This film is not for those who enjoy and cherish their own happiness. It is the anti-joy. It goes far beyond just a depressing watch, it ventures into the realm of pure sorrow, misery and despair. To watch this film is to brutally murder all your happy memories with a chainsaw, drag their bodies into your back garden and bury them along with all that makes you a content human being. In fact, to call this film a ‘controversial flick’ is perhaps the perfect personification of an understatement. This amalgamation of pure evil and anguish comes together to make Cannibal Holocaust: a vile, sadistic, disturbing and putrid experience that will execute your very soul with a firing squad of agony… and it just so happens to be one of the most significant horror films of all time.
Made during the height of Italian exploitation cinema, Cannibal Holocaust was Ruggero Deodato’s second cannibal film after Last Cannibal World, highlighting that even cannibalism can be recognised as a legitimate sub-genre of Horror. The plot centres around an expedition into the Amazon Rainforest led by Professor Munroe (played by porn actor Robert Kerman), with the objective of discovering the truth behind the disappearance of four documentarians. As they begin to gain the trust of the local tribes, they uncover the last footage shot by the group, which shows the brutality of both the opportunistic documentarians and the cannibalistic tribe. Admirably, the film was shot on location in the Amazon and utilized authentic Amazonian tribes as actors (the cannibalism was fictionalised of course.)
With the inclusion of apocalyptically graphic violence and real animal killings, the impact of this film upon release was something reminiscent of a witch hunt. Ruggero Deodato was arrested by the Italian government under suspicion of murder due to the film’s found footage style and horrifyingly scenes of murder, which was swiftly dismissed after the actors came to announce that they were in fact, still alive. The main feature of this film that propelled it into infamy (and into the equally infamous ‘Video Nasties’ list) is the inclusion of real animal killings. Understandably, this feature still disgusts censors and audiences to this day, with its inclusion being incredibly questionable morally. However, it does produce a perhaps unintended effect on the audience’s view of the violence within the film. The use of sexual violence within the film has also unsettled both censors and audiences alike throughout the film’s existence. Due to both of these reasons, Cannibal Holocaust still faces problems with censorship bodies today, however a complete ban of the film has been lifted in most countries.
While other exploitation films will use violence as merely a product to please its audience, Cannibal Holocaust depicts violence in a stark and bare manner, often juxtaposed with Riz Ortolani’s beautiful score to highlight the brutality and horror of violence itself. The use of real violence, such as the animal cruelty and the execution footage used in the in-film documentary ‘Last Road to Hell’, contrasts with the fictional violence in order to shatter the barriers between reality and illusion. Therefore, this forces the audience to take a new and far more disturbing perspective on violence portrayed in this film, and perhaps in other mediums as well. Deodato himself has claimed that the film was made as a critique of the exploitative nature of the media, particularly news outlets and the way in which they manipulate information for more viewers. This subtext is actually utilised far more effectively than a film of this nature may suggest, however it does become rather clumsy and heavy handed at times. Conversations with Robert Kerman’s character and the TV executives are very cliché and lack a well needed sense of subtlety.
While many other entries into the horror exploitation genre are about as competently shot as a twelve year old with an iPhone, Cannibal Holocaust thankfully does not share the same lack of cinematic talent. Although the dubbing is what you would expect from an Italian exploitation film, it is clear that Deodato does have at least some expertise with a camera. His handling of colour is actually rather wonderful at times, with the film’s dank, vile and disturbing sense of doom being portrayed nicely through the presence of dark and grey earth/mud in the majority of its horrifying scenes. Deodato also fully utilised the scenery in which he was filming in, producing some beautiful shots of the Amazon. Both the use of the Amazon’s natural beauty and hellish earth tones complement each other effectively, creating a harrowing and wonderful visual impact on the viewer. While many would call him a vile and sick person for making this film, you can’t deny that Deodato holds a certain level of talent. The acting is unfortunately rather more in the vein of Italian exploitation cinema, although it still manages to at least be better than most in the genre. Robert Kerman has an oddly charming presence to him (perhaps it lies in his fantastic moustache), however the majority of the cast do not leave such an impression, with performances ranging from OK to quite below par.
Let me make this clear: Of all the ‘Video Nasties’ that got banned, this one is probably the most deserving of that treatment. The killing of animals is simply not something that should be used in this form of entertainment, even though the animals that were killed in the film were later eaten by the tribe’s people (thankfully there are versions of the film which omit any animal cruelty.) Without the animal killings, Cannibal Holocaust is still an incredibly disturbing film, which is definitely something that it should be commended for. Granted, it is not an enjoyable experience. At all. Nonetheless, the film has a strong, yet highly disturbing vision behind it. It is doom incarnate.