Published on July 11, 2013 by Sara Foss
There's a new cult film series in town, and I've been meaning to support it. But I wasn't able to make their first two screenings, for the Frank Zappa film "200 Motels" and the Indonesian horror film "Mystics of Bali." And when I heard that their third screening was the notorious Italian grindhouse film "Cannibal Holocaust," my heart sank a little. There are a lot of films I want to see, and "Cannibal Holocaust" wasn't one of them.
However, as the screening date drew closer, I grew more intrigued. A movie like "Cannibal Holocaust" is sort of like a dare for a person like me, and I figured that if I was capable of sitting through "The Human Centipede," "The Last House on the Left" and other violent, morally dubious films, then I could probably make it through "Cannibal Holocaust." Although I understand the logic of the film blogger the Self-Styled Siren when she writes, "The people who boast about how they can sit through anything, do they believe someone greets you at the Pearly Gates to say 'Dude, you made it through 'Cannibal Holocaust!' Here's your door prize!'"
In any case, I've now watched "Cannibal Holocaust," and it's a tough movie to evaluate. People rightly object to the scenes of animals being killed, often gruesomely; there's no excuse to slaughter monkeys and turtles when making a film, unless you're filming a documentary. And the scene involving the capture and butchering of a turtle is really hard to take. Weirdly, this scene could be defensible - if the turtle wasn't really being killed, director Ruggero Deodato didn't linger over the killing for so long, seemingly reveling in the some of the grossest scenes of viscera ever put on screen. After all, people exploring the remote jungle have to eat.
Anyway, "Cannibal Holocaust" opens with footage of a documentary film crew leaving for the Amazon to shoot a movie about a remote tribe of cannibals. They are never heard from again, and a rescue mission, led by an NYU anthropology professor (played by porn star Robert Kerman), sets out to learn what became of them. As they travel into the heart of darkness, they witness horrifying scenes of violence and cruelty; the character we relate to is the professor, who is often seen vomiting and looking sick to his stomach. The rescue crew earns the trust of the cannibals, retrieves the documentary film footage from them, and returns to New York with it.
At this point, "Cannibal Holocaust" neatly transitions into one of the earliest found footage horror films. (There's a reason some people initially believed it was a snuff film.) We see the footage the documentary shot right up to their deaths, and learn about all the terrible things they did to make their film more exciting, such as burning a native village and raping, killing and impaling a young girl to a spike. By the end of the film, we basically sympathize with the cannibals and arerooting for them to kill the documentary crew. In the film's final scene, the anthropology professor asks, "I wonder who the real cannibals are?"
OK, so "Cannibal Holocaust" has a message. It's heavy-handed, and about as subtle as a mallet to the head, but it's there. Of course, the film's stereotypes of Amazonian tribes and relentless misogyny undermine its social critique - this is an exploitation film through and through, and Deodato seems more interested in rubbing our noses in ugliness and horror than exploring deeper ideas or themes. But there's no denying that those ideas and themes exist.
Overall, I felt that "Cannibal Holocaust" had some merit. Its use of found footage is ingenious - more interesting and effective, I think, than more recent examples of the found footage genre such as "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield." And the film is fairly well made, in its low-budget, ragged way; you won't find Oscar caliber performances in "Cannibal Holocaust," but the cast gets the job done. The film is also notable for being one of the few horror films that truly horrifies, rather than amuses, excites or titillates.
That said, I won't be watching "Cannibal Holocaust" again anytime soon. Once is probably enough for a lifetime.