Robin’s Underrated Gems: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

On today’s Shouts from the Back Row podcast about cringe-worthy movies, one of my top selections was the infamous Italian cannibal horror film, Cannibal Holocaust. This is one of those movies that will cause you to cringe multiple times while watching, but one cannot deny that it’s very effective at what it does and it’s hard not to admire it for being WAY ahead of its time. In spite of being extremely disturbed by what I saw after my initial viewing of Cannibal Holocaust, that doesn’t mean I haven’t gone back to watch it numerous times. The cannibal exploitation film was a very popular sub-genre in Italy throughout the seventies and early eighties, as these stories were always built around the idea of white men and women stumbling upon a primitive native tribe of cannibals in the jungle. These films would always build up to a gruesome climax where the white people would die very horrible and gory deaths at the hands of the cannibals. The subgenre was officially started by Umberto Lenzi with his 1972 film, The Man from the Deep River, and he would go on to direct numerous cannibal films of great notoriety, such as Eaten Alive and Cannibal Ferox. Ruggero Deodato would make his first venture into the subgenre in 1977 with the film, Jungle Holocaust, and three years later, he would direct the granddaddy of cannibal exploitation pictures which became one of the most controversial films of all time: Cannibal Holocaust. What really set Cannibal Holocaust apart from the rest of the films in its genre was its decision to tell much of its story in the form of “found” documentary footage. Of course, the “found footage” gimmick would find great popularity with The Blair Witch Project twenty years later and pretty much led to the creation of its own subgenre. The Paranormal Activity films, Cloverfield, Quarantine and The Last Exorcism are just a few examples of recent horror movies that are filmed entirely from the point-of-view of someone holding a handheld camera. However, it was Ruggero Deodato who beat everyone else to the punch by two decades and no matter how hard they try, no director from the “found footage” genre has come close to making a film as disturbing as Cannibal Holocaust.

Unlike most of the films which are made in this subgenre today, Cannibal Holocaust does not consist entirely of “found footage”. There’s an entire frame story involving the search for this footage and after much build-up, it isn’t actually shown to the viewer until halfway through the film. The plot involves a crew of four ambitious young filmmakers venturing into the Amazon Jungle to make a documentary about indigenous cannibal tribes. When they fail to return, an anthropology professor named Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, a former porn star who once went by the name “Richard Bolla” and even appeared in Debbie Does Dallas!) embarks on an expedition into Amazonia to find out what happened to them. He arrives at a village that’s populated by a native tribe who seem to generate a lot of suspicion and hostility about the presence of a white man and it turns out there’s a very good reason for that. Monroe eventually discovers the remains of the missing filmmakers, along with some film reels of documentary footage they shot. Monroe soon takes the film reels back to America for viewing and most of the second half is a flashback of what happened to the crew, presented via the footage they shot. Their footage reveals that the filmmakers were pretty much full-fledged psychos and that the native tribe only resorted to murder and cannibalism after the crew did some very horrible things to them and pushed them too far. Initially, the crew are very disappointed to find out that the tribe are very docile and peaceful, which doesn’t provide them with very exciting footage for their documentary. So they decide to stage a scene where they shove some of the natives into a hut and burn them alive, with the intention of passing it off as a vicious attack from a rival warring tribe.

Things get worse when the male members of the crew decide to gang-rape a young native girl. This prompts the tribe to punish her for adultery by impaling her on a pole, which provides the filmmakers with some great footage. Not surprisingly, the crew pushes their luck too far and rile up the natives to the point that they retaliate and murder the filmmakers in very brutal, horrifying ways. After watching all the footage, Professor Monroe makes the none-too-subtle statement: “I wonder who the real cannibals are”. When I first saw Cannibal Holocaust in the mid-nineties, The Blair Witch Project was still a couple of years away, so needless to say, I had never seen anything like this before. While the film is readily available on a deluxe two-disc DVD special edition these days, it was not always an easy film to find in North America, so I had ordered a VHS copy from Revok, a Canadian distributor of rare obscure cult movies. After watching Cannibal Holocaust, I almost felt that the cops were going to come charging in to arrest me for possessing a copy. It goes without saying that when the film originally came out, NOBODY had seen it anything like it! Ruggero Deodato actually WAS arrested for murder since authorities found his “found documentary footage” to be so convincing that they believed it was a legitimate snuff film. Deodato actually had to get his actors to appear and prove they were alive and well in order for the charges against him to be dropped. Unfortunately, even though no actors were actually murdered during the making Cannibal Holocaust, you can’t say the same thing about the poor animals! Since this movie was filmed in the Amazon Jungle, there was no Humane Society or PETA on hand, so the finished film actually contains footage of animals being slaughtered that is 100 % real! I do understand the purpose of the scenes as I’m sure Deodato was trying to create an interesting parallel between scenes of animals being slaughtered by humans and humans being slaughtered by cannibals. However, whatever the intent, it certainly does not justify the killing of real animals for the purposes of filmmaking and even Deodato regrets doing it today. The Special Edition DVD release of the film actually contains an alternate censored “animal cruelty-free” version of the film, which really says something when you consider that anyone who buys a DVD of Cannibal Holocaust to begin with isn’t going to be an overly squeamish person.

When a film contains authentic footage of animals being slaughtered, it is perfectly plausible that people could believe that it’s footage of human beings being slaughtered was authentic as well. Indeed, there are very forms of depravity that aren’t present at some point during Cannibal Holocaust. Certain scenes in this film never fail to make me cringe even after multiple viewings. A sequence where a native tribesman rapes a native woman with a sharp wooden spike is particularly nasty, and but the hardest part for me to watch has always been a gruesome abortion scene where a native woman has her foetus ripped right out of her and buried in a pile of mud. Of course, a cynical person might point out that the film’s “found footage” gimmick might have simply been done in order to disguise the film’s lack of budget or its weaknesses in the special effects department. Indeed, during many of the scenes of extreme violence and gore, there is a lot of shaky and amateurish camera work, which gives off the impression that these documentary filmmakers are pretty lousy at their job. However, this filmmaking style only adds to the film’s realism and one of the reasons Cannibal Holocaust does such a great job of generating feelings of tension and unease is because there is a lot of reality to what is happening onscreen. Even though they weren’t actually being murdered in front of the camera, the actors probably spent much of their filming experience wishing they really were dead. The decision by Deodato and his crew to actually travel into the Amazon Jungle to make the film resulted in a very gruelling and hellacious shoot and the unpleasantness of working in that environment really translates well to screen. Here is a very interesting featurette about the immense controversy surrounding this film.

While some would write Cannibal Holocaust off as pure exploitation, it actually does make an attempt at social commentary and presents some interesting ideas about the media’s disturbing need for sensationalism. What’s particularly unsettling about the last 20 minutes of the film is not just seeing the film crew get butchered, but witnessing how their obsessive need to make an award-winning documentary has taken priority over everything. One of the biggest criticisms of The Blair Witch Project and the other films in the “found footage” subgenre is that it doesn’t seem believable that the characters would still bother to keep the camera rolling when their lives are in great danger. In Cannibal Holocaust, it actually does make sense, in a twisted sort of way. By the end, the film crew pretty much know that they’ve got no chance of leaving the jungle alive, but they still want to make sure they leave behind some memorable footage. As if watching the female member of the crew get gang-raped by the cannibals wasn’t disturbing enough, the idea that her boyfriend would just stand back and film it is pretty creepy. While it’s true that Cannibal Holocaust’s social commentary is a bit ham-fisted at times and may just be a half-baked excuse to justify all the violence, it still makes for very powerful and compelling cinema. In the end, Cannibal Holocaust is a film that I would only recommend to those with REALLY strong stomachs and I’m sure that some viewers will think that the film is highly hypocritical and only exploits the very violence that it claims to denounce. However, one cannot deny that Cannibal Holocaust is still an extremely potent piece of cinema and more than achieves its goal of trying to disturb the hell out of its viewers. In recent years, Hollywood has started its own “torture porn” subgenre and while some viewers may think that the Saw or Hostel films are the ultimate in disturbing cinema, they’ve still never managed to pack the same punch as Cannibal Holocaust.

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