“Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”
- Sergio Leone
That’s something faintly adorable about a movie whose core identity is completely at odds with its stated thematics. It’s like watching someone expound on a topic in a manner they’re sure is brilliant while simultaneously making no sense whatsoever. That sort of complete lack of self awareness is fascinatingly quaint, and can’t help but garner just a little bit of my…sympathy maybe? Well a little bit of sympathy, but because I’m kind of a jerk that sort of behaviour more regularly inspires a sort of condescending chuckle. Which brings us to Cannibal Holocaust, a movie with some wonderfully broken thematics.
Cannibal Holocaust has a reputation as a gore-hound’s movie, and little else. Its director, Ruggero Deodato, was arrested for obscenity charges after it came out. Not only that, but he was eventually charged with filming a snuff film, because it was rumoured actors were killed on camera during the runtime. That didn’t actually happen, unless you count animals. Which maybe you should.
The movie is undoubtedly political in nature. Deodata has said his inspiration came from watching documentaries and suspecting portions were staged. Cannibal Holocaust is not so much about cannibals as it is about a ferocious film crew who will kill and rape and lie and endanger others to get what they want. Some have claimed the film still effectively comments on journalistic integrity and even reality TV. The problem from a strictly textual point of view is the unfortunately designed finale, which presents a success that comes across as insanely hypocritical.
From a non-textual interpretation the filming of the movie represented a lot of what the film cautions against. Pretty much every detail of the film’s production makes it sound like an absolute cluster-fuck of tensions and borderline abuse. From Deodata: “My producer in Italy was showing dailies in the film markets and getting an amazing response, so he was ringing me every day in the jungle telling me: ‘Do more! Do more! Keep filming! Kill more people! Don’t worry, your message will come though.’” Deodata reportedly endangered the natives, didn’t pay them or his crew properly, and of course, had several animals killed. Something he went on to regret, but has become one of the movie’s bigger claims to fame.
Deodata wasn’t the only slightly manic member of the film crew. Actress Francesca Ciardi tried to convince the actor she was meant to have a sex scene with to sleep with her in reality, in the jungle, to alleviate some of the stress. He refused and she alienated him. Then she refused to take her top off on camera and Ruggero Deodata reportedly screamed at her in Italian until she did. Robert Kerman frequently engaged in long savage arguments with the director. The whole crew was constantly dealing with the horrible, inhospitable environment they were in.
Defenders of the film point out Ruggero Deodata’s artistic routes and blame the film’s exploitive nature for holding it back. It’s easy enough to see the lines you could draw between Francis Ford Coppola’s (who burnt down huge swathes of forest for Apocalypse Now, something Deodata didn’t come close to) reputation or, indeed, many renowned directors. Even someone like Peter Jackson routinely endangered and injured his cast during the filming of Lord of the Rings, but he’s likeable so few complain about that. Point isn’t that it’s okay, just that there’s a double standard at play.
Over the course of the film we see the deaths of a snake, and a tarantula. We see two monkeys get their heads lopped off (the crew vomited off-screen). The natives at least eat these. We see one of the actors shoot a pig in the head (apparently he was so rattled he failed the rest of the take). We see the imaginary film crew catch and butcher a tortoise in painstaking detail (one of the actors cried afterwards).
It’s easy to imagine the situation. A possessed artist doing anything to get his craft done. The problem is the hypocrisy it creates. Hypocrisy furthered when the hero of the film’s great accomplishment is getting the footage of the expedition burnt so the public doesn’t have to see it. I feel like I don’t actually have to explain the problem with this “triumph”. It’s ultimately where the thematics of the movie come screaming to a halt.
Cannibal Holocaust isn’t really known for its thematics, though they are interesting, it’s known for the gore. Or, more accurately, it’s known for its cinéma vérité stylings. This genuinely artistically driven technique lends the movie’s effects a devastating quality. Not only that but the concept Deodata applies to the film is incredibly influential. The first half of the film follows a crew’s attempt to find out what happened to a documentary crew. The second half follows the main man from the expedition watching the documentary footage taken by the first crew. Literally found footage, and well before Blair Witch.
The filmmaking tricks Ruggero Deodato applies to the action are undeniably brilliant. Everything that happens onscreen is transformed by his touch. It renders occasionally uninspired moments of gore and violence into calamitous instances of disturbingly realistic savagery. There’s a reason directors like Nicolas Winding Refn credit the techniques as an influence. When talking about The Battle of Algiers, Refn said: “I was twenty-four years old when I made my first film, Pusher (about the Danish drug underworld), and for it I stole everything I could, both visually and technically, from this film and Cannibal Holocaust.”
This is not a movie for the light of heart. All kinds of dismemberment, beatings, assault, genital mutilation, burning, skewering, and the aforementioned animal slaughter fill the screen. It’s a film gore-hounds test their endurance with. A legitimate technical wonder, regardless of the problematic thematics. It’s more of a work of art than you might think. A strange hybrid of splatter and artistic pretension.
Next up: another Japanese horror movie, this one with killer bugs!