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Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Director: Ruggero Deodato

review by Jonathan McCalmont

In one of the extras included on this excellent blu-ray edition of Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, the writer and critic Kim Newman points out that there is something inherently dangerous in talking about horror films purely in terms of their most gruesome moments. Newman's point is that by describing Cannibal Holocaust as a found-footage horror film in which someone gets raped, someone gets impaled on a stake and someone actually kills a monkey you make it sound a lot worse than it actually is. While I agree with Newman's sentiment that Cannibal Holocaust is nowhere near as visually horrific as its reputation suggests, I think that focusing on the grue actually serves to undermine the film's power.

Indeed, what is most disturbing and memorable about Cannibal Holocaust is not the violence but the context in which the violence is presented to us as viewers. Far more than a horror film in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project (1997), or Paranormal Activity (2010), Cannibal Holocaust is a film that tries to challenge the audience on its desire for sensation and titillation. What does it say about us that we would sit through this much savagery purely for the sake of amusement? Far more than an Italian exploitation filmmaker in the tradition of Fulci and Argento, Cannibal Holocaust reveals Deodato to be a forerunner of Michael Haneke. This is a film that leaves you feeling dirty and diminished and that feeling has very little to do with the graphic nature of the on-screen violence.

The film begins with footage of New York City accompanied by a voiceover proclaiming the omnipotence of man. Moving from actual footage of the city to footage of a TV in a New York shop window, Cannibal Holocaust nails its metatextual colours to the mast right from the beginning: this is clearly a film about the process of filmmaking.

In order to understand the purpose of Cannibal Holocaust it is first necessary to know a bit about the context in which it was made. Deodato first came to prominence with Last Cannibal World (1977), an Italian exploitation film about cannibals whose success launched dozens of imitations that form what is now referred to as the 'cannibal boom' of the late 1970s. By 1980, the boom was winding down and Deodato was under pressure to produce a sequel to his insanely popular cannibal film. However, rather than do a straight remake, Deodato decided to attempt something new and borrowed quite heavily from an earlier exploitation cycle known as 'mondo movies'.

Mondo movies appeared in the wake of the success of Jacopetti, Cavara and Prosperi's Mondo Cane (1962), a grimly sensationalist documentary comprising footage of real-world violence and sexuality filmed in various corners of the globe. Both horrified and intrigued by the success of Mondo Cane, Deodato decided to make a cannibal film in which the characters were mondo moviemakers. This tip of the hat to a genre of documentary film is the first in a number of innovative metatextual techniques used by Deodato to make the violence of Cannibal Holocaust seem all the more real and all the more problematic.

Having introduced us to the context of the film using a fictional documentary, Cannibal Holocaust then opens up another meta-layer featuring an American academic (Alan Yates) who is dispatched to the jungles of South America in order to find out what happened to a group of documentary filmmakers. Arriving in the Amazonian jungle, the academic is handed over to a local guide who steers his charge through a series of encounters with the natives. Usually comprising little more than people in loin cloths running around and waving their arms like extras in a Tarzan movie, these set-pieces serve to introduce us to the idea that even so-called primitive cultures operate by a clear set of social and ethical rules.

The tribes that the academic encounters may well be bloodthirsty cannibals, but if you know the rules under which their society operates, it is actually relatively easy to engage with them in a manner that is both safe and mutually beneficial. Using his expertise in social anthropology, the academic makes his way deep into the jungle and discovers not only that the documentary filmmakers have been killed, but also that the locals have preserved what remains of the footage they shot. Intrigued by what might have caused the locals to murder a group of documentarians, the academic returns the canisters of film to New York where a TV station sets about editing them into the shape of a film. Happy to present his tragic findings on TV, the academic sets about conducting interviews with the filmmakers' peers and relatives in order to flesh out the story of what happened in the jungle. However, the more interviews the academic conducts and the more footage he sees, the more convinced he becomes that the filmmakers were up to no good.

Far from being innocent victims of primitive rage, the found footage reveals a group of filmmakers' intent upon capturing the most sensational images available. The tone is set in one early scene when the director allows his camera to linger on the naked form of his girlfriend while the other members of the crew wander around stark naked. The woman protests but her protests are half-hearted; clearly the crew are already operating outside the norms of human behaviour. From there, things get steadily worse as the filmmakers pointlessly murder animals on camera and capture the amputation of their guide's foot on film.

When the locals fail to play up to their atavistic reputations, the filmmakers torch their village. When that fails to annoy them sufficiently, the men in the crew run down and rape a young woman who then winds up impaled upon a pike. These grim images are accompanied by shots of the filmmakers grinning appreciatively before the director reminds them that they are shooting, prompting an outpouring of moral outrage over the savagery of the local tribes. Eventually, the filmmakers go too far and the tribes react by tearing them to pieces. Back in New York, the TV producers are overjoyed, this is the most sensational documentary ever made. But as the footage gets progressively worse and the nature of the film crew is made progressively more evident, even the ruthless TV producers are forced to leave the room.

As well as being a reaction to the trend in exploitation filmmaking for depicting natives as bloodthirsty savages, and the trend towards sensationalist documentary footage designed to titillate and play to people's prejudices, Cannibal Holocaust is also intended as a response to the tendency on continental TV to show the bloody aftermath of wars and police shoot-outs. Deodato's point is that, while cynical filmmakers are not averse to pandering to people's prejudices in order to make a fast buck, the same can probably be said of the journalists who could almost be said to be complicit in the violent crimes and political crusades that they systematically publicise.

Deodato's decision to reference both the exploitative documentaries of the mondo era, and the casual depictions of death and mayhem on the Italian TV news, mark the second of the film's attempts at blurring the lines between real and fictional violence. At one point, the academic is shown footage from a documentary the filmmakers shot in Africa and the footage of firing squads and beheadings seems disturbingly real right up until the moment when a TV producer points out that it was all staged. A similar technique is in play when Deodato has the film's actors kill a number of animals. The footage of the dismembered turtle and monkey are harrowing because they are real and the harrowing nature of that realism is supposed to filter across into the staged footage of so-called cannibals eating people or conducting abortions.

By systematically crossing the line between the fictional violence of a feature film and the real-life violence of a documentary film, Deodato is muddying the waters in a way that not only strengthens his use of fictional violence but also casts a cynical glance on the so-called realism of the television news. What makes Cannibal Holocaust such a powerful film is not the skill with which its effects are put together but the way in which these effects are framed and presented to you as a member of the audience, for while Deodato has obvious contempt for the people who turn real-life tragedy into sensationalist entertainment, he quite clearly thinks just as little of the people who pay to be entertained.

Having first seen Cannibal Holocaust as a teenager, it is interesting to return to it as an adult with an interest in literary criticism. While it is never addressed in any detail, the fact that the film opens with a fictional documentary about a fictional documentary is fiercely reminiscent of the opening to Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (1899), where a nameless narrator introduces us to Marlow who then serves as the story's narrator. Literary critics have long debated the point of this extra meta-layer of narration in Conrad's story as the meat of the tale lies in Marlow's journey rather than Marlow's telling of the story. An insight into Conrad's rationale comes early on in the novella when he comments upon Marlow's attitudes towards the story:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

The point of Marlow's tale is thus not his encounter with Kurtz but the context of his observations about the journey. By providing us with an extra layer of narration that draws us even further back from the events in the Congo, Conrad is inviting us to reflect upon the comparison between the Thames and the Congo itself. For while Conrad is clear that the heart of darkness resides in deepest Africa, the suggestion is that even the well-groomed hillsides of the Thames valley were once a place of impossible savagery.

By providing us with an extra layer of narration, Deodato is not only drawing quite a clear comparison between the peerless Kurtz and the peerless documentary filmmakers, he is also inviting us to reflect upon the context in which their story is told. Indeed, the meat of Cannibal Holocaust lies not in the story of the filmmakers or even the academic's encounters with the TV producers, but in our own willingness to look at the bigger picture and realise the similarities between the fictional events of the film and the real-world practices of filmmakers and journalists.

Newman is correct that describing Cannibal Holocaust in terms of its graphic violence is belittling but even a full description of the plot would fail to do justice to Deodato's work. Far more than a great horror movie, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most intelligently made and brilliantly focused pieces of postmodern cinema ever made.

As you might expect from the boutique DVD label Shameless, this release of Cannibal Holocaust is a thing of style and beauty. Taken from a crystal-clear print of the film, the image quality is simply sensational, as someone who first saw the film on an nth generation VHS tape, I felt as though I was seeing the film for the very first time. Shameless also do a wonderful job with the extras as two 40-minute documentaries provide us not only with fascinating anecdotes from the shoot but also with some of the context surrounding one of the most misunderstood films ever made. Not for the first time, I am left wondering why all DVD labels can't be as wonderful as Shameless.

One note of warning, the 'director's cut' trumpeted on the cover does not actually include any fresh footage. In fact, as Deodato is eager to impress upon us, his new cut actually removes some of the more harrowing footage of animal cruelty. Personally, I think removing this footage was a mistake as part of the film's power and charm derive from the pointless cruelty of its images. Still... at least he didn't decide to make the filmmakers scream 'Nooooooo!' when they died, because that would have just been fucking stupid.

Cannibal Holocaust



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