Infamovies: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)


Copied over from my Facebook on inception of the blog. Originally written 1/9/2010

Om-nom-nom

What’s the deal? Violence. Tons of violence. Some rape, and some real animal slaughter.

Still banned? No.

WARNING: Spoilers and some SERIOUSLY NSFW imagery contained within. Don’t read if you’re going to be offended by squeamish pictures.

“Today people want sensationalism! The more you rape their senses, the happier they are and the more they love it!”
— a line from the film which seems to have informed its creation.

Background

Cannibal Holocaust is an attack on Mondo films, and also an audience’s willingness to watch horrible material for entertainment. Director Ruggero Deodata completely missed the mark on his polemic and took a film crew into the jungle, and filmed a sensationalist, exploitative film, and then added scenes to it that forced a message down the audience’s throat.

‘Mondo’ films were sensationalist documentaries that were hardly representative of real life. The creators of such films would often stage the events in their films – a documentary about African tribal customs might have had completely faked rituals, the filmmakers might have forced the natives into doing things they wouldn’t so they could capture it on film. A famous example of this is from a documentary the Walt Disney company made, where they coaxed lemmings into suicide for sensationalism.

Killed by Disney.

There was little way of fact checking these documentaries, and with no policing bodies on location, the filmmakers pretty much had free reign to do what they want. These films were highly popular and this popularity encouraged the filmmakers to make more and more extreme documentaries. This tradition soon faded, and documentaries went back to being unbiased and impartial presentations of fact.

Oh…

The film is spectacularly violent. It is savage and brutal and knowing the film’s production history adds a sense of veritas to the proceedings, as well as knowing that some content is actually real.

Deodata was arrested on the film’s release, and the film seized. The depictions of death in the film were so convincing at the time that he was accused of murdering actors on film. He hadn’t – and he produced the actors in court to prove that, no, he hadn’t murdered anyone. It’s one of the first films to use “found footage” as a plot device, and certainly the pioneer of the genre as we know it today. The actors were contractually obliged to make no public appearances until well after the film was released, to enhance the experience of the characters’ plight. Remind you of anything? This film directly influenced the Blair Witch Project.

Cannibal Holocaust

OFLC

Cannibal Holocaust was banned in Australia right from the start. No film release, no complaints from moral guardians – it never made it past the OFLC. Australia was not the only country to ban it – it was barely released anywhere except in America (heavily censored) and Italy. It remained as such until 2005, where it was released fully uncut on a special edition DVD.

It was banned for its excessive – and it is excessive – violence, including graphic violence and a few rape scenes, but in particular, genuine animal slaughter. Seven animals were actually killed for the film, because Deodata thought “fuck it- we’re in the jungle and no one will stop us.”

The film deals with three tribes of natives, and the film used actual tribes. They weren’t as primitive as they are represented in the film, but they weren’t exactly living in thriving metropolises. This led to the filmmakers absolutely taking advantage of their status and coaxing them into performing as utter savages. You may be picking up on a theme here – it is very notable that this film, which decries sensationalism and mondo filmmaking, is a sensationalistic exploitation film.

The DVD production company clearly hate the movie. They’ve done an amazing job of redoing the audio mix, and the special features are some of the most comprehensive you will ever see. But they hate the movie. When you hit play on the DVD, you get this little message from its creators:

The following motion picture contains intense scenes of extreme violence and cruelty. 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. To quote Thomas Jefferson “it behooves every man who values the liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others.” Therefore, we are presenting CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST for the very first time in its uncut, uncensored original form, with all sequences photographed by the filmmakers, however offensive and repugnant, presented fully intact. 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.

That message is not exaggerating the subsequent movie at all.

Plot

We open to a news report that tells us all about man’s conquests, and how we will soon be conquering the universe, even though there are still people who live as primitives on our own planet. This is the film’s first clue that you’re gonna be having social commentary: it’s accompanied with heaps of shots of skyscrapers, and TVs and all things that are easy signifiers of “civilisation is evil.” The report mentions that four filmmakers have gone into the jungle and not been heard from again.

Then we cut to a university, where an Anthropology professor, Harold Monroe, is being asked to accompany a mission into the same jungle to find the crew. He’s a handy plot device, as an anthropology lecturer just comes automatically gifted with the ability to provide insight on how the eventual tribes work, and their customs and practices.

We see a troop of soldiers wandering through a patch of Amazonian jungle, where they are set upon by a small group of the natives. The soldiers have guns, and the natives have blowpipes with curare darts (because they’re primitive, see?), so naturally the soldiers win – although they do lose a man in the battle. I’d like to point out here that the soldiers speak in a foreign language (with subtitles) but the dubbing is obviously not the same language they’re speaking on film. Also, despite the film’s later incredible love of violence and gore, the deaths here are bloodless – it does the trick of having one shot of the gun being fired, then another shot of the bullet’s recipient falling down, arms outstretched. In bad movies – this is cinematic language that translates to ‘death.’

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Like this.

We learn then that the soldiers have been ordered to help the visiting American make contact with the tribe. The native they have captured is their ticket back to the tribe without being slaughtered by them. Despite the set up with the soldiers, they leave him with precisely two men – neither of whom are soldiers. There’s a guide named Chacos, and his assistant (who speaks the tribal languages) named Miguel. Chacos is easily my favourite character in the film. He speaks like Cheech Marin, and has a wicked beard. He’s also a badass guide, proving tough and knowledgable.

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Look at that beard!

Monroe, Chacos and Miguel trek into the jungle with their native prisoner, where they have nice expositional dialogue about the tribes. They boil down to three tribes – the Yacumo (of whom they have a prisoner), the Mashatari (swamp people) and the Yanomamo (tree people). They go to a clearing where they see a Yacumo man drag a woman ashore, both covered in mud. The man rapes the woman with a phallic rock, then beats her head in with it. It’s graphic, with a lot of blood. Monroe states that this must be a tribal punishment for adultery, and that even if the man didn’t want to, he would be killed by his tribe if he didn’t. It is worth mentioning that Monroe is revolted by what he sees – he is often shown recoiling at the horrors he sees in the jungle – which is good from an audience perspective, but it also proves that the film is aware of its contents.

They also stab a muskrat and let the Yacumo prisoner feed off its blood. Its shown in full detail. They also come across a skeleton in the mud; unlike other films of the era, this is a pretty decent skeletal effect and they bothered to add realistic things, like bugs and dirt. This film does realistic carnage, and this is just a precursor of it.

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They then follow the man back to a clearing, whey they make themselves known in a peaceful way – which is having Miguel strip naked with their native prisoner on a leash. The Yacumo natives (who are hiding in the nearby grass) stand up and shoot darts at Miguel, but so they land in front of his feet. Miguel then clears the arrows away, and shouts at them and brandishes a stick. Somehow this is a peaceful show.

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Then again, I’d want them to be peaceful too…

The Yacumo take them back to their camp and they trade offerings of goodwill – which means Miguel gives them a switchblade. We learn from Chacos that the Yacumo are a peaceful tribe, who steer well clear of the Mashatari and Yananamo tribes, who are at constant war with each other, and always have been. The Yacumo agree to take the men deeper into the jungle, to find the Mashatari.

The Mashatari are initially reluctant to help the men, what with the having guns and all, but Monroe manages to gain their trust – again with nudity. He wades into a lake completely nekkid, trying to let them see him as one of them (the natives have loin cloths at most for the film). The following scene is utterly ridiculous – as he walks into the water, a group of the native women (who are all conveniently supple and trim of figure) run into the water and frolic with him, giggling all the while.

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Diplomacy at its finest.

Once they gain the trust of the Mashatari, they receive the film cans that the original crew shot. It is clearly established that the original crew have died, and that we will soon find out how and why.

Back in New York, a distribution company take hold of the footage and review its contents. They ask Monroe to host and narrate a subsequent documentary of the footage. Not being a fool, he demands to see the footage first. He is accompanied by two people, a projectionist and a director of sorts, who is clearly in love with how much money this film will bring her. They assemble a rough cut of the footage and add some mood music to it and show Monroe.

Now the film is mostly consisted of the found footage. We are introduced to the four filmmakers – Alan, Faye, Jack and Mark. At the beginning, they seem like enthusiastic filmmakers, but it soon becomes very very clear that they are horrible people. They’re selfish and arrogant and only interested in fame and glory. They also have a guide named Felipe. They travel into the jungle, and a fair bit of their footage is of them fucking around (literally in some points) and not doing much. But it lets us get to know them as the people they are: arseholes.

They not only slaughter a turtle for fun – again, real footage shown in graphic detail) and a tarantula – real, but possibly justified – the way the film was shot its possible that this was a genuine mishap of nature meeting a cast member – the woman playing Faye does seem genuinely terrified at it, and it is a BIG spider.

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Don’t worry arachnophobes. It died.

Felipe dies from a snake bite (the snake is cut in half, for the camera) and they are left without him, but decide to go on even so. The difference between the two groups is immediate – Chacos, Miguel and Monroe were diplomatic and culturally sensitive, whereas the four-idiots-crew have guns.

They come across a group of Yacumo in the jungle and decide to follow them back to the camp. As a help to them, they shoot one of the natives in the leg to slow them down. Once in the Yacumo village, they decide to stage some sensationalism. First, they shoot a pig in the head (again – real) and herd a few of the tribesmen into a wicker cabin, before setting it on fire and filming the carnage. Faye and Jack then have sex in the burned remains of the cabin, while the Yacumo simply sit outside. The sex scene goes on for a long time, but it’s actually effective in terms of subtlety – it shows just how selfish, insular and horrible these four Americans are, especially with the Yacumo sitting down outside, terrified of them.

They later film a ritual in which a pregnant woman is tied to a frame and has her fetus ripped from her, before being beaten to death by the ladies. It’s kind of implied that perhaps the crew tied the woman up while she was in labour and that the women are putting her out of her misery, but it’s not made explicitly clear.

They then travel into the woods and encounter some Mashatari running around – they film them capturing some monkeys. They then show one of these monkeys being held down on a log, and it has a machete brought down on its skull, chopping its head in half. Side note – what we see on film is the second monkey to be murdered for the sake of the film. The first one turned out not to be usable.

They then leave the Mashatari and venture into the woods to find the Yananamo. It’s been made explicitly clear that the tribes go in order of ascending savagery – the Yacumo are relatively peaceful, the Mashatari are savage but diplomatic, and the Yananamo downright terrifyingly brutal. So naturally the four-idiot-crew want to find them. They have trouble finding the Yananamo , but they do come across a woman who has been impaled bodily. It’s one of the more famous shots of the film – included below but not for the squeamish:

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Yowch.

They do come across a lone Yananamo woman, and the men of the crew decide that they’ll rape her. Faye screams at them to stop – because they’re just wasting film on it, not because she really objects to them raping an innocent woman. But they fuck up here – one of the Yananamo tribesmen sees them.

At this point, they take a break from the found footage to return to Monroe and the director. He’s appalled at their actions, and she is excited to see how raw and brutal the footage is. They then have a really heavy-handed metaphorical discussion about the nature of savagery. The film is really unsubtle about it and it is obvious that the directors want you to think that the film crew are more savage then the natives. Monroe refuses to have anything to do with the film, but does attend the final screening, with the executives of the company.

The final reel of found footage shows the four crew members being killed. Mark is speared from afar, Jack is carried off and castrated, Faye is carried away, raped and eaten, and Alan’s death finishes the film – he is shown filming the natives swarming in, before he falls to the ground and his bloodied face lands in front of the lens. (The exact same shot is used in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.)

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Also, is it just me, or does he look a lot like Eli Roth here?

The reel ends, and the executives walk away disgusted. One of them tells the projectionist to burn the footage. Monroe walks away into the street, driving the film’s one attempt at a message home, as he ponders “I wonder who the real savages are.”

Then the credits say that the projectionist stole the footage, and received a $10, 000 fine for possession of snuff material, but made $250, 000 selling it.

Review

This is a horrible film. It is really raw and savage, and bloody and discomforting. It is, however, very well made. They clearly had a fair bit of money to work with, and to their credit they were able to make a very convincing film.

The deaths are still realistic, and knowing how unruly the production was adds to this realism; I’m sure the rape scene towards the beginning is not real, but it would be easy to imagine them just doing it anyway.

As mentioned earlier, Deodata was arrested on charges of murdering his cast, and its easy to see why – this is a brutal film. He was in jail for ten days, and only when he produced the actors, and proved that the impalement scene was simulated (they had the actress recreate it – she was sitting on a bike seat, holding another pole in her mouth) was he released.

Clearly he shouldn’t have been arrested for murdering his crew, but I do have one incredible objection to this film – the animal killings. They’re utterly horrible to watch, especially with the squealing and amount of time the actors take to do it. The fact that Deodata allowed it proves him to be a hypocrite. He wanted to make a film criticising a type of film that he then turned around and created. The film’s message is heavy-handed at best, and downright hypocritical after the fact. Killing animals because he could, because no one was there to stop him, is disgusting and vile. He’s since apologised for it, but even so, the most disturbing thing about the film is not the rape, murder or cannibalism – it’s the animal killings. In his efforts to decry Mondo films, Deodata has made something very much akin to it. He should’ve read the quote about “He who hunts monsters…”

It must be said though, that this is a film that lives up to its reputation. It is one of the roughest films I’ve seen, and it is still brutal, even by today’s standards. It’s a shame that it tries to include a message, because if they’d just made a straight out horror film, it’d be a very effective one, particularly if we cared about the four-idiot-crew; as it happens, it’s painfully clear that they brought it all on themselves, and that robs any character-driven horror.

Oh, they also get points for using an interesting narrative structure. It’s not just a point A to point B film. And unlike later “found footage” films, they don’t insist on having the camera fucking shake all the time – it’s more believable here, as the shots are steady but move like a camera would when someone carries it on their shoulder while they walk.

Understandably Banned?

Hell yes. It’s so very easy to see why this was banned. My stance on it dictates I shouldn’t support it being banned, but I’m quite surprised that the OFLC passed it in 2005. Certainly a film like this would never get made today, even in light of torture porn like the Hostel and Saw series.

Overall

This is a nasty nasty movie, even if it is a particularly well-made one. And hey, it inspired a later genre of found footage movies – but I’ll let you be the judge on whether or not that’s a good thing.

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2 thoughts on “Infamovies: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

  1. A very accurate and well written review! 100% agree that it was more disheartening to watch an innocent turtle murdered than it was to see human beings eaten alive by other human beings. In my opinion, the best part of the movie was the theme music that would better fit a 1970’s British sitcom than an Italian horror film.

  2. I absolutely agree with you on the animal killings. Makes me so sick, you don’t even know. Or maybe you do, because it seems like you hated that, too. It does make Deodato a hypocrite, considering the message of the film. I would rather watch 8 million movies with 8 million human deaths than one animal one. Great post!

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