Director: Ruggero Deodato
Writer: Gianfranco Clerici
I'm glad I waited until I got hold of an uncut version of this film, and saw it in its full glory without knowing much about it beforehand. It's a powerful, intelligent piece of work, and as one of the more purely exploitative Video Nasties I've seen so far raises some interesting questions about this kind of titillating, mondo film making.
Cannibal Holocaust is split into two acts. The first follows a latter-day explorer to the Amazon as he tries to discover the fate of an earlier expedition. This section is filmed traditionally with fairly high production values, and despite some very nasty scenes promises a pretty run-of-the-mill early eighties horror. The second half is made up of the “found footage” of the previous, doomed expedition, and is where the film gets interesting.
This innovative device was famously a big influence on the Blair Witch Project, and it shows. While Blair Witch refines the technique, the basics are very much the same. It is strange that it took so long for Cannibal Holocaust's influence to filter through, but this can probably be explained by the film's reputation. For a long time it was seen as an exploitation too far, despicable and beyond the pale, and there's no doubt it is a tough film to watch.
The sexually violent scenes are graphic, drawn out and brutal, but I've discussed the ins and outs of this here before so will concentrate on Cannibal Holocaust's infamous animal cruelty scenes. Crucially, these are depictions of actual animal cruelty made for the film, not faked or spliced from documentary footage.
The scene I'd heard most about was the dismembering of a live turtle. Whilst pretty gross (it's certainly put me off eating turtle), the turtle's death is relatively swift, and it doesn't really amount to much more than butchery. A pig is shot and a monkey has the top of its head chopped off – these are worse, as the animals are obviously in distress, but death is still swift. Worse for me was the slow killing of a muskrat in one of the film's opening scenes. The animal screams and fights pathetically for its life, a horrible sight that makes you feel witness to an actual murder. Watching this cruelty perpetrated for entertainment made me think about the countless times its been enacted for my culinary enjoyment. Thankfully now animal cruelty on film is pretty much internationally banned - but given our diets, maybe that itself is a little hypocritical.
These scenes place Cannibal Holocaust firmly in the exploitation genre, and make it one of its most notorious and vilified examples, but the film's found-footage second half gives them a bit of a twist. It shows a group of young explorers' brutal and racist interactions with an Amazonian tribe. There are echoes of the Vietnam War in their attitude, with one scene referencing the My Lai massacre. They are obsessed with filming their actions, and in doing so remove themselves from the cruelty they inflict.
Flashes to a cutting room in New York where TV executives talk about the found footage and its televisual possibilities are heavy handed and remove any subtlety, but do make it clear what Cannibal Holocaust is about: our obsession with violence as titillation, and film as a conduit for this. These ideas are a forerunner of those presented in more recent films like "Man Bites Dog" and "Funny Games". In this light, the animal cruelty scenes take on complex meaning as we begin to question our motives for watching them, in what is perhaps a more brutal exploration of film violence than the aforementioned, more respected and “intelligent” horror movies.
Cannibal Holocaust is another great Video Nasty, an important, ground-breaking and brave film sidelined and vilified for its honest and daring exploration of violence and its meaning. Aside from this it is a cinematic joy, the found footage section being particularly tense, pacey and – unusually for a Video Nasty – bleak and nihilistic. Riz Ortalani's amazing soundtrack, an incongrous mix of “Love Story” style mournful strings and pinging synthesised snares, lift the film from cold horror to a strangely sad look at humanity in all its dysfunction.