Of the animals that are killed onscreen in this film, four stand out.
There’s some sort of muskrat, early on in the film. It’s held in the palm of one character’s hand, and a pocket knife is thrust upward into its neck. It struggles for a bit, as its blood drizzles out onto the grass. Its guts are pulled out, and tossed at a group of characters to eat. The performer playing a native tribesman gleefully chows down on the raw goop. I don’t know it it’s authentic muskrat stuffing or something else.
Of course, there’s the sea tortoise. It’s pulled out of the water, and flipped onto its back. One of the actors whacks its head off with a machete, and another actor picks up the loosened skull and antically waves it around in front of the camera. The beast’s legs kick wildly, even after it is freed from its shell, its exposed innards a gelatinous sea of snowy whites and deep reds and purples, like thick cheese atop thick, overcooked pasta, ooze and water spilling from the unprotected belly, like pouring a glass of water into a napkin. Hands soon thrust into the swirled mass, organs become more distinct as they are pulled out, and the camera inevitable drifts downward to the creature’s leg, still abnormally that of a turtle, still uniquely rough, in contrast with its tumbling innards, still kicking, still kicking.
A monkey is captured by a native. Its skull is split in half horizontally with a blade. It’s very quick.
Some sort of furry pig is tied to a stake in a native village. It tries to escape, but it can’t - the rope holds fast. It rears around madly as the actors playing a film crew approach it, kick it around a bit, then blast it in the head with a shotgun, its form spasming and bucking in the dirt.
And as if directly to mock the interior monologue of the most tolerant of viewers, one of the actors faces the camera directly and babbles something like “Yeah! This happens every day in the jungle! Survival of the fittest! The strong survive!”
He’s mocking you.
But that’s the kind of film this is, director Ruggero Deodato’s 1979 epic of provocation, finally available on R1 dvd in a limited-edition 11,111 copy set from Grindhouse Releasing. It's simultaneously a post-Vietnam critique of Western adventurism, an insiders-only satire of the Italian trash/art cinema tradition, the creative peak (which might actually mean the nadir) of the ‘cannibal’ Euro-horror subgenre, and perhaps the ultimate in self-loathing exploitation. It’s a common trait among exploitation pictures to decry the prurient acts they simultaneously lick their chops toward, but this one goes farther than most - it honestly seems to believe itself, to the point where it works to tear down the latex and karo anti-gloss of its peers in favor of something more immediate and punishing, placing it truly beyond the pale.
Deodato (a former assistant to Roberto Rossellini, much as Dario Argento was once a screenwriter for Sergio Leone) and fellow Italian horror vet Umberto Lenzi were the twin towers of cannibal film (Lenzi got there first with 1972’s Deep River Savages), which was something of a scorched middle ground between the zombie flick and the ‘Mondo’ film, of which more will be said later. Typically, cannibal films would meld classic jungle adventure tropes with extreme gore, as Western explorers, often stranded in the middle of nowhere, would get wrapped up in some kind of tribal business. Scenes of simulated flesh-eating were a must. As were sequences of genuine animal killing, meant to shore up the grit of the environs, and give the proceedings an air of authenticity. The most successful of these films featured exotic locations and copious use of local tribes for yet another jolt of realism. Indeed, it was the veneer of realism that would often win out in these things. There were also some bizarre genre hybrids on display, but we’re not here to discuss the likes of Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals. Maybe some other time.
Deodato had done well with 1977’s Last Cannibal World (also known by catchier titles like Carnivorous or Jungle Holocaust), an especially raw, compelling specimen, concerning a Westerner lost in the wilds of South East Asia and imprisoned by natives in a magnificent system of caves. In contrast to the theatrical concessions of other genre protagonists, he spends much of the film completely naked, urinated and spat on, but shown sympathy by the obligatory Good Native Girl. He attempts to escape, but finds himself inevitably giving in to his own savage nature; he ultimately kills a tribal warrior and feasts on his body. The tribe than simply allows him to escape. He has become like them.
But by the end of the ’70s, the genre (never an extremely prolific one) was ready for a jolt, and Deodato was ready to supply it. He was ready to supply more than that, actually; informed by increasingly violent images beamed to his television, and doubtlessly aware of the nature of the lowdown cinema scene, Deodato planned to transform his next cannibal epic (and it should be noted that Deodato, like many European directors of his period and scene, was something of a jack-of-all-genre-trades - in between the two cannibal pictures I mention here, he also directed Concorde Affair, an Airport-style disaster pic, and Last Feelings, a tear-jerking youth sports drama) into a sweeping commentary on human nature and the many exploitations inherent to filmmaking.
The plot of Cannibal Holocaust can be quite neatly split into two halves. In the first part, Professor Harold Monroe (played by Robert Kerman, a prolific exploitation and porno star whose other main claim to fame is his role as male lead in Debbie Does Dallas - Kerman also had a small cameo in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, as a tugboat operator who fishes Spidey out of the river) launches an expedition to discover the whereabouts of four young documentary filmmakers who disappeared in the jungle whilst shooting their latest epic. He hires a drug-addled pair of grizzled guides, and the trio eventually captures a local tribesman as their ticket deeper into native territory. It’s fairly standard jungle hi-jinx, though spiked with some rather lovely cinematography and the occasional bizarre vision: one scene of a muscular guide, totally nude, braving native poison blow-darts while walking his prisoner along literally on a leash, seems especially subversive and fetishistic.
And, this being exploitation, attention is lavished on grotesque scenes, like a brutal native punishment for adultery, and the aforementioned muskrat killing. Natives are killed by our heroes too, as a means of incurring favor with one tribe by fighting the enemies of another. But the Professor triumphs through understanding, frolicking chastely in the buff with a bevy of native girls, and winning everyone’s trust by understanding their mindset. Eventually, it is discovered that the prior film crew are all dead, though their film is still intact, the canisters literally hung as evil magical charms from ropes around a village. The comment inherent to this image will become clearer later. Had the film simply concluded here (with requisite padding to bump it over feature-length), it would have been a typically hypocritical cannibal episode, nothing more. But there is more.
You see, even though the characters involved are American, Deodato knows that the filmmakers were shooting a ‘Mondo’ film, an Italian innovation birthed into widespread popularity in 1962 with Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s Mondo Cane (which even got an Oscar nomination, albeit for Best Original Song). Mondo Cane was a strange, carefully edited exercise in structural irony, a cinema travelogue of strange customs and exotic places throughout the globe that served largely to comment upon the similarities and connections between humans all over. Some scenes were captured on-the-fly, and others were carefully staged. It was a big hit, spawning countless rip-offs (many sporting the word ‘Mondo’ prominently in the title, hence the name of the genre), scores of ‘documentaries’ packed with fakery, most of them not nearly as artistically inclined. They were shock shows masquerading as education. Perfect exploitation.
Jacopetti and Prosperi strove onward too, eventually getting into trouble with 1966’s Africa Addio, an examination of violence in that strife-sundered continent. The filmmakers were eventually accused of setting up live executions strictly for their cameras; nothing came of it, but Deodato explicitly cites the incident once the Professor returns to New York, and views portions of the dead documentary team’s prior film, ‘The Last Road to Hell,’ an Africa-set symphony of shootings and death. The Professor is told parts were staged. The film we see is composed of authentic-looking execution scenes, likely culled from news footage. After the jungle jaunt of the first half of the film, this is quite jarring, but it’s only the first of this film’s nasty tricks.
Much of the reminder of the runtime is taken up examining the dead crew’s footage. It’s faded, scratchy, shaky, and the lost-among-the-trees aesthetic has prompted more than one commentator to make comparisons with The Blair Witch Project (especially since the famous Blair Witch stick totems bear a suspicious resemblance to the tattoos worn by various natives in this film), though the non-stop mugging and identity-bending ’performances’ of the crew put me more in the mind of Grizzly Man. The crew’s journey is essentially a parallel to what we’ve seen in the first half of the film, but it’s meaner, rawer, not only in a cinematic sense (though the whole 'devolved visual quality' aspect of the proceedings makes for a nice comment of its own) but in the actions taken by the crew. They also have a guide, but he’s less prepared, and he’s bitten by a snake, and his leg needs to come off, to no avail (contrast this with the poison dart fearlessness of the Professor’s own guide). They also kill an animal, the tortoise, but Deodato keeps the focus on the writhing animal for a monstrously long time, absolutely soaking in the cruelty. Kerman has pegged Deodato as a sadist (link probably not safe for work), and seeing as he’s the one in charge of this sequence of evil filmmakers making merry of a creature’s suffering, one can only wonder what’s next.
The filmmakers here love to shoot everything (and it should be said that Deodato plays fair in these scenes - everything is set up so that one character is always 'behind the camera' to shoot the others); they’re in love with fame and becoming rich. They burn down a native village to simulate an attack by a rival tribe, trapping people in their huts (“It’s just like Cambodia!” someone comments from off-screen, in case we didn’t get it). The racism of the situation, which might have been perceptible throughout the entire film, now becomes crystal clear, with natives called ‘monkey.’ The film becomes openly satirical - the crew is shooting two of their member having sex, then the camera pulls back to reveal that they’re fucking atop the ashes of a burned-down hut, various natives watching agog in the background. They rape a woman, provoking a camera-friendly tribal retribution, the narrating crewmember unable to contain his glee at the graphic footage.
And at this point, I was flashing back to the adulterous retribution sequence in the movie’s first half, and wondering what the hell Deodato is trying to say. Ditto with a scene in which the Professor stops the film to make a little speech on the immorality of needless animal killing (!!!). It honestly seems that the film is (forgive me) devouring itself, criticizing not just violent media and cruel filmmakers, but itself, specifically. Indeed, one can see the grimy visual style of this second half as a direct response to the relative visual splendor of the film’s first half, a denial of what makes this sort of film attractive. The violence is interesting too; the gore in the first half of the film is goopy and bright red, as expected from a film of this type. The violence in the second half is frantic, obscured, with too many tight shots (those wicked filmmakers all too eager to lap up every drop), everything glimpsed through trees, flashes of red amidst the greens. Naturally, the filmmakers capture one another’s deaths, so caught up in the action they are, as the natives exact their inevitable revenge. There is no mind-blowing concluding gore scene as films of this type often have. All is cruel and brutish, and it seems that Deodato is largely attempting to simulate the barely-caught violence of the news. But really, structurally, it’s as if he’s rejecting the gloss (if you can call it that) of typical genre tropes, material this very film incorporates, replacing it with a different brand of truer killing. A type of killing then decried.
It’s weird, self-flagellating material. The mind turns back to the animals. We have one killing in the film’s first half, a killing for ‘food,’ that’s really a killing for our entertainment. We have a second killing for food in the second half of the film, a grosser, more vicious one. Then we have a native killing for food, and finally a killing for killing’s sake. But all of them are really for us, we never forget that. The director - he doesn’t forget it too. The film rejects itself, and rejects its maker, and works double-time to repel its audience, to shame them for their titillation. It’s like a higher state of exploitation, like it’s ascended beyond mortal filmic concern. The back of the box isn’t kidding when it calls it “cinematic nihilism.”
And it worked! It worked pretty well. The legends say that Cannibal Holocaust remains one of the top ten highest grossing films on Japanese box office record. It’s been whispered about by fans for years. It’s been banned everywhere. It’s been seen everywhere.
It’s not for people who don’t like animals being hurt (fascinatingly, the new R1 release offers an optional censored version of the film with all of the animal cruelty edited out - as one message board wag remarked, "Now I can finally show it to the kids!"). It’s probably not for those who aren’t ready for the expected weak dubbing and over-the-top performances inherent to Euro-cult cinema (although Kerman is really quite good). Maybe it’s not really for anyone other than experienced exploitation fans, ready to stare down the ultimate in hypocritical damn-this-planet horror thrills.
At the end of the film, the Professor walks out onto the street, wondering via voiceover who the real cannibals are.
But every voice in the film is Deodato’s, in a way. I am reminded of Last Cannibal World, the director's prior cannibal film. The hero emerges from the jungle, but he's a native now. He's eaten the flesh. He's not himself. He is part of everything that disgusted him now.
"I wonder who the real cannibals are?"
Ruggero Deodato is talking to himself.