Dir. Ruggero Deodato (1980)
A documentary film crew gets a little too close to their subjects, a cannibalistic tribe with meat on the menu.
CAUTION: THIS MOVIE'S SUBJECT & CONTENT IS EXTREMELY DISTURBING AND/OR BRUTAL. I HAVE CHOSEN NOT TO INCLUDE ANY PICTURES IN THIS REVIEW BECAUSE THEY MAY BE UPSETTING TO SOME READERS. MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.
I decided to watch Cannibal Holocaust largely because it is a true classic of the horror genre. I've read about it for years, and I always heard that it was one that should not be missed. It's supposed to be one of the most disturbing movies of all time, and was originally thought to be a snuff film because of its realistic portrayal of violence, rape, and torture. I don't know about you, but it sounds fun to me!
For all (or any) of its flaws, Cannibal Holocaust was a milestone in horror cinema. It was the first found footage movie (or at least the first that mattered), which means that many of today's horror movies owe it a great debt of gratitude. We wouldn't have movies like the Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Rec, or any of the other "new classics" without Cannibal Holocaust. It was also notable as one of the few movies that has resulted in legal charges against its filmmaker. Director Ruggero Deodato was brought up on murder charges after the movies release because it was deemed "too real to be fake." The members of the cast had signed a contract saying that they would stay out of public for a year after the film's release, in a Blair Witch-esque hype generator. Needless to say, when they reappeared for Deodato's trial, all charges were dropped. I would also think it ruined some of the mystique surrounding the film for later viewers.
I honestly think that I went into Cannibal Holocaust with too much of an expectation. I expected it to knock my socks off, and to be a "masterpiece of exploitation cinema," as some have called it. I came away feeling a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, it's truly a masterpiece of exploitation cinema, there's no doubt about that. A lot of the film is practically senseless. Or is it? I'm still a little undecided, honestly. Every time I try to think of an example of something that was unnecessary, I find myself reasoning through how it was necessary to the plot or the point. For instance, there is a scene where two of the main characters have sex in front of the native tribe. They didn't know that it was being recorded at first, and acted all offended when they found out that it was, but they knew that the tribe members were all around them. I first thought that this was just an example of a way to throw some boobs into the movie. But really, I think that it showed the dehumanization of the tribe to the filmmakers. Another scene involves the real killing of a giant turtle. Not for the queasy among us, this to me was the worst and most disturbing scene in the movie. A lot of people have said that this was realistic, and that the fact that the filmmakers ate the animal made for a more realistic piece of the movie than faking the animal's death. Out of all of the disturbing scenes in the movie, this is the one I felt was the least necessary. That being said, I do get it. I get what he was trying to accomplish, I just don't know that it was worth going to the extreme that he did, and I think it could've been done without actually torturing a live animal.
Prior to watching the movie, as I said, I had read a lot about it. I knew of the plot, a lot of the specifics, and most of the back story. One thing I wasn't aware of before viewing was how Deodato portrayed the filmmakers themselves. The faux film's director and cast were all terrible human beings. They deliberately raped and murdered members of the tribe to get more "real" footage for their documentary, obviously planning on leaving their involvement in the incidents on the cutting room floor. Of course, since this was footage found and shown to a group of television executives, we were privy to their dirty secrets. This to me was the film's strongest message, showing exactly how far the cast and crew of the fauxtumentary were willing to go to get their footage. Besides the turtle scene, this was the one aspect of the movie that I found the most sickening. On the other hand, is it really that far-fetched? I mean, we've seen directors like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock go to the complete extreme to get the most out of their actors and set pieces. Is it really that hard to believe that documentary filmmakers would exploit and manipulate their surroundings to make their film more interesting and enjoyable? I don't think it is. I know that some have done this very thing, though few, I doubt, to the same extent that they did in this movie. In the end, I couldn't help but completely side with the tribes on this one: those douchebags got exactly what was coming to them.
What I didn't agree with, however, was that this movie was one of the most disturbing ever made, nor did I find it scary in the slightest. Of course, in that day and time maybe it would've been more impactful, but even the real animal killings were nothing compared to a lot of the films that PETA passes around. I found it to be more enjoyable for its (barely) underlying message than for its value as a horror or exploitation flick. We are, as a society, more interested in the entertainment value of a piece than its newsworthiness. Obviously this holds true tenfold today. We're a society full of reality TV stars that are famous simply for being famous, with all of our news media outlets talking about Snookie's baby, and The Bachelor's stunning slap in the face of his rose-receiver, or what have you. We no longer seem to care about what is actually news and have taken to creating our own. Isn't that essentially what these filmmakers were doing, just on a grander, life and death scale? I think it is.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Cannibal Holocaust absolutely perplexed me. I wanted to hate it. I didn't think it was particularly well made, particularly interesting, particularly scary, or even particularly disturbing. But the message was real, and no more real at any time in our history that today. When I can turn on the television and see more about who got kicked off of Dancing With the Stars most recently than how many of our soldiers died overseas, or the current unemployment rate, or the decline of our currency, or whatever hot button issue is the cause du jour, then something is fucked up in the system. And that's, to me, what Cannibal Holocaust was about. And, for all (or any) of its flaws, Deodato did an amazing job at that. He somehow managed to get me to side with a backwards tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals over a group of American professionals.
Who this movie is for: Exploitation fans, Extreme horror nuts, Amoral studio execs
Bottom line: Gory and almost irredeemable, Cannibal Holocaust deserves its place on the "most disturbing" lists, but not for all of the reasons that you'd think. It's got a lasting message that feels even more pertinent today than when it was made, and it's inspired countless films made since. It's a must watch, even if it's not your cup of tea. It's horror history, after all.