Movie Review: “Cannibal Holocaust”

  Cannibal Holocaust is a film I hadn’t had on the docket for Nightmare Shift. As you might have seen with my more recent reviews of A Serbian Film and The Golden Glove, I am not squeamish or apprehensive about offensive or controversial subject-matter, instead, I welcome it as an opportunity for conversation and analysis. All of it comes together to weave the tapestries of the horror genre and the storytelling artform. I always knew I would one day tackle Cannibal Holocaust, for certain, but it was a film I had kept off my queues in spite of that. Sometimes it can be difficult to write about a classic or influential film in a way that is both empathetic to the circumstance of its creation, and the ramifications, as well as being honest to its faults and shortcomings.

   There’re instances where I sometimes wish I could do away with the rating system altogether and merely talk about a film, unrestricted to say how I feel and not have it diminished or overshadowed by whatever final tally it all comes down to. I say that because, for certain, I went into Cannibal Holocaust with little expectation I would be met with a “good” film by any conventional metric. However, that does not mean I am not aware of the influence it has had on the genre itself and some of the unique traits about the film.

   I last watched Cannibal Holocaust way back when in grainy quality on YouTube, but am now thankful to watch the film in a far better state on the Shudder streaming service. The 1980‘s Italian (a first on Readers Digested, – this month also saw our first German, Serbian, and French reviews) cannibal film was directed by Ruggero Deodato and written by Gianfranco Clerici. The cast comprises itself of Robert KermanCarl Gabriel YorkeFrancesca CiardiPerry Piranen, and Luca Barbareschi.

   As many of you are likely already aware, Cannibal Holocaust is responsible for innovating the found footage genre, a medium which was later popularized with the Blair Witch Project, and is still commonplace in modern cinema. The graphic violence was very controversial, and was, both hilariously and horribly, responsible for the director being charged with multiple counts of murder due to rumors that several of the actors were actually killed on camera. Perhaps even more interestingly than the film itself, I’d actually recommend checking out some of the unique, creative ways certain deaths were enacted and constructed. While the violence against humankind is undoubtedly staged, the same can not be said about the animal cruelty.

   In Cannibal Holocaust, animal deaths are depicted for the purpose of the film’s production. In one scene, a money is brutally killed. Worse still, evidently something went wrong in the first attempt, and it had to be filmed a second time – twice the shots – twice the monkey’s killed.

   Likewise, a large turtle is killed for the sake of the production as well. In spite what I may say about the film hereafter and despite its influence, I can’t condone the mistreatment of an animal for art’s sake, and part of me is extending a middle-finger the rest of the way through. The director has since condemned his own action, saying he was stupid to have brought animals into it.

   I agree with him, and then some.

   And again, I can understand the mentality behind it. The idea of conditioning ones’ mind with a mishmash of fictionalized murder and real life snuff, blurring that line and making it difficult to distinguish which is which. I am simply not of the mind that animals should be treated as disposable props to decapitate and mutilate for the benefit of your film.

   In Cannibal Holocaust, a crew disappears while they are filming a documentary on local cannibal tribes. Which, in itself, you would think, seems like a red-flag of something not to do. A rescue team is sent to their aid, discovering only lost cans of film that effectively piece together what happened.

   Similar to more modern series’ like Hostel (directed by Eli Roth, who also went onto direct Green Inferno – named after this very film), and classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the horror of Cannibal Holocaust is derived from our own uncertainty. Born and raised in a small village in Illinois, I know it has occurred to me many times how unregulated and unsupervised the long spans of countryside are, and I would imagine that speaks doubly for many lands in Texas. Meanwhile, although I have no real reason to think Slovakia has a criminal enterprise, torturing individuals for sport, I know too little about the country in general to say for certain. That’s what it plays off of – our ignorance of what’s unknown.

   This might bother you. As may the unfortunate implications that come from how certain cultures and races are portrayed. As a film, the protagonists gawk at and cry foul toward the cruelties and misbehaviors that are performed. Meant to depict the barbarism and animalistic behavior of an indigenous tribe, the film in itself depicts its own actual cruelties, only compounded by what happened behind the curtain.

   Actors vomiting off camera at the death of a squirrel monkey, or botching lines because of emotional distress. Of a woman not wanting to bare her breasts in a sex scene, then, being led off set and screamed at by the director. Directors who mistreat their actors, be it in a circumstance like this, or a Kubrick scenario where they’re “trying to bring out a great performance” are not committed artists, but are, in fact, bad people.

   As a film, and because this is, ultimately, a film review, – the imagery is visceral, violent, mean-spirited, and memorable. The acting of our main characters often betrays the harrowing realism portrayed, but is benefited by the found-footage format. Plainly put, when a film is found-footage, it comes with a built-in excuse to justify a dodgy performance. Say they’re not actors and thereby, it makes sense that it would feel like they are portraying the version of themselves they want to have seen on camera. I do believe the acting delivers when it matters most, which is in the homestretch.

   The storyline is unruly and unrefined, but, that in itself, benefits the surrealist chaos the film intends to convey. On the other hand, given the weightiness of its subject matter, the sheer lack of discipline and inability to dial back itself makes it difficult to speak well on its own gratuity.

   The subject matter is engaging, toying with the idea that we ourselves are little different than the cannibals on-screen. During the film, there is a back and fourth between the found footage and individuals interpreting the footage, and I feel like the latter works to its detriment. Simply put, the dialogue is too on-the-nose and plot-serving, whereas the actual archived footage illustrates the same point with less exposition or explanation. By the end, I found myself seeing what I thought were sparks of real inspiration, a sum of all parts that wraps in satisfying fashion. Unfortunately, I feel like the film itself lacks the discipline, characterizations, and performances to establish that human connection, making it harder to justify the descent into psychoticism.

   As a film, Cannibal Holocaust is grotesque and ugly, depicting a high amount of violence and bloodshed, as well as rape and, again, real life animal cruelty, however, it does have more on its mind than that. I can’t say I was enthralled by either the characters nor the story itself, more often taken by the realism of the violence and the ideology behind what was happening as it happened, and so, I would not recommend the film to the average horror fan. For those who have read this and think they might be interested, be my guest (there’re versions with the animal slayings removed as well).

   The overall film does not add up to much as a film, but, through the effects and the final scenes, it is remembered for a reason.

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