‘Cannibal Holocaust’: A Legacy of Depravity

Some films have reputations built on infamy. These notorious pieces of forbidden art, which may be banned in certain countries and shunned by polite society, are spoken of in hushed whispers, and subject to endless debate. They’re often urban legends, full of rumors and hearsay, their legends bolstered by decades of myth-making by third-person accounts shared by those too scared to see it for themselves. They often can’t be purchased, and must be tracked down through shady, legally-questionable means.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of these are horror films.

Horror, much like the exploitation and grindhouse films of the 70s (of which there’s quite a bit of overlap) exists as a genre in part to push boundaries. The very nature of horror as a subject matter lends itself to, well, the horrific. The taboo. The disgusting and the nightmarish.

We’ve seen a lot of recent examples of horror films that occupy this level of notoriety, especially as the 2000s progressed into the so-called ‘torture porn’ era. Mainstream films like Saw and Hostel already strained the edges of what theatrically-released films could get away with, and therefore independent, foreign, and straight-to-DVD movies, naturally, went even further. Movies like The Human Centipede, A Serbian Film, and Martyrs have already cemented themselves as modern examples of this, films that are only watched by the brave, the depraved, the curious, or the dared.

But make no mistake: This is not new. This type of shock-value cinema, the kind which exists solely to instigate pearl-clutching and nausea, has existed for nearly as long as the art itself has. And within the horror genre, there is perhaps no greater example than 1980 Italian found-footage film Cannibal Holocaust.

Just to set the stage for what type of movie we’re dealing with here, let me give you some insight as to what happened after this movie was released:

  • The film was confiscated just before its premiere, and its director, Ruggero Deodato, was arrested on charges of obscenity.
  • Despite being confiscated, the film saw release in other countries through various means, where its violence was so convincing that Deodato was charged with murder, allegedly having actually killed his cast onscreen and making Cannibal Holocaust an actual snuff film.
  • As The Blair Witch Project would later emulate, the film was supposed to be presented as real footage as part of its gimmick. So, none of its cast were allowed to do any other media appearances as part of their contracts. Naturally, this meant that none of them were available to prove they hadn’t been murdered by Deodato, which obviously hurt his case further.
  • Eventually, several of the actors were reached, and made public appearances proving Deodato’s innocence. The murder charges were dropped, but the film still was banned (for reasons we’ll get to later) in Italy until four years later, after a long fight from Deodato and the film’s producers.
  • The film has since been banned, off and on, in pretty much every other major country on Earth.

And that’s just the Wikipedia summarized version. There’s waaay more to the story, but the point is this: Cannibal Holocaust made everybody very, very angry.

So why exactly was this film treated like the cinematic equivalent of the antichrist? Well, first, let me briefly tell you what exactly it’s about:

Cannibal Holocaust depicts the grizzly events that occur after a group of journalists venture deep into the Amazon rainforest to capture never-before-seen images of two reclusive, warring cannibal tribes. The group is led by a duo of armed guides who claim to know the area well, and encounter several different jungle-dwelling peoples along the way, who they anger and harass at every turn. See, these journalists (unbeknownst to the general public) have faked the vast majority of their most well-known documentaries and photos, staging events and tragedies to earn themselves international acclaim. They eventually go too far with the natives, who mercilessly slaughter them for their crimes. Months later, a second expedition is sent to find the bodies of the lost journalists, and retrieve the footage they shot during their journey. Think one part Heart of Darkness and another part Man Bites Dog.

The film cuts between the ‘lost’ footage and the ‘present day,’ as the television studio who paid to have the film retrieved debates whether or not to release it to the public.

The film is notable for being the first major example of the Found Footage genre, a sub-type of horror film that I’ve talked about pretty extensively. For the unfamiliar, found footage films are movies that are presented as an actual recording of events, rather than a produced narrative, where the plot is filmed by a cameraman who is actually taking place in the story. They’re fairly well-known now, thanks to things like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and Unfriended, but at the time, were relatively unheard of. Hence, why the events seen in Cannibal Holocaust were so easily believed to be real by audiences, censors, and law enforcement at the time.

But just because something is shot convincingly enough to make it seem real doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to cause an uproar. Hell, Spinal Tap does the same thing, and everyone seemed pretty cool with the idea. No, a film has to have some majorly disturbing subject matter and visuals to cause so much of a stir that it invites murder charges, and Cannibal Holocaust has this in spades.

People in this film aren’t just killed: They’re positively brutalized. Limbs are sawed off. People are stabbed, shot, and bludgeoned to death. Natives are impaled, on spikes and poles, vertically. There are decapitations, disembowelings, and all manner of vicious, animalistic removals of various innards (most of which are then swiftly consumed). Genitals are mutilated. Numerous rapes occur, onscreen. Decaying corpses abound. Honestly, in all my years consuming horror media, this may very well be the most gruesome thing I’ve ever sat through. I spent about 70% of its total runtime sick to my stomach. It’s… a rough time.

And that’s only the stuff that’s fake.

Part of the reason for so much public outcry surrounding the film, even to this day, is that a lot of the violence onscreen was not, in fact, simulated. There was some truth to the Italian government’s accusations towards Deodato’s murderous intent: Although he may not have killed any of his cast or crew, he certainly left a trail of bodies behind him nonetheless. There are many, many on-screen depictions of animal slaughter and mutilation in this film, all showed in vivid, sickening detail. A coati (which is kind of like a cross between a lemur, a weasel, and a raccoon) is stabbed and cut open while it screams in pain. A massive turtle is decapitated, ripped apart, cooked and eaten. Snakes are hacked apart with machetes, a suckling pig is shot point-blank, and a monkey is cruelly torn to shreds (two, actually, since apparently the first take wasn’t good enough). I have never, in my life, been as nauseous watching a film as I did during these scenes. To say they were hard to watch would be a massive understatement; If you have any fondness for animals whatsoever, you should never watch this film.

And frankly, it seems to be the general consensus among governments and censors around the world that no one should ever see this film. Naturally, because of the film’s graphic content, it’s been quite the contentious subject for debate since its release. Its artist merit, and if it in fact possesses any at all, has been disputed ad nauseum for decades, with both sides making perfectly valid arguments. On the one hand, Cannibal Holocaust is a horrid, disgusting film that depicts real-life animal abuse. On the other hand, all of the animals were killed in accordance (supposedly) with the native methods that would be normally used to do so, and were largely then used for food afterwards. It’s not my place to say whether the film is morally on the right or wrong side of history, and it seems there’s no agreed upon answer to these questions from anyone concerned enough to ask them.

But I will say this: despite all of the violence and horrific, graphic content in the film, I find it actually somewhat disappointing that the film has been all but written off by most. Yes, it’s hard to watch, and I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone for not wanting to subject themselves to the awful things that happen in this film. And there’s definitely a case to be made that the obscenity charges that the director and producers of this film were hit with were warranted. But all of that outrage, all of that controversy and vitriol directed towards the film and its filmmakers ignores that all of this was, largely, the point.

Because the greater message within Cannibal Holocaust is precisely about these very topics: The nature of exploitation, the tendency from Western nations towards violence against peoples they consider to be ‘primitive,’ and the overall harmful, traumatic effects of colonialism. It’s a film about violence, against the colonized and the subjugated, and the horrific abuses that they’ve historically been subjected to at the hands of European explorers and conquerors. The graphic nature of the film is meant to disgust, to offend, precisely because it should. These things that have been done for centuries, in the name of progress and discovery – and that are still happening today, decades later – should be shameful. Cannibal Holocaust uses shock value and exploitation to shine a spotlight on these deplorable behaviors, and I’d say that, in that regard, it accomplishes its goal admirably.

And even taking into account the film’s troubled legacy, it’s hard to dispute its impact. How many other films can be said to have spawned an entire subgenre? The found footage film exists solely because Cannibal Holocaust single-handedly demonstrated the power and the illusion of an effectively simulated reality onscreen. If you convince an audience that something is real, and that they shouldn’t watch it under any circumstances, they will flock to it in droves. It’s why The Blair Witch Project was such a success, and it’s why later films in the genre like Paranormal Activity saw similar attention in the mainstream.

It also demonstrates that, regardless of the particular style of film, the taboo is always going to attract an audience. The aforementioned Human Centipede franchise was able to exist in the cultural landscape we have now thanks to films like Cannibal Holocaust, who proved that the more sickening a film is purported to be, the more tantalizing it is to certain audiences. Is that a good thing? Again, it’s not my place to say. But it’s culturally fascinating, nonetheless.

Art should push boundaries. It should scandalize, and spark arguments. But only if it has something profound to say. Violence for the sake of violence is something that I can’t abide by, even in fiction. That’s probably why I never took much of a liking to things like Saw, where the cruelty is the point and the message is non-existent (and the plot, for that matter). But I think there’s enough deeper context and meaning to Cannibal Holocaust to more than justify its existence. Graphic nature aside, I would freely defend its cultural significance at the end of the day, which is more than I can say for a lot of its eventual imitators.

I do know, however, that I won’t ever be watching it again.

So that was pretty heavy, huh? I promise to have something a little more light-hearted tomorrow!

Happy Halloween!

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