Me Me Lai: Cannibal Queen

The daughter of an English father and a Burmese mother, Me Me Lai (sometimes credited as Me Me Lay) was born in India in either 1951 or 1952. Little is known about her childhood in Burma; she moved to London in her early teens. After college, she began working as an actress and model, appearing in small television roles and commercials. After a few minor film appearances the first being She’ll Follow You Anywhere/Passion Potion (1971) her first significant billing was in Val Guest’s quirky sex ‘comedy’, Au Pair Girls (1972), which was released the following year.

It was not long before she became familiar to international audiences after being cast in the lushly shot, exotic adventure film Man From Deep River (1972). This Italian production, shot in Thailand and directed by Umberto Lenzi, features a predominately local cast along with Lenzi’s choice of lead actor, the late Ivan Rassimov. It is believed Me Me was cast after Lenzi discovered that Thai actresses found the content of the film to be too risqué. This film provided two ‘firsts’: it is retrospectively viewed by some critics as being the first in a cycle of Italian-produced cannibal films and it is also the first of three cannibal/exploitation films Me Me starred in alongside Ivan Rassimov.

After this film however, there appears to be a gap in Me Me’s filmography, with no known acting roles between 1973 and 1976. Man From Deep River was eventually released in the USA and other countries over the next few years. Many actresses who appeared in Italian films in the early 1970s promoted these films by appearing in photo shoots in both Italian and Spanish magazines, often featuring soft nudes. It is these magazine appearances, as well as short interviews in British TV/film magazines that offer an insight into the young Me Me’s humour, with an article from Saturday Tibits from September 1971 offering some offbeat anecdotes. There are unconfirmed reports that both Au Pair Girls and Man From Deep River were to have direct sequels, but they never materialized. The sequel to Au Pair Girls was to be called “Glamour, Inc” but little else is known about these plans, and if Me Me would reprise her role.

Eventually, Me Me and Rassimov were both cast again in a second cannibal film but without Lenzi at the helm. After being refused a bigger budget and/or a higher salary, Lenzi was replaced by compatriot Ruggero Deodato. Last Cannibal World/Jungle Holocaust (1977) is a darker, nastier, more claustrophobic companion piece to Lenzi’s film. Rassimov is relegated to being the supporting actor and Massimo Foschi was cast as the main protagonist instead. This film expands on some of the elements that later became notorious within the cannibal film genre: real animal killings, strong gore and bizarre “tribal practices” that are meant to be believed as being genuine indigenous ways of life. Without revealing any spoilers, Me Me features in a jaw-dropping finale which has shock value which still holds up today. Most fans have likely discovered her through Last Cannibal World, especially in America because her UK TV roles were never to be exported to the USA for viewing (and are pretty obscure).

As the 1970s drew to a close, Me Me appeared in a few more small roles: a cameo in one of the Peter Sellers Pink Panther entries Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and a dubbed appearance in low budget James Bond piss-take Licensed to Love and Kill (1979). Whether her earlier nude film appearances had any effect on her television and more mainstream film career is unknown, but it is a shame that the early promise of her career had waned and she never appeared in any major reoccurring role.

However, they say things come in threes; her cannibal trilogy was completed when Lenzi, perhaps feeling he wanted to provide a cannibal sequel of his own (with both Me Me and Rassimov as originally intended) directed Eaten Alive! (1980) Filmed in Sri Lanka and released in 1980, this film is notorious for ‘cannibalising’ footage not only from his earlier film Man From Deep River but also Deodato’s Last Cannibal World and Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God. This plagiarism becomes blatantly obvious if one watches Eaten Alive! after the aforementioned films. The rip-offs range from the trivial (scene of a plane arriving at an airport) to the ludicrous (a cut away to a man being castrated, with no context given). Me Me is in a familiar role though but this reduced part was to be the swan song of her appearance in Italian horror. Nevertheless, it is this unofficial trilogy that definitely has cemented her cult status on an international level. A few more small UK produced sitcom roles in the early 1980s followed, most notably an appearance in Spearhead in Hong Kong (1981).

That was not the end though, there was to be a final twist in Me Me’s colourful and eclectic acting career. A far cry from the carnage of the cannibal movies and the carefree sex comedies, Me Me was cast in The Element of Crime (1984). This was the debut feature of controversial Danish director Lars von Trier and is probably is the best showcase of her acting ability, which it is clear she had. It is a shame she was not recognized more following von Trier’s art-house movie and after an apparent lack of roles, Me Me Lai was to retire from acting circa 1985.

However, thanks to the reappraisal of Italian horror and Internet forum/nerd culture, Me Me Lai has developed a steadily growing cult fan base. Her reputation as a ‘Cannibal Queen’ however, is a misnomer; despite appearing in three cannibal films, she is never actually depicted eating human flesh. She is cast as a sympathetic tribe member and one of the ‘good guys’ in all three, but is brutally punished for her good deeds.

Outside of her controversial films, there is more that this lovely woman should be known for. She appeared in some notable TV dramas and also did some TV presenting such as Robert Harbin’s Origami programme for the BBC. However, it is unlikely that her early television appearances will ever be seen. Many tapes from that era have been wiped, binned or lost, especially if the shows were in black and white. The recent trawl of the BBC archive for the surviving Paul Temple episodes only returned about 16 out of 52, with Me Me’s sole appearance (possibly her first ever acting appearance) unfortunately not amongst them.

There is another aspect of Me Me’s career that Italian horror fans may not be aware of; she did theatre too. She acted in David Hare’s play, Plenty, in the role of Mrs Aung. The play also starred Kate Nelligan, Julie Covington and Paul Freeman. It opened at the Lyttelton Theatre on 12th April 1978 and proved to be successful. In 2001 – the Lyttelton’s 25th anniversary – it was voted the best NT play of 1978. Plenty eventually became a film in 1985 (directed by Fred Schepisi) and starred Meryl Streep, Charles Dance, Ian McKellen, Sting and Sam Neill; the role of Mrs Aung was played by Pik-Sen Lim.

Since her retirement in the mid 1980s, it has been difficult to find any interviews or recollections from Me Me discussing her films and career. Ivan Rassimov claims he had a good friendship with her; this lead to speculation that they may have been romantically involved, especially due to their love scenes in Man From Deep River, although this is false. Deodato’s mentions that Me Me was a fearless actress who was not put off by snakes and other jungle perils. During a break in filming, Deodato recalls her sitting on what looked like a rock but it turned out to be a huge snake! He also claims that in one scene she was badly cut by the sharp jungle grass; this is not surprising considering she is completely naked throughout most of the movie. It is claimed Me Me was married to a martial arts instructor at the time of filming Last Cannibal World and he flew out to Malaysia to see how it was going.

Me Me Lai Interview

The movies you did work on during your time in the industry presumably weren’t always comfortable experiences…
Me Me Lai: You’re right.

What was it like to film in the Amazon wilderness?
Me Me Lai: It was incredibly difficult filming especially for Cannibal (Jungle Holocaust)! Ruggero Deodato, laughing, said that when we made Deep River Savages for Umberto Lenzi we went out clubbing, drinking and fucking every night! With Cannibal all we had was badminton every night; hardly any food, certainly no booze, nothing to dance to! It really was in the middle of the jungle, and it was hard work!

The cannibal films…some have been labeled among the most controversial films ever made. How do you feel about that?
Me Me Lai: I feel good about that now, though I didn’t at the time. Although they were horrific, people remember me because of these films and say how much they enjoyed them.

Which out of your three cannibal films -was the toughest shoot and which was the easiest?
Me Me Lai: I think the easiest had to be EATEN ALIVE because I wasn’t actually ‘the star’ as such, and I didn’t have that many lines or as much to do as the others. I could spend my time sitting around sunbathing! And with MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (shot on the Thai-Burmese border) we weren’t too far from the town, so we didn’t feel too cut off. The hardest was THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD with Ruggero in Malaysia. My body took a battering on that film. Especially running through the long grass – I didn’t feel the pain at the time because of the adrenaline, but when I had a shower I was screaming from the blood, because my body was cut from head to toe. I had my husband there with me and I told him “Go tell them I need a doctor! My body is red raw!” It was an uncomfortable shoot. I also sat on a snake during that film! I remember I was only wearing a sarong and sat down – and then felt this wriggling under my left buttock. I looked underneath me and there was this snake. I got up as fast as a water skier, and was running around screaming “Snake! Snake!” The Italian crew didn’t understand what I was saying of course; they were just staring at me, wondering what I was screaming about. Then someone saw it slithering away and said, “Ah, serpente.” So I ran around after that shouting, “Serpente! Serpente!”” Luckily it didn’t bite me though – especially as it would have been on the buttock!

Which of the three Cannibal films is your favourite?
Me Me Lai: I think it’s Ruggero’s THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD. But of all my films I would have to say ELEMENT OF CRIME, I like that one. I mean it was maybe a bit boring at times and a little too dark where you’re sometimes struggling to see what’s happening, but I’m most proud of that film

From the series of these films at what point do you think the films became controversial?
Me Me Lai: Well, they changed the titles so many times I really didn’t know which was which. The first one – Man from Deep River – was really tame. It really began to get quite hairy with Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal. Many people have said to me that Eaten Alive was their favourite film but I can’t remember it too well. I think I tried to watch it but there was too much blood and gore and I couldn’t get past the first 10 minutes.

Did you ever have a problem with the extensive nudity these films required?
Me Me Lai: No, it all seemed very natural. It wasn’t done in a lewd way. And if you look at these films, almost everyone is naked it’s not like I’m the only one. Actually, there was one scene in THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD that I was a little nervous about. It’s where Massimo Foschi is chasing my character through the long grass and then he hits her in the face and gets her on all fours, before raping her. I said, “Ruggero, you can’t shoot this from behind because you’ll see what I ate for breakfast!” But he’s such a good director, and I felt confident he wasn’t going to take a shot like that. He made me feel comfortable. But the rest of the nudity just felt kind of natural. The crew there was nice and so were the actors, everyone was so good about it. I think we did two versions of Cannibal – one which was nude and one where I was covered up in something like a monkey suit. I was very uneasy at first, but I was treated with great respect and I wasn’t gaped at. In fact the only thing I had a real problem with on any of these films was the animal cruelty.

Did you see much of that?
Me Me Lai: I didn’t on THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD, but on MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, the animal cruelty was really bad. For me the worst was the monkey scene where a monkey is put into a vice and has the top of its head sliced off. I’ve never seen the uncut version of the film and don’t want to, but I was there obviously. I said to Umberto, “I can’t stand here for this scene. I can’t.” But he just said, “Stand there!” And I remember the monkey was screaming…I had nightmares for a long time after that. It was the worst scene of my life.

What was it like to film in the Amazon wilderness?
Me Me Lai: It was incredibly difficult filming especially for Cannibal (Jungle Holocaust)! Ruggero Deodato, laughing, said that when we made Deep River Savages for Umberto Lenzi we went out clubbing, drinking and fucking every night! With Cannibal all we had was badminton every night; hardly any food, certainly no booze, nothing to dance to! It really was in the middle of the jungle, and it was hard work!

Do you wish you had more dialogue in the films? You’re mostly relegated to a few lines of local dialect or pigeon English…
Me Me Lai: No, not really. It just meant I had to find other ways to express what my characters were feeling.

Did you ever go back and see your films are the cinema?
Me Me Lai: Well, I don’t like watching my own films on the cinema, certainly not the cannibal ones. Though I did see [my film] Au Pair Girls (1972) in the cinema!

How do you think these films have endured?
Me Me Lai: Well, they’re nothing compared to [films] today. I’m glad now that they were controversial. I wasn’t pleased at the time, but on reflection the more controversial they were, the better it was for me. But at the time it wasn’t so good.

Well, despite being in the middle of the Amazon, you looked incredibly beautiful in your films!
Me Me Lai: Well, I don’t know about being beautiful but thank you! We did have a make-up artist but all they did for me was to muddy up my hair every day!

Were you offered roles in any other cannibal or horror movies after these ones?
Me Me Lai: Well, I think was offered one or two films that I wouldn’t even give the time of day for. But if Ruggero or Umberto Lenzi or one of the producers had offered me something else, I’d have probably done it. If I had stayed on in Rome that might have happened, but I had to come back home.

One question that fans of your work would like to know is where you disappeared to after Lars Von Trier’s ELEMENT OF CRIME? There have been various theories flying around online – that you became the host of a cooking show, that you became a bodybuilder…
Me Me Lai: The bodybuilding part is true actually! I did natural bodybuilding; so I didn’t take steroids and I only competed with the natural societies. I did quite well-in fact, I was Miss Great Britain one year. After that I became a fitness instructor and taught aerobics, and got a black belt in karate. So it was all to do with fitness. I had a very young daughter and the acting business can be very fickle. The work wasn’t flowing in that much. I don’t mind starving but my daughter can’t starve, so I thought I’d better get a job where the money comes in every month. I was in my 30s then, and I just thought it would be a good time to leave the industry and get a job that actually earned me regular money.

Forbrydelsens Element aka The Element of Crime [1984] (as Meme Lai) – Kim
Mangiati Vivi! aka Eaten Alive!, Doomed to Die, The Emerald Jungle [1980] – Mowara
Licensed to Love and Kill aka The Man From S.E.X., Undercover Lover [1979] – Female Madam Wang
Revenge of the Pink Panther [1978] – Chinese Lady of Easy Virtue #2
Ultimo Mondo Cannibale aka Last Cannibal World, Jungle Holocaust (USA: DVD box title), Cannibal (UK: pre-cert video title), Carnivorous (USA: reissue title), The Last Survivor (USA: cut version) [1977] – Pulan
Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio aka (The) Man From (The) Deep River, Deep River Savages (UK: cut DVD title), Sacrifice! (USA) [1972] (as Me Me Lay) – Marayå
Au Pair Girls aka The Young Playmates [1972] (as Me Me Lay) – Nan Lee
Crucible of Terror aka Unholy Terror [1971] (as Me Me Lay) – Chi-San
She’ll Follow You Anywhere aka Passion Potion [1971] (as Me Me Lay) – Bride

The Optimist (1 episode) – Healthy Body, Unhealthy Mind (1983/5/5) – Karate Girl [never repeated]
On the Line (1 episode) – Episode No. 1.4 (1982/6/18) – Interpreter [never repeated]
Spearhead (2 episodes) – Another Happy Day (1981/8/13) – Mimi #, Have a Happy Day (1981/8/6) – Mimi #
Jason King (2 episodes) – All That Glisters: Pt. 2 (1971/12/15) – Xanthe #, All That Glisters: Pt. 1 (1971/12/8) – Xanthe #
Hine (1 episode) – Little White Lady (1971/5/26) – Miss Mini #
Where Do I Sit? (1971?) [wiped]
Omnibus (1 episode) A Requiem For Modigliani (1970/11/22)
Paul Temple (1 episode) – Murder in Munich: Pt. 1 (1970/7/12) – Masseuse [wiped]
Origami (at least 1 episode, circa 1970)

Camden Film Fair, October 2014

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