Cannibal Holocaust is a disgusting movie the whole way through. It's not for the faint of heart... it's not for the strong of heart. It's not for those with weak constitutions... it's not for those with strong constitutions. This one goes beyond most Cannibal Films into a depraved and shocking place that most films dare not even consider. Unlike many of the films that push everything they can to extremes, Cannibal Holocaust never feels like a joke. There is no farce to be found here intentional or otherwise. This is mostly because with a few exceptions, Cannibal Holocaust can appear to the viewer to be very real.
How real? Real enough that director Ruggero Deodato was actually arrested and spent time in jail for creating a "Snuff Film". He wasn't released until he was able to prove that his actors were still alive. Cannibal Holocaust's subsequent infamy was another contributing factor to its status in the UK. Cannibal Holocaust was not only banned in England, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the films that directly led to the VIDEO NASTY LIST. In a publicity stunt that backfired, Go Video, the company that released Cannibal Holocaust directly to video, sent a letter to the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (a media watchdog group now known as "mediawatch-uk") complaining about their own film. This letter went unsigned, of course. Publicity they got as the NVALA, already hot on the case of exploitation video releases after the campaign that released The Driller Killer, used Cannibal Holocaust as its lightening rod to popularize the term and the phrase "Video Nasty". To this day the uncut version is banned, though a heavily edited cut can be purchased with an 18 rating. After all, this one breaks just about ever Obscenity rule the BBFC was given to follow. And it's not just banned in the UK, either. Cannibal Holocaust has been banned in a great number of countries at one time or another, including its native Italy!
So... what's so shocking here? Cannibal Holocaust is about a group of documentary film makers who disappeared while shooting a new feature about Cannibalism in South America. As Anthropology Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, star of Debbie Does Dallas) goes searching for evidence of the crew, he must go through a series of torments including, but not limited to, partaking in the consumption of human flesh.
That, my friends, constitutes the light, uplifting, happy part of the film which soon seems like a memory of heaven once Dr. Monroe brings the film cans he recovers back to New York City.
It's this later section of the film that is not only difficult to watch but has given it the infamy it still enjoys to this day. Dr. Monroe is chosen to reveal the content of the documentary to the public, but in the viewing of the hours of surviving footage he finds a number of shocking things that led up to the horrifying fates of documentary director Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke), his girlfriend and script collaborator Faye Daniels (the oft naked Francesca Ciardi) and their camera operator buddies Mark Tomaso (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi) and Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen).
The stage is set by a viewing of The Last Road to Hell, Yates' previous documentary depicting a number of military executions by firing squad. It is worth noting that, although not shot by Deodato, this footage was indeed real, archival footage and did depict actual human death. But then again, so did The Monkees' Head.
In the actual footage recovered (in the story) we witness pretty much every single no-no that the BBFC interpreted from the Obscene Publications Act. Much of this is staged for the camera with above average gore effects, much of it is simulated by the actors, much of it is very, very real.
One of the most certain, non-debatable elements that were sure to get any film on the Video Nasty List was cruelty to animals. Let's not forget, a number of these films were very, very low budget. Generally if you saw something realistic, like, say, an animal killing, it probably looked real because it was real. You see this all over the Video Nasty List, mostly in the Cannibal Films, but elsewhere also. Here a number of animals are killed for the camera in shocking scenes. Some of these might not raise much of an eyebrow, due to their context. A spider is killed while attacking Faye and a venomous snake is killed after biting a man on the leg. However, later scenes are harder to take and even harder to defend. A pig is kicked, then shot at point blank range while it's tied to a post. A squirrel monkey has the top of its head chopped off and its brains are eaten for the camera (actually they killed two for this one take). There is also a coatimundi (a South American raccoon) knifed (clearly quite painfully, judging from its screams) for the camera. Most difficult to endure is a long, drawn out scene in which a large turtle is dragged to shore, decapitated and slowly taken apart for the camera with its post-mortem reflexes still moving what's left of it the whole time. Let me tell you, the scene is tremendously cruel. Be warned... if you never wanted to see how sausage is made, believe me, this is worse.
Going down the obscenity list, we also are shown a long, simulated rape scene, a shot in which a woman is violated with a rock in a bloody ritual, a very realistic-looking shot in which a brutally impaled woman is discovered, a sequence in which one of two warring tribes are stuffed into a grass hut which is then set on fire, another gang rape ends in beheading, a number of people are mutilated in simulations of varied quality, and at least one penis is removed (in a passable special effect). Folks, this is NOT Mary Poppins.
The death scenes themselves still look more real than staged partially due to the acting (many of the "Cannibals" were natives to the area and the Italian and American actors definitely appear frightened). However, quite a bit of this was due to the way this was filmed. "CinÚma vÚritÚ" was nothing new in 1980, but it certainly wasn't the norm. In his zeal to pull off a film (or half-a-film) that really looked like it was shot by the very people who were eaten, Deodato employed a very natural camerawork that felt authentic. This wasn't the obviously fake "documentary style" that lesser film makers over-use today with far-too-shaky cameras and rapid re-focuses and zooms. This all feels like the kind of movements that would be made by people in these situations (which are varied). Sometimes it doesn't work (try to guess which character is holding the camera when everyone is visible in a shot), but it's not hard to imagine why people who originally saw this could have been fooled. And when the film-within-a-film ends... the camera falls. Fin.
This isn't all horror, however. Deodato (and presumably story writer Gianfranco Clerici) put in a lot of scenes that gave more insight into who these people were. There is an implication that not only are there moments that we didn't see because the camera was pointed in another direction, but that there are moments we did see that we weren't meant to. Yes, the camera guys did appreciate Faye to say the least. She walks out of the shower completely naked (and looking great), well aware that she's being seen, but not aware that she's being filmed. There are also sex scenes (that also blur the lines of "Obscenity" as defined by the Act) that are filmed voyeristically in a way that felt real not only because of its content, but because of the fact that most film makers would not choose to film such a scene in that way.
And there's the rub. Most often film makers, particularly in this genre, would not have chosen to shoot things this way. It's not excessive in its shakiness, but is naturalistic. Important scenes in most films would have been shot with multiple angles. Here we get a maximum of two angles, provided both cameras were on at the same time. In short, this isn't the way an audience would have expected Ruggero Deodato to film a movie. It's the way a group of four daring adventurers might have filmed a movie.
Many have speculated on the "meaning" of Cannibal Holocaust. Most of the advocates for Cannibal Holocaust see this as a vicious indictment of "Mondo Films". These are films that generally purported to be documentaries, but were really sensationalistic, staged travel logs. Deodato was said to have been disturbed by this sort of thing and created a film in which mondo film makers are killed and eaten. However, Deodato denies such intent on his part, instead indicating that he was only out to make a Cannibal Flick.
Exploring that a little deeper, what is Cannibal Holocaust? It's a film that was made by a bunch of people with cameras who went out to Colombia to film a realistic movie, which many believed was real. Seven animals were also killed for the camera. Many may argue that this isn't much different from someone going hunting, stepping on a spider or even ordering a steak. The difference is that this was staged for the camera, set up, filmed and even once, re-filmed, generally in the most sensational and shocking way they could imagine. In short, if this was a moral objection to Mondo Films, then Mondo is Rubber and Holocaust is Glue, man!
Setting that aside (the current version available in Britain does just that in its elimination of all scenes of Animal Cruelty), is Cannibal Holocaust a success? Well, it would be hard to call this a great film. There are the usual foibles that come with low budgets and there is indeed a good deal of bad acting and (even in the Cinema verite scenes) some very obviously phony special effects. To the discriminating eye, the realism of so much of this film causes the fake moments to stand out like an Independent in Congress. But as a work of art, for the most part, it succeeds in what it sets out to do. Because what it sets out to do is most assuredly not very nice, it's more than likely not a movie many will like very much. I'm not even sure I "like" it. But does it work? For the most part, yes, it does.
Taken for all with all, it works well enough for a rating of Two and One Half Stars out of Five. Many films have followed Cannibal Holocaust, some as direct rip offs, some as thematic tributes, some as claimed coincidences. This is the original, the film that popularized the Cannibal subgenre of films and became an enormous financial success, as well as one of the most banned, investigated, and reviled films in history. It's also a well-done movie in many respects that still goes too far in its attempts to shock, admitted or not. Animal cruelty, human depravity and a real effort to disturb the audience are just a few of the techniques of exploitation that Ruggero Deodato employed here. Iron constitution needed? At a minimum! Bad taste? Yes. But then again, that would depend on yours. And if you've read this far down in this review, I'd say your constitution is tough as steel... but your taste is questionable.
See you in the next reel's holocaust.
This movie EATS!
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