[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B0051ZH8CC][/pullquote] Much has been made of the controversy surrounding this Italian-made cult horror: probably a surprise to nobody with a title like that. Banned in several countries due to its graphic violence and sense of amorality, the film even attracted rumours that some of the actors had been genuinely killed on camera, leading to director Ruggero Deodato being questioned by police. To this day, many still mistakenly believe the film is a snuff movie, a perception probably not helped by the fact that the film does contain archive footage of real atrocities, in addition to several genuine scenes of live animals being killed and mutilated. Needless to say, this is at times a disturbing and difficult film to watch, yet the nature of its storytelling makes it hard to simply dismiss as exploitative trash. One of the most notorious cult horror films, Cannibal Holocaust is also one of the most troubling.
Cannibal Holocaust tells the story of a team of young American film-makers who travel deep into the Amazon, seeking to investigate rumours of a barbaric cannibal tribe. After their disappearance, a New York-based anthropologist, Harold Monroe, leads a search party into the Amazon to find them. Eventually, he discovers and watches the film-maker’s tapes, learning that in their quest for a good story, the young Americans have committed shocking atrocities of their own.
The narrative of Cannibal Holocaust uses this ˜found footage’ in a manner unique for the time – even if we are much more familiar with it now thanks to such recent films such as The Blair Witch Project, [REC] and V/H/S. The film uses the playback of the tapes to reveal the young film-makers’ journey, while simultaneously cutting between Monroe’s own quest in the Amazon and his later return to New York (where he analyses and edits the tapes). This multi-stranded narrative proves an original and intelligent approach to telling the story, while the hand-held cinema veritÃ© style creates a stark sense of realism that never lets up. Having the Americans’ footage presented by Monroe also allows the film to acknowledge its more traditional cinematic elements: for example, a scene featuring dramatic background music is followed by Monroe admitting that he added the music himself to liven up the footage.
The film’s realism is unfortunately also one of its most problematic aspects. Several scenes in which animals are killed are filmed using real animals, a decision allegedly taken to make the human deaths feel more realistic and disturbing. But this doesn’t make such scenes any easier to watch, nor does excuse the needless cruelty on show. One lengthy scene has the cast kill and dissect a live turtle. It feels like nothing more than a crass attempt to be shocking, even if it is intended to make a point about the characters’ descent into brutality.
Indeed, since the film’s release, much has been written of the lengths to which Ruggero Deodato went to achieve his results: on top of animal cruelty there are various reports of his bullying of Colombian locals used in the film, his aggressive attitude towards his female cast members, and a general air of sadism in his directorial style. For a film that he argues was intended to tackle the cruelty and arrogance of western civilisation, Deodato’s controversial methods come over as hypocritical.
As the film progresses, we witness (via Monroe’s analysis of the footage) further atrocities committed by the Americans. The film-makers burn, murder and rape their way to the ˜cannibal’ tribes, this of course raising the question of who the real barbarians are. Monroe later finds himself in New York having to talk a television network out of airing the shocking footage, on the basis that it is too sadistic, violent and amoral to broadcast. The clear subtext here is that we should be reflecting upon our own reactions to Cannibal Holocaust and its unending parade of horrors. There is an argument that we as the audience are complicit in the crimes enacted onscreen.
But is this not a case of the film trying to have it both ways? Its hour and a half of gory, disturbing violence builds and builds, each moment trying to outdo the last, before a final orgy of rape and dismemberment that feels more salacious than anything else. For all the attempts to pass comment on violence, Cannibal Holocaust is shockingly indulgent in portraying it. Furthermore, the film’s attempts to criticise the Americans’ disrespect towards the Amazonian locals is also discredited by its own patronising, racist portrayal of these people. With no real attempt to paint the tribes with any sense of humanity, they eventually offer little role other than as a mindless horde of rapists and murderers.
Cannibal Holocaust‘s final moment sees Monroe light his pipe and muse I wonder who the real cannibals are?, after which point the credits roll. As a sign-off line, it’s a lazy and weak attempt at social commentary that makes it harder to take seriously the film’s pretence at being anything other than a grimy exploitation flick. Yet, Cannibal Holocaust remains an intriguing and noteworthy milestone in horror cinema, and probably a film that most die-hard horror fans will want to see, if not only to see how it inspired future (and better) films.
There is an interesting film here, if you can get past the murky self-analysis, the undeniably needless acts of animal cruelty, the moral fogginess and the general air of sadism. That is, of course, a lot to put aside for any film, but Cannibal Holocaust creates precisely this type of dilemma. Its claim as one of the first ˜found footage’ horror films makes it forever a film you probably should see, but the various troublesome aspects make it difficult to truly recommend to anyone.