Made during what many fans consider Italian exploitation cinemas golden era. Cannibal Holocaust remains one of the most controversial films to emerge from that period.
The film has two narratives. The first features Robert Kerman as anthropologist Dr. Harold Monroe who heads into the Rainforests of Central America to investigate the disappearance of a documentary film crew. The crew have something of a reputation for sensationalism and staging footage in order to help fuel that sensationalism. Arriving in the jungle Monroe soon discovers that the natives are in a state of extreme agitation. It takes him a while but eventually he manages to win the natives trust and discovers the crews films cans amidst a grisly totem of human remains. Returning to New York he sets up a screening of the recovered footage. Thus begins the second narrative as we witness the crew’s journey into the jungles through their documentary footage. As we get further into the material we see the crew becoming more antagonistic and cruel towards the locals. They begin staging the slaughter of local wildlife in a bid to present local customs and soon progress to rape and murder in a bid to frame the peaceful locals as the savage brutes in order that the film will play better back home in America. Eventually the crew push things way too far and the locals finally snap. They turn on the crew and kill them.
On the film’s release, director Ruggero Deodato asked the films cast to disappear for a while. This was to help cement the idea in the audience’s mind that the footage of the crew’s deaths was in some way real and not staged. The stunt backfired a little and Deodato was forced to bring the cast out of hiding when Italian authority’s threatened to prosecute him. Cannibal Holocaust was not the first Cannibal movie to emerge from Italy, there was a whole sub-genre in Italy that produced such ‘classics’ as Man from deep river and Mountain of the Cannibal god. For the most part these seem to be derived from pulp adventure stories and featured a square jawed western adventurer encountering savages and falling in love with one of the tribes daughters. Cannibal Holocaust stands out from the crowd because Deodato, who had already contributed to the cannibal genre with the more traditional Last cannibal world, really takes the audiences expectations and shakes things up.
The first thing to say is that Cannibal Holocausts main target is its own audience. It asks “so you want to see cannibalism eh?” and delivers the goods in such a realistic and unpleasant manner that the film is far more shocking than any of its contemporaries. The shaky, occasionally out of focus camera work that depicts the film crew’s final days adds a level of realism and authenticity not seen before. It’s a technique that modern film makers would borrow and create a whole sub-genre of found footage movies that attempt to add a layer of realism to their films. The crew’s unethical methods of getting footage stems from the western appetite for more and more sensational footage and the crew are clearly trying to help the film conform to the developed world’s notion of the primitive savage that in truth is far removed from reality.
One of the director’s inspirations for the film was the Italian ‘Mondo’ movies. Documentary footage taken from around the world that focused on unusual and on occasion extreme material. The Mondo cane films proved popular and more followed. Including the infamous Africa addio, this managed to land the crew in court, under accusations that some of the footage of executions had been staged. Accusations that were eerily similar to the behaviour of the Crew in Cannibal Holocaust. In fact, when we see an example of the crew’s previous work The Road to hell, it looks very much like an attempt to recreate that film.
Cannibal Holocaust could then be seen as a response to the Mondo movie craze. Certainly Deodato proves that allegedly real scenes of horror and brutality are not difficult to stage, and that the documentary nature of the footage can make what is happening on screen seem more real than a traditionally shot film. As I have already said as well, it’s a fairly stinging critique of the audience for those films and of the morality of film crews that seek to exploit the third world in such a prurient and often racist manner.
One of the major areas of contention surrounding Cannibal Holocaust is it’s use of real animal deaths. While there are a number of moments in the film where animal cruelty occur the two incidents most cited are the Turtle slaughter and the muskrat killing. With the former case, a turtle is dragged from a river and graphically slaughteredwhile in the latter a muskrat is held and slowly killed with a knife. The treatment of these scenes at the hands of the British censor gives a good example of how the law regards these acts. The Turtle scene remains intact in the UK edition because the animal was being slaughtered for food. The muskrat scene was edited down severely as it was more an act of cruelty staged for the cameras. For an otherwise smart and well crafted piece of cinema, the animal cruelty really lets the film down in my opinion as it makes the filming some respects as bad as the films it is attempting to critique. On a technical level they do help re-enforce the films impact on its audience as seeing the real animal deaths help fool the audience into thinking the deaths of the crew could also be real. However, this is a film made in 1980. The technology already existed to effectively fake scenes like this. Lucio Fulci’s 1971 film A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin offered a scene of animal death so realistic it was taken to court in Italy forcing the director to bring in special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi (who would later work on E.T) to demonstrate the scene was merely special effects and no animals were harmed.
Animal cruelty is nothing new in cinema. A lot of westerns are cut in the UK for ‘Horse falls’ which would often be staged by directors trip-wiring the horses. Esteemed art house favourite Robert Bresson used animal deaths. Sam peckinpah and Alan Parker’s films have both fallen foul of the censors. Animal cruelty in some of these films may not have been as graphic as in Cannibal Holocaust but it was occurring in a lot of more ‘respectable’ cinema. I read a recent blog that asked why Cannibal Holocaust was being re-issued. The writer thought the animal cruelty was too unacceptable. A lot of fans of horror cinema have been put of the film for the same reason. While mainstream critics may view horror fans as drooling borderline psychopaths I’ve spoken to a great many fans who are put off by real life violence and are well aware of the difference between a top quality special effect and real life killing. In fact, to appease these fans a lot of modern releases of Cannibal holocaust come with ‘animal friendly’ cuts of the film that remove all of the animal death.
While I’m personally glad that film makers are required to have animal welfare specialists on set when dealing with scenes involving animals, and animal cruelty while not extinct is more and more a rare occurrence, I’m still uncomfortable with these scenes being removed from older films. To me films are not just a way of telling a story and a form of entertainment. Films are also time capsules of the era in which they were produced. I’m always reminded of the saying ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it’ and animal cruelty in cinema is one of the darker parts of screen history that should not be forgotten. While the BBFC are cutting films with good intentions, its difficult to argue who it is they are protecting when they remove these scenes. Its like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Personally I would much rather that all efforts were directed towards films coming in production today to ensure that animals on set are treated well and not subjected to any cruelty rather than what really amounts to whitewashing the past. I can still remember reading about Joseph Stalin, the 20th century’s biggest mass-murderer, who went back over his own history in photos and doctored the past to elevate his own importance and remove people who he wanted to ‘get rid off’. In terms of scale the censoring of films today to remove animal cruelty is not even close, however it has made me wary of anyone attempting to tamper with history. I would make the same arguments to people who want to remove the cigarettes from Humphrey Bogart’s mouth to George Lucas insistence that Greedo shot first.
For better or worst we should preserve our past and learn from it. Not try and remove it however good the intentions.