Brutal or Beautiful? A Look Back at "Cannibal Holocaust"
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
This February will mark that 41st anniversary of Ruggero Deodato's controversial film, Cannibal Holocaust. I'm not even sure "controversial" is the right word to use due to how much of a colossal understatement it is.
In the years since its release, the film has been banned in several countries worldwide but at the same time has also been revered as a socially-aware cinema classic. So after nearly half a century since its release it is time to answer the question if Cannibal Holocaust deserves its legendary status or is it just shocking for the sake of shock value? Let's take a look back at the film that got its director arrested for obscenity.
Regardless of your personal opinions about the movie, it cannot be denied that Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust was a groundbreaking film at the time of its release, being the first modern example of a found footage horror movie, a genre which has obtained extreme popularity in recent years. If you've ever enjoyed a film like Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project, you have Cannibal Holocaust to thank. However "groundbreaking" does not necessarily mean the film was well received, in fact it has been cited as one of the most disturbing and polarizing films ever since its release. The film's subject matter is so harsh and traumatizing that it has been banned in over fifty countries worldwide including Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Iceland, and many others. Due to how much censorship laws have evolved and loosened in past decades it is hard to imagine what a film could possibly include to warrant a complete prohibition in several nations...
After watching it for the first time a few weeks ago I can confirm it is without a doubt one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. Even for the most avid horror fans it will be an extremely difficult watch. The movie is about an American film crew that goes missing after their encounter with a cannibalistic indigenous tribe in South America. Over the course of the movie the film crew is tortured and killed by the tribe. While that might seem like a standard horror plot, Cannibal Holocaust is by no means your average found footage horror movie. During its original theatrical run, the French Magazine, Photo, wrongfully accused Cannibal Holocaust of being a snuff film and that all of the deaths were real. The gore was so realistic that the public firmly believed four of the actors had been brutally murdered in the jungle. One particular actress was photographed to appear as though she had been impaled on a wooden stake through the mouth and it was so well done that Deodato needed to show how he filmed it in court to prove she was indeed, not a real corpse. Fortunately none of those rumors were true and the actors were not physically harmed during filming. However, the same cannot be said about the animals that appeared in the film alongside the actors...
Perhaps the most notorious aspect about Cannibal Holocaust is the inclusion of real, unstaged animal cruelty. Over the course of the film's 96 minute runtime, six different animals are brutally slaughtered on camera, including a coati, a pig, a monkey, a boa constrictor, tarantula, and even a large turtle is decapitated and disemboweled on camera. Now although animal cruelty is not very common in film, Cannibal Holocaust is far from being the most high profile movie to utilize it. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now includes the actual murder of a water buffalo. However the water buffalo was not killed for the film itself, a nearby indigenous tribe had already decided they were going to kill it and Coppola decided to record the event for his movie. However, the various animals that appear in Cannibal Holocaust were executed for the sake of the film itself. So it begs the question: can we justify the killing of real living things for art? Shouldn't the slaughter of animals on camera make this considered a snuff film? I'll admit after watching the first coati get killed on camera I immediately wanted to turn the movie off and never watch it again. As someone who has seen over 1,500 films in my lifetime it truly takes a lot to shock me at this point but throughout all my years exploring film I had never once seen real animals get massacred on camera and to this day it makes me angry that so many animals were butchered just so Deodato could use shock to sell movie tickets. So can murder be justified for the sake of art? I really don't know but what I do know is that I never want to see this film again.
Despite the polarizing and notorious reputation that Cannibal Holocaust has obtained over the years, it has also gained a cult following of devoted fans. Now why is that? How can a film that got the director arrested for obscenity charges have any fans at all? Well the truth is, underneath all of that unbearable gore and depravity lies a lot of deep, important socio-political commentary.
The film includes themes of imperalism, colonialism, and allusions to the atrocities caused by the Vietnam War. It's the kind of the thing that once you see you can't unsee. The film takes place from the point of view of these well-off Western NYU staff members who come face to face with a savage tribe. In a way the film practically forces you to identify with the white film crew and see the indigenous South Americans as uncivilized and "other." But at the same time, the Americans are the ones who came to their land, judging their way of life when all they have for reference is what they've seen through Western culture. In a way Cannibal Holocaust forces you to think: "who are the real savages here?" Along with the film's found-footage style, it was also revolutionary when it came to its subject matter. Imperialist countries or those who have benefited from imperialism have a tendency to not draw attention to the indigenous people who were tortured, murdered, abused and forced out of their homes for the sake of colonization. For example, the public education system of the United States does very little to educate their students about the Native American tribes who were nearly driven to extinction at the hands of European powers. What I'm trying to say is that unlike the American educational system, Cannibal Holocaust includes the torment of indigenous people the same way it shows the torture of Westerners and animals for shock value. It was one of the first films to critique Western culture next to indigenous people and make the audience question what it means to be civilized in the first place.
So what more is there to say about Deodato's film nearly 41 years after its release? Despite being one of the most visually barbaric movies to grace the big screen it currently possesses a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While it does have an important subject matter and introspective social commentary, do the ends justify the means? What does it say about us as people if we are willing to forgive the murder of animals for the sake of art and sending a message? After seeing it I can say for sure that Cannibal Holocaust is by no means an easy watch but it does reward those who are willing to look past its brutal exterior with clever commentary and truly effective filmmaking. While it is by no means for the faint of heart or the average film fan I would go so far as to say this is a movie that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.