Cannibal Holocaust (Italy, 1980)

March 05, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cannibal Holocaust Poster

There are times when the reputation of a film outstrips the movie itself. Cannibal Holocaust is an example. To some, this is the most disgusting, offensive motion picture ever given an international release. To others, it is a brilliant example of social commentary masquerading as an exploitation flick. In reality, this is a fairly standard-order "bad taste" movie, replete with all the characteristics of the genre: grotesque, over-the-top violence; copious blood and viscera; gratuitous, uncensored nudity; and borderline-pornographic sex. The difference between Cannibal Holocaust and dozens of other equally "morally repugnant" motion pictures is that this one ended up at the center of a misinformation maelstrom that continues to this day. Its chief selling point has always been its shock value.

Watching Cannibal Holocaust, I was struck by how absolutely ordinary it is, at least for this kind of movie. The film is unlikely to unnerve or horrify its target audience - the title alone should be sufficient to keep away all but those who have some idea what they're getting themselves into. Those expecting good taste have no one but themselves to blame. To be fair to those attempting to justify Cannibal Holocaust as something more than a bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation feature, there are elements of social commentary in the subtext, but they obvious and poorly developed. They're also not very interesting - the idea that "civilized" man is often more "cannibalistic" than savages and that the ratings-driven media gravitates toward violence and sensationalism. In 1980, those were about as radical as color television.

Cannibal Holocaust, despite its cheap production values and porn-level acting, has made a lasting contribution to movies in general. This is the grandfather of the so-called "found footage" first-person movie. A sizeable chunk of the story is told via reels of faux documentary footage detailing the exploits of a doomed expedition as it moves deeper into the Amazon rain forest. The approach was hijacked and expanded upon by both The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project in the late 1990s (although filmmakers for both of those productions have denied being influenced by Cannibal Holocaust¬ - claims that seem dubious). The Blair Witch Project begot Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, and countless others. As every modern-day slasher film owes a debt to Psycho, so every "found footage" film owes a debt to Cannibal Holocaust, although having the Hitchcock classic in one's cinematic DNA is somewhat more honorable than acknowledging a lineage to Ruggero Deodato's controversial piece of schlock.

The movie is straightforward, although its non-linear chronology may make it seem more complicated. A crew of four American documentary filmmakers - director Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke); his girlfriend/script girl, Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi); and two camera operators, Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi) - head deep into the Amazon to make a movie about the reported cannibal tribes that live in the "Green Inferno." While there, out of contact with the civilized world, they disappear. Months later, noted NYU anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) agrees to head up a rescue expedition. Following in the previous crew's footsteps, Monroe encounters the Yacumo tribe, whose members admit to having encountered Yates and his fellows. The trail leads deeper into the jungle, where Monroe encounters the Yamamomo tribe, an isolated group of people whose culture and technology are frozen in the stone age. With some difficulty, Monroe earns the trust of these cannibalistic "tree people" and is able to see the remains of the four Americans and recover their lost film footage. He brings the canisters back to New York and, after screening them and learning the truth about what happened to Yates in the Green Inferno, he wants to wash his hands of the entire affair.

Cannibal Holocaust uses Monroe's story and several faux TV news broadcasts as a wraparound/bookend device to present the "found footage." The film's editing is not smooth; voiceover narration is occasionally needed to avoid confusion, and the time line jumps around. This is not unusual for low-budget exploitation films. As a rule, viewers of these movies care less about the coherence of the plot than about the quality and quantity of the requisite elements, and Cannibal Holocaust does not skimp when it comes to them.

In large part, the film's infamy derives from inaccurate rumors that Deodato killed some of his actors in the course of making the movie, transforming it from a low-budget horror endeavor into a snuff film. The confusion originated from the "found footage," which depicts several convincing murders; because of the first-person approach, some viewers believed they were seeing actual events rather than actors pretending to die. Deodato had to produce the living performers and explain (with photographic evidence) how the "murders" were shot in order to avoid charges. Nevertheless, rumors persisted for many years that Cannibal Holocaust depicts real torture and death - if not of the main actors, then of "background" natives.

The movie does show unsimulated killings. An early "documentary" made by Yates, called The Last Road to Hell, includes actual footage (not shot by Deodato) of executions in Asian and African countries. There are also six instances in which animals are filmed being killed. Some of these are brief and seemingly innocuous (it's hard to feel much when a large spider is splattered), but one in particular - the decapitation and "cleaning out" of a giant turtle - is enough to churn the stomach of the non-biology major. Still, it should be noted that many films made outside of the United States, especially during this era, did not seek the approval of animal rights activists. Because of its notoriety, however, Cannibal Holocaust has become the poster child. In some countries, only censored versions are allowed to be shown/sold. In others, it is banned altogether.

The movie also goes to extremes when it comes to representing sex and sexual violence. There's a lot of full frontal nudity, both male and female. In fact, the lead actor, Robert Kerman, was better known during this era by his porn name of "R. Bolla," under which he made more than 100 adult films (including Debbie Does Dallas). Kerman's performance, stiff though it is, impresses more than those of his non-porn co-stars. The only one capable of delivering a line convincingly is Gabriel Yorke. There is a reason why some of the "found footage" doesn't have any sound; the less dialogue entrusted to the actors, the less painful the movie is.

Over the years, women's rights activists (at least those few who have seen it) have complained about Cannibal Holocaust's content. That shouldn't be surprising; women are rarely treated well in exploitation movies. Here, Francesca Ciardi has three scenes in which she leaves little to the imagination. There are two violent gang rapes, one of which ends with a beheading. In another scene, an adulteress is violently penetrated by a large implement before being beaten to death with it. Cannibal Holocaust is unquestionably misogynistic but, in being so, it is little different from dozens of other '70s and early '80s movies questing for the same niche audience.

There are worse exploitation films out there. This one at least deserves credit for filming on location and, as a result, giving a sample of life far away from civilization. It's no Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but there are times when it provides a sense of what can happen when the veneer of civilization erodes. The usage of "found footage" is also unquestionably important in view of the direction currently being taken by many horror films.

For those with a perverse desire to view Cannibal Holocaust but who do not want to be subjected to the sight of dying animals, versions are available with these scenes elided. None adds much to the story and Deodato has since said that he regrets having filmed those things. Nevertheless, my sense is that the primary audience for Cannibal Holocaust would not be dissuaded from seeing the unexpurgated version by squeamish concerns about slaughtered mammals and reptiles.

With many loaded issues, allegations, and rumors establishing the foundation for its infamous reputation, it's easy to lose sight of the movie that is Cannibal Holocaust and to recognize that, by any quantifiable set of cinematic standards, it's awful. Morality has nothing to do with it. The movie is badly made, horribly acted, and stitched together as if by a pair of scissors and a roll of tape. The exploitation elements are the only reasons to see it, and they will turn off more people than they will enthrall. It can be successfully argued that Cannibal Holocaust does its job dishing out generous servings of fetishistic violence, viscera, rape, and nudity. Less successful are claims that there's something more substantive to be found here. To the extent that it exists, any social commentary is secondary to Deodato's primary agenda and a thinly-veiled attempt to make the movie seem more enlightened than it is. Ultimately, stories about the development, making, and marketing of Cannibal Holocaust are more compelling than the 96 minutes of celluloid that represent its telling.

Cannibal Holocaust (Italy, 1980)

Director: Ruggero Deodato
Cast: Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Gabriel Yorke, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Giorgio Barbareschi
Screenplay: Gianfranco Clerici
Cinematography: Sergio D'Offizi
Music: Riz Ortolani
U.S. Distributor: Grindhouse Releasing
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1985-06-19
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Graphic violence, Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1