Cannibal Holocaust has sat on my shelf ever since. I was working up to watching it. I had read about the actual animal violence it contained, which was possibly the biggest factor in keeping me away, even if the film boasts of allowing you the option to watch the film animal cruelty-free, if you should so choose. I also read about how it was the most notorious film ever made, how it was banned in upwards of 50 countries, and of how the director, Ruggero Deodato, and one of the producers were brought up on charges that they had actually killed people during the production. Lastly, I also read about how it was a big influence on The Blair Witch Project, in the way it was structured.
This past weekend, I finally slid the disk into the player and watched it. I think I should have waited longer. I feel dirty, nauseated, and completely disturbed. It was probably not a good idea to watch it right before going to sleep. Since that fateful night, I have not been able to get this thing out of my head. People I work with are annoyed because I keep talking about it. I've been trying to find someone, anyone, who has seen this. I found one person, and he wasn't even able to finish it.
The basic frame of the movie has anthropologist, Professor Harold Monroe, heading off to the Amazon in search of four documentary filmmakers who had disappeared months earlier. Once there, he, along with his guide, come into contact with one of the indigenous tribes, a tribe that, you guessed it, still practices cannibalism. Monroe's adventure concludes with him not finding the filmmakers, but instead recovering their spent film. Monroe brings the film back to New York, where a television network is looking to use the footage to garner high ratings. That is the first third of the movie. The final two thirds focus on the assembled footage. The footage has the foursome heading into the jungles. That is it, in the most basic sense.
I like the idea of the fake documentary, but I am not sure I can say I like this movie. This is more than your standard gut muncher. The weaving of real and faked violence create this aura of authenticity, despite the, at times, poor dialog and acting, it feels legitimate.
A big question with this film is whether it was made as pure exploitation, or if the "message" was the actual intent. It is possible the message was a byproduct of Deodato trying to somehow legitimize the picture. There doesn't seem to be any consensus in what I have read online; it seems that many have the same question I do. It also seems the director, himself, wavers when faced with the question.
One way of looking at the message is as an indictment of the sensationalizing nature of the media. The media is portrayed as willing to do anything for ratings, including using this gruesome footage to that end. At one point, a network exec says: "Today, people want sensationalism. The more you rape their senses, the happier they are." It almost seems like they were ahead of their time in this view of the media, and, by extension, reality television. It is surmised that civilized society is actually more savage and cruel than the primitive tribes encountered over the course of the film. It is an interesting look at the movie from a higher level, without bringing the shocking images into play.
Intended or not, that is definitely a plus to the film. The problem is actually getting to it, despite how heavy handed it may seem, the shocking exploitation is hard to get through. Before we get to that, and I am purposely putting it off, I want to take a look at the characters, specifically, just how unlikable the vast majority of them are. There is only one character that shows the hint of a heart.
Professor Monroe (played by former porn star Robert Kerman) is the one person to show any level of humanity. He views the footage in horror, and it is he who levels much of the blame at the sensationalizing media. He cannot stomach what he has witnessed, and neither should we. As for the four filmmakers, they are a despicable lot. They have these elitist attitudes, they stage scenes, they remind themselves to act shocked on camera, they engage in acts that you would hope no one would do. At the start, you think the filmmakers are going to be the victims, but in the end, you have to wonder if they didn't get just what they deserved.
Now, I would be remiss if I did not say something about the despicable content. The aspect that gets the most attention is the animal violence. Now, this isn't the only film to have animal violence. I am sure most of you are familiar with the end of Apocalypse Now that features the slaughter of a bull? This movie, however, is on a completely different level. Five animals are killed on camera, none are easy to watch, and none were necessary. They don't even wait all that long, as the first instance is a mere 20 minutes in. The one to get the most attention is the sea turtle. This was a terrible sight, watching as this creature, estimated to have been over 100 years old, is dragged out of the water and cut up while still alive. It is making me sick just thinking about it. Those involved try to cover themselves by the fact that most of the animals were eaten afterwards, but I find that to be a thin line, and one that needn't be crossed.
The shocking images don't end with the animal slaughter. Cannibal Holocaust also has its share of graphic rape scenes, and they don't take long getting to them. The first goes hand in hand with the first animal death, a gruesome ritualistic punishment for an adulteress. Later on, the ill-fated filmmakers get in on the act with one of the tribal girls they encounter. It probably goes without saying, but there is plenty of full frontal nudity of both the male and female variety, and none of it is pleasant. This film has no intention of being pleasant, it is here to shock, disturb, and sicken. There is also dismemberment, flesh eating, and plenty of gore. Lastly, there is the central defining image of this movie, and the one that had everyone convinced this was a snuff film, that is the impaling. You don't see it on camera, but the foursome come across this woman with a good sized tree trunk that goes completely through her body, from the bottom up and out of her mouth. I have no idea how they did this, or how they got her to sit so still, and perfectly balanced, at that. Deodato says she was on a bike seat with a piece of Balsa wood placed in her mouth. This image has been used on much of the advertising, including the inside cover of this DVD edition.
This is not the goriest or bloodiest movie I have seen, but it is all presented in such a way that you believe it all. I still cannot believe that I actually watched the entire thing. This is a stomach turner in every sense.
After all of this, I cannot recommend this movie, to anyone. It is such a disturbing piece of work, the graphic realism, which in some cases actually is real, is just too much. I am sure you can say it is worth it for the scathing indictment of the media, but I am not so sure that was done purposely. I think it was a byproduct of Deodato trying to throw in something to help get a distribution deal.
I think the intention of this was just to make a shocking exploitation film to outdo all that had come before it. In that sense, Ruggero Deodato has succeeded. Something else that adds to the viewing is the music, a mixture of old synth and this other kind of light and fluffy guitar based theme that repeats itself; they combine to add this strange dichotomy with the gruesome goings on.
It may sound that I am positive in some of my analysis, but do not misunderstand me. This is the most twisted, depraved, disturbing, nauseating film I have ever seen; one I am not sure I could ever bring myself to watch again. It is the kind of film that, if you make it all the way through, you can probably watch anything.
Watching this is not the same as watching other realistic depictions of violence and tragedy. By comparison, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are vastly different experiences. Those two films can be difficult to watch at times, but there is a focus on recreating points of our past. Basically, there is a real point to what is presented. In the case of Cannibal Holocaust, there is no point to it; the "message" could have been presented in a better fashion. That is why I think the message was an afterthought. The blood, animal violence, rapes, impaling, and more that I haven't mentioned, are there with the express intent of disturbing the viewer.
I recommend that you don't watch it. I am a fan of horror films, and I like the sick and twisted as much as the next guy. I like the splatter of blood and guts on the screen, but this takes it to a level I don't think we should go in the name of entertainment. And as strange as this may sound, I am glad to have survived my single viewing, even if I need to write this as a way to help cleanse the soul.
Video. This is not a new film, it was originally released back in 1979, and it had a very low budget. Plus, the impression is given that much of it was shot with even lower quality equipment. That said, it looks pretty good. It definitely shows its age. There are some marks, many probably intentional. I daresay, in anamorphic widescreen, this is probably the best presentation the film has had.
Audio. There are two flavors: a stereo mix, and the original mono. I listened using the stero mix. It sounds pretty good. Again, it was a low budget affair, so it is not the best you will hear, but is probably the best the movie has ever sounded.
Extras. There are plenty of extras on this two disk set.
- Commentary with Ruggero Deodato and Robert Kerman. I have not listened to this yet, but I am sure it will be an interesting track, at least, I hope.
- Trailers. There is a collection of trailers, including the original Italian, International, German, and U.S. cuts.
- "The Road to Hell" Alternate Cut. There appear to have been two versions of this sequence, which incorporates actual firing squads from the Cambodian genocides. There isn't much different that I detected.
- Documentary. On disk two is a documentary about the making of the film. I watched a little bit of this, and it offers some insights into the film. I will need to revisit this.
- Interviews. There is a 40 minute interview with Robert Kerman, where he expounds on topics such as his absolute distaste for Deodato, the animal deaths, and more. He is an odd fellow and an interesting interview subject. Running even longer is one with Gabriel Yorke, who played Alan Yates. This is another interesting listen, as Yorke had no idea what he was getting into when he joined the cast. There are also interviews with Deodato and composer Riz Ortolani.
- Photo Gallery. This includes film stills and behind the scenes photos.
- Music video. Metal band Necrophagia made a video incorporating movie footage.
- Easter Eggs. There is some hidden material, including a panel that reunited Deodato and Kerman. Here Kerman seems right at ease with the director, and with signing autographs, much different than his aura in the long interview.