Studio: Grindhouse Releasing
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Writer: Gianfranco Clerici
Producer: Franco Palaggi
Stars: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Giorgio Barbareschi.
When a group of documentary filmmakers goes missing in the Amazon, an anthropologist recovers their footage to discover how they met their grisly demise.
Make no mistake. “Cannibal Holocaust” is no joke.
I watched the film several weeks ago and am only now finally writing the review. It has taken this long because I have had a genuine struggle with how best to approach it. And also with how to interpret my own thoughts and feelings about the movie.
My appreciation of horror cinema was cultivated in an era when the teen years were occupied with tracking down elusive VHS tapes of movies read about in obscure Fangoria articles, but never found in the local video store. For my generation, the unholy grail of forbidden mondo treasures was undoubtedly “Faces of Death.” Having actually seen it gave you an elite status badge amongst the social cliques of burnouts and weirdos.
Like the disclaimers introducing an insane stunt that only make an adolescent want even more to “try this at home,” the tagline proclaiming “Faces of Death” as “banned in 40+ countries” increased its allure immediately to must-see status. Had they known, my parents would probably forbid me to see it for fear of the film warping an impressionable adolescent mind. What is the next most imperative status after “must-see?” Whatever it is, “Faces of Death” had it.
Even in the 1980’s, “Faces of Death” was laughable. Yes, there were genuine death scenes. But the overall presentation and generous inclusion of clearly fabricated fatalities made it more of a romp than anything remotely poised to warp a brain. Now it resides as a midnight movie cult classic that friends can see on a lark with a case of beer and good humor.
In contemporary times, “torture porn” has become so commonplace as to now be passé. The bar for creating controversy with a film is much higher to reach. A movie such as “Human Centipede” is more offensive for the concept rather than the film itself. Actually seeing the portrayal of a human centipede onscreen was far less disturbing than what imaginations had exaggerated it to be beforehand.
When the DVD box art for “Cannibal Holocaust” touts it as “the most controversial movie ever made,” it is reasonable to think that the film is probably of the same ilk as “Faces of Death” or Human Centipede.” That is, reviled more by those who have not seen it than those who have, with that ire directed at the thought of what the content might be rather than what it is. Like its cinematic brethren, watching the film would be more of a perverse pleasure than it would be detrimentally damaging.
After a small film crew disappears while documenting tribal life in the Amazon, an anthropologist locates their footage and brings it back to the States. He and the producers at a television station then review the recovered footage and discover atrocities committed not just by the cannibals who killed the filmmakers, but also committed by the filmmakers against the tribe.
“Cannibal Holocaust” is an unrelenting assault on the human senses. Its effect scars itself so deep into the mind’s eye and beyond that it is nigh impossible to not think about its imagery for several days afterward, if not longer.
Changing times and contemporary attitudes may have mellowed the impact that depictions of simulated torture and cannibalism can have on a more sophisticated audience. But something from the film that remains inarguably controversial, even decades later, is its genuine portrayal of animal slaughter. Several live animals are killed onscreen in visually gruesome ways. A pig is kicked before a gun blast fires through its head. A machete slices through a monkey’s head so that its fresh brains can be consumed. And, most disturbing of all, a giant turtle is decapitated before having its shell torn open as its innards wiggle and spill towards the jungle floor.
Suitably exposed to these authentic horrors, the brain is now conditioned for atrocities on a human scale. Rape, abortion, castration, immolation, decapitation, decomposition, and of course, cannibalism all have their moments of infamy. Some scenes are even set to a “love theme” so bizarre that I am not sure how I am intended to process the imagery.
The stories behind and around the production and release of “Cannibal Holocaust” are arguably more compelling than the film itself. Director Ruggero Deodato was arrested after the Italian premiere on the presumption that he had successfully created and commercially distributed a real snuff film. Dodging a sentence of life in prison required the filmmaker to produce the four main actors live and in person, as proof that he did not really film their cannibalistic murders. Additionally, Deodato had to verify that an impalement special effect was exactly that, and not the body of a woman speared through both ends on a long, bloody pole.
Having seen such a ridiculously long list of horror movies in the last four decades, I thought, how realistic could a makeup effect from 1980 really be that the government of a major country would actually assume a man guilty of murder? I will say this: The impaled woman is the single most impressive practical special effect I have ever seen in a motion picture. After watching that scene, and the rest of the film, I no longer thought it entirely crazy that Italy had Deodato arrested and the film confiscated.
Supposedly, Deodato provided the court with photographic proof that the impaled woman was alive and well, and the effect was achieved by having her sit on a bicycle seat with a wood shaft in her mouth. Until I see these pictures myself, I will always harbor some shred of doubt about their authenticity. If it were ever revealed that Deodato fooled the court and that woman really was speared, I doubt it would shock me. That is how realistic this scene is.
The reason why reviewing “Cannibal Holocaust” is such a challenge is because it is incredibly difficult to quantify its merit. The film already has a secure place in horror film history. It is widely considered to be the first “found footage” horror film, a genre that would not climb its peak until “The Blair Witch Project” resurrected the technique nearly 20 years later. Imitated and emulated, “Holocaust” kickstarted a brief explosion of cannibal-centric films whose influence still reaches across 30+ years. Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno” is an admitted homage to the film. Deodato even makes a cameo as, what else, an Italian cannibal in Roth’s “Hostel II.”
The ultimate question is, what is the film’s true value? Be clear about one thing: “Cannibal Holocaust” is not entertainment. At worst, it is exploitative cinema with no more laudable purpose than to intentionally shock and disgust. At best, it is a clever political commentary that questions, does civility make one any less of a savage? What the filmmakers do to the men and women of the Amazon is perhaps more reprehensible than what is done to them in return. Do their actions warrant a deserved fate? Am I no better if I want to see them eat their just desserts? And perhaps most questionable, can horror depicted in a movie actually be “too real?”
There is a genuinely slippery slope that can be debated about Ruggero Deodato’s true intentions. I will leave that discussion to more inclined minds. I do not regret having seen “Cannibal Holocaust,” but I have no desire to revisit it. Deviously genius or scandalously repulsive, I truly cannot tell. Though something indisputable is that the movie aims to provoke a reactive response, and it succeeds in spades. For better or for worse, its unsettling effect is undeniable. Few films have the ability to brand such an indelible impact, and “Cannibal Holocaust” earns a spot at the top of that list, no matter what it may be worth. After all, a horror movie is supposed to be horrific. And “Cannibal Holocaust” is definitely that.
Review Score: 55