Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Story by Gianfranco Clerici.
Starring Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes, and Carl Gabriel Yorke. F.D Cinematografica.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
★★★★★ (Grindhouse Releasing DVD)
Nearly two decades before The Blair Witch Project horrified audiences with its low budget realistic techniques, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust shocked horror filmgoers to their core; the first found footage horror movie. While this movie is a solid horror, much of its legacy comes from controversy – where it be from the graphic onscreen violence depicted throughout its runtime, or the explicitly depicted killing of real animals, this movie is infamous rather than famous.
Plenty of famous horror filmmakers have expressed their love for Deodato, this film in particular. Most notably as of late is Eli Roth whose film The Green Inferno is finally making it into theatres and is heavily inspired by/an homage to Cannibal Holocaust.
However, aside from the controversy and praise of other filmmakers, as well as the cult following it has developed consistently over the years, I think the realism of Cannibal Holocaust succeeds due to its use of found footage (the whole thing is not done in shaky cam style as has become the trend in the past 15-16 years), the inclusion of Native peoples in the Amazon, the makeup effects, and the ability of the actors to make everything feel very visceral.
The plot of Cannibal Holocaust sees an American film crew disappear while filming in the Amazon rainforest. They were there to do a documentary on an indigenous tribe, one that still engages in the act of ritualistic cannibalism, as well as violent acts of torture used for punishment.
Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), an anthropologist, takes on the task of travelling to the Amazon and encountering the tribe in order to determine what exactly happened to the original film crew.
Eventually, once Monroe is able to in effect assimilate himself slightly into the Ya̧nomamö tribe by imitating some of their behaviour – mainly bathing naked in a river with some of the women – he ends up coming across the picked clean remains of the film crew, along with some of their remaining equipment. Monroe is horrified, as well as disgusted. Through participating in a cannibalistic ritual with the tribe, they agree to give him reels of footage.
But the real horror lies in what happens with the footage, as Monroe brings it back to New York where executives from the Pan American Broadcast Company say they’ll be making a documentary out of the footage; one which they hope to have him host. Unsure whether the true atrocities lie in the jungle or the city, Monroe shares footage of what the film crew experienced at the hands of the Ya̧nomamö and no one is close to prepared for what they will see.
I can’t say that I enjoy the animal cruelty bits. While I believe a lot of it ended up being eaten by natives – I know for sure the monkey brains did because the tribe actually requested those not be faked because they’re considered a delicacy in their tribe – there’s still no way to feel good about watching the animals killed onscreen.
That being said, part of me does believe it served a purpose. Not condoning it, so don’t fucking jump down my throat or anything over it. But the film crew were there watching this tribe, they were exploiting every moment of their existence, anything they could film, so I see the whole movie as dealing with how the media loves to glorify and sensationalize violence, atrocities, murder, blood, death, et cetera. Plenty of other films do this in a way that does not involve animal cruelty. However, it comes to bear on how the film crew are just as savage as they deem the Ya̧nomamö to be. They want to film every last bit, they want to see it and have it put on television back in America and have everyone enjoy their documentary.
Seeing them both film the animals being killed, and in the case of the turtle consuming the meat for dinner, we’re led to understand how little difference there seems to be between these indigenous tribes and the curious, exploitative American film crew.
Worst of all is when their guide Felipe (Ricardo Fuentes) gets bitten by a snake. The amputation does not save his life. Still, the camera rolls on and captures everything; Felipe’s dead face in a nicely framed shot. They don’t even seem particularly upset that Felipe dies, only determined to continue on into the jungle.
So let’s forget about the animals for now. I don’t like that this is included, but hey – on the DVD release I own, you can actually watch an Animal Cruelty-Free version, so that’s a plus!
The makeup effects used in Cannibal Holocaust are really something to behold. There’s no wonder people were actually under the impression that people were killed, or died during the making of the film, because for 1980 this looks INCREDIBLY REALISTIC. Very raw, very gritty. You’d swear it was a documentary. We can’t see that now, most of us anyways, because our society is incredibly deep into found footage and we’re so used to it that nothing seems to phase us any more. But in 1980, man – if I were a little older and had seen it when released, I’d probably have been blown away. I’m still blown away today.
Even the scene where Felipe has his leg amputated, it looks as if it were a true documentary watching a man have his snake-bitten leg cut off. The blood, the noise and the feverish movement of everyone around him trying to help, it’s extremely raw and serves to make things feel terrifying.
Of course there are a ton of instances where the makeup effects really get the visceral nature of the film pumping in our veins. The now infamous woman impaled on a spike scene is VICIOUS! I mean, some say they don’t understand how it could’ve appeared so real to an audience, but I say they’re blinded and can’t look at things in hindsight. There are many images, such as the poor impaled lady, which appear torn right out of reality and that’s ultimately why so many people find the movie unsettling. Even when you watch this on the Animal Cruelty-Free version, you realize that aspect isn’t what’s so upsetting about Cannibal Holocaust: everything just looks so god damn real.
Most of all, I think people look solely at the controversy of Deodato’s film and they don’t pay enough attention to the social commentary behind all the blood, horror, madness, and mayhem onscreen.
This all culminates when the film crew actively decides to start messing with the tribe, in order to illicit some type of reaction. A misguided notion all around, and disgusting, which is what leads to the film crew’s disappearance, as well as the hostile Native reaction when Professor Monroe (Kerman) and his team initially arrive as the search party.
When the crew burns down all the huts, with the villagers screaming and trying to escape, you can see so blatantly how Deodato is aiming his horror film at the media. It’s already obvious, but this scene has such a scary aesthetic: that beautiful music playing in the background, the fire, the sounds of the tribe screaming, the film crew each laughing and having fun terrorizing these people; all that makes for a heavy impact.
We’re seeing something that has become even MORE prominent nowadays, more so than even when Cannibal Holocaust was filmed and released – certain pockets of the media (and also religious groups) want to go in an antagonize cultures, peoples, and they want to try and spread their ways of living to supposedly uncivilized places. Of course the film crew here is a bit of an extreme example, but these are the types of vultures we see more and more with the new forms of media erupting.
Most telling in that regard for me is when Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) and his film crew stand by and watch a pregnant woman have a tiny child, barely older than a fetus, ripped out of her belly – it’s put in a hole in the mud by the river, drowned, suffocated, then the woman is beaten bloodily to death. All the while, Alan gladly films and gets the best shots of the so-called ritual on film, all the misery. Yet it’s constantly described as some sort of informational process, as if they’re learning great stuff that’s worth sitting through the horror to see. All the horror captured on tape in the name of anthropological knowledge, except really it’s aiming towards ratings, views, money, funding, and so on.
Even worse than that, the film crew – aside from Faye (Francesca Ciardi) – rapes a member of the Ya̧nomamö tribe while filming. It’s bad enough they sexually assault this poor young Native girl, they go ahead and film it all. They went far beyond even just terrorizing this tribe, they actively assaulted and raped a member, which then prompts the infamous impaling. Sickest of all is how Alan turns on the horror for the camera, pretending to have no idea why this girl would’ve been executed in such a fashion when obviously being raped is what precipitated her death, sadly. Another moment where you can see how Deodato is taking hard shots at the media and how they wish to sensationalize pain, suffering, and certainly violence.
Something I forgot to mention but cannot: the score. It is beyond unsettling. There’s something both very 1980s and also incredibly effective about the score. At times they have the beautiful score playing, even juxtaposed with brutal acts of savagery by both the tribe and the film crew; a technique I enjoyed a ton. Then we get deep, dark electronic sounding bits where it makes your pulse pound thick. I think without the score, many of the moments wouldn’t have properly come off, so this goes to show how a horror can effectively use a score and music to push along a feeling. Such is definitely the case here, as the music really gets under my skin; I always noticed it and each time I see the film I make a comment, to someone, anyone who will listen, that I find the score one of its best elements.
I’m going to give Cannibal Holocaust a 4 out of 5 star rating. If Ruggero Deodato hadn’t opted to include such graphic and horrifying animal cruelty onscreen, I’d be more inclined to say this is near the perfect horror film. So many incredible makeup effects are included here and the gritty, raw nature of the look makes everything work better than I’d ever have imagined. While it is a tough movie to sit through, even for some of the most initiated horror hounds out there (of which I include myself as a card carrying member), I do think Cannibal Holocaust belongs amongst the most classic horror movies of all-time. It is nasty and at times unnecessary, however, Deodato has a message behind all of the terror and the gore about how the media derides violence yet at the same time choose to focus in on it, zoomed, close-up and tight on the horror for your viewing pleasure.
The DVD, which is a double disc set, from Grindhouse Releasing is a spectacular release! 5 stars all the way. There’s a good few hours of extras, including behind-the-scenes featurettes on the filming, as well as interviews, and everything from the music to the effects. I have to say I’m more than pleased with the DVD. I hadn’t gone through all the Special Features until now, but it is well worth the $25 I paid a few years back. You can dive in and learn all sorts of stuff about Deodato’s film with the second disc of the set, totally dedicated to the extras.
I recommend that if you’ve not seen it, and think you can handle it, watch Deodato’s notorious horror classic. As I said, on the DVD release I own you can watch a version completely devoid of the animal cruelty. So if possible, I’d say view it and judge for yourself whether this is exploitation at its worst or if it is a cult horror that deserves all the recognition it gets.