Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) movie poster

(1980) director Ruggero Deodato
viewed: 11/18/2011

An exploitation film that uses exploitation to critique exploitation winds up somewhere between the “meta” and the ironic.

Controversial in its day, perhaps in parts still as shocking as ever, and doubtlessly innovative in its narrative approach, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is an icon of outreness.

A team of documentarian film-makers from NYU head into the “Green Inferno”, an area of Amazonian forest in which primitive cannibal indigenous tribes dwell.  But when they head out to make their latest hard-hitting foray into the world of documentary, they disappear, not to be heard from again.  So another professor sets out with a new guide to find them.  As he and his crew dig into this dangerous landscape, they come upon many horrors and clues, and ultimately find the skeletal remains of the film crew and their film canisters.  The professor treks back to New York City, where he has the footage developed.

So while most of the film is a regular narrative film, a key component of the narrative is the “found footage,” which depicts much of what happened on the documentarians’ sojourn, and ultimately depicts what became of them.  Unlike the more recent surge in “found footage”-style horror films, the whole of the film of Cannibal Holocaust is not made out to be “real”, only the documentary-style portion.  When the film was made, the footage still stoked controversy and question.  Was this real footage?  What happened to these people?  Was this the equivalent of a “Snuff” film?

Deodato does work the angles to evoke the most from these segments.  First, we are shown some documentary footage, supposedly from a prior film of the crew, which depicts real human executions in Africa.  In a sense, the gauntlet is thrown down here.  Here is real death.  Interestingly, it is at this point that one of the professors suggests that these documentarians would “fabricate” their documentation by creating events in which these things happened, getting “the perfect shot” by working with staged activity.  So, here, just where the veritable death is depicted, the question is raised over its verity.

Furthering this sense of graphic violence in reality are sequences of slaughter of real animals: an opossum-like rodent, , a baby boar, and most graphically, a huge aquatic turtle.  These scenes continue to be controversial as animal abuse, but really drive home this sense of truth to the violence.  Like the Mondo film genre that used a lot of real world violence and somewhat influence this film’s aesthetics and sensibilities, there are levels of reality within whatever context these images were created or how they were presented (in the context of a narrative).  They are exploitational in and of themselves, animal snuff films, if you will.  Though these images are perhaps also not a-typical of animal slaughter for food preparation.

Deodato portrays the documentarians as true exploiters, both of the native people, but even more extremely in creating situations that are by no means natural and real.  They terrorize the villagers with their weapons and ultimately set fire to the village, killing their pig, raping women.  Deodato gives his moral center of the film, the professor who sought out the footage, the words that question who are the savages, the primitive cannibals or the a-moral urbanite intellectuals.  Because even when most of the truth has been uncovered, there are still executives who want to air the footage for the public to consume and respond to.  Though ultimately, they decide to burn the footage.

Only this is the added irony.  Surely it’s all fake (except for the animal slaughters and other documents or executions, right?), but the whole thing is still created for titillation and shock value.  I find the film to play on those multiple levels of critique and irony, of shock and shame.  It has some disturbing elements, certainly.  But for a movie with such a clearly “shock value” title, Cannibal Holocaust, it isn’t without a self-awareness much more elevated than your average exploitation film.  Strangely much more thought-provoking for me than I was expecting.

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