During the ’70s, Italian filmmakers had a thing for making films in tropical locations. Shooting in the tropics offered a lot of production value for a limited amount of lira so they spent a lot of time shooting adventure flicks, cannibal horror shockers and more than a few sexploiters in the tropical erotica vein. The Snake God was an early entry in the latter category and delivers all the skin, sun and mixed-combo sex that an exploitation fan would expect. However, it also reveals itself to have a surprising amount of artsiness as well as an interesting social/political agenda.
The Snake God begins with Paola (Nadia Cassini) traveling to the Caribbean to live out her new life as the wife of a wealthy businessman (Sergio Tramonti). She quickly becomes friends with Sylvia (Beryl Cunningham), a local teacher who blends modern attitudes with a reverence for the island’s voodoo religious traditions. Paola becomes fascinated with said traditions and soon falls prey to Djamballa, the serpent god mentioned in the film’s title. She begins to experience changes, both psychological and sexual, that push her life in a direction she never expected – and one that Sylvia may be powerless to stop.
The Snake God delivers on a couple of levels. The first and most obvious is as an alluring crossbreed of erotica and horror. Cassini and Cunningham cut striking and different figures: Cassini has a kind of big-eyed, Euro sultriness while Cunningham cuts the striking figure of a model. The two throw themselves into the requirements of their roles, both emotional and erotic. They’re convincing as sex symbols and also actresses, with their different personas creating a tension that keeps the story interesting.
Director/co-writer Piero Vivarelli captures both the beautiful and eerie qualities of his setting and handles the sexy and scary scenes with equal aplomb. Sometimes he manages to combine both qualities effectively: highlights include a voodoo ceremony that finds both Paola and Sylvia giving in to their earthiest desires as the jungle rhythms grow ever more frantic and the dreamlike sequence where Paola is “seduced” by Djamballa.
The resulting film just drips with an overheated atmosphere and Vivarelli’s work is aided beautifully by sharp, lushly-colored ‘score cinematography from Benito Frattari – who previously worked in the tropics with Jacopetti and Prosperi – and a delicious score from Augusto Martelli that mixes Carribean elements with Euro-lounge funkiness.
However, there is another, hidden level to The Snake God that takes it above and beyond mere erotica. Vivarelli’s storytelling also doubles as a critique of European colonialism and the way it misunderstands the traditions of the cultures it attempts to overtake. Paola’s journey is not only an erotic awakening but also has spiritual elements, particularly an interesting monologue that Sylvia gives about the way Catholic missionaries once wreaked havoc on the island in the name of progress. There’s also a social critique, with Paola growing away from the shallow, materialistic type she is at the story’s outset and towards being someone who can merge the physical with the spiritual. The film’s enigmatic yet beautiful ending really captures the latter element.
In short, The Snake God is a rewarding view for Euro-cult enthusiasts in more than one way. The surface thrills deliver on all the oversexed expectations you might have for this kind erotic-tropic concoction but it’s the ideas beneath the sultry surface that allow it stick in the viewer’s mind.