For more than a decade audiences have been inundated with so-called found footage films that either tread water for a while, or drown horribly in shark-infested waters. The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Quarantine/REC, Chernobyl Diaries, and Grave Encounters, as well as the upcoming V/H/S are just a few of these movies that keep theater goers firmly planted in their seats with one thought in their heads, “This one just has to be better than the last one I saw.” It’s easy to see why any studio would back these films; while some do bring plenty to the table, most are shelled out on shoestring budgets that more times than not turn over millions in profit to the studio that was willing to produce them. But before the latest fad of true stories and found footage, and before these guaranteed moneymakers began to numb our minds, one film stood alone, and it is still shocking to audiences all over the world to this day.
The film is Cannibal Holocaust, a venture by Italian director Ruggero Deodato, a project that has been banned in more than fifty countries on charges of obscenity, and even led to Deodato himself being arrested. Filmed in 1979, but not released until 1980, many regard Cannibal Holocaust as the quintessential Grindhouse movie, as well as the peak of the cannibal movie craze of the 1970s. As much of a one trick pony the cannibal genre was at this time, Deodato brilliantly brought something to the table that audiences had never seen, and that was the innovation of the “found footage” aspect. For the first time in film history, audiences were told that they would be the first to see the horrific footage that was discovered by researchers and has now been deemed fit to see by the general public. In this way, Cannibal Holocaust broke a barrier that would not come into serious play until almost twenty years later with the arrival of The Blair Witch Project.
Filmed within the Amazon rainforest, the plot revolves around four missing U.S. documentarians who go to shoot a film about native cannibalistic tribes deep within the Amazon Basin. The film opens with protagonist Harold Monroe, an NYU anthropologist played by Robert Kerman, volunteering to lead a rescue expedition to extract the lost team. The rescue mission, with the help of a captured native being used as a sort of unwilling pseudo-guide, comes across the tribe of the Yacumo. Initially being met with hostility, the team learns that their colleagues had caused serious problems on their way through, months earlier.
The next day, the rescue team sets out to locate the two largest indigenous tribes, the Yanomamo, and the Shamatari. After coming across a battle between the warring tribes, the team assists a small group of the Yanomamo in their escape. Upon their being brought back to the village by the surviving warriors, the team discovers the bones of the missing American crew placed atop a shrine. Monroe is then forced into a barter situation with the tribe for the last remaining reels of film, which are only given to him after he participates in a cannibalistic ritual.
After his return to America, Monroe begins to review the horrifying footage that was shot by the initial film crew, discovering their deterioration of humanity all in order to capture the most exciting documentary possible. The unedited footage shows the murder of villagers, the rape of a young village girl, and the mutilation of countless animals. After all of these terrible events, Monroe eventually comes face-to-face with a harrowing explanation into the film crew’s demise.
The movie does exactly what it set out to do, which is to disturb audiences everywhere, and in doing so exacted political, social, and media backlash. After a mere ten days of the film’s opening, the reels were confiscated by Italian police, and the director found himself in jail. After the overwhelmingly positive reaction by audiences, it appears that several theater-goers filed complaints with the courts regarding the film. Deodato was detained due to suspicion that he had actually murdered actors and tribal people in order to accomplish the effects shown in the film. One scene in particular that was flagged shows a native who, after being brutally raped, is vertically impaled on wooden pole, the top of which is shown to be jutting straight out of her mouth. The director had also included in the contracts with all of the film’s stars that they were not allowed to appear in any film or television endeavors until a year after the films initial release. During court proceedings, Deodato was required to retract this clause within the actors’ contracts and allow them to appear on television as proof that they had not been slaughtered. Another part of the trail forced the director to divulge how exactly the vertical impalement special effect was achieved (which consisted of the actress sitting on a bicycle seat fixed to the pole, and hold a long piece of wood the same size in her mouth while looking straight up).
Another issue that is repeatedly brought up are the instances of animal cruelty depicted in the film, of which there are several to choose. As opposed to attempting animatronics or other means of special effects to depict the killing of animals, the filmmakers opted to actual mutilate several creatures on camera. Those included are a tortoise, a muskrat, and a baby monkey, all of which are disturbing sequences that most will not be able to stomach. These scenes are largely unwarranted and simply used to provide even more shock value than the viewer has already been subjected.
Many people also have an issue with the explicitly violent sequences, both sexual and otherwise. In an interview with a colleague who had also seen the film, it was stated that “frankly, the level of hedonism and sexual depravity the film features isn’t so much shocking or tantalizing, as it is instead rather cheap, disgusting, or in the majority of cases, just pathetic.” Many critics at the time the film was released came to the same conclusion and that because of these issues; the bad definitely outweighs the good, and there is hardly a redeeming factor to Deodato’s self-proclaimed masterpiece.
The music is an outstanding factor to the film. Composer Riz Ortolani, whose music has been featured in such films as Inglorious Basterds, and the Kill Bill series, brings a score to the table that should not work with the images flashing before you on the screen, but somehow molds and ties itself in seamlessly with the film and also works very well on its own. Having come across a rare copy of the soundtrack myself, I was compelled to pick it up and listen in confusion and enjoyment. The soundtrack is made up of a wide collection of different styles, and for someone who has not seen or heard of the film, it would definitely throw them way off the mark, from pieces that are reminiscent of 70s and early 80s pop and rock music, to soothing strings and synthesizer orchestrations, to pieces that seem like they came out of some cheesy late 70s porno. Some critics have even asserted that the only good thing in the film is its astonishing score.
But the really amazing factor to Cannibal Holocaust lies in its deep subtext. Many see the film as a comparison between modern Western civilization and the tribal cultures depicted in the film. The illustration is present that even though we in the Western world would deem ourselves more civilized or advanced than the indigenous people depicted in the film, that it no way makes us immune to the same sinister urges or actions that we feel could be separating the two cultures. The characters in the found footage sequences operate on a level of amorality that most would not think is possible. This aspect leaves the viewer not with a feeling that those are necessarily bad people but that it is possible for almost anyone to become the monster depicted onscreen in the right circumstances.
All in all, this is a phenomenal piece of work from the exploitation-horror subgenre of the 1970s; the only catch is that you need to have a strong stomach in order to make your way through it. After a viewing of the film with several friends, I have heard the film referred to as “an exercise in depravity,” and that “anyone who has a caring spirit would have serious ethical issues with this film.” For the majority of viewers, this would be a fair representation of what is put on the screen in front of you. It is very hard to move past the face value of the images on the screen and not read more into the subtext of what is going on, but if you are able to, the film is well worth it. It is not strictly the gore that warrants these cautions, but the utter realism and intense nature of its subject matter. Modern horror filmmakers rely, in a large part, on gore or scenes of over-the-top violence to shock the viewer, but this film does something entirely different. It shocks and scares you by showing the absolute deterioration that can occur within even the most moral and civilized people. One of man’s greatest fears is of the monster within himself, and this film unleashes it in full force.
Matt Oakley is a journalist and investigator of the unexplained. He has written articles for the Politomatic & Culture of Spirits Blogs, as well as Intrepid Magazine, and made appearances on several radio programs. Oakley currently writes, and is a radio personality for www.gralienreport.com and its sister radio show and podcast The Gralien Report.