is beautiful. There are no significant marks or blemishes on the print, and it is in remarkable shape, which leads me to wonder who had the foresight to preserve this gem back in the day. Camera Obscura presents us with an option of Italian or German audio, both of which are solid, but neither of which was recorded live, so the choice is yours.

This edition isn't quite as well-endowed in the extras department as Mondo Candido, but what it does have is pretty awesome. There is a short interview with director Giampaolo Lomi about the production of the film during which he waxes nostalgic over Papa Doc Duvalier and what a nice man he was. He also asserts that Edoardo Mulargia was little more than a babysitter who sat by and watched while Lomi did all of the directing. This is contradicted in the second featurette, during which an Italian film scholar posits that Lomi only directed the mondo/documentary style sequences, like the voodoo rite, and Mulargia directed all of the narrative stuff. An interesting argument. Also included is a brief essay on the film and the original German trailer.

Camera Obscura keep impressing me. They make releases good enough to rival any company releasing cult titles worldwide, and they produce their own extra material, which is a big plus. If you're a giallo fan, a mondo fan, a slasher fan, or a fan of supernatural thrillers, you'll find something to like about Tropic of Cancer. Thumbs up!
Special Features:
- "Shot in Haiti" featurette featuring co-director Giampaolo Lomi
- "Bruschini's Place"
- German Trailer
- Booklet by Christian Kessler
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