Video Nasties Review #3: Cannibal Holocaust

As mentioned in the intro last time, the censors were very much not a fan of cannibal films. Interestingly it was not the cannibalism that seemed to make the censors most squeamish, but the fact these particular films often featured a lot of sexual violence and also real footage of animal cruelty (It is this second factor that makes them just as controversial today). The next film we shall look at then is not the first of these cannibal films (that would be “Man from Deep River” (1972), which we will get to another time) but it is certainly the most notorious…

Cannibal Holocaust

Director: Ruggero Deodato
Starring: Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile
Run Time: 95mins
Originally: Part of the Prosecuted 39 (Under the Obscene Publications Act)
Current status: Released in 2001 with 5 minutes 44 seconds cut to remove most animal cruelty and rape scenes. Re-released with 15 seconds cut to one animal cruelty scene in 2011.

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As horror titles go, “Cannibal Holocaust” is an absolute stonker. Also unlike many exploitation films, it very much lives up to the depravity that title suggests, which is why this movie is one of the most controversial in cinema history.
Not only was it one of the most prominent and notorious of the Video Nasties in the UK, the tabloids made great use out of the famed cover image of a girl impaled on a pole to stir up “moral guardians” of the time, but according to its own publicity it was banned in over 50 countries (this maybe the producers exaggerating but it was certainly banned in a lot of places). Apparently, the horrors of the film were so convincing that in its native Italy authorities tried to prosecute Mr Deodato for producing a snuff film. Obviously, the case was thrown out once Deodato produced the cast in court. It effectively illustrates how grisly this was for the time (and also how poor Italian authorities of the time were at spotting gore effects).

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In terms of the films fictional violence the controversy has died down over the years as audiences have become inured to extreme screen violence but it would be an exaggeration of mass proportions to say this is tame by modern standards as this is gruesome stuff and only the strongest of stomachs may apply here. However, the extent of real animal violence still makes it a target of disdain amongst animal rights activist now.
In fact, in the Shameless Entertainment DVD release of it, you can decide on the menu whether to watch it with or without the animal cruelty. It must be said that the animal cruelty, some of which is incredibly difficult to watch particularly the turtle scene, adds nothing to the movie and even the director and some of the cast have expressed regret over some of the stuff they shot which they thought not much of at the time.

That is the controversy but what about the film itself? Well the plot revolves around Dr Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) an anthropologist who is hired to lead a rescue team to find a film crew who went missing while filming a documentary in the Amazon. He does not manage to find them only their rotting remains and after some tense negotiation with one of the local tribes, the Ya̧nomamö, Dr Monroe manages to obtain the last film reels of the documentary crew.
Back in America he watches these reels and so do we, the audience, with him this narrative device making this the first found footage horror made nearly two full decades before “The Blair Witch Project” turned it into a craze. It also in some ways can be seen to anticipate the thirst for controversy and ratings over ethics we see in today’s reality television.

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In the recovered reels we witness the savagery not just of the cannibals but of the documentary crew who try to incite the tribespeople by burning their village and sexually assaulting some of the women of the tribe in order to get “good footage”. The “who’s the real savages here” argument that seems to runs through the film in the conflict between the so-called “primitives” and the “civilised” crew is laid on a little heavy handily but it is interesting and provocative nevertheless. Also while most of the cannibal films have been accused of exploiting and stereotyping the native people portrayed this one feels less exploitative as Deodato is a more talented and intelligent director than many of his exploitation filmmaking counterparts of the time and it shows. Also Robert Kerman’s sympathetic portrayal of Dr Monroe makes this a cut above your average cannibal film too. It is a very good acting performance, which is somewhat surprising given before this Kerman was mainly known as a prolific porn performer who was most famous for “Debbie Does Dallas”.

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Another trope of this particular exploitation sub-genre is they often had incongruously beautiful soundtracks and this is no different as the music in the film is often lovely particularly the opening theme tune, which, if you closed your eyes, could fool you into thinking you were watching a heart-rendering romantic drama rather than a heart-ripping cannibal horror. In fact, the loveliness of the music seems to make the scenes of rape, mutilation, and dismemberment just that little more horrifying which is saying something given the disturbing nature of the film.

Overall: This a deeply depressing and harrowing watch but an oddly powerful one too. There are moments of hardcore horror, media satire, and social commentary. It may not be subtle in any of these elements, and is in fact at times cack-handed in its aims, but it is often effective and makes it one of the more ambitiously subversive on the “Video Nasties” list.

Nastiness rating: 9/10
Movie rating: 7/10

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