Ivan Rassimov

Actor who won cult status for his cannibal films

Saturday 22 March 2003 01:00 GMT

Ivan Djrassimovic (Ivan Rassimov), actor: born Trieste, Italy 7 May 1938; married (one daughter); died Rome 14 March 2003

With saturnine good looks and a virile screen presence, Ivan Rassimov was a forceful and popular leading man in Italian genre films of the 1970s, many of which were shown in Britain, both in the cinema and on video. While he excelled as hero or villain in westerns, war movies, and thrillers, it was Rassimov's involvement in the notorious cycle of Italian cannibal films of that decade which ensured his cult status.

Born in Trieste to Croatian parents, Rassimov was signed to the Vides production company after leaving university, and moved to Rome. His film début, however, was delayed by national service, and it was not until 1964, after a spell with the Teatro Stabile in his home city, that he managed to return to the capital to make the crime comedy Super rapina a Milano (Robbery Roman Style). His somewhat mixed fortunes continued when he was cast in John Huston's epic La bibbia (The Bible . . . In the Beginning, 1966); not only was his part largely cut from the final print, but his contractual obligations for that film cost him a role in Federico Fellini's Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965).

A brief appearance in Damiano Damiani's La strega in amore (The Witch in Love, 1966), based on a story by Carlos Fuentes, may have proved some consolation, but art-house cinema's loss was soon to prove popular cinema's gain when Rassimov, who had played a small part in Mario Bava's Terrore nello spazio (Planet of the Vampires, 1965), found himself renamed by an enterprising producer as "Sean Todd" and cast in a number of spaghetti westerns, including Non aspettare Django, spara! (Don't Wait, Django . . . Shoot!, 1968) in which he co-starred with his sister Rada Rassimov. He then followed in the footsteps of Luigi Pavese, Steve Reeves, and Ray Danton by playing the Malaysian prince Sandokan in Le tigri di Mompracem ("The Tigers of Mompracem", 1970), based on the popular pulp novels of Emilio Salgari.

After making three "giallo" thrillers with Edwige Fenech for the director Sergio Martino, Rassimov was cast as an English photographer captured by cannibals in Umberto Lenzi's Il paese del sesso selvaggio (Deep River Savages, 1972), the first of a bizarre sub-genre which gloatingly mixed staged scenes of cruelty to humans with all too real scenes of animal violence. The high point, so to speak, of Deep River Savages showed the top of a live monkey's head being lopped off with a machete, and its brains being scooped out and eaten. "Absolutely disgusting," as Rassimov himself put it in an interview given in 1998.

In 1977, having played Satan in Mario Gariazzo's L'ossessa (The Sexorcist, 1974), and appeared with Chuck Connors in Il lupo del mari (The Legend of the Sea Wolf, 1975), a crude version of Jack London's The Sea Wolf, Rassimov was back in the jungle in Ruggero Deodato's Ultimo mondo cannibale (Cannibal!, 1977), as a bearded boffin who helps to rescue a colleague from the clutches of gut-munching natives. His final contribution to the cannibal cycle came in 1980 when he was reunited with Lenzi and Me Me Lai (leading lady in both Deep River Savages and Cannibal!) in Mangiati vivi (Eaten Alive, 1980), in which Rassimov played the deranged cult leader the Rev Jonas Melvyn – a character clearly modelled on the Rev Jim Jones of Jonestown, Guyana, infamy – who leads his followers to mass suicide in the jungles of New Guinea.

Unsurprisingly, the cannibal films in which Rassimov starred were controversial, and Deep River Savages was duly banned in Britain during the "video nasties" hysteria of the early 1980s, as no doubt Cannibal! and Eaten Alive would have been had they been made available. As a result, bootleg copies abound and are still eagerly sought after both by collectors and the merely curious.

Rassimov's other films of the 1970s included Inhibition (Inhibitions, 1976) in which he appeared with Ilona Staller, later the Italian MP known as "La Cicciolina", and Joe D'Amato's Emanuelle nera orient reportage (Black Emanuelle 2 Goes East, 1976) and Emanuelle: perché violenza alle donne? (Confessions of Emanuelle, 1977), starring the beautiful Laura Gemser.

With the contraction of the Italian film industry in the 1980s, Rassimov's output declined, and, after playing a KGB chief in Bruno Mattei's TV mini-series Appuntamento in Trieste (Appointment in Trieste) in 1987, he retired from acting to become director of a publishing house specialising in genre fiction and graphic novels.

John Exshaw

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