To many view­ers, Cannibal Holocaust is a clas­sic for the wrong rea­sons; infa­mous instead of famous.  Some con­sid­er it a clas­sic of manip­u­la­tion for dup­ing the more gullible mem­bers of its audi­ence into think­ing they’ve seen a snuff film.  Some con­sid­er it a clas­sic of bad taste, a film that claims to have a pro­found mes­sage while wal­low­ing in the most mis­an­throp­ic extremes of humanity’s bad behav­iors.  Others vil­i­fy the film and its cre­ators for the unfaked, grue­some deaths of real ani­mals that appear alongside the fal­si­fied CannHol-poshuman vio­lence.

It is dif­fi­cult for many to get beyond those issues.  However, there is more going on in Cannibal Holocaust than just shock tac­tics.  It is an uncom­pro­mis­ing piece of work that uses the extremes of its con­tent to chal­lenge the viewer’s feel­ings and per­cep­tions about soci­ety and the role media plays in shap­ing it.  The results aren’t pret­ty and nev­er spare the viewer’s feel­ings — but there is a sin­cere moti­va­tion and some intel­li­gent ideas behind the car­nage that are well worth explor­ing for the brave hor­ror fan.

To start with, you might be sur­prised to dis­cov­er that Cannibal Holocaust has an clev­er, intri­cate­ly struc­tured plot.  It begins with anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) ven­tur­ing to the “Green Inferno” in the heart of the Amazon to find a quar­tet of doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers who dis­ap­peared while try­ing to find if can­ni­bal tribes still exist.  After risk­ing his life more than once, Monroe fails to find the film­mak­ers but does dis­cov­er their footage.  He brings it back to New York, where net­work exec­u­tives plan to use it for a tele­vi­sion spe­cial.  No one is pre­pared for what they find on the reels, which reveal CannHol-1both the final fate of the lost film­mak­ers and the awful truth about what they were actu­al­ly doing in the Amazon.

Over three decades have passed since Cannibal Holocaust was first released in the­aters and yet it hasn’t lost its abil­i­ty to shock.  The sequences involv­ing can­ni­bal­ism are done with make­up effects but achieve a queasy vérité vibe from the use of real jun­gle set­tings and locals made up as tribes­men, an effect that is dou­bly enhanced when the film­mak­ers place the­se events in the con­text of  con­vinc­ing, tech­ni­cal­ly raw “footage” to rep­re­sent the last moments of the lost film­mak­ers.  It’s worth not­ing that the film­mak­ers got into legal trou­ble because author­i­ties fre­quent­ly mis­took the lat­ter sce­nes for real snuff footage.CannHol-2

Even hard­core hor­ror types often recoil from Cannibal Holocaust because of the real ani­mal deaths shown in the film, par­tic­u­lar­ly a lengthy sequence where a tor­toise is slow­ly dis­mem­bered in prepa­ra­tion for cook­ing after being killed by the crew.  These sce­nes are endurance tests by design.  Each view­er will have to make his or her own deci­sion as to whether they can deal with the­se sce­nes — but they def­i­nite­ly add to the film’s cumu­la­tive effect, con­vey­ing the cru­el­ty of the char­ac­ters and set­ting while also mak­ing the view­er ques­tion the over­all real­i­ty of the oth­er sce­nes.  The tac­tic is ruth­less but unde­ni­ably effec­tive.

CannHol-3However, it is impor­tant to think about why Cannibal Holocaust goes to the­se extremes.  Deodato has often said that the film’s often angry, con­fronta­tion­al tone was root­ed in his rage toward the Italian news media for their exploita­tive treat­ment of real life tragedies of Italian life in the ‘70s, par­tic­u­lar­ly the vio­lent activ­i­ties of the Red Brigade.  The film also has an inher­ent cri­tique of the mon­do film­mak­ing gen­re spawned by Jacopetti/Prosperi suc­cess­es like Mondo Cane, which often mixed real atroc­i­ties with faked footage (a tac­tic employed by the “doc­u­men­tar­i­ans” in the film).

CannHol-4Critics usu­al­ly focus on the “who are the real sav­ages” angle of the film, crit­i­ciz­ing it for try­ing to have its cake and eat it too by wal­low­ing in the kind of cru­el behav­ior it con­demns.  However, that seems like a short-sight­ed way for those crit­ics to write off some­thing that makes them uncom­fort­able: after all, how can a film­mak­er com­mu­ni­cate their neg­a­tive stance on some­thing unless they depict it?

More impor­tant­ly, that line of crit­i­cism miss­es out on the real mes­sage in Cannibal Holocaust.  Beneath the sur­face talk of civ­i­liza­tion vs. sav­agery, the film is more con­cerned with how its char­ac­ters process what they see.  Note that many times in the film, char­ac­ters pur­sue some aim until they see more than they want to see, only for anoth­er char­ac­ter to force them to look back at the ugly truth they want to avoid.  One can feel Deodato’s direc­to­ri­al hand in the­se moments, remind­ing the view­er that the ugly truth can’t be avoid­ed.  The cast, most­ly unknown except for ‘70s porn reg­u­lar Robert Kerman, plays the­se hor­ri­fic tableaus straight — and Deodato gives them the set­tings and con­tent to make their per­for­mances feel all too real.

On a sim­i­lar note, once the footage of the film­mak­ers is pre­sent­ed in third act, Deodato makes a point of inter­cut­ting back to the peo­ple watch­ing the footage at key moments.  During the­se cut­aways, the char­ac­ters often dis­cuss how real the footage is, what the inten­tions were behind shoot­ing it and whether or not it should be shown to oth­ers.  A sim­ple shock-show would nev­er both­er with the­se moments.  Instead, Deodato takes the CannHol-5oppor­tu­ni­ty to make the view­er ques­tion what they are see­ing, the moti­va­tions of those who cre­at­ed the­se sights and what respon­si­bil­i­ty the view­er plays in the whole sce­nar­io.  Pretty heady stuff for a film that is often writ­ten off as a gore epic.

Finally, it is impor­tant to note the care and crafts­man­ship applied to the film by Deodato and his col­lab­o­ra­tors.  Gianfranco Clerici’s script has an inge­nious, mys­tery-style struc­ture that slow­ly draws the audi­ence in, arous­ing their curios­i­ty before it low­ers the boom with its third act.  Sergio D’Offizi’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy cap­tures both the beau­ty and the hor­ror of the Amazon set­tings in high style and edi­tor Vincenzo Tomassi, who worked on many of Lucio Fulci’s best films, gives the pro­ceed­ings a care­ful­ly mod­u­lat­ed pace.  Deodato har­ness­es their con­tri­bu­tions with skill, cre­at­ing a film whose sense of style belies its dis­turbing con­tent: it’s all the more unnerv­ing because it’s so smart­ly made.

Special cred­it must also be given to the great, sad­ly depart­ed Riz Ortolani, who wrote one of the great­est hor­ror film scores ever com­posed here.  He got his big break with the team of Jacopetti and Prosperi, scor­ing their con­tro­ver­sial mon­do films and devel­op­ing an effec­tive tech­nique where he would craft the loveli­est melodies for the most upset­ting sequences.CannHol-ad

Ortolani’s  Cannibal Holocaust score rep­re­sents his most skill­ful use of this tech­nique, with his lush Euro-melodies cre­at­ing a musi­cal back­drop that is either iron­i­cal­ly love­ly or soul-search­ing­ly mourn­ful.  The jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tion of son­ic beau­ty and scar­ring visu­als is the most potent weapon in Deodato’s styl­is­tic arse­nal — and he uses it for max­i­mum effect here: the melodies will linger in your mind long after­wards, right alongside the grim imagery.

Sadly, the shock val­ue that gives Cannibal Holocaust its stay­ing pow­er unfor­tu­nate­ly obscures its true val­ue to many audi­ence mem­bers.  However, those who can sum­mon up the intesti­nal for­ti­tude to stare down its hor­rors will dis­cov­er that this is a hor­ror film whose intel­li­gence is as sav­age as its imagery.  If you want to expe­ri­ence the extremes of the gen­re — both vis­cer­al­ly and the­mat­i­cal­ly — Cannibal Holocaust is a film that you must see.