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An unforgettable exploitation film, which is why many will never want to watch it
on September 12, 2007
"Cannibal Holocaust" showed up in the mail this week and as I got into the movie I found myself wondering why this was in my queue, and then I remembered. In some online discussion regarding the relative merits of the torture-porn films that are presenting themselves as the cutting edge of contemporary horror cinema, there was a consensus of sorts among those who had seen "Cannibal Holocaust" that this was the film that would get you if you had never been gotten by a horror film. By that standard, this 1980 film delivers as promised. The advertisements for this film back then lauded it as the movie that goes all the way, and most viewers will agree that is indeed the case. For some that will be the gruesome deaths of some of the native women and for others it will be what happens to the turtle. What it probably will not be is the death of the faux documentary film crew, because what you see pretty much convinces you that they get what is coming to them.
Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) is persuaded to go to the jungles of the Amazon and lead the search for a missing documentary film crew that consists of director Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), his girlfriend and script girl Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi), and their friends cameramen Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi). Monroe travels to the rainforest and in the first half of the film is eventually able to recover the equipment and footage taken by the missing team. The second half of the film takes place back in New York City where the Pan American Broadcast Company wants Monroe to host the broadcast of the found footage. However, Monroe insists on seeing all of the footage first and is informed that Yates and his crew were award-winning documentarians who often staged their most exciting footage. In that context we see both the footage the network wants to air and that which they did not want Monroe to see. The footage proves to be shockingly graphic and reveals not only what happened to Yates and the others, but why.
Yes, I can appreciate that the people who came up with "The Blair Witch Project" probably saw this film. You do have the whole bit about a documentary film crew disappearing and finding the film that reveals what happens to them, but in the end "Blair Witch" proved to be almost a shaggy dog story, because you never really see anything, and that is most certainly not the case with "Cannibal Holocaust." What gave "Blair Witch" its power was that it was constantly giving the audience cinematic clues that something was about to happen, without getting to that moment. Essentially the audience is as taunt as can be for over an hour while watching that film. "Cannibal Holocaust" gives you amply opportunity to lose your lunch, and the film of recent vintage that I was remind of more was "Vacancy," specifically the snuff films that we see on the videos on the television (and which are a bonus feature on the DVD). Both have the same grainy, cinema veritie quality, and both produce disquiet because of their style as well as their substance.
I know that I came across this film because it was mentioned as being superior to "Hostel," "Wolf Creek," and other torture-porn films, but clearly it is more of an exploitation film than a horror film. I am also old enough to remember "Mondo Cane," which they actually showed us in high school, and clearly "Cannibal Holocaust" is in that tradition. It has been three decades since I saw "Mondo Cane" and I still remember the guy with the machete decapitating the bull, people eating insects, and the Oscar nominated song "More." However, nothing in that film compares to what happens when the "documentarians" drag a turtle from the river in the scene that could make you eject the film from your DVD player before it is even half over. This becomes the most disquieting scene in the film because it is totally real. What happens to the human beings in this film might look real, and Ruggero Deodato was actually accused of making a snuff film (he made his actors sign contracts to "disappear" for a year to maintain the illusion they were real people who were killed and not just actors), but it is all faked, albeit in an extremely effective manner.
While I am convinced "Cannibal Holocaust" is rightfully considered an exploitation film rather than a horror film, the harder question to graphic with is whether it should also be considered social commentary. The documentary film crew goes to the Amazon rainforests to show the barbarity of these cannibal tribes, but it is the Americans who are revealed to be the monsters. Is this social criticism or a convenient excuse for all the blood and gore? After all, when Monroe goes to South America he sees evidence of how brutal the natives can be when he sees a man punishing to death is wife for adultery. It is telling that what happens to Yates and the others does not bother us as much as the atrocities these supposedly civilized people inflict on the "cannibals." The conclusion of the film ultimately convinces me that the social criticism aspects are just to allow Deodato to get away with the blood and gore. This film might be in a class by itself as an exploitation film, but that is what it is in the end, and by that standard it belongs on the dubious A-list that exists for such movies.
"Cannibal Holocaust" is an unforgettable film, which might be why some of you will never want to see it, and hopefully those of you who need to be warned have been. This 2-disc DVD certainly tries to defend, if not explain, its place in the history of exploitation cinema. There is a commentary track and a different on camera commentary version of the film, so you can just listen to Deodato or you can watch him watch the film and listen to him. There is an Animal Cruelty-Free Version of the film that you can see, but while I can understand wanting to refrain from seeing the turtle scene ever again, it is, of course, impossible to judge "Cannibal Holocaust" on its own terms if you see an edited version (even if the deletions reflect the regrets of the director and others for having included them in the first place). The shooting script is also available as a DVD-Rom extra so that you can see how much "worse the film could have been." "Inside the Green Inferno" continues the conceit with title card the biographies of the filmmakers, the search team, the three cannibal tribes, and an alternative version of "Last Road to Hell," the film-within-the-film viewed by Professor Monroe before he goes off in search of the lost documentarians.