Christopher Owens 🎥 One of the notorious 'video nasties' of the 1980's (and used by The Daily Mail to spearhead its campaign of censorship), retrospective viewing shows that Cannibal Holocaust is a genuinely challenging film, not just in its criticisms of the media (all too prevalent in 2023) but also in terms of how far filmmakers are prepared to go.
In spite of it being one of the nastiest films I've ever seen, it is a landmark in exploitation cinema and has proven far more influential than some would care to admit (the "found footage" horror genre owes its existence to this film) and it is still able to shock and horrify audiences over 40 years later.
An American film crew disappear in the Amazon rainforest while filming a documentary about indigenous cannibal tribes. Harold Monroe, an NYU anthropologist, agrees to lead a rescue mission in hopes of finding the missing filmmakers (and, crucially, any footage that was shot). What he discovers shakes his outlook on the media and life itself.
Partially inspired by the media coverage of the Red Brigades (such as the murder of politician Aldo Moro), Ruggero Deodato's skilled and innovative direction paints the wildlife as a skin crawling place where anything could be lying behind those bushes waiting to attack you. In many ways, it feels just as much a reaction to the footage of American soldiers in Vietnam. Indeed, the whole film can be viewed as a critique of imperialism, and how excessive desires can lead to evil. As a result, this is very much a visceral film: more about impact rather than implications.
The biggest controversy surrounding the film remains, and rightfully so, the execution of animals on screen. Although the version available in the UK is missing one particularly sadistic scene of a coati (I vividly recall seeing the uncut version where the camera records the poor animal's real time reaction to being sliced open), the infamous turtle sequence will be more than enough to make people switch off. Indeed, the postmortem moment where its legs jerk around still creeps me out and the look of glee on the faces of those involved completely erases any vague sympathy held by the audience.
Although there's no denying that the animal violence is ultimately unnecessary, I do think the frisson of knowing they're real add an eerie, sadistic edge to the film's environment and its message. It revels in its sadism, and that's why it's so effective (for me personally). They're certainly deeply unpleasant, and the knowledge that they're all too real add to the creepy, nihilistic atmosphere around the film.
Noted independent filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman agrees, noting that “Pudovkin’s theory of editing held that if you took a shot of someone with a neutral expression (like the Mona Lisa, for example) and cut to a shot of a steak, the viewer would think the person looked hungry. If you took a shot of that same person and then juxtaposed it with a shot of a baby, the viewer would think they wore an expression of love. In Cannibal Holocaust, we see the actors kill and rip apart a giant sea turtle and other animals. Later on, they run across a woman impaled on a stake (the shot clearly demonstrating that the actress is sitting on a bicycle seat). The audience has already seen actual death on screen and have been subtly brainwashed into assuming they’re now seeing a woman with a stake rammed up her genitalia. The brain has been conditioned to accept that which it’s now seeing as real. This mixture of real and staged violence, combined with the handheld camerawork and the rough, unedited quality of the second half of the movie, is certainly enough to convince someone that what they are watching is real.”
Of course, it can certainly be argued that such techniques undermine the film’s commentary on the media. However, I think of the film in the context of Albert Schweitzer’s claim that ‘humanitarianism consists in never sacrificing a human being to a purpose.’ Cannibal Holocaust is a film where humanitarianism has completely died out, and all that is left are sadistic thugs hell bent on destruction without any thought as to why they want it, except for fame and fortune. Hence why they treat both humans and animals the same way.Definitely not for everyone, and even those with an open mind are advised to proceed with extreme caution.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.