Cannibal Holocaust~ Ruggero Deodato, 1980, Italy
The roughest, gnarliest, most controversial Video Nasty of them all is inarguably this one; Ruggero Deodato’s gory ass cannibal milestone Cannibal Holocaust, the king of cannibal cinema, and an early example of the found footage format in motion pictures. It’s 36 years old, and at the time of my writing this, it remains every bit the gut wrenchingly disturbing sleazefest it was when it was first unleashed. There’s just something so timeless about shameless, irresponsible degradation and filth… At least, that’s what I like to tell myself.
This is as wholesome and uplifting as this film gets.
Legends abound about what transpired behind the camera during this production, with many reports painting director Deodato as a cruel, abusive puppet master who manipulated and tortured his actors and crew. There’s also speculation about some of the dead bodies in the film being genuine (there’s some truth to that, by the way), and much like what happened with Snuff (another notorious video nasty) Deodato did in fact have to produce his actors, alive and well, before the authorities to prove that their onscreen deaths were, in fact, simulated. It’s true that audiences were easier to dupe in 1980, but even today the ample gore effects in Cannibal Holocaust hold up incredibly well, and the film remains visceral enough to satisfy contemporary splatter fans as much as it ever did. If you’re looking to subject yourself to the foulest, most gruesome cinema ever made, then Cannibal Holocaust is a movie you can’t afford to skip. A word to the wise, however, do not go into Cannibal Holocaust if you harbor any sensitivity of any kind. This is advanced level shit. Cannibal Holocaust boasts not only graphic blood and violence of the most aggressive sort, it also contains explicit sexual violence, as well as the on screen killing, torture, and mutilation of live animals, all of which is actual, not simulated. Because of this, it’s difficult to watch Cannibal Holocaust objectively, as the film seems to demand a morally motivated response separate from an assessment of its merit as a film. Frankly, this movie is just not suitable for most audiences, and even those who appreciate it will often condemn it at the same time. In truth, Cannibal Holocaust is only one of many films in the Spanish/Italian Cannibal genre, and nearly all of these feature the same sort of content. The only real difference is that Cannibal Holocaust is much better than most of these, and therefore, drastically more effective.
THE PLOT~ When a group of documentary filmmakers on assignment in the Amazon goes missing, Professor Harold Monroe somehow concludes that going after them isn’t a terrible idea. He departs, and somehow manages to find them, although they are predictably dead as fuck, which leaves Monroe with the consolation prize of returning to civilization with reel after reel of raw, undeveloped film shot by the crew before they met their grisly end. After developing this footage, we slowly piece together the truth; our missing filmmakers were, in fact, total douchebags, who antagonized the fuck out of the locals, and acted like the Amazon was some sort of perverse theme park designed by Caligula. Again and again, they engage in acts of deplorable violence and degradation, even going to far as raping local girls and setting fire to villages just to get some exciting footage. With this added context, we don’t feel sorry for our film crew at all, even though we watch them die in graphic, and awesome ways. I don’t use the word “awesome” lightly, this part of the movie really is fantastic, and honestly, the murder of these buttholes is more than justified. I mean, what took these cannibals so long? They’re way more tolerant than I am. WAY more. I’d have killed them like, an hour after they showed up.
Those are some guts, I guess.
Nowhere else is the cannibal film’s hereditary roots in Mondo cinema more apparent than Cannibal Holocaust. The found footage format helps to display its close relation movies like Mondo Cane, Africa Addio, and Mondo Magic (among others), and it may be that bond that helped to give this film the impact it had back in 1980. It does have a documentary feel much of the time, with strategic use of steadicam and compositions that feel impromptu, lending a raw and authentic feel to the film’s grisliest sequences. It’s easy to see why this was confusing to audiences who were less accustomed to having to apply scrutiny to the films they viewed. Even today, the film is certainly quite effective, even outside of the violent sequences. Cannibal Holocaust feels well made, but still totally without polish of any kind, there’s just something inherently wild about the film.
Another crucial ingredient that helps to make Cannibal Holocaust as effective as it is is it’s score. While 90% of the onscreen visuals are natural landscapes, the music is a strange, haunting synth score, which was very much the fashion in 1980’s Euro Cinema. Here, however, that stylistic choice is profoundly effective, the most feels sterile, and almost alien at times, further emphasizing how foreign and unsafe the environment in Cannibal Holocaust is. It’s hard to know how much of this was deliberate or conscious, as well as to what degree it would have been noticeable to an audience in 1980, but to audiences today, the combination is fantastically off-putting.
Overall, Cannibal Holocaust is a remarkably difficult film, not just to watch, but to process. Perhaps more than any other subgenre, the cannibal films of the European 80’s seem to demand a moral response, because of the nature of their sensational content. From an objective standpoint, it’s patently ridiculous to suggest that Cannibal Holocaust isn’t a masterpiece. It’s an incredibly effective horror film that will likely remain potent and unnerving decades longer than contemporary films of the era. Its nigh Herzogian production makes it fascinating and engrossing, and deliberate attempts to top the onscreen sleaze and violence on display here still routinely fail more than 36 years later. But then one has to acknowledge the unsavory actions taken by the cast and crew in their irresponsible quest for onscreen sensationalism, and it becomes quite difficult not to condemn Cannibal Holocaust in much the same way you would Clownhouse, or even (to a lesser extent) Pulgasari. Cannibal Holocaust, therefore, almost requires two assessments… Morally, I’d say this is super fucked up. As a film? Sort of a masterpiece.