I spent a large part of my life afraid of Cannibal Holocaust. It is a movie preceded by its reputation, known for being relentlessly violent and brutal to the point where the movie has been banned in multiple territories and director Ruggero Deodato was brought up on charges of obscenity and even murder for making it. Knowing the effect the film had on those who had seen it and were repelled by it made me actually afraid to watch it. The movie seemed dangerous.
Truth be told, it is dangerous. It’s one of the most dangerous horror movies ever made. This is a film that depicts graphic impalements and evisceration. It builds upon the onscreen cannibalism introduced by Umberto Lenzi in The Man From Deep River and makes it even more violent and horrifying. Most notoriously, this is a film that features the onscreen slaughter of several animals. These sequences are exploitative and they are awful. If we are willing to look past that, however—and I completely understand those that aren’t—Cannibal Holocaust is a kind of masterpiece and one of the best horror films of 1980.
After an American documentary crew goes missing in the Amazon while shooting a movie about cannibal tribes, NYU anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) leads a search party to get them back. He encounters and ultimately gains the trust of the tribe, retrieving the footage shot by the film crew, but not the crew themselves. Upon taking the film back to New York to turn it into a documentary, Monroe discovers the truth about the crew's fate—and it's more horrifying than anything he ever could have imagined.
"Classics" are defined in all kinds of ways. The way we usually talk about classics in movie terms is to describe films that have more merit than most and which everyone should see. We tend to reserve the classification for "important" movies like Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz and The Godfather. The list goes on. But there are also classics of a different kind—movies that are classics of their own genres or which provide an exemplary model of a much smaller subset of film. In its way, Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust is very much a classic: a classic of exploitation cinema, a classic of the Italian cannibal genre (which, I assure you, is a thing), even a classic of the now-ubiquitous "found footage" genre, which Cannibal Holocaust essentially helped invent. But is it any good?
My answer is a resounding “yes.” While I was afraid to see it for so many years—the title alone takes two terrifying, unpleasant words and mashes them together in a way that almost dares you to see it—I was surprised to discover when I finally worked up the nerve to check it out that it is a masterpiece. Like all film, horror is totally subjective. What affects some leaves others cold and vice versa, so while there are devoted fans of Deodato, of cannibal movies, and of this film in particular, it would be a lie to say it all works for everyone. This is as polarizing as movies get. When the film is at its most horrific—particularly during those last 30 minutes, when much of what we believed to be true is turned on its head in ways I didn't necessarily see coming upon first viewing—it works. Cannibal Holocaust shares DNA with my beloved Tobe Hooper's original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in that it feels brutally immediate, less the work of a director and film crew than of maniacs with cameras (and, if some of the behind-the-scenes stories of Cannibal Holocaust are to be believed, that might not be so far off). There is a reason the movie was brought up on charges and Deodato had to produce his cast in court to prove they weren't actually murdered, as the final moments of the film have an authenticity and true horror that doesn't feel replicated or "pretended."
The use of real Amazon locations and a real tribe help everything feel nothing less than totally believable, which only adds to the sense of dread and awfulness that permeates the film's climax. Horror podcaster Elric Kane once argued that the real animal violence gives the later human violence an authenticity and verisimilitude that it might not otherwise achieve. He doesn’t argue that it excuses the animal cruelty, but it does maybe help explain it. Make no mistake: Deodato is wrong for what he does to animals on screen, and there are available versions of the film (like on Grindhouse Releasing’s incredible Blu-ray, which comes highly recommended by this writer) which allow the viewer to skip the animal violence altogether. The film is still upsetting and deeply impactful without it, but perhaps Elric Kane is on to something. Maybe it is there to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Obviously, it worked when it was originally released, as Deodato’s court case can attest. It still works today.
There's a bunch of other stuff that doesn't work as well, like most of the scenes of Monroe first looking for the crew and interacting with the tribe. Some of it is interesting from an anthropological perspective—I like when a movie shows me something I've never seen (and probably will never see) before—but it doesn't quite function as well as it should in terms of making a horror movie. There's little that's revealed in the last 30 minutes that has really been set up by the first 60 except for answering the question of "what happened?" While I understand the need for the framing device in which Monroe goes out looking for the crew, comes back to New York, and even screens it for a group of horrified executives, it diminishes the movie's impact. Maybe Deodato is taking a page from the Psycho playbook and offering a denouement that allows the viewer to come down from the climax; whatever the case, I can’t help but Monday Morning Quarterback the last moments of the films and wish it ended with its unsettling images instead of people in suits walking out of a room (I don't think that's a spoiler). I guess the whole found footage aesthetic wasn't quite there yet.
It's hard to say I "enjoy" Cannibal Holocaust in the way we traditionally enjoy movies we deem to be great, but there is no denying its effectiveness and its raw power to shake and unsettle. It’s a great movie that’s almost impossible to watch. Deodato has more on his mind than just being shocking and awful—though there is plenty of that—and seems interested in saying some things about human nature, unpleasant as they may be. The film pioneered the found footage genre and is the best of the whole Italian cannibal cycle. It remains one of the most essential and influential exploitation movies of all time—one of cinema’s ugliest masterpieces.
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