Directed by: Ruggero Deodato
The cannibal genre, an odd little bastard offspring in Italian film cinema that definitely left it’s mark and still today seems to be one of the most provocative of them all. It’s hard to believe that a string of movies made some thirty years ago still have the ability to provoke people in the way that the cannibal films did.
Such a great little macabre niche that it's still packs a hard punch to the gut and Italian genre directors are finding there way back there once again...
With their roots on the Mondo genre, and a pretty successful run of movies both predating and following the outstanding Cannibal Holocaust – among them Umberto Lenzi’s infamous ”banned in 37 countries” epic Cannibal Ferox, (Make Them Die Slowly) 1981 – but it’s only Cannibal Holocaust that tries to do something different within it’s own genre. It aims a critique towards the genre, the Mondo films, and even towards itself.
Getting quickly into the plot, the film starts with a news report on documentary filmmaker Alan Yates [Carl Gabriel Yorke who at times reassembles a young Tom Cruise] gone missing in the jungle during the shoot of his new production “The Green Hell” A few moments later and anthropologist Harold Monroe [Robert Kerman – who later starred in Umberto Lenzi’s Magiati vivi! (Eaten Alive) 1980 Cannibal Ferox (Make Them Die Slowly) 1981] is assigned to find the team. Travelling deep into the jungle with a constant affirmation of how dangerous and threatening the place is – like witnessing the cruel ritualistic punishment for adultery - they make contact with the Yucamo tribe. Continuing the narrative device of laying out question marks the tribe chief in his native tongue tries to tell them what has happened in the partially destroyed village. After witnessing combat between the rival cannibal tribes The Swamp People (Shamatari) and the Tree people (Yanomamo) they intervene and make friends with the Yanomamo tribe, gradually becoming accepted by them and finally being given the lost film stock of the Yates expedition – after Monroe chomps down on human flesh. So far we fear what has happened to the members of the expedition and empathize with them because of the possible fate they met, there’s a natural curiosity that wants to find out if they are alive and what has happened, but that will all change pretty soon…
Back in New York Monroe is thrown onto TV shows for interviews and used as part of the promotion ahead of the premier broadcast of the Yates documentary. He’s asked by the Pan American Broadcast Company to assist in the assembly and completion of the Yates material, and he agrees on the terms that he as an anthropology professor can review all the footage first. At first the footage shows the happy team going about normal life, preparing for their shoot and candidly joking with each other. Monroe and the editor laugh at the material and we still empathize for the filmmakers. But soon there’s a dark side to the expedition that starts to surface in the material. Moving at high speed and primarily filling in the narrative question marks the notorious animal carnage begins with Alan Yates shouting out directions on what to shoot with the cameras. We start to question the filmmakers, and loose some of the empathy we have had towards them. The scenes of depravity and dark cynicism of director Yates who stops at nothing to provoke illustrious footage for his production, becomes more and more shocking, and Monroe decides that this footage is so disturbing and unethical that it would be an inhuman to air it on television. But the executives know the sensationalistic value of the material the are sitting on and refuse to not air the documentary, so Monroe is left with no further option that to show them the two reels of footage that not even the editors dared show them. The magnum opus of atrocities where the cynical Alan Yates stops at nothing to provoke the most exclusive material he ever could even if it costs him the life of his team and friends… At this point the audience is rooting for the cannibals, we want those fiendish filmmakers punished – it’s the miracle of movie manipulation taking place. Reaching its climax the executives are left silent in shock and repulsion before ordering the destruction of all the footage. Harold Monroe leaves the broadcast offices posing the question “I wonder who the real cannibals are?”
Coming off The Concorde Affair 1979 Deodato was approached by producers to make a movie in the style of his earlier flick Ultimo mondo cannibale (Last Cannibal World) 1977. Said and done, location scouting started, and equipped with an extremely potent script written once again by Gianfranco Clerici and Deodato, production on Cannibal Holocaust started in June 1979.
The ”documentary style” footage of Allan Yates expedition was first to roll through the cameras, but after only few days of filming, the actor originally cast as the lead antagonist Yates quit the movie, which had the shoot come to a grinding halt as they all awaited re-casts and hoped to find a new leading man. Finally Carl Gabriel Yorke arrived on set, and armed with their 16mm cameras they roamed through the jungles of Leticia, Colombia near the Amazonas shooting that fascinating material of animal cruelty, arranged provocations, candid sexuality, rape, and all the shocking atrocities that make up that offensive material.
But where many other movies in the Exploitation genre are made with a smile on their faces, the production of Cannibal Holocaust suffered from an extreme tense atmosphere as the cast and crew started to realise what they where getting themselves into. Authentic animal cruelty, frequent cast nudity, and the harrowing location added to the already tense shoot, and needless to say not to many of the cast and crew had much care for each other at the end of production – rather the opposite. And most fingers pointed straight at Ruggero Deodato, accusing him of being callous, heartless genuine bastard. If you have ever met Mr. Deodato you will know that this image is nowhere near the impression that this polite gent gives – well not off set at least. It’s quite possible that Deodato, fully aware that his movie would provoke not only cinema audiences, but also the makers of the movies that the film criticized, and the industry he was working in, and realised that he was in a very compromising situation. And the producers back in Italy where going wild as they watched rushes, screaming aloud for more, More, MORE!
Never the less five weeks in the Colombian jungle and a week in New York and Rome later, the movie was in the can and if the anxious atmosphere on set was an issue, it was still nothing compared to what was to come. After premiering in Milan, Italy early 1980, Cannibal Holocaust only played for ten days before it was taken off the screen and into court. Charges where filed against as they believed the film was an authentic snuff piece, but after presenting proof that the actors, and the iconic impaled woman, where indeed alive and well, the case was dismissed. But due to the raw nature of the animal killings the movie was still a sensitive issue, and it remained banned in Italy for another four years. Needless to say the movie faced serious censorship problems outside of Italy too and ended up being banned in several countries or even worse released after some serious cut where made.
One of the main reasons that Cannibal Holocaust caused such an outrage – apart from the apparent animal cruelty - is all due to the magic of filmmaking. The provocative and very realistic” documentary footage” causes a mind set that the stuff we are watching is real. As the quality and grain of the material we are seeing changes we believe that what is shown is actually real documentary footage, and is further enhanced as we see cinematographers and equipment in shot on several occasions. Also there’s an innovative use of dialogue that set’s up this little trick. Several times as we go to, and from the 16mm footage there’s technical dialogue presented, “I’ve added some archive music for effect” “This first segment is silent” “Remember this is a very rough cut, almost like watching rushes” “ There should be some sound coming in now…” etc. There are also audio flaws, damage and scratches to the film stock, which help to sell the fantastic illusion that the footage is real.
There’s also a magnificent narrative going on in Cannibal Holocaust. Deodato has through the Professor Monroe scenes, planted several questions and referents that later will be answered and revealed as we start going through the documentary footage. Early on they find the body of the Yates expedition’s guide Miguel, and Chaco, Monroe’s guide say’s “I wonder what mistake he made to end up dead…” They find the carcass of a giant river turtle… this and other questions delicately planted, build a natural suspense and curiosity that draws the viewer in to the narrative.
The ingenious use of a non-linear narrative is brilliant. Posing questions in the first half only to answer them in the later creates a constant forward motion throughout the movie that keeps it moving rapidly, and interesting. Added to that non-linear narrative there’s every now and again a line of dialogue or two to raise new questions and look ahead; “What happened here…?” “You think that was bad? Alan could do much worse!” “You haven’t even seen the stuff your editors didn’t dare show you!” Which drives the movie forth and suggests even worse material to come, creating a natural anticipation with the viewer. Cannibal Holocaust has some very effective dialogue, which contributes to the narrative, in a many ways adds to making the movie stand out amongst the other pieces in the niche. But it doesn’t stop there, Deodato stays true to the illusion that the film is for real and sets it up with tests at the opening and ending of the movie – “For the sake of authenticity, some of the sequences have been retained in their entirety” is stated in the opening, and works just like those great lines of dialogue. As the movie comes to it’s end, the following text is resented "Projectionist John K. Kirov was given a two-month suspended sentence and fined $10,000 for illegal appropriation of film material. We know that he received $250,000 for the same footage." Still staying with the illusion this gives something of an open ending, for even though the cynical TV producers may have come to insight and demanded that the footage be destroyed, the editor who we saw in the movie didn’t and corrupted by the power of exploitation he sold the footage into others hands. It keeps the line between fact and fiction blurry, which is a condition for the movie to work.
With that said, it is also of significance to point out that the animal cruelty is part of that same narrative, as it is the killings that sell the illusion of the violent deaths at the last half of the film. The movie may have worked without the animal deaths, or less of them, but that authenticity is what makes us believe the atrocities and carnage that are presented. It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking that still to this day is very effective, and I challenge anyone who has not seen it yet to watch it and walk away unaffected. It is not possible.
Technically the movie is amazing, there’s the contrasting hand held 16mm vs. the solid, stable 35mm shot by cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi [Lucio Fulci’s The Eroticist & Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling) 1972 and later that year Deodato’s La casa sperduta nel parco (House on the Edge of the Park) 1980] and masterfully edited by Fulci’s editor Vincenzo Tomassi who undoubtedly was a valuable part of bringing the realism of this magnificent movie to life. There’s the great performances by the unknown actors Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi and Carl Gabriel Yorke. Even former adult actor Robert Kerman sells the part – even though the movie didn’t give him the big break in serious acting that he wanted and returned to the adult industry. It’s almost like watching clockworks where everything perfectly fits into each other to make the motion flow smoothly.
On that critique against the genre – well it’s easy to find it when you are looking for it. In the genesis of Cannibal Holocaust it’s said that Deodato was inspired by two things: one claims he watched news reports with his son and realised that all the reporting was focusing on the violence and not the stories behind the events, which lead him to suspect that some stories where arranged in attempts to create more sensational material. The second is that he saw a documentary on the same topic that Cannibal Holocaust is about – the transmission of missing footage, and it’s said that what was shown on TV was much worse than anything in the movie.
And that’s where the critique is found. Just as the Mondo genre also staged, arranged and provoked sensationalistic material, this is what Alan Yates and his team do too. There are several referrals to becoming famous and receiving an Oscar for their material. There’s a cynicism there - fame and fortune, but at what cost. This line of questioning returns several times and it’s also apparent when Monroe starts going through the footage and the TV executives start drooling over the sensational footage they are holding. They even show him Yates previous movie “The Road to Hell” – which uses the exact same font as the opening sequence of Cannibal Holocaust, all to expand on the illusion that it’s all real - which too has authentic executions. But the executives make sure to point out that Yates staged it all as Yates “knew what he was after”. This also rings true for the Mondo genre, which frequently was questioned. But the TV executives, just like exploitation film producers can only see the profits in the material and do not care much for Monroe’s objecting until they are forced to see the material. But the question remains –at what cost can we continue producing exploitative entertainment? This is best exemplified in that last line of dialogue “I Wonder who the real Cannibals are?” It invites the viewers to look inwards and question themselves, and realise that the rhetoric question is posed to us.
One of the most remarkable things with Cannibal Holocaust is the ironic melancholy that Riz Ortolani’s splendid soundtrack brings with it. Appreciating the contrast of harsh imagery set against soft gentle music found in Cavara/Jacopetti/Prosperi's Mondo Cane 1962, Deodato approached Ortolani to compose a score reminiscent of that soundtrack, specifically the track More - nominated for an Academy Award and at one time covered by the great Frank Sinatra - and the result is one of the best scores ever composed. A magnificent piece of work that at times is romantically naïve and mordantly primal, great stuff.
There’s no way around it, Cannibal Holocaust is a fantastic piece of cinema without even cramming it into any specific genre slot. It’s disturbing, harrowing, transgressive, revolting and at times sarcastically comical in the darkest way, and a damned fine movie still to this day. It makes no difference what ever little niche you may be into, Cannibal Holocaust touches on them all, and it is a masterpiece of cinema that desperately needs to be re-evaluated and placed amongst the great classics of celluloid history.
There are currently several releases of this eminent movie available, with a varied amount of extras to each release. The only thing you need to be sure of, is that you buy the uncut version, if you don’t already have it that is. If not, you know what your next purchase should be.