Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)


The 7th of February 1980 may not hold significance for many people, but for Ruggero Deodato it would shape both the rest of his life, and his career as a filmmaker. It was on this day that Cannibal Holocaust was released upon the world, and cinema would never be the same again. The sensation that surrounded it caused delight amongst cinemagoers, particularly aficionados of the grindhouse circuit, and the film became incredibly popular and lucrative; but the powers that be found it abhorrent and convinced that it was representative of actual criminal acts. Deodato would spend the following three years pleading his case in the courts. Originally pulled in on an archaic law which prohibited all scenes of animal cruelty onscreen in Italy (a measure put in place to stem the popularity of bullfighting), he soon found himself being charged with the murders of the actors involved. A contract which the director has drafted for the principal actors all stated that they disappear from the public eye for one year after filming. This was done with the intention of adding to the perceived authenticity of the movie, but with the case becoming more intense, and a prison sentence looking inevitable, Deodato was forced to call in the performers to verify that they were, in fact, still in existence.

The situation was further propelled into infamy by the statement from a British policeman who declared that he had 'seen an actual snuff movie and its name was Cannibal Holocaust'. Due to the fact that there were no regulations in regards to film classification in the UK at the time. This was one of the incendiary forces behind the introduction of the list, and so the hunt began. The documentary style of the film was created to satirize the exploitative 'Mondo' scene of the time, as well as making a wry and acerbic stab at the methods of western journalism. The intended subtleties of these motivations were greatly overlooked by the authorities, as the carnage and mayhem portrayed onscreen was like that of which they had never seen before.

Cannibal Holocaust is accredited with many things, one of them being the invention of the 'found footage' horror movie. The story charts the South American expedition of journalists led by Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), his girlfriend Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi) and two crew members / cameramen; Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi). Their intention was to make a film entitled 'The Green Inferno', which was to capitalize on their success after their previous documentary 'The Last Road to Hell', a brutal and horrific examination of African rebellion and dictatorship. Their disappearance whilst filming the movie causes the TV station that is funding it to call in Professor Harold Monroe to investigate. Monroe is played by Robert Kerman - a prolific 70's porn star, known as 'Richard Bollo', in one of his non-adult movie roles. Oddly enough, he only appeared in three 'proper' movies, all of which were cannibal features; Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox (1981) and Eaten Alive (1980). He leads a team into the Amazon to trace the whereabouts of the missing crew.

Cannibal Holocaust is a film of two distinct halves, the first being Monroe's investigation and the second is the footage belonging to Yeats' crew, which he discovers in a rather grisly fashion. When he encounters the Yanomamfor the first time, they are skeptical and it takes cautious steps to win their favour (including a very clever trick with a tape recorder). He manages to do so and they allow him to leave with the film stock.

Back in New York, the TV executives reveal their plan to release the footage. They play Monroe sections of the team's earlier movie 'Last Road to Hell' and inform him that their methods of documentary making were not always the most scrupulous. This spurns him on to examine the tapes, which leads us into the second, and significantly more horrifying, section of the movie.

What is shown in the Yeats footage is truly barbaric, savage and cruel, but the perpetrators are not the cannibal tribes. The actions of the crew are reprehensible; they perform acts of rape, violence and disrespect against the tribes and did nothing but plead for their grisly fate. The rough camerawork serves to add to the 'Mondo' style which Deodato was satirizing, with gruesome scenes of animal mutilation juxtaposed with acts of dissection, amputation, impalement and assault upon the human cast members. The director claims that all the animals that were killed onscreen were used as food and shared with the natives, but this does not make it any less harrowing to sit through.

The emphasis is on the impact which westerners have on indigenous societies and it is not a complimentary portrait. In one particular section, Yeats and his crew rape a young tribal girl, who is brutally executed by her own people for the shame which the attack has brought upon her and her family. Yeats then fawns in mock repulsion as he discovers her body, feigning that he is utterly confounded as to why the tribe would do something like this. The impalement is shown in such graphic detail (with the pole seemingly entering the girl's groin and coming out of her mouth) that no one could attest to how Cannibal Holocaust couldn't be a snuff film. The truth finally materialized that the girl was sitting on a bicycle seat which was placed on top of a small pole, she then balanced a piece of light balsa wood in her mouth and a few gallons of fake blood were poured over her to hide all of the tell tale signs. The effect is astounding, iconic and remains one of the most chilling images in 20th Century horror.

The visceral nature of the movie is accentuated by one of the most haunting scores in memory, provided by Riz Ortolani, with an unforgettable title theme which, upon future listens will forever evoke the accompanying images as clear as if they were taking place before your very eyes. What really sets Cannibal Holocaust apart from the rest of the Video Nasties (because some of them are truly awful) is that it is an exceptionally well made movie. It might not be anything resembling subtle, with the social commentary practically spelt out for the viewer, but its professional and highly stylized cinematography and structure remain wholly admirable to this day. Deodato has claimed that he was suffering from a serious bout of depression at the time when he made the movie. He attests the motivation behind it to the exploitative coverage of terrorism on television at the time and wanted to expose this. He had journeyed into the realm of the cannibal movie four years earlier in Last Cannibal World, but it was a far less effective feature.

As grotesque, unpleasant and genuinely disturbing as Cannibal Holocaust is, it remains an inarguable classic. There is an ugly beauty to this movie which is representative of so much in the world; the environment portrayed is so harsh, yet equally fragile. It's one of the few examples of a film which is equally gratifying and grueling, not in its savagery, but in its execution. It's a testament to just how good a genre picture can be. The reason for this being that it shows that every one of us and our so called 'civilized society' are the greatest monsters of all. To finish on Monroe's final line in the movie; 'I wonder who the real cannibals are?'

(1:36:56) (released in 2001 with 5m 44s cut to remove most animal cruelty and rape scenes, new version approved with 15s cut in 2011)



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