In the world of horror cinema we’ve pretty much seen it all. Violence, check. Rape, check. Murder, obviously. Because of this, it takes a lot for a film to earn the title as the “most controversial film ever made.” However, there is one film that has arguably held this title since it was originally released. That film is 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. February 7th marks the 38th anniversary of the film’s initial release in Italy and it’s the perfect time to take a look back at this notorious movie.
Directed by Italian filmmaker Ruggero Deodato (Body Count, Hostel: Part II), Cannibal Holocaust tells the tale of four young documentary filmmakers that venture into the Amazon rainforest in search of indigenous cannibalistic tribes. After months go by with no word from the filmmakers, a rescue team is assembled and led by a notable anthropologist named Harold Monroe. Accompanied by two seasoned guides, the trio find not only the remains of the missing team, but their film footage as well. What is revealed on that footage leads Monroe to question who the real savages are, and what that says about the world we live in.
Cannibal Holocaust is famous for a lot of things, but one of the milder (yet important) things it established was the found footage genre. While the footage really comes into play a bit later in the film, it’s that footage that really takes this film to the next level. It shows the four filmmakers participating in rape and the murder of a whole village in order to create a story line. Their total disregard for any actual scientific discovery about this never before documented indigenous tribe is clear. Their only goal is to gain footage that they can manipulate and turn into paychecks and awards. The candid nature of this “found footage” and the constant presence of the two cameras was a new idea that hadn’t really been seen in film before. It wouldn’t be until the late 1990’s that the world really saw this technique again with the release of The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast.
Because this footage appeared so real, so convincing, it immediately attracted attention to the film. Mere days after the film was released, Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity. The murders portrayed in the film were so convincing that Deodato had to literally have the actors appear in court to prove that they were not in fact dead. Once this happened, the charges against the director were dropped, but the film has been banned over time in 50 different countries. While those bans have been lifted in most cases, there are still some places where those bans still stand.
One of the most disturbing parts of Cannibal Holocaust actually has nothing to do with cannibalism. Throughout the entire film there are multiple instances were real animals are really killed on film. It wasn’t faked, and it wasn’t practical effects. There is one specific scene that on top of being real, is fairly long, graphic and drawn out. As horror fans, there’s a comfort in knowing that what we’re seeing on screen is not real. While fear and suspense are real feelings we may experience, there’s a barrier that exists and we’re aware of it. Seeing something that is real however, and something as graphic as a small creature being slaughtered, is extremely unsettling. Deodato has repeatedly been quoted as saying that this is the one aspect of the film that he regrets and also had this to say on the matter:
In my youth, growing up, I spent a lot of time in the country close to animals and therefore often seeing the moment of their death. The death of the animals, although unbearable – especially in a present-day urban mindset – always happened in order to feed the film’s characters or the crew, both in the story and in reality.
The other obvious reason the film was banned was due to the graphic and violent nature of the film. It’s not necessary to go to into too much detail here, but throughout the course of the film the viewer is exposed to rape, violent murders, nudity, castration, amputation, torture, exploitation, and extreme gore. All of these things perpetrated by not only the indigenous tribes, but the documentary team as well. There’s even footage of real executions from real news footage worked into one particular scene. Needless to say, there was a lot for the general public to be upset about in this film.
So, why on Earth did Deodato make this film? It wasn’t to simply gross people out and to be subversive. Beyond the gore and graphic images, Cannibal Holocaust is partially a commentary on Western and cinematic imperialism. In the film, the documentary filmmakers barge into this tribe’s village and immediately establish dominance. They feel superior to this culture they know little about. Without ever taking the time to try and learn something from this culture, they are simply there for selfish reasons. The cinematic imperialism comes into play with the fact that they are documenting this tribe for their own personal gains. They give no regard to how this tribe might feel about being filmed and documented for all the world to see. The Monroe character brings this up in a meeting when discussing whether or not the footage should be released. The idea that filming or photographing actually steals a bit of a person’s spirit is fairly common among indigenous tribes, and yet the filmmakers don’t even hesitate or take that idea into consideration. Deodato saw this idea playing out in real life on the news in varied and increasing ways and Cannibal Holocaust was his way of shocking the world into seeing it. While his tactics in getting his point across may be extreme, his point is valid and one that comes across clearly.
Another aspect that should be mentioned about the film is the incredible score by Riz Ortolani. The famous Italian composer also worked on films such as Don’t Torture a Duckling, Paprika and Kill Bill Vol. 1. The prolific composer mixed synth sounds with traditional film orchestration in a way that is both effective and beautiful. A true asset to the film, Ortolani’s score actually seems to break the tension many times throughout the movie. Death Waltz Records and One Way Static Records released the score back in 2015 for the very first time on vinyl and you should still be able to track down a copy fairly easily. Get a taste by checking out the main theme below.
It’s incredible that after 38 years, Cannibal Holocaust still holds it’s place as one of the most shocking, intense and controversial films of all time. What Deodato presented back in 1980 has yet to be matched. Nothing has caused quite the stir that this film originally did. While definitely not for the faint of heart, Cannibal Holocaust is a film that is valid and important. Even now in a world where everyone is so jaded, cynical and desensitized, Cannibal Holocaust still shocks. And just like Monroe wonders at the very end, you’re left pondering “who the real cannibals are.”