4 out of 5
Directed by: Ruggero Deodato
There are, absolutely, criticisms to be made about Cannibal Holocaust. Regardless of its message, or its potential intentions, it crosses a line once it shows the live slaughtering of animals on screen. What’s difficult to process is that the structure of the movie is mostly sound – and actually very strong – meaning that, had those scenes been faked, we’d likely be praising the effects and their effectiveness. It’s a sad conundrum in horror, and one that has maybe pushed along more extreme fringes that actually film things appropriating torture in order to push a brand of “realism,” but even setting that aside, is anything of this nature ever “okay?” Say this was a real documentary, and we were watching a ritualized slaughtering for some religious purposes – there would still be the question of what the role of an observer is in that instance, and how much the observer may directly or indirectly influence events just by their presence with a camera; furthermore, what is the line between documenting and entertaining?
Because Cannibal Holocaust is, first and foremost, an exploitation movie, most of these questions go out the window; even if some of the animals killed were consumed, the killings were done with purpose to film them – harm was caused without a “need” for it.
And it doesn’t end there: you’ve also taken a cast of aboriginals and, essentially, exploited them for making your exploitation movie. How aware were they of what they were filming? The cast of amateur actors you further asked to “act” out simulated rapes and the real violence – what kind of impact might that’ve had upon them?
I can’t answer any of these questions. As such, I’d even hesitate to give Cannibal Holocaust the distinction as an important film, but I cannot deny something about it: that it is effective. As ill-advised and objectionable as these actions were, they mostly function as intended in the film: wrapping back around and “cannibalizing” itself, as the flick’s final quote posits on the nose. I’ve met people who celebrated the movie’s violence and notoriety, and there are always going to be those types, but even as an appreciator of extreme cinema, I felt the – I think – intended disgust over what I was watching. Yes, it’s exploitative; but it also feels like the kind of exploitation motivated by a particular madness – not strictly for dollars, or even strictly to make a “point,” but some sweaty, mixed-up state between the two. And that gives CH its woozy, dreamy construction; volleying between shaky-cam found footage millions of years before that was a thing and business suited types nodding at the footage approvingly or in disdain; setting pursuit and obtainment of film shot by an initial team of documentarians – now lost in the forest – as a holy quest, and putting us right in the face of what anthopologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) is willing to do to get that material from the tribes who are also worshipping the items – though as totems of horrific power. Which, y’know, is kind of the same thing.
Monroe and his team somewhat sit back as observers, but they’re also corruptors, faking their way into the tribe’s good faith. And when Monroe returns back home and views the film contents, now he can stand against it.
This is our opportunity to view the same, and witness the atrocities the original documentary team committed in order to get their desired footage, an approach they’d employed previously and is very well known to those footing the bill, but the resulting “serious” productions net plenty of rewards and moneys.
Here is another point where CH’s place as a film of intention can be made: what we’ve seen up to this point is not “easy,” but there’s something direct about it, in that Monroe’s and his team’s actions are generally clear. Before we view the found footage, we’re told about this makeshift way of constructing tragedies for filming; that is – there’s no twist to it. It’s not shown to us as a surprise. We are told what to expect, and then we are watching.
Now, yeah, no one who’s made the commitment to the movie is going to turn away at this point, but it’s the inevitability of that structure that’s interesting – the stuff that comes next is worse, but content aside, largely because its intentions have been fully revealed, and it’s akin to that of psychotics who inflict pain for no reason but to inflict pain. The documentarians do things they have no reason to do, and without any sense of planning, for footage that’s going to have to be butchered in an edit into something sensible for audiences. (This is the self-cannibalization: the stuff we’re watching even before we get to that point, of turtles being chopped up and pigs shotgunned – what is the purpose?)
The civilized society as savages is surely not a new concept, but I don’t think making a drastic statement was the goal: director Ruggero Deodato and writer Gianfranco Clerici amplify their “villains” to a most absurd level, and then treat it with a straight face. The CEO-types who are viewing faux in-movie documentary footage are just pleased at its prospects, while touting some party lines that are echoed in the way our 2020 spate of various apologies use variations on “I’m sorry if you’re offended, but…”
Meaning that Cannibal Holocaust, for all of its many criticizable elements, is still effective today. That doesn’t exactly equate to a four star movie in that it’s “great,” but it’s worthy of more conversation than most films, both in terms of what went on in front of the camera as “fiction,” as well as behind the camera.