A group of four award winning documentary film makers go on an expedition to the Amazon jungle to document tribes that practice cannibalism. When they are never heard from again, Professor Munroe, his assistant and a guide set off to find the missing explorers. Deep in the jungle, they find a crude monument fashioned from the remains of the previous expedition, a camera and some film. When back in New York they start to view the film, they are horrified with what they see…….
After Ruggero Deodato had just shown Sergio Leone his latest film Cannibal Holocaust, the great director said to him “This film will be your most famous, but you are going to have problems with the law”. Leone was right. The movie was banned in twenty two countries including it’s country of origin Italy and Deodato was hauled up in court on the grounds that it was an actual snuff movie showing real people being killed. In the UK it became the number one ‘video nasty’ and although it was released many years later it was always in a cut form and even now the full version is legally unavailable in this country. There is no doubt that Cannibal Holocaust is still very strong meat and contains some horrible images that will forever stay in the mind. It’s also in my opinion a near masterpiece by Deodato, who despite making a few other good movies and also lots of bad ones, never came anywhere near the quality of this film again. It’s a horror film in the most literal sense. It’s not scary in the slightest and it doesn’t even attempt to make you jump. Despite it’s scenes of horrendous violence,it’s not even a simple ‘gross out’ a la Braindead or Demons. What Deodato attempted with this film was to disturb the viewer, provoke a reaction and make him or her think. He was inspired to make this film by the increasing exploitation of violence in the news. Unfortunately his head on approach was so strong that even now many people just see the gore and brutality.
Which is considerable. A woman has a foetus torn out of her which is then buried in mud. Another woman is raped with a dildo, then has a mudball with nails on thrust between her legs too, previous to getting her head bashed in with a rock. People are ripped apart and eaten, including even a penis. A portion of a documentary which actually shows real executions. The list goes on. One of the scenes I found most unpleasant is when the three male members of the party take turns to rape a native woman and film it, then the woman of the party, despite being the girlfriend of one of the men, simply complains that they are wasting film! You would be forgiven for thinking that this is just exploitative nastiness, and somehow the way much of this is shown from character’s viewpoints, often from a distance or partially,makes it all the more disturbing. We can’t start to see the fakery of the effects for a start! However,[and this is just one of the many things that separates this film from the many other films of the cannibal subgenre, most of which, to be frank,are not especially good], we are being shown this stuff in my opinion as part of Deodato’s attempt get us to think about not just the news, but also about mankind’s violence to each other and his ignorance of other races. The glut of reality shows around nowadays make the film very pertinent today, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been a major remake [I’m ignoring Welcome To The Jungle!]. It also toys with our sympathies in a devilishly clever way. Cannibalism seems horrible to most of us, but at the end aren’t we almost pleased to see the protagonists eaten by the natives when they have spent the previous half hour mistreating and abusing them?
Cannibal Holocaust is interestingly structured, with the second half being the film which has been found. While the first half might be basically a jungle adventure with some extreme brutality, the second half really is quite extroardinarily powerful and like a road accident you just can’t help but watch if you’ve made it this far. Unlike the characters in The Blair Witch Project, the characters here amazingly manage to keep the camera fairly still for much of the time, and it really does seem like ‘real’ footage even if in retrospect there is obviously the odd shot which could not have been taken by the filmakers. Sadly things are just held back a little by some of the dialogue by the people watching the footage, which is very simplistic and too on-the-nose, and the closing line of the film “I wonder who the real savages were?” is just silly and unnecessary. At least the performances are fairly decent, if not exactly great ,and Riz Ortolani wrote a very impressive score which often sets the most extreme stuff to really emotive, darkly beautiful music,becoming almost like a lament for lost humanity.
I haven’t yet mentioned Cannibal Holocaust’s hardest to defend aspect. The film is peppered with real live animal cruelty,including a rat being gutted, a turtle being dragged out of the river and chopped to bits, and a pig having it’s head blown off with a rifle. In my opinion you can almost say that much of it may be justified in that most of the animals are then eaten and this is only what the natives do. Also, is it really as bad as hundreds of supermarket bound chickens being cooped up and bred to get fat and die? However, the pig killing is just indefensible, and I can’t really understand why Deodato chose to do so much of this [apart from the fact that it was an established part of the cannibal and mondo ‘shockumentary’ sub genres. He becomes what he is criticising. The current UK DVD cuts all this out, and considering it now contains all the ‘fake’ violence, one could almost say it’s a better version, though of course one should really always view a film the way it’s creator intended!
Whether you like it or not, this is an extremely powerful piece of filmmaking. Sometimes art shouldn’t have to be responsible or answer for itself, and I believe that Cannibal Holocaust, in it’s own way, is pretty good art. It’s not quite great art, but then, if the film had been perfect and had no flaws at all, it would be pretty much unbearable.