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Cannibal Holocaust (1980) (Video Nasty review #8)


Director: Ruggero Deodato

Starring: Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Gabriel Yorke, Luca Barbareschi

TV EXECUTIVE – “Today people want sensationalism. The more you rape their senses the happier they are.”

PROFESSOR MONROE – “Ah, yes, that’s typical western thought. Civilised, isn’t it? That’s what Alan thought and that’s why he’s dead. The Yacumo Indian is a primitive and he has to be respected as such. You know, did you ever think of the Yacumo point of view? That we might be the savages?”

Note: Other then the official film poster above, the rest of the images in this review have deliberately been chosen to hide some of the film’s gorier, more offensive scenes. Despite this, the review still features descriptions of these scenes and as such those with a weak stomach may wish to just give this film their own score of zero and move on.

The story goes that when Sergio Leone – the legendary Italian director of Once Upon A Time In The West and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – first saw Cannibal Holocaust, he felt compelled to write a letter to his friend Ruggero Deodato, the film’s director.

It read: “Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”

He was right. Cannibal Holocaust was eventually banned in numerous countries (the unofficial estimate is around 50, including the UK and its native Italy), and such was the realistic nature of the on-screen deaths that Deodato was actually arrested and held on trial under suspicion of murder of the four main actors – a charge he was only able to drop after getting all four actors to appear at the courtroom.

Unusually for an Italian movie, most of the actors spoke in English throughout. Their voices were still dubbed, as most Italian films at the time were filmed without sound and dubbed later to save money.

Though the absurdly insulting title and shopping list of depravity contained within (which I’ll get to later) may suggest that Cannibal Holocaust is little more than a tacky little dollop of grindhouse grot, it’s actually a very accomplished and provocative film, albeit one that’s intensely difficult to watch.

The movie is split into two parts. The first sees a New York professor, aided by a guide and a captured tribesman, travelling into a South American jungle to try and find four missing filmmakers who had left two months prior to shoot a documentary on the existence of cannibal tribes in the jungle.

After getting into numerous scrapes and witnessing some truly shocking things (which, again, I’ll get to), the professor eventually finds a grisly shrine on the beach containing the remains of the filmmakers and all their camera equipment.

Deciding he needs to get their film reels home to see what they’d shot, he spends time with the tribe, partaking in their grim rituals and eventually gaining their trust and their permission to take the reels.

Special mention must go to Riz Ortolani’s score, which can be heard in the trailer at the end of this review (which it’s recommended you watch as a less intense alternative to the full film). He’s able to make the exact same theme sound pleasant at first but truly sinister by the film’s end.

The second part of the film is by far the most interesting, as the professor returns to New York and watches the footage with three NYU executives. As we watch the footage with them, we see how the four filmmakers commit various atrocities on both the tribes they encounter and the forest’s wildlife, all while acting up to the camera and pretending their interests in this documentary are noble. Slowly it becomes clear that they may not have been entirely innocent after all.

The ‘found footage’ idea is a clever one that predates The Blair Witch Project (the film many credit with the birth of the genre) by more than two decades. Everything is shot so convincingly, bad dubbing aside, that it’s little wonder many considered it to be genuine footage. It’s made even more believable – for better or worse – by the fact that some of the atrocities shown look real because, well, they are.

Every grisly animal killing in the film is completely genuine. The actors really did drag a giant turtle out of the water, behead it, pry its shell off, scoop out its intestines and eat it as its limbs twitched disturbingly. A South American native really did scalp a monkey and eat its brains. A pig really was shot in the head, a spider and a snake really were hacked in two by a hatchet and a muskrat really was tied up and had its throat slit.

The above are all shown (in the uncut version, at least) in unflinching detail, making it clear to the viewer that what they’re seeing is really happening and no amount of special effect trickery could imitate it.

The scene in which a giant turtle is beheaded and torn apart is probably the most shocking I’ve seen in any film to date.

Incidentally, until recently the film had nearly five minutes of cuts in the UK with all animal scenes removed. This surprisingly changed in 2011, when Shameless Entertainment resubmitted the film for Blu-ray release in the UK and were told they could reinstate all the animal slaughter footage, with the exception of the muskrat scene.

While I’m happy for muskrat fans everywhere that the footage of its slaughter remains banned, the passing of all the other animal deaths seems to me a case of locking the stable door after the horse has already had a bolt in the head.

My personal view of these scenes is that they’re about as tasteless as they come. That said, I’m staunchly anti-censorship (as long as the footage is within the confines of the law) and as such, if the BBFC has deemed that most of the animal slaughter footage isn’t considered an illegal act then they should be in there, much as I hate them.

Another controversial scene, known as the ‘Road To Hell’, shows another of the filmmakers’ documentaries and features real-life footage of executions in Nigeria. While the grainy quality of this footage disguises the detail somewhat it still makes for bleak viewing and once again you’re left in no doubt that it’s genuine.

What this ultimately does is alter the viewer’s perception of what the line of decency is in the film, and makes it clear that despite what they think is supposed to be taboo, the showing of real animal slaughter and real executions mean all bets are off. As a result, when humans are abused and mutilated later in the film (in a surprisingly realistic manner), what you’ve already witnessed earlier makes it a lot harder to convince yourself that this isn’t the real deal too.

These are (of course) fake remains, but the real animal slaughters seen up to this point are enough to put doubt in the viewer’s mind.

Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t the first film to try this – the even more reprehensible Faces Of Death also mixed genuine footage with staged footage to try and make the presence of the former increase the believability of the latter. The difference was that the staged scenes in Faces Of Death looked laughably fake, whereas here they’re disturbingly convincing.

I don’t want to linger too much on the numerous nasty incidents the viewer is forced to watch, so here’s a list with no commentary and you can decide for yourself what your limit would be. Bear in mind all scenes are shown in graphic detail, with few cutaways and things only obscured at moments where it would be impossible to film without doing it for real.

(Obviously, the next paragraph has massive spoilers)

A tribesman is seen raping a tribeswoman with a giant stone phallus, then raping her with a spiked mudball, then beating her to death with a boulder, as punishment for adultery. Another tribeswoman is raped by the film crew. The female member of the film crew is gang-raped and beheaded. A pregnant tribeswoman has her baby forcibly removed and buried alive in mud while the woman is beaten to death. Another tribeswoman is found impaled on a large wooden pole (as the poster depicts). Another filmmaker is hit with a spear, hacked in two and has his torso ripped apart and eaten. After being bitten by a snake (off-camera), one man has his leg hacked off but dies of shock anyway. Finally, a filmmaker has his penis cut off: I have no idea how they managed to fake this last one because it looks so genuine.

It becomes clear as the “found footage” progresses that the filmmakers’ reprehensible behaviour made them ultimately responsible for what happened to them.

As you can see, it isn’t exactly Wreck-It Ralph. Somewhere among all this depravity is a real point, and genuine commentary on the state of journalism, in that the same reporters and filmmakers who preach about the horrors of this world are themselves using those horrors (and sometimes helping create them) for fame and ratings.

A warning shown at the start of an Australian DVD version released a few years back unwittingly proves this very point. It reads: “As distributors of this film, we wish to state with absolute sincerity that by no means do we condone the artistic decisions employed by the makers of this film. However, as firm believers in the constitutional right of free speech, we do not believe in censorship.

“What you will see will definitely shock and offend you. Nonetheless, it should be viewed as a disturbing historical document of a bygone era of extreme irresponsibility which no longer exists and, hopefully, will never exist again.”

Ironically, in opening with this warning to those who have already paid for the DVD, the company in question is only demonstrating what the film is trying to say – that some are more than happy to display mock outrage at atrocities while cashing in on the sensationalism they provide.

If you can see past the onslaught of graphic and sexual violence and reach its genuine, valid message then Cannibal Holocaust will prove it’s more than just a sleazy shock movie. Doing so requires an incredibly strong stomach though, and making it to the end will ensure that Cannibal Holocaust stays with you – for a number of reasons – for a long time.

Cannibal Holocaust has been released in a myriad of versions over the years, all with varying degrees of cuts made. In the UK the most complete version is the aforementioned DVD and Blu-ray by Shameless Entertainment. The Blu-ray is the best quality version of the print you’ll see anywhere and is almost fully uncut, containing the entire ‘Road To Hell’ sequence. Only the 15-second muskrat killing scene has been cut (replaced with random shots of monkeys in trees as we hear it squealing), plus it also includes a ‘new Director’s Edit’ in which Deodato has gone through the film again and removed all of the animal killings. It also has some interesting interviews with the cast and crew, some of whom are less than kind when talking about the film.

If you live in America, there’s no Blu-ray version available there (though the UK one is region-free so you can import it). However, the Deluxe DVD edition from Grindhouse Releasing features a second disc full of extras, the fully uncut version of the film (muskrat scene and all) and its own ‘animal cruelty free version’, so what you lose in picture quality you get in bonuses.

Did you enjoy this review? There are 100 more just like it in That Was A Bit Mental: Volume 1, the first TWABM ebook. Even better, no animals were harmed in its making. Get it today!

Alternatively, here’s the full list of reviews on the That Was A Bit Mental site. If you only came here for grot, here are all my video nasty reviews to date.

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