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.



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Female Vampire~ 1975, Jess Franco, France


There is no agreed upon consensus regarding Jesus Franco, the now deceased, and maddeningly prolific Spanish director responsible for Female Vampire. Numerous respected academics have weighed in on him, and Franco has been called one of the greatest minds in cinematic history, and also the single shittiest hacks who ever lived, and in both cases, more than once. It’s safe to say that the jury is still out, but even the most fanatical Franco-phile is usually willing to admit that Jess shot more than his share of total stinkers back in the day. This man’s first priority seemed to be making absolutely certain that he was always working on a movie, and whether or not anyone would ever want to watch it really didn’t seem to be a concern. He was sort of like those kids in school who always turned up so they could dick around with their friends, but gave no shits about their GPA. Perfect attendance, never turned in an assignment; that’s Franco all over.

Female Vampire is a fairly typical example of Franco’s work from the mid 1970’s. It stars Lina Romay’s naughty bits, and costars Lina Romay herself, albeit in a small, supporting role. Both Ms Romay and her erogenous zones are longtime collaborators of Franco’s, on and off screen; and in fact, Romay was Franco’s common-law spouse!


Yeah, I don’t know how, either. Maybe he was funny.

Regardless of any social or romantic commitment the two may have had to one another, Romay would continue to be a common feature in the director’s work for years and years, often appearing nude, and occasionally even performing in Franco’s hardcore pornographic films. Female Vampire really showcases Franco’s easy going attitude toward nudity and sex, as well as his apparent disinterest in the quality of his finished work, and as a result, we now have a frustratingly incoherent festival of boobs and jet black pubic fur that some would dare to call a movie, and which is today widely available on Blu-ray throughout most developed countries. Sex sells.

THE PLOT~ Lina Romay plays Countess Irina Karnstein, a vampire who gets sexy with folks all day, every day. Countess Karnstein is totally a vampire, you guys, but she doesn’t drink blood to live… She… Well, she get’s her sustenance through… other methods… SEXY methods. You pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down? It’s semen.

Really, there’s not much of a story here. Shocker, right? Franco does do a little bit of work to try and paint the vampire as a tragic figure, constantly groping for intimacy, by ultimately hollow and alone, but this isn’t new terrirory for vampire fiction by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s been done better elsewhere. For the most part, it’s a movie that volleys back and forth between gratuitous sex scenes featuring Lina Romay and whatever person or object happens to be in the room with her, and then flowery, romantic French bullshit, which we already have enough of that in the world. Occasionally, we might get a token exposition scene tacked on in a desperate attempt to give Female Vampire some vague illusion of story, but calling these scenes half-assed would be generous. Female Vampire is not a movie to search out if you crave intellectual stimulation. It plays to a different part of the brain, if it plays at all.

It’s pretty common to see Franco fans talk about Female Vampire as being an example of “erotic” vampire cinema, and to me, calling this film “erotic” is worse than wishful thinking, it’s downright embarrassing. Female Vampire’s sexual content is handled with the subtly and grace of an elephant high on methamphetamines and LSD, barging through a hospital burn ward. This thing is clumsy, tactless, exploitative, shameless, lecherous and crass.This is not erotica, this is pornography that never pulls the trigger. It does succeed occasionally at pulling off a haunting, poetic sort of vibe, but honestly, it’s sort of hard NOT to feel poetic when you’re filming a nude woman in a black cloak frolicking about the mist shrouded forests of rural France. This would have been an excellent place to call “cut,”, but of course, Franco finds a way to ruin even these brief moments of genuine beauty by launching right into an eye-rollingly juvenile zoom shot straight into Romay’s pubic mat. Why don’t you just paint monster trucks onto the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel to jazz it up, you bumbling, artless pornographer? Dammit, Franco. I’m just angry now.

But is it fair to come down so hard on Franco, a man who, like you or I, had bills to pay, and who was making movies in an environment where sex was increasingly in demand? It’s certainly reasonable to assume that a lot of the sexual content in Female Vampire was integral in securing financing from investors, who expected this to greatly enhance the films commercial appeal, but adding nudity to Franco’s work in order to make it more commercial is like putting chocolate sprinkles of a tire fire; it’s never going to be a delicious treat. There’s nothing less accessible than the mad celluloid ramblings of Jess Franco, and that’s a fact of life. It’s a lesson financers learned the hard way, but clearly they made enough money to justify decades worth of budget, because Franco kept going and going long after this mess hit the screen. Now we can only furrow our brows in confusion, because it’s too late to stop him.

It’s also amazing just how much this film could have been improved by just purchasing a decent tripod. The camera is constantly moving throughout the entire picture, and the pans and tilts are terribly awkward and jerky, which is super distracting. Technical issues like this are probably just one more thing that Franco couldn’t be bothered to give two shits about. Female Vampire’s first and only objective is to exist, so in that regard, it’s was successful.

To me, it’s always been tough to figure out if Franco is, in fact, a mad genius, or if this is actually just the single best example of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon  ever. Yes, his wild, jazzy, off-road attitude towards motion picture production is certainly fascinating, but at some point, this starts to feel terribly self indulgent, and the art is quickly swallowed up by the director’s personality, for better or for worse. Franco made movies for Franco… I guess I can accept that, but now we too are a part of this equation, and I think that in extreme cases, the audience has a right to throw up their arms and say “What the fuck, dude?” Again, it’s too late for answers.

In the end, Female Vampire is barely even a movie. It’s just Lina Romay in her birthday suit wearing a cape and a belt, sexing up France with a trail of corpses in her wake, and even as I type this, I know that sounds a lot better than it actually ends up being. Art, or smut? We can sidestep that argument, because clearly, Female Vampire is both. Genius, or shit? I’m really not sure.


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