Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Cannibal Holocaust first published by Little White Lies in 2011, when Shameless Screen Entertainment released their Blu-ray (and DVD) of the film

After aerials of the Amazonian rain forest play out in montage over the opening credits of Cannibal Holocaust, we cut to the concrete ‘jungle’ of the Big Apple (also shown as aerials, from the observation deck of a skyscraper), as a reporter speaks direct to camera of the “Green Inferno… only a few hours’ flying time from New York City”, where four young American journalists, “armed with cameras, mics and curiosity”, disappeared while trying to record local cannibals on film. As the reporter speaks sensationally of “primitive tribes isolated in a ruthless hostile environment, where the prevailing law is the survival of the fittest”, his comments are ironically underscored by images of New Yorkers walking in the busy streets. So Ruggero Deodato’s principal theme is clear from the outset: the gulf that appears to exist between civilisation and savagery is not as great as geographical distance might imply. It is a theme that goes back at least as far as King Kong (1933), and that was ‘explored’ (both exhaustively and luridly) in a succession of Italian cannibal films (including Deodato’s own Lost Cannibal World) from the Seventies and early Eighties.

Yet if Cannibal Holocaust is a film of two jungles and two tribes, it is also a film of two halves, with Deodato reserving his most shocking (not to mention influential) innovation till roughly the midway point. Before that we get an ethnographic adventure, in which sympathetic, pipe-smoking anthropologist Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, who Deodato did not realise was an established pornstar) leads an expedition in search of the four missing journalists. After bearing witness to some barbaric rituals, establishing contact with the apprehensive natives, engaging reluctantly in a cannibalistic feast, and discovering the corpses of the four and their guide, Monroe retrieves the last remaining evidence of what happened to them, their film cans – and it is at this point that Deodato can play his groundbreaking trump card.

If the film’s first half is shot conventionally in 35mm, the second mostly comprises what purports to be the (now dead) documentary crew’s own ‘found footage’, shot handheld in 16mm (and deliberately distressed by the director) – with only occasional cuts to Monroe back in New York watching the roughly edited reels with increasing horror and arguing with television executives over the propriety of their ever being publicly aired. So, decades before The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Redacted and their ilk would embrace the immediacy of shakicam vérité, Deodato was already beating a path through what was then uncharted territory, and moreover presenting his particular brand of faux reality in a highly sophisticated form. For not only does this found footage reveal scenes of unimaginable barbarism (rape, murder, butchery, the deliberate torching of a village from which the film in part takes its title), but much of it has been either instigated or even staged by the four filmmakers themselves, desperate for outrageous material to take home with them even if that means capturing a harsh reality that has been fabricated by their own baser instincts (and conveniently projected onto the natives).  The result is an orgy of bestial behaviours, implicating the journalists, broadcasters and viewers alike in its privileging of excess and exploitation above all else. After all, as one of the New York TV executives puts it, “Today people want sensationalism – the more you rape their senses, the happier they are.”

There is, to be sure, an allegorical critique of imperialism to be found here, as the four journalists rape, plunder and burn their way through the local tribes, convinced of their own natural superiority (and expressly declaring the burning village huts to be “just like Cambodia”)  – and that allegory is broadened out even further when Monroe refers to two cannibal tribes in the region as “superpowers… perpetually at war”. Evidently the ‘Green Inferno’ of the jungle is a microcosm of twentieth-century acts of aggression and atrocity (an idea only reinforced by the film’s resonant title).

Cannibal Holocaust, however, is far more memorable as a metacinematic provocation that reflects upon the sensational  extremes and questionable ethics of the more intrusive or manipulative kinds of documentary journalism – as well as of the horror genre itself. Here the faux-documentary medium is part of the message – for much as the (fictional) documentary crew constructs a compelling fiction out of the very real misery and suffering of the natives whose territory they have invaded, Deodato too places his actors (and some alarmingly convincing gore effects) in real locations, and shoots them in a style more normally associated with reportage. No wonder, then, that Deodato was accused of having made a snuff movie and faced with murder charges in Italy’s courts, forcing him to prove that his cast was still very much alive and well.

Not that all the deaths in Cannibal Holocaust are simulated. Under pressure (much like the fictive documentary crew) from his producers to come up with more on-screen carnage, and following a dubious filmmaking practice that was all too commonplace in Italian cannibal movies of the time, Deodato shot several sequences in which various animals (a coatamundi, a spider, a snake, a pig, a turtle, some monkeys) are shown actually being killed before the cameras to become the characters’ meals (after which they were actually eaten by cast and crew). Although Deodato still insists that these scenes – which saw Cannibal Holocaust banned in many countries – are essential to conveying the cruelty of his filmmaking characters (a cruelty which inevitably coincides to a degree with the director’s own), he concedes that he still harbours a sense of guilt, especially over the turtle, and would today find a different way to shoot the animal deaths.

Meanwhile, this new Blu-ray (and DVD) release from Shameless Screen Entertainment offers the longest version of the film ever to have been made available in the UK since it was banned as a ‘Video Nasty’ in 1983. This new cut, passed only this year [2011] by the BBFC with just 15 seconds of rodent agony missing, is some five minutes and thirty seconds longer than the version passed in 2001, allowing British viewers to see the film more or less as intended when it was first made (including the entire, utterly harrowing turtle sequence). There is also a brand new edit of the film by Deodato which removes, hides or tones down several instances of animal slaughter scenes (while leaving all the human-on-human horror in place) – but given that the actual deaths of the animals can hardly be undone by mere editing, this second version is more a concession to viewer sensitivities than anything else.

Any way you look at it, and any version that you watch, Cannibal Holocaust remains a highly confronting piece of horror whose constant flirtation with reality refuses its viewers the comfort and security normally afforded by the protective barriers of fiction. Once you have taken its journey from the lofty heights of civilisation to the begrimed base of primitivism, you cannot return entirely unsoiled by the experience. Riz Ortalani’s ‘easy listening’ score only adds to the film’s mood of unease by way of counterpoint, while the high-definition images of this release (as opposed to the tenth-generation murk that typified the VHS bootlegs of the film widely in circulation when it was banned) allows viewers actually to see and distinguish the variety of filmmaking styles that Deodato so skilfully deploys.

Cannibal Holocaust is certainly unpleasant, uncomfortable, even offensive – which is to say that it is uncompromisingly true to its genre – but that is not to undermine its fierce, probing intelligence. After all, it is we, the human animal, that Deodato’s jungle movie is ultimately investigating – and who would not be unnerved by the possibility that it captures us just right?

© Anton Bitel