Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
by Steve Habrat
Of all the shock films, exploitation movies that bathe in depravity, and hardcore cinema I have seen in my life, no film has been as extreme as Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 Italian shocker Cannibal Holocaust. It is, in many respects, the best exploitation film I have ever seen because it is the one that goes all the way. In school, many people talked about Faces of Death, a staged exploitation film that supposedly features footage of real death scenes clipped together. Clearly, no one had ever heard of Cannibal Holocaust. This film features it all from authentic animal slayings, some of the most graphic sex scenes I have seen in a motion picture, rape, castration with a barely visible cut in the film, gruesome dismemberment, cannibalism, intimidation, and decadence. What is most shocking is the display of tainted ethics from the individuals who should be the cultured. Instead, the civilized are the savage monsters, the ones looking to draw blood, destroy, and exploit. I will warn you that after you watch Cannibal Holocaust, you will not ever be the same.
A film you will never find just tossed on the shelf of your local Best Buy or Barnes & Noble, Cannibal Holocaust is not exactly the easiest film to see, but it is out there and you can find it, but be prepared to do a little digging. I saw the film a couple of years ago on DVD and I never shook seeing it. I was disgusted by the real footage of animal killings, done in such cruelty it almost made me loose my lunch. When I stumbled upon the film on DVD and out on the shelf for purchase at FYE, I happily shelled out the money to own what is one of the most notorious films in the history of cinema. When the clerk saw what I was buying, she looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Are you sure you want this?”
“Yes”, I replied taken aback.
“Have you ever seen it?” She flipped it over and examined the back. Her face was contorted in repulsion at the fact she was touching it.
“Yes, I saw it a few years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I collect films like this and it is a must own for my collection. I am a huge fan of grind house cinema, gore flicks, and hardcore exploitation movies.”
“You have an iron stomach and a strange hobby!”
I am very proud of my copy of Cannibal Holocaust. Call me sick, twisted, in need of a shrink, whatever you want, but it is one of my most prized DVDs I own and I will NEVER loan it out. I don’t want the awesome insert that folds out into a print of the original Italian poster to be ripped, torn, or desecrated. I don’t want either of the two discs in the set to be scratched, ruined, or exposed to dust. I don’t want the awesome slipcover that declares it is the “The Most Controversial Movie Ever Made” dinged up in any way. My copy of this horrific film is pristine. Truth is, there is actually one documentary I saw that topples Cannibal Holocaust called Death Scenes, a newsreel of real death footage spanning from World War II to the early 90s. Death Scenes should never be sold to the open public due to some of the footage included in it. That was a film I almost turned off, especially when the film showed us (with haunting sound) a horrific car wreck from the 1950s, the body horribly mutilated as what I am assuming is a surviving passenger or perhaps family member (?) screams and cries as the body is pulled from the twisted fist of steel. Be comforted that there is one film out there that can out shock Cannibal Holocaust.
Cannibal Holocaust follows a group of documentary filmmakers as they set out to film indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin. These tribes, it turns out, happen to be cannibals. The documentary crew consists of Alan Yates (Played by Carl Gabriel Yorke), Faye Daniels (Played by Francesca Ciardi), Jack Anders (Played by Perry Pirkanen), and Mark Tomasco (Played by Luca Barbareschi). After no word from the crew, New York University anthropologist Harold Monroe (Played by Robert Kerman) sets out to find and rescue the crew. All that he returns with is their film canisters, which the media is anxiously waiting to air. After a screening of the footage, the film depicts horrors that no one could have imagined.
The film’s unblinking and alarmingly real violence caused quite a stir throughout the world when Cannibal Holocaust began its theatrical run. The film premiered in Milan and shortly after its debut, the courts seized copies of the film and had Deodato arrested for murder. He avoided a life sentence by presenting his actors in court and proving his innocence. The film has been banned in multiple countries since its release, further adding to the hype around it. Yet Deodato has not made a brainless ode to gore. No, he has offered up a critique on the violence lurking in what appears to be the most civilized of human beings. It also attacks the media for their relentless hunger to slap violence on television and make a spectacle out of it. The film also acts as a found footage film, one of the first films to inspire copies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and more. The way the cameraman refuses to put down his camera and help his crewmembers being pulled apart right in front of him is so authentic, it will scare the ever-living hell right out of you. It has been said that Deodato was inspired to make the film one day while his son watched the news and he noticed the way the journalists focused on violence and carnage.
The film also equates sex with violence, suggesting that we get sexual pleasure out of the violence. One graphic scene finds two of the crew members having sex on the ashes of a burned hut, which the crewmembers are responsible for. This is a sequence in motion picture history that I personally was never able to quite shake from my brain. It made me sick, squirm while seeing it, and actually cover my eyes. The worst part is the crew makes the tribe watch as they act out this vile display. The film also wields a bizarre hypnotic effect on the viewer, partly from some dreamlike camerawork and the swirling synths that compose the memorable soundtrack. Credit should be given to Deodato who pushes the boundaries of repulsive imagery while keeping your eyes on the screen. You will want to look away but you won’t be able to. It has been said that spaghetti western director Sergio Leone sent Deodato a letter praising the realism of the film.
While I hail Cannibal Holocaust to be a rhythmic film that still resonates to this day, this is not a film for everyone. Know your limits, your sensitivity, and understand that this film should not be approached as just another ordinary horror film. It is the furthest thing from ordinary or simple. It never pulls a punch and I laud it for never even batting an eye at what it chooses to show you. If animal cruelty upsets you (I have a dog of my own and I have to say some of the violence towards animals really upset me.), stay far, far away from Cannibal Holocaust. Ranking as the second most upsetting film I have ever laid eyes on and chosen to subject myself to, I have to say it wins as a classic among exploitation pictures. The special effects crew has pulled off a mesmerizing bit of trickery with the violence, sometimes lacking no cut whatsoever. One of my film professors once told me, “If the film sparks any kind of intellectual conversation or debate, the film is not a bad one.” This statement stuck with me as I watched this film. Cannibal Holocaust should and does spark discussion, debate, and lures out emotions you never thought a motion picture would make you tackle.
Grade: A- (Be aware that just because I gave this an A-, you should still approach with extreme caution)