Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Case of Pit Dernitz

Whew, now that I'm back from my sojourn to Ohio to save the free world, let's talk about a piece of film.

It's a really freaky little piece of film, one that I first encountered on one of those pre-teen dare excursions to a shock site. Rotten or Ogrish or something in that vein. In a blocky mpeg a little bigger than a postage stamp, I witnessed the death of Pit Dernitz, mauled and eaten by lions in front of his family when he foolishly exited his car on a photo safari. Quick cuts between a few washed out cameras reveal a screaming baby in the car, a lioness baring her teeth over her kill, and the pathetic, disgusting sight of a shoeless foot poking out of a pile of viscera at an inhuman angle.

Today I rewatched it, uploaded now to YouTube, in sharper picture. Years since my first viewing, I focus now on the painful humanity of Dernitz's wife opening her car door, then, probably thinking of her children, quickly ducking back inside; and of Pit's sudden spasm of pain after what seemed like a merciful death. It'll stick with you - one of those horrible breathtaking sights which you half-expect to be arrested for seeing.

By now I'm sure a handful of y'all are rolling your eyes and cracking your knuckles for some sick burns about how gullible I am, so I'll show my hand: the video is fake.

It was made for Antonio Climati and Mario Morra's 1975 symphony of death, Savage Man Savage Beast. The film is one of the last luminaries of the disturbing Mondo tradition, shockumentaries which epitomized what's now known as Grindhouse. Unlike the toothless Robert Rodriguez conception of the genre, these are half-pornographic, often racist, impeccably shot and edited glimpses at the extremes of sex and death, both fictional and real. It's a straight shot from these to the Italian Cannibal craze which took us to limits of onscreen violence.

It's not my favorite genre. It's probably my LEAST favorite genre. But god is it ever fascinating.

Savage Man Savage Beast is actually one of the better Mondo films - it has a sense of wit and purpose to its grotesqueness. It makes a legitimate point about the hypocrisy of the West 1, something most of the other films of the genre failed at. There are still debates about just how much of the film is real and how much staged. This much is certain: The horrible hunting footage which opens the film? Real. The death of Pit Dernitz? Despite lingering whispers otherwise, fake.

The three minute scene, then, which come 5 years before Cannibal Holocaust and 24 before The Blair Witch Project, constitutes one of the first found fiction horror films. So it's amazing to see how much of that genre - which wouldn't even exist for years and which wouldn't become popular for a generation - are whole already in this moment of Savage Man Savage Beast.

It's a remarkably complex work, intercutting between three different cameras and 6 distinct characters who are clearly and procedurally identified with an ironic efficiency that reminds me of Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It even includes a film-within-a-film in the form of Dernitz's recovered camera. That film-within-a-film is a remarkable 10 second short story - he approaches, the lioness snarls, he approaches closer and is struck from behind, the camera tumbles and the shot ends. My mind goes instantly to two places: the death of Muldoon in Jurassic Park by a similar "clever girl," with its emphasis on the attack coming "not from the front, but the side;" and the last reels of Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project in which our protagonists are struck down and we're left with a camera on the ground recording nothing.

Ten years later, Stanley Kubrick would praise the "8 frame cuts" and "impression of something complex" in Michelob beer commercials, implying that something amazing could be done if those techniques were absorbed into narrative filmmaking. They have, now, of course, and he was right, of course.

But here, years earlier, in this little 3 minute hoax we have one 2 of the first successful attempts at such fast and active storytelling. And it still fools people! Untold thousands of morbid curiosity seekers from its first shows to its appearance alongside the real-life horror Budd Dwyer hemorrhaging blood in 1993's Traces of Death, to its ubiquity on internet shock sites, the "death" of Pit Dernitz (who, I should mention, has a goddamn IMDb page) is one of the most successful and enduring found footage films ever made - no mere hoax like the Patterson Bigfoot video, but a complex and precise cinematic sudden fiction about man's hubris.

You can watch it on YouTube, but Amazon Prime has a very good print of the entire film (minus a few censored trims) if you can stomach it.

Not work safe teaser trailer.

1 David Kerekes & David Slater in Killing for Culture make the point well:

Death forms a large and integral part of our collective unconscious. Just as modern man is compelled to incorporate ritualism and symbolism into his everyday life, so must he experience - and exorcise - the primal. The scene of Pit Dernitz being devoured by lions is a spectacle which can be traced directly back to the Roman arena - an example of a decadent and declining society whose parallels with our own cannot be ignored. The truth - recently epitomised by the "live" coverage of the Gulf War and conflict in Bosnia - is that our "greater sophistication" extends no further than the fact that we can now indulge our fascination with death in the comfort of our own homes.

2 I tried to fit in a reference to Orson Welles' seminal rapid-fire hoax film F for Fake, but I couldn't quite pull it off. So: I conclude this article with the words "also, F for Fake."


  1. This post reminded me of something I've completely forgotten: I actually own Savage Man Savage Beast. It came in one of those "Grindhouse Experience" box sets but I never got around to watching it (It was paired with another cannibal film, the much campier "Raw Force", wherein at one point an Asian version of Hitler pops up from behind a tombstone holding a rocket launcher)

    I'm kind of curious to pull it out now and give it a watch, although it will undoubtedly be poor quality, most likely transferred from an already deteriorating VHS.

  2. I think it's worth the watch, particularly if you're the kinda guy to buy a Grindhouse box set. It's a tough watch, but a surprisingly smart film that's incredibly well put together.

  3. I'm not sure whether or not it's censored on the DVD, and if so, how heavily. What do you know about the youtube copy?

  4. There's no youtube copy of the whole film, but the Pit clip is there in full. The Amazon Prime copy and, from what I can find out, the Grindhouse Experience DVD are the Australian VHS cut which loses about 2 minutes. The only thing I know for a fact was cut was a castration near the end which I wasn't really dying to peep anyway.

  5. Yeah, I think I can live without seeing that. I'll try and watch it sometime this weekend.

  6. Watching it, this scene is foreshadowed. When the monkey leaves the safety of the bushes to go encounter a leopard, which similarly tears it apart. Interesting. My DVD copy is definitely censored, trimming part of the Pit Dernitz sequence (at least in comparison to the Youtube version).

    What's interesting is I don't feel necessarily disgusted by this film. It certainly disturbs me and makes me consider vegetarianism, but it doesn't feel quite as exploitative as something like Cannibal Holocaust (which I still feel that social commentary or not, it becomes what it hates). The hunting is real, and it happens all the time. It doesn't feel like these animals were killed just for the sake of some shocking footage for a horror movie. It serves a purpose, and they would have died with the cameras there or not. Of course, when you mix fiction with documentary, it compromises the legitimacy of the entire film (what is real and what isn't, can't always say for sure). But Savage Man Savage Beast is pretty interesting, and actually very well composed.

  7. Of course, it is still an exploitation film at it's core. So, gratuitous nudity and all that.

  8. It's also notable that at the end, when we return to the orangutans from the beginning, the narrator mentions them being peaceful vegetarians. He then calls them an "exemplar of a species".

  9. Yeah I agree at pretty much all counts. It doesn't have that queasy lecharous quality many of the other Mondo films do. The legitimacy question is an interesting one - I have a natural inclination to distrust any documentary because, as these prove, it's just so EASY to lie. It's easier than telling the truth.

  10. hay you said you witnessed the death. i am still wondering that why no one try to save him with their car???

  11. Sorry dude, the death of Pit Dernitz was not fake. Many of the scenes were "fakes" but that particular one was among the real ones.

  12. Why is it not known in which safari park that occurred..that convenient stays a mystery. as every safari park where this 'supposed"to have happened would be quick to give a statement to have no knowledge of such a occurence in their particular park; which our heroes obviously can't allow to happen.....

    1. I have no idea what the hell you're trying to say here.

    2. Is not EVERY death, and every murder, like every life;Part fake and part real...that is...Is not life Not fully true, and not fully false,and not always fulfilling, and not always worthwhile...but not realy,truly,''really bad'' either?

    3. Yes...and the man's name seems fake,too...maybe the death was planned by the directer,and the photographer...and the man's family did not A saturnic ritual to Rome,...