CAPSULE: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Ruggero Deodato

FEATURING: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen

PLOT: A professor launches an expedition into the Amazon searching for a missing crew of documentary filmmakers; he instead finds reels of film the crew shot depicting atrocities they themselves committed against the tribes, followed by the cannibals’ ultimate vengeance.

Still from Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Other than an unusual narrative structure and an incongruent musical score, I can’t detect much weirdness here; in fact, the movie strives for documentary realism. I think the fact that people (including critics) continually cite this film as “weird” is a case of confusion between the overlapping genres of the “shock” movie (which is sometimes, but not always, weird) and the “weird” movie (which is often shocking, but not always in a disturbing way).

COMMENTS: “I wonder who the real cannibals are,” muses Cannibal Holocaust‘s professor as ninety minutes of carnage grind to a halt. Surely, what he meant to say is “I wonder who the real savages are?” I mean, the real cannibals are clearly the ones who eat people, right? It’s sloppy, thoughtless touches like that which should tip off this film’s defenders that, despite some stabs at social commentary, Holocaust is not meant as a meaningful work of horror art. It’s a work of commercial exploitation, designed to bleed maximum receipts from grindhouse theater patrons. Because of its parade of atrocities, it is effective at giving you that dirty, nihilistic feeling that some people crave in their “horror” (although I think this type of extreme transgressive film, which isn’t really scary, belongs to another genre entirely: call it “despair porn” or, less judgmentally, “moral horror”). Director Ruggero Deodato does have a talent for moral horror, turning cannibal rape orgies into a kind of flowing sick poetry. The low-tech special effects here are excellent, especially the skulls overgrown with lichen and crawling with jungle vermin, and the impalement scene was so realistic that an Italian court brought Deodato up on charges of murder until he revealed how the trick was done. The unusual structure of the film, with a standard narrative yielding halfway through to found footage sequences interrupted by a framing commentary, serves to keep the viewer off guard.

Aside from the visceral makeup and the willingness to go “all the way” in depicting cruelty, however, Cannibal Holocaust is competent at best, subpar at worst. The acting, especially from young actors in the missing film crew, is not very convincing. Worse yet, their motivations are barely explained and cartoonishly villainous. The crew appears to conceived of as photogenic, celebrity versions of mondo shockumentarians (in a typically tasteless move, Deodato includes actual footage of villagers being executed by African firing squads that could have come from the Italians’ opus Africa Addio). The notion is that the filmmakers in the film-inside-the-film are willing to provoke conflict and stage violence (charges leveled against Jacopetti and Prosperi) to make their documentaries more shocking and marketable. The over-the-top way this idea is executed is scarcely believable, however; not only does the director here stage obscene atrocities and film his own rape scene, he is visibly gleeful when his guide has to have his leg amputated and when he comes across a woman impaled on a stake. If he could, he would tie cannibal women to train tracks while cackling and twirling his mustache. And besides the lack of credible motivation, there’s an even bigger logical problem with the movie that goes straight to the reason for its existence: although we might stretch our imagination to believe that the filmmakers might be stupid enough to shoot their own crimes, no one would take valuable time that could be spent fleeing for his life to film the cannibals’ final revenge against his friends.

Of course, the worst part of the movie, which gives it its enduring infamy, are the gruesome animal killings, highlighted by the nauseating decapitation and evisceration of a giant river turtle. So many people miss the point of the objections to the animal cruelty that it’s necessary to elucidate it again. It does not matter that most of the animals were eaten after they were killed, or that most of them died quickly and relatively painlessly. The point is that, if it was truly necessary to the story, the violence against animals could have been realistically staged, just as the violence against humans was. Deodato deliberately—and repeatedly—chose to have the animals actually killed on-camera precisely because of the effect he knew it would have on the audience. He wanted to generate shock, outrage, and—ultimately and especially—income. Animal cruelty objectionable because of what is says about humans who perpetrate it; the “cruelty” side of the equation is far more saddening than the “animal” side. (To his credit, Deodato is on record as regretting shooting these scenes).

Leave the animal killings out of the movie, however, and Cannibal Holocaust would be lost in the trashpile of Italian cannibal movies, no more remembered than Cannibal Ferox or Emanuele and the Last Cannibals. The film is an effective sickie, but it’s morally repugnant and, as many have correctly pointed out, ironically hypocritical in its insincere attack on the media’s tendency to focus on (and even instigate) violence. The thesis that modern industrialized man is as savage as the Amazonian cannibal tribe is facile at best, but the only way that Deodato can prove it is to make himself into a monster. It’s as if I said to you, “people are inherently vicious,” and then proved my point by punching you in the nose. You’d probably be more angry at me than convinced of my theory, which is how I feel about Cannibal Holocaust.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a weird movie with an awkward narrative, which Deodato makes all the more effective with his grimy sheen of documentary realism, while Riz Ortolani’s unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score provides a weird undercurrent.”–Sean Axmaker, Digital Delirium (DVD)

One thought on “CAPSULE: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)”

  1. I always had a love/hate relationship with this movie. It’s just too grueling, unsympathetic and grotesque for repeat viewings. But as a huge horror fan, I can say that I still haven’t seen anything like it in the 30 years I’ve been watching horror films. To me, it’s totally cuckoo bananas, and it’s not just the animal slaughter. It has a lot of pluses. I rate it’s score as one of the all time best horror scores. The movie truly does have the grimy, now-happening feel that maybe only the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre achieved. Like that film, It has the same nightmare quality that leaves me awake at night. And It’s not boring – like Salo (an example of a movie held up as a viewer extreme) I actually think Gabriel Yorke’s acting is good. I’ve seen this movie quite a few times and I feel it only seems stronger and more relevant today, even if the film makers didn’t intend it. Just a few weeks ago a couple of girls posted on the internet a video of themselves torturing and stomping on a small garden turtle. The video went viral. The whole internet was in an uproar about this turtle. 4Chan tried to track down the girls personal information. PETA got involved. The police got involved and the girls where arrested. For me, the irony is that probably 2 miles away from where these girls smashed the turtle, there is probably a grocery store that carries THOUSANDS of pieces of meat weekly. There are at least a half dozen grocery stores in any large zipcode. Where does all this meat come from? I’m 43, and I’ve never seen a cow bolted, a chicken get it’s head cut off, or a pig slaughtered. I was floored to find out that to feed the United States over 10 BILLION animals are processed in factories every year. Does a moviegoer believe that the gruesome killing of the river tortoise in Cannibal Holocaust represents some kind of moral outrage because it was used in an exploitation film? When filming everything is ubiquitous in society today, why is this aspect of our lives completely hidden? We could set up cameras in every factory farm in america and watch a Cannibal Holocaust everyday. It wasn’t UNTIL I saw Cannibal Holocaust that I ever thought about NOT eating meat! I was already in my late twenties. if I hadn’t seen these multiple killings of live animals on film, gruesome and up close – maybe I wouldn’t have become a vegetarian. This movie was the actual seed to me thinking about these things. What it meant at the grocery store. The way the world is shrinking. There is a criticism in the review that it is unrealistic that anyone would spend time filming the death of their friends when they could use that valuable time fleeing for their own lives. I’m not sure if I agree. But I was thinking that it will probably be only another decade before all soldiers are outfitted with cameras on their helmets or jackets and they’ll be filming the death of friends and enemies whether they are fleeing or not. And who will find the footage atrocious will depend on who the victor is. I actually prefer Deodato’s previous film Jungle Holocaust which contains similar blunt methods, but is focused on the visceral ordeal of a single protagonist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *