Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

The most banned film of all time. The definitive cannibal movie. The grandfather of found footage. The one that goes all the way. Italian filmmaker Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust has a hell of a reputation preceding it. But now, thirty years later, can it still hold up to a modern horror audience in a post-torture porn world?

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) follows American anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) as he leads an expedition deep into the depths of the Amazon rainforest to try find out what happened to a group of documentary filmmakers who have gone missing. The expedition encounters primitive cannibal tribes and, upon finding out the missing group are, in fact, dead, bring the filmmakers’ final film canisters back to New York. With TV executives in tow, Professor Monroe watches the footage back, where the filmmakers are shown to be far less civilised than they portrayed themselves to be, and when they push the Amazon natives to the brink, the natives push back

A film of two very distinct halves, the first section of the Cannibal Holocaust plays out like a standard cinematic film, then switches gears to beat up 16mm from the filmmakers’ cameras, trying to separate movie violence from actual violence and laying the groundwork for pretty much every nausea-inducing shaky cam film in the decades to follow. Director Deodato claims the film was made as a retort to graphic images he saw his son was witnessing on the news regularly and, adopting a Mondo Cane approach (a fancy phrase for filming animal deaths), Cannibal Holocaust makes its point in as brutal a way as possible.

Yes, there is real violence to animals in this film, and yes, it is horribly disturbing. Monkeys, pigs, snakes, even giant turtles, all suffer pointless deaths in a horrible display of shock and exploitation. And then there is the sexual violence. Oh boy, is there sexual violence. In one of the more graphic acts, a woman is raped and genitally mutilated by a ball of clay covered in nails. The gore and violence of the film almost seems tame in comparison to everything else, but even then, it will push seasoned gore hounds. With a name like Cannibal Holocaust, you have to know what you’re getting in for, and if you are looking for the red stuff, this film delivers by the boat full. Slicing, dicing, circumcising, all convincingly on show here. The film has a reputation, and it is full deserving of it. It breaks taboos that no one needs broken, and for a film criticising exploitation, it’s funny how readily it runs that gauntlet itself.

That said, Cannibal Holocaust lands its message home effectively. It eschews the preconceived notions of a cannibal to turn everything on its head and expose the underbelly of the ‘civilised’ world and its quest for sensational TV. The animal violence is arguably unforgivable (incidentally, there is a director-approved animal cruelty free version. Well, almost cruelty free), but the rest of the film has a dedicated point and is enticing all the way to the finish. The film moves along steadily, no filler, nothing trying to draw out its 96 minute run time. Most significantly, unlike a lot of other exploitation films from this period, Holocaust doesn’t come off as nasty. In fact, it almost always feels like it wishes it wasn’t showing you these disturbing visuals. There is a definite car-crash mentality to it. You just can’t look away, waiting for the next grotesque moment to rear its head.

A lot does have to be said for the grainy and gritty asthetic of the film, making it feel like that odd bit of film you found in your grandparents wardrobe (note: if you value your sanity, never watched said wardrobe video). It is easy to immerse yourself in the film and get swept up in everything on screen, as the characters might. Everything feels in place and part of a whole, leaving you with a fulfilling, if overwhelming and disheartening, experience.

Now, the film does have its drawbacks. A substantial portion is dubbed (as most old Italian films are), barely hiding some ropey performances, and boy howdy are some people very disco-looking. It’s funny, the film straddles a line between being cheesy and being a reflection of its time all the way through the film. For example, Riz Ortolani’s score should make you giggle, but its synth sound incomprehensibly compliments the jungle scenery and violent acts with a bit of tragedy. On the flip side, porn star Kerman’s moustache will have you in stitches.

Cannibal Holocaust lives up to its notoriety. A lot of people will watch it and say it’s no big shakes, but those people either have a screw loose or are lying. Make no mistake, this is no party film. It is powerful, moving you, hurting you, making you think. It’s ok to let it do its job. You should feel a bit wrong watching the film. The point is to ask yourself the question, as Professor Monroe does, ‘I wonder who the real cannibals are?’

Ok, that line is stupid.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★★

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