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.
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 Jacopetti and Prosperi (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)