Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

19 Nov

Scuzzy filmmakers ahoy!

When a movie is titled “Cannibal Holocaust,” it’s absurd to expect anything other than over-the-top shock horror. That this film offers measured and intelligent social commentary along with its horrific violence and impossible-to-forget imagery elevates it far beyond mere schlock.

The film begins with a television documentary about a documentary film crew that went missing while working on a project deep in the Amazon rainforest. The intention of the group was to find and film the primitive cannibal tribes rumored to still be living deep in the jungle. The crew consisted of director Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke), his girlfriend  Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi) and two cameramen, Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi). A New York university professor, Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), has agreed to lead a fact-finding/rescue expedition to attempt to locate the film crew, or, assuming the worst, determine what happened to them.

Monroe arrives in South America and meets up with guide Chaco (Salvatore Basile) and his assistant Miguel. A tribesman has been captured as part of a military action, and Chaco explains that the man will be used as a bargaining chip when dealing with the natives. The men make their way through the dense jungle and catch up with some of the Yacumo tribesmen. The men agree to release their prisoner in exchange for safe passage into the Yacumo village. The group is greeted with open hostility, and — after earning the tribe’s trust by making a peace offering of a switchblade — Monroe is able to deduce that Yates and his team have wronged the tribe in some way. The following day, Monroe, Chaco and Miguel head deeper into the jungle in search of the rumored cannibal tribes. They come upon a small group of Yanomamo people being attacked by Shamatari warriors. The group helps the Yanomamo, and in return are welcomed into their village. Monroe’s fears about the team’s fate are confirmed when he finds some of their equipment in the village. He is able to trade a tape recorder for the film team’s footage. He expects that what he finds on the reels will be grisly, but nothing he has seen has prepared him in any way for what he’s about to discover.

Professor Monroe, center, is pretty square. Chaco there, on the right, has some kind of mad hook-up whereby he has cocaine at all times, even in the depths of the jungle, but the Prof. never once indulges.

“Cannibal Holocaust” works extremely well because it fulfills exactly what  you expect from the title, but in a way that defies your expected story arc. The title gives it all away: We know from the beginning that the “missing” film crew has been attacked and killed by the cannibal tribes they were hoping to film. What we don’t know is why they were killed. We assume it’s simply because that’s what these “savages” do. Writer Gianfranco Clerici unfolds the story slowly and cleverly, however, and eventually we realize our preconceived notions were ill-informed.

The movie-in-a-movie nature of this film is fascinating. The technique is nothing new, but the extremely realistic application of it in “Cannibal Holocaust” heightens the overall experience of the film. The presentation of the “found” footage feels authentic, even if the Monroe sequences — particularly the ones where he is interacting with media executives — are markedly less genuine. It doesn’t matter, because the horrifying jungle sequences are so uncomfortably real that the false safety of the New York sequences is welcome.

Of course, the heightened reality of the jungle sequences is also due to director Ruggero Deodato’s infamous demand for authenticity. Few films go so far as to depict the actual killing of animals. This one does, and I’m not sure anyone watching this film could rationally convince themselves they’re just seeing special effects. It’s incredibly difficult to watch, even acknowledging that two of the three animal deaths depicted are for the purposes of eating the animals. One of the deaths is what would be deemed a senseless killing, and it serves only to further characterization. I feel ill-equipped to comment on the morals of killing and filming the deaths of these animals. I can say that seeing it so blatantly depicted in the film adds a layer of horror and an uncomfortable sense that anything could happen.

When I initially read about this film, I learned that Deodato faced charges in Italian courts on the belief that “Cannibal Holocaust” was an actual snuff film and that actors had been killed — and filmed being killed — during its production. I couldn’t comprehend that before seeing the film; it seemed so nonsensical. Of course no one actually died while making this movie. Now, I understand how the Italian courts could come to such a conclusion. Once you see that reality — the animals being killed, the actors engaged in ordinary but rarely depicted acts like urinating, bathing, having extremely realistic (but simulated) sexual intercourse — it becomes harder to convince yourself the entire film isn’t real.

For me, the turtle sequence was the most difficult to sit through. I got squirmy and turned away a few times, I'll admit.

The larger film-within-a-film plot is obvious social commentary. Upon viewing the entirety of the footage, Monroe even muses aloud “I wonder who the real cannibals are.” It’s blatant and easy to see, and is still somewhat effective. But what interested me more was the smarter, underlying notion that the film was challenging its very audience. Multiple sequences in the film are difficult to watch; the animal deaths have already been mentioned, but there is an early segment where a native tribeswoman is raped and killed by her husband as punishment for infidelity. Monroe wants to intervene, but Chaco won’t let him, saying it’s the law of the tribe and that to intervene — for Monroe to interject his own morals — would be disaster. And so we are forced to watch. Time and again in this film, we are forced to watch, and we choose not to interject our own morals, that is, to turn away. The comparison of the metaphorical cannibals — Yates’ film crew and the bloodthirsty media executives — to us as the audience is pointed and sudden. “Cannibal Holocaust” is a shocking film, but perhaps most shocking of all is its willingness to indict its own audience. Three stars out of four.

Cannibal Holocaust“: UR. Content deemed appropriate only for an adult audience. Starring Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes, Carl Gabriel Yorke (as Gabriel Yorke), Paolo Paoloni, Lionello Pio Di Savoia and Luigina Rocchi. Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Written by Gianfranco Clerici. Cinematography by Sergio D’Offizi. Special effects by Aldo Gasparri. Original music by Riz Ortolani.

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