Film Torments: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
THIS week on Film Torments’ Month of Misery, we take a look at one of the original Video Nasties.
Cannibal Holocaust is one of those films where the legend precedes the picture. Believed by many at the time to be a genuine documentary, Ruggero Deodato’s Mondo-tinged opus was banned in several countries for its extreme depictions of violence, sexual assault and literal animal abuse, sparking an obscenity trial for which he was accused of actually killing his actors on-screen. It’s a provocative, deeply problematic clash between taste, decency and awkward social commentary, revelling in brutality the likes of which a wide audience hadn’t yet been exposed to, making Saw and its ilk seem childish in comparison.
It’s also polarising. Beyond the (successful) Mary Whitehouse-lead campaign to ban the film and its video nasty brethren for obscenity and graphic sensibilities, Sergio Leone hailed Cannibal Holocaust as “a masterpiece of cinematographic realism”, while contemporary critics would both revile and praise it, sometimes for the same reasons. The cult that has sprung up around the film would suggest it to be a maligned masterpiece, thwarted by moral outrage, punitive censorship and ignorance of its central message and, indeed, its content. (Whitehouse herself proudly stated, on national television, that she had never seen a video nasty.)
This dichotomy is mirrored in the film proper. The first half, while no less brutal than its later scenes, is more stylistically familiar with the Italian exploitation of contemporaneity, like Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento, full of terrible dubbing and pornstar facial hair. (Literally – the star, Robert Kerman, actually was a pornstar, most famously in Debbie Does Dallas. He would go on to feature in other cannibal films, Eaten Alive! and Cannibal Ferox.) Unsteady camera movements proliferate; Deodato lingers on the more graphic segments with near-voyeuristic attention, the uncertainty of the Western actors contrasting with the jubilant “savagery” of the tribesmen.
How it differs from its peers is its use of the aforementioned documentarian technique, particularly in the second half, where we get down to the real nitty-gritty of the title. Tutored in cinema verité by Italian legend Roberto Rossellini, pioneer of neo-realist cinema, Deodato employed the use of shaky-cam and even the active discussion of the cinematic editing process to convey a sense of realism. When we watch the “recovered” footage of the lost documentary crew, we’re watching the soundless rushes, white-outs, interstitial frames and high exposure; literal film, within a film, within a film. These layers of footage, slowly at first, serve to blur the boundaries of reality, heightening our senses and throwing into stark relief the acts of violence depicted onscreen.
The shaky-cam in particular, so ill-used in modernity, both disguises the seams of make-up/special effects and enhances the visual suggestion we make in our own heads. It’s the basis of every found-footage horror film that came in its wake, a full 20 years before The Blair Witch Project would popularise the genre. Riz Ortolani’s superb, hauntingly beautiful score juxtaposes the brutality onscreen; as the documentary crew savagely burn a village to the ground for the sake of fabricated sensationalism, a slow, string-lead ballad kicks in with soothing choral “oohs”, the crew laughing gleefully all the while.
This is immediately followed by a sex scene, as two of the crew members enact the deed while being watched by the newly-homeless tribesmen, combining sexuality and human depravity in one fell swoop. That depravity is evident both in front of the camera and behind it, for the most infamous aspect of Cannibal Holocaust is its fully-realised animal cruelty. When a turtle is scooped out of the river and decapitated, its insides pulled out, there’s no simulation involved. When a pig is shot in the head, it keels over, twitching. This abuse actually happened, and it’s the one thing that Deodato himself regrets; it’s also the one thing that remains truly shocking to this day, and that’s in light of extended rape sequences, genital mutilation and baby-burying.
Cannibal Holocaust is constantly challenging its audience, both in their appreciation of violence and social commentary. “The more you rape their senses, the happier they are,” chirps a TV executive reviewing the footage, while Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman) provides a mouthpiece for every piece of criticism thrown the film’s way: “It is offensive, it is dishonest – above all, it is inhuman.” The sadism of the film crew, Deodato suggests, is a reflection of sensationalist news stations who, in his words, favoured the violence and depravity in news stories over human suffering. The actions of the crew are the most effective proponents of the commentary, but it’s made stupefyingly obvious when Monroe, exiting the appalled viewing room, wonders out loud, “Who are the real cannibals?”
This undercuts everything the film is striving for to a hilarious degree, reducing the previous 90 minutes to a glorified punchline. Quite how the film’s intention was missed with a line as haggard as this is beyond me, but perhaps it shouldn’t surprise – the legend precedes the picture. The “green inferno” of the Amazonian jungle is conflated with the urban jungle; the barbarism of the film crew is conflated with the “primitive savagery” of the Ya̧nomamö and Shamatari tribes (who are, largely, not actually cannibalistic), and the callous attitudes of the TV executives is matched by the moral outrage of Monroe.
What is civilised vs. what is uncivilised is the central question at the heart of the film. It is cruel irony that the question is probably answered by the bodies of unnecessarily slaughtered wildlife. Its innovative structure, beautiful score and competent direction are countered by its sleaze, and all of these elements amount to its core paradox. The boundaries between what is real, what isn’t, both within the film and without it, blend together into a fine soup of ethical questions. It interrogates sensationalism while relying on sensationalism itself, both in content and, more insidiously, its marketing. Whether this is hypocrisy or candid self-awareness depends on the viewer, it seems, but the film retains a raw, indeed animalistic power that has seldom been captured before or since.