PseudoPod 530: The Madness of Bill Dobbs: A Tale of Snuff Movies and Cannibal Cults
This is the author’s first sale
Pseudopod wants to direct your attention to a project by one of our Authors, Greg Stolze. This is a good time to go back and relisten to episode 317, Enzymes.
YOU is a novel, set in the universe of the democratic horror game Unknown Armies, which pits readers against a book that hates them while situating them in the person of a middle-aged businessman named Leo Evans.
Leo is divorced, a fan of racquet sports, and a cultist of the Necessary Servant—a quasi-religion he freely admits seems silly, except for the way it grants him extra senses and paranormal abilities. The chief cultist, however, is his ex-wife, and the two of them clash over a key question of what it means to truly “serve” with integrity.
In the process of hashing all this out, Leo must survive a couple attempts on his life, come to grips with an enchantment that makes him hate the person he previously loved most, and deal with lingering issues between himself and his son.
This novel is Kickstarting in February, check the trailer at www.gregstolze.com/you
The Madness of Bill Dobbs: A Tale of Snuff Movies and Cannibal Cults
By Sean Pearce
Eaters is regarded by some as a flawed masterpiece and an underground classic. To others, it is vile, racist, ethically bankrupt, and derivative.
It makes for peculiar viewing. The plot follows the formula of the Italian cannibal movies for which director Bill Dobbs had an unashamed fondness. An anthropological expedition into the Amazon jungle encounters and brutalises a tribe of ‘savages’ in the name of science, and find themselves pursued, captured, and finally gruesomely eaten alive.
(The film was originally going to be released as Dark-skinned Cannibals of the Tropics, though thankfully someone more enlightened than Dobbs suggested the title we now have. It almost goes without saying that Dobbs has been unanimously described as a completely unrepentant racist.)
Eaters is a movie with a mythology around it. Dobbs himself famously went insane shortly after release, and no less than three cast members died during location shooting (in what may be a rare flash of good taste, Dobbs chose not to use the footage of the unfortunate actress Lisa Springer’s fatal accident in the film), and, in a strange echo of Cannibal Holocaust before, Dobbs was briefly investigated by the authorities on suspicion of producing a snuff film. However, it was later revealed that Dobbs had in fact bribed an FBI agent into launching the investigation as a publicity stunt – it worked.
Even without the mythos surrounding it, Eaters is a fascinating film. Simply put, it contains moments of brilliance. The cinematography is frequently stunning, and Dobbs’ direction was nothing short of inspired, weakness of the material aside. He created an atmosphere that was utterly otherworldly, almost allowing the humidity of the jungle to seep out of the celluloid. Combined with one of the finest examples of latter-day psychedelia in the score, Dobbs created an oppressive, mysterious, and relentlessly disturbing vision of the world.
There is also the matter of the depiction of the tribe itself. Although Dobbs did convince an actual indigenous tribe in Guatemala to appear in the movie, he insisted that they wear bizarre clothing of his own design, and daub themselves with strange symbols of unknown pedigree. The tribe itself, according to the star of the movie, Marcus Fields, apparently took Dobbs’ requests in good humour and treated the whole exercise as an elaborate game of make-believe (which is one of the most concise and accurate descriptions of cinema I’ve ever heard!). There is much speculation about the origin of the symbolism Dobbs used, but one thing is for sure: it’s unlike anything used by any indigenous population in South America.
The real reason for the notoriety of Eaters is, of course, the rumour of Dobbs’ inspiration for the film. The rumour, that Dobbs’ had essentially lifted the narrative from a deeply obscure and possibly lost Mondo ‘documentary’ emerged several years after the release of the film. Indeed, Eaters would likely have vanished into obscurity if not for the resurgent interest the rumours caused. Seeing that Dobbs wasn’t above bribing federal agents to gain publicity, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had been the source of these rumours himself, though he had spent the prior five years in a mental asylum, making this unlikely.
It began when Dobbs’ wife, Lydia, in an attempt to raise capital for her husband’s treatment, auctioned off several items relating to the production of the film, including five boxes of notes. Film buff and self-declared ‘eccentric’ Miguel Fernandez purchased the notes, and six months later was interviewed by the horror fanzine Gore Fest, claiming that he had discovered that Dobbs had seen and become obsessed with an Italian Mondo movie entitled The Gods Eat Men! Fernandez allowed photographs of the notes in question to be published in Gore Fest and other zines. It is well known that Mondo ‘documentaries’ would often stage or at least exaggerate the shocking scenes they specialised in bringing to audiences, but this was more extreme than that: Dobbs initially regarded The Gods Eat Men! as a genuine snuff movie.
It’s here we should take note of the definition of a ‘snuff’ movie. A snuff film is not just a film that depicts real death, it is a film where a human being is deliberately killed for the sake of the film. The makers of a snuff film are not simply voyeurs – they actively participate in murder. As such, when Dobbs described TGEM as a genuine snuff film, he meant that he believed he was seeing people dying for the camera.
He later revised that opinion. He decided that he wasn’t watching a snuff movie after all.
He really was watching a documentary.
I have not seen The Gods Eat Men!
Fernandez died in 1990, and his estate (largely consisting of a truly impressive collection of horror memorabilia) was sold off to pay his debts. I tracked down the auction house that had dealt with the goods, but when I consulted their records I was disappointed to note that, although he’d owned a large number of cans of film, none of them contained TGEM.
Dobbs had a copy which he would watch repeatedly, though he destroyed it in the first act of his mental collapse. He refused to let anyone else see it.
No one that I have spoken to, no archive I have consulted, has possessed or been able to point me towards a copy. One man I spoke to, who requested anonymity, claimed to have seen it. ‘It changed me. There are things in it you shouldn’t see. It’s not pretend.’ He would tell me nothing else, not even where he saw it.
The facts that we can be confident about (and here I must thank Edward Carson and Melanie Philips for giving me access to their own research on the subject) are the following:
- The Gods Eat Men! was made in the late 60s.
- It was a production by the (likely pseudonymous) Italian director Giovanni D’Amore.
- It never had any mainstream release, and was distributed underground and illicitly due to the nature of its content.
- No one appears to have tracked down a copy for at least a decade.
- Any surviving copies are likely to exist exclusively in private collections.
- Finally, the film purports to show rituals conducted by a ‘savage’ tribe in Polynesia, which involved human sacrifice and cannibalism.
Dobbs’ notes apparently didn’t contain a synopsis, though he did heavily analyse several scenes, which were translated into his own film. Edward and Melanie have gathered together as many of Dobbs’ notes as they’ve been able to track down. Obviously, Dobbs never meant them to be read by anyone else so they’re difficult to decipher.
One of the most curious things we noticed going through the notes is the detailed sketches of the costumes and symbols that would appear in Eaters. Dobbs apparently lifted them as best he could from TGEM. We took the diagrams to several anthropologists, though only one recognised the symbolism. However, they demanded they not be identified, and refused to look at any of the other documents we had with us once they realised what we were researching. They told us that they were indeed aware of both Dobbs’ and D’Amore’s films, though had seen neither and had ‘absolutely no desire to’, claiming that these films were nothing but neo-colonial exploitation of other cultures – hardly inaccurate. They would tell us nothing further about the tribe in question: not its location, its name, or anything about its customs, just a meek acknowledgement that claims of human sacrifice were ‘not wholly exaggerated’.
So we were left in a bad position. Unable to locate the film, unable to determine what the culture depicted in it is even called, not possessing a single cell of the film, we decided the only thing left for us to do would be to attempt to reconstruct it from Dobbs’ notes in contrast to Eaters.
Through the auction house, we’d discovered that Fernandez had owned a copy of the original workprint of Eaters, and it struck us that the best place to look would be at the rawest version of the film. The workprint was now owned by a small non-profit film preservation society, The Cult Collection. The Collection’s manager, Harvey Smith, sent us a DVD of the workprint, which over the next week we watched at least a dozen times, comparing it against the assembled notes. The key scenes we were interested in were, of course, the ones which Dobbs’ notes pointed to having been lifted from TGEM.
There were various location shots that Dobbs’ apparently modelled on features he’d found especially inspired in TGEM, but we concluded that it was two pivotal scenes that had most closely aped the original: the ‘coming of the chieftain’ scene and the sacrifice and cannibalism sequence at the conclusion of the film.
Throughout Eaters there are references to the ‘bloody chieftain’, and the doomed anthropologists see from afar, but are forbidden from approaching, the red hut the chieftain dwells in. He is never seen to emerge from it, and the villagers laughed when asked what role he played in their day-to-day affairs. It was concluded that the ‘bloody chieftain’ was more akin to a witch-doctor. When we finally do meet him (played by an apparently very patient elder of the tribe), he is painted head-to-toe in red, and covered with the peculiar sigils Dobbs’ was so fixated on replicating accurately. He wears a strange headdress, and his stepping out of the hut is celebrated by mass ritual dancing and drumming.
What we can gather from the notes suggests that this scene in TGEM was far more disturbing than in Eaters. Dobbs decided to keep the ritual killings until the final scene, while in TGEM, the coming of the chieftain is a sacrificial rite. Dobbs says that the chieftain emerges from a cave, not a hut, and he uncomfortably describes the chieftain as ‘inhumanly tall, dark as tar’. This is where we see the first death in TGEM, where a ‘captive/offering’, presumably from another tribal community, is brought to the chieftain, who rapes, kills, and devours him. Dobbs is sketchy on the details here, simply noting: ‘unlikely to be able to convincingly reproduce the glowing’. Dobbs also curiously emphasises (making a use of racial slurs that I won’t reproduce) that the chieftain is black, but not a black man in the sense of being of African ancestry. The conclusion we reached is that the chieftain in TGEM is covered in black ritual make-up of some kind.
The reference to glowing leads us to think that Dobbs was obviously being duped. It strikes us as perfectly possible that TGEM is a genuine snuff film, but one where D’Amore used special effects to create an exotic, mystical atmosphere to heighten the drama. This becomes not only more obvious, but the only possible conclusion we can make based on what we can determine about the sacrifice scene.
In Eaters, the surviving three anthropologists are presented to the bloody chieftain. In a graphically violent and sexually explicit sequence, they are stripped, raped, tortured, and butchered and eaten alive, all during a bizarre religious ceremony where yet more of the odd symbols that Dobbs took from TGEM make an appearance, being carved into the flesh of the captives (Marcus Fields showed us the scar from where he volunteered to have one of them cut into his skin). The most unusual feature of this sequence, though, is that the ‘savages’ all dress in the guise of their various deities (as explained in some helpful exposition from Field’s character, Dr Oskar von Schwarz), assuming the identities of the divine, and shedding their own. They become their gods, and thus when they consume their captives, it is not them cannibalising their fellow human beings, it is the gods consuming the offering that has been brought to them: the gods eat men!
This was Dobbs’ attempt to capture the spirit of sacrifice scene in TGEM. The huge difference though is that Dobbs suggests that having the tribe assume the identity of their gods is ‘the closest I’ll get to having the gods appear’. It seems that in the film that inspired him, the tribe do not assume the identities of their deities. Rather, the bloody chieftain summons the deities and they appear literally. The appearance of the gods is another one of the special effects that Dobbs didn’t think he could recreate, hence having the tribe just dress up as them. The effects in question certainly sound curious: ‘interlocking spheres of light shifting through one another as the chieftain and his savages chant’. Dobbs did everything he could to have the costumes resemble the ‘gods’ that appeared in the original, and his sketches suggest they were truly horrifying. They bear little to no resemblance to any depictions of deities or spirits our research into indigenous religion in Polynesia discovered. There is something indefinably primal about them, almost totemic. For reasons we couldn’t deduce, we felt that they suggested extreme antiquity, and absolute otherness. They don’t look like the kinds of gods you’d expect human beings to imagine.
Given the possibility that The Gods Eat Men! is now lost except for private collections (and considering the very real possibility that human lives were lost in its production, it’s doubtful these will ever be distributed further legitimately), it seems that we’ll have to resign ourselves to simply not knowing if Dobbs was right about the nature of this film. It seems extraordinary that Dobbs could think that this film was anything other than a hoax, even if it was a murderous one. Although apparently legitimate symbolism from indigenous spiritual traditions in Polynesia was made use of by D’Amore, and it is even very possible that he had managed to locate a culture that was at least not averse to cannibalism, the lack of any reference in academic literature to deities of the form described in Dobbs’ notes suggests that many features of the film were D’Amore’s invention. The question is how much was sheer invention.
Of course, the description of strange special effects, ‘glowing’ and ‘spheres of light’, already discredit the possibility that TGEM was just a documentary. It seems that Dobbs’ mental collapse began earlier than had previously been thought. His obsession with this strange film, his conviction that it was genuine, as well as his insistent, detailed reproduction of its symbolism, all point to a mind that was beginning to break.
The final question is: why? Why did Dobbs make Eaters and try to tie it so closely to an underground, probable snuff film? The safest assumption is that Dobbs was simply a hack. He saw a film that impressed him greatly, and knowing that he could safely assume the audience would be unfamiliar with it, he simply copied from it. However, the great detail of his notes, his obsession with faithful reproduction of the symbolism, and his apparent appreciation of the skill in D’Amore’s direction, make another interpretation possible, namely that his imitation wasn’t simply cynical.
If Dobbs’ mind was indeed beginning to break, it seems likely that his obsession with The Gods Eat Men! had a traumatic dimension to it, and it is of course a sad truth that some victims of extreme trauma and abuse suffer from repetition compulsion, recreating their traumas and inflict the abuse they’ve suffered on others. Eaters, then, could be read as a huge acting out of the source of his trauma, D’Amore’s film.
Of course, this further begs the question: even if D’Amore’s film was a snuff film, what was it that Dobbs found so disturbing that he simply could not cope with it?
Without seeing it, it is impossible to know. However, we believe we may have isolated the moment that he began to break down. Consulting his notes, we find one dated to about a month before he began to raise finances for his film, and six months into his obsession with The Gods Eat Men!, simply saying: ‘It isn’t just a movie. Movies are never just movies. It isn’t make-believe.’
About the Author
Sean Pearce is a graduate student, studying philosophy. “The Madness of Bill Dobbs: A Tale of Snuff Movies and Cannibal Cultsis” is his first published story, and he still doesn’t quite believe he’s managed it. He is a contributor to the art collective, Project Praeterlimina. You can find their blog at the link and their Facebook page here.
About the Narrator
Kyle Akers is a voice actor from Kansas City, Missouri. He has contributed to podcasts like Pseudopod, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and NoSleepPodcast. He also produces and performs in his own improv podcast called “The Counselor.” Prior to voice acting, Kyle toured the country as a professional musician, singing and playing bass guitar for the electro-pop band Antennas Up, which enjoyed success through several national television show placements and commercials. Since then, Kyle has dabbled in long-form improv and audio production while performing weekend gigs with Kansas City cover band The Magnetics.