31 Screams in October, #25: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Posted: October 25, 2014 in Movie Review
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Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Director: Ruggero Deodato

Starring: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi

“Today, people want sensationalism. The more you rape their senses, the happier they are.”

The above quotation is taken directly from dialogue spoken in this movie, and yet it’s probably even more applicable to the modern audience than to that of 1979-’80. Today, we have 24-hour news channels, Reality TV, the Internet, and other forms of entertainment which continue to push the boundaries of what’s considered to be acceptable. For some viewers, like myself, it’s like when you bite into a really spicy food. You know you’re probably going to regret it, but part of you still wants to test yourself to see how much you can take. When these programs are not so outrageous but want you to think they are, that’s the advertiser’s job. No matter which era you’re describing, there’s always going to be some level of hyperbole which advertisers use to get you to watch a particular program. These are among the chief reasons why you would ever intentionally seek out a movie like “Cannibal Holocaust.”

NYU anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) enters into the Amazon rainforest to find out what became of a missing American documentary film crew who had ventured there to get footage of the native cannibals. This team of filmmakers includes director Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), his girlfriend and script girl Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi),  and cameramen Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi). First encountering the tribe called the Yacumo, Monroe and his group discover through their behavior that the tribe must have been disturbed greatly by Yates’ crew. The next day, arriving on the scene of a feud between warring tribes, the Yanomamo and the Shamatari, they earn the gratitude of the smaller Yanomamo group when they save them from certain death, but they still aren’t entirely trusted. Later, a shrine is revealed, bearing the remains of the filmmakers along with their unopened film canisters.

The film, when brought back to New York and finally viewed in its entirety, reveals some pretty strong stuff. After losing their guide to a snake bite, Alan and the others locate the Yacumo, set fire to a hut and force the entire tribe inside so they can film scenes of the tribe members looking scared. Further desecrating the hut, Alan and Faye fornicate on its ashes with the Yacumo outside watching. After selective editing, they would then have claimed it to all have been the work of another tribe. The TV studio heads who are viewing this footage with Monroe are getting excited, thinking it will be great for their planned broadcast. Monroe disagrees, and later implores them not to after he’s viewed the remaining footage for himself. When they don’t seem to understand, he insists that they wait until they’ve watch the rest of it with him to make their final decision.

The last reels include the gang raping of a Yanomamo girl by each of the three men in Yates’s group, including himself, as well as the subsequent discovery of the girl having been executed by the tribe, impaled on a wooden pole (in what’s probably the most famous image from “Cannibal Holocaust”). Soon after, the group is hunted down and killed by the tribe in an act of revenge. Once the film has finished playing, the studio execs not only agree that this documentary should not be aired, but that it should in fact be burned.

Animal lovers need not apply their attention to “Cannibal Holocaust.” Like most others in the cannibal genre (yes, there actually is such a thing), this one comes equipped with its share of animal cruelty. In all, a tarantula, snake, pig, coatimundi (incorrectly called a muskrat in the movie), two squirrel monkeys (one in an unused take), and a sea turtle were legitimately killed in the making of the movie. The fact that (most of) these animals are cooked and eaten is probably of no consolation, nor is the notion that you see these sorts of things all the time on shows hosted by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel. Even the fact that the DVD comes equipped with an “Animal Cruelty-free version” shouldn’t put anyone at ease.

The worst violence in the film is saved for the human characters. Men are dismembered and eaten, as are the women, excepting that they are raped first. Lovely, ain’t it? For a movie made in 1979-’80, the makeup effects and careful editing (as well as the use of authentic Amazonian tribe members) make the execution scenes look pretty damn real. The fact that these scenes are mixed with the very real killings of the animals led some to wonder if “Cannibal Holocaust” weren’t in fact a snuff film. Ten days after the premiere in Milan, the film was seized and its director arrested on obscenity charges.

Ruggero Deodato, whom some of the crew found sadistic, cruel and otherwise difficult to work with or even talk to, eventually would find himself in court on charges of murder. He didn’t help himself by having his actors sign contracts that ensured that they wouldn’t be seen in any other movies, TV or commercials for an entire year, effectively dropping off the face of the Earth for that period. To keep from facing jail time, he had to produce evidence that he hadn’t killed them for the film, which included bringing the four actors portraying the doomed film crew in front of live TV cameras, as well as providing photographs taken of the actress from the impalement scene taken after that scene had been filmed and explaining in detail how her “death scene” had been staged.

Although Deodato may have been found not guilty, the movie itself was not exonerated in the court of public opinion. Some countries refused to release the film without specific edits, while other chose to ban “Cannibal Holocaust” outright. In the UK, “Cannibal Holocaust” was placed on the “Video Nasties” list. Most of the bans placed on the film have been lifted in the years since, but the reputation remains.

The one element that can make “Cannibal Holocaust” worth a look is its importance to the “found footage” genre. Though other films produced since have made this kind of movie popular, it is “Cannibal Holocaust” which can be credited as the innovator. I personally like the movie based on those grounds. However, due to the film’s violent content, both real and staged, I don’t really know how else to recommend it. Be warned: If you do decide to tread these waters, it’s very possible that the experience will change you in a most negative way.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Wow! I will take the warning and avoid it!!!

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