Bungle in the jungle

Italian Tarzan ripoff Zambo is a racist ludicrous mess

“You know it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a crappy jungle movie” I muttered while scrutinizing the DVD case for Zambo (a.k.a. Zambo King of the Jungle ) (1972). These flicks all seem to have the same ingredients — racism baggy gorilla suits snake attacks duplicitous guides dickheads in pith helmets snapping pictures of wildlife a ditzy blonde who falls for the hero and a protagonist who conquers Africa just by being white. But what the hell sometimes you’re just in the mood for a crappy jungle movie.

All those above-cited elements are present in Zambo (well except for the snake attack. Damn it.) but you have to wait about 30 minutes before the clichés really start stacking up. Until then Zambo is a completely different film and quite a compelling one at that. Two grubby-looking prisoners in authentic old-timey prison outfits (black-and-white stripes! Just like O Brother Where Art Thou !) get handcuffed together and loaded onto a train where they’re watched carefully by armed guards. The shackled men have never met before and have to plan their escape entirely with meaningful glances a tricky bit of acting that the performers manage to nail perfectly. In the blink of an eye the two prisoners have stolen a bayonet and a pistol and have leapt from the train into the unforgiving freedom of the African jungle.

This whole sequence is unpredictable and fascinating. Even the standard movie trope of “shooting the chain off the handcuffs” is done with originality. (It takes them three shots and they argue the entire time.) We don’t even know who these guys are or who the hero is going to be. That changes when one of the prisoners dies from eating a poisonous plant leaving the surviving con to get captured by native tribesmen. Immediately the film starts laying on the stupid clichés beginning with the natives caging the white prisoner and actually dancing around him shaking spears in his direction. Yeesh!

Some children decide that they like the funny white-skinned man so the tribal chief smiles and presumably frees him because it’s suddenly three years later and the white guy (Brad Harris) has become Zambo King of the Jungle hero to every tribe and friend to every wild animal. It’s like the movie had been waiting until now to turn fucking stupid and it couldn’t wait one second longer.

Zambo defeats some modern-day slave traders (!) by disarming a gunman with a rock (!!) and letting an African boy jump into the path of a bullet meant for him (!!!). Bullet-boy recovers quickly and becomes Zambo’s sidekick. Then Zambo stops a tribal war by telling both sides to stop fighting and they whoop and cheer at his wisdom. (I actually really like that part I just wish it sounded like it was written by an adult.) Then Zambo saves a pretty blonde explorer from one of the most hilariously fake-looking gorillas I’ve even seen… and I’ve seen some spectacularly fake-looking gorillas.

At this point you can safely stop paying attention to the plot and loudly ridicule the movie with your friends. You won’t miss anything important. For one brief moment it looks like Zambo is actually going to use his animal-talking superpowers to sic every wild beast in Africa on the bad guy but then the budget runs out and the villain just reacts with horror to several flash-cuts of stock footage before wrestling with Zambo on the edge of a cliff.

Virtually nobody has even heard of this idiotic jungle fiasco but now the good people at Full Moon’s Grindhouse Collection have given it a DVD release. Good for a laugh at least.