“I wonder who the real cannibals are…”
There have been many releases of Cannibal Holocaust through the years, on various formats, but this release, from Grindhouse Releasing in the United States, is, from what I’ve seen, the best yet, and features 3 discs, here, I’ll be looking at what is on those discs, and reviewing the film. Now, this isn’t an easy task. Cannibal Holocaust has been spoken about, reviewed and studied by a vast number of people in the last 34 years with great amounts of research done into the making of the film and the events that followed its release. While I might not go into as much detail as some, I will still do my best to give my thoughts on the film and this specific set. This will only be my second time with the film, and the first time I will have seen it in over ten years. So, here goes…
Directed by Italian film-maker Ruggero Deodato (Phantom of Death, House on the Edge of the Park), with a story and screenplay penned by Gianfranco Clerici (The New York Ripper), Cannibal Holocaust is arguably the most controversial “horror” film ever made, a film that has divided audiences and become a true cult classic in the three and a half decades of its existence, an existence that has featured a phenomenal amount of press and discussion. When the topic of “extreme cinema” or heavy horror films has come up, I am never surprised to hear the mention of this film made, with many people still, to this day, finding the realism, the gore, and the scenes of torture, involving both humans and animals, to be disturbing. It isn’t a shock that the film is spoken of in such a way either, the fact that some ten days following its initial premiere in Milan, it was seized by the Italian court and Deodato was charged with obscenity. It is said that he even faced prison-time at one point and there were even people that thought that actors had actually been killed in the making of the film, and said actors had to appear before a court to prove that their director hadn’t committed murder. This, today, or on any day in fact, sounds incredibly dramatic and far-fetched, but it just goes to show how authentic and effective the film was, and still is, and how it caused such a monumental stir among viewers, many of whom wrote it off as nothing more than detestable, damaging, and offensive sleaze.
Cannibal Holocaust starts with a disclaimer regarding the nature of the film and its scenes of brutality, warning us of what to expect within, well, they may as well begin as they mean to go on. The opening of the film, in New York City, shows a newsreader speaking about a group of documentary filmmakers who never came back from the Amazon following an expedition. We see faux-documentary footage of the four adventurers setting out on their mission and laughing, jovially, claiming that they will be back, unscathed. We then quickly find ourselves in the jungle, witnessing a tribe, crouched and sinking their teeth into some mystery meat while a group of soldiers look on. This scene, a mere five minutes into the movie, sees the soldiers open fire on the tribe, shooting many of them dead.
Anthropology professor, Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), heads into the forest to lead a search team to look for the missing four documentarians. His team consists of a hard-nosed and experienced guide, Chaco (Salvatore Basile) and his young assistant. They learn of the three local Amazonian tribes, Yakumo, Yanomano, and Shamitari, and witness various distressing rituals from each of them. It is just nineteen minutes into the film when the first animal cruelty scene occurs, a muskrat being cut open by a knife. It is upsetting and awful to see, and one can understand the reasons it caused, and still causes, such vehement criticism. It is then only a couple of minutes until we then see a woman suffer a torturous ordeal beside a river, before being bludgeoned to death as part of some “divine” ritual of survival from a member of a tribe. The film, within only a few minutes, shows its unyielding nature, and doesn’t stop until the credits roll.
When they manage to achieve a level of trust with the Yanomano tribe, Monroe and his two co-travellers find out that the documentarian group has been killed. When Monroe instigates a trade to obtain footage that was captured by the documentarians, we discover that our initial judgement on who the true savages are was skewed, and we see that the documentarians themselves had tortured and persecuted the primitive tribal members that they came into contact with. The repercussions to this all leads to an unequivocally wild and ruthless climax that features some cult-iconic-film imagery that took the word “gore” to a whole new level. It is a very effective end to the film, especially in the sense of how severe and ferocious it is, and it remains one of the most vicious conclusions in horror history.
The film is shot in a very abnormal manner. With part documentary style, some of it feeling like natural history programming and authentic news footage with us being right in the middle of the, for lack of a better word, action, and the other part of it in a more traditional and linear way, with us watching the events in the jungle unfold. I liked the mix of directional choices, and it brought about a more realistic essence to the experience. It is relentless in its execution, refusing to let you truly take a breath, and that is another thing that sets it apart from other cannibal films. It doesn’t spend 90% of its time building to something, it is constantly bashing you in the face with visceral images. That, along with a subtle social commentary from Deodato regarding judgement of racial differences turning to hate, and possible violence, also gives the film much more of a reason for being. It isn’t just a series of unnecessary splatter-gore scenes for the sake of it, there is a reason, and that makes a big difference.
It’s hard to say whether or not this film would have been effective without the scenes of animal cruelty. I was repulsed by the scenes and found no enjoyment in watching them, but at the same time it’s obvious that they existed to show the feral and wild nature of the animalistic tribes, and how desperation occurred inside the jungle. Still, that doesn’t make them any easier to stomach, and on a personal level I would have preferred some sort of practical special effects to have been used instead. The animal killing scenes really weren’t needed, and they go too far however you look at it, and regardless of whether you like the film or not. Still, the controversy is part of the reason that the film is still being spoken of after so many years and in so many areas, and in that sense, much of the “success” and longevity of Cannibal Holocaust is surely partly due to these scenes, and the scenes of cannibalism that still look very good, and very alarming.
The cinematography of the film, from Sergio D’Offizi (Don’t Torture a Duckling) is one of its strong points, in my view, and though all these years later some of the acting is a bit on the corny side, the way the film is shot remains one of the best parts of the experience. Along with good writing, and strong direction from Deodato, it is an accomplished piece of work, a fact that is so often overshadowed by the moments that viewers often put most of the focus on, unable to see what is beneath the blood, guts and screams. I feel like there is much more to the film that it’s given credit for by many.
To say that this is an effective horror film would be an understatement. It is startlingly grotesque, at times, and sickening in many ways. It isn’t scary in the “jumping out of your skin” sense, nor is it a film that has any real strong sense of tension going on, but the constant possibility, and regular occurrence, of violence, the gore and the way that Monroe’s world, our world, differs with that of the jungle, offers some truly horrific images, and scenes that remain very difficult to watch. It’s not irregular that I watch a so-called “controversial” horror film and find that it has dated to the point of looking silly, or cheap, and just isn’t shocking anymore. It happens a lot. Cannibal Holocaust isn’t one of those movies, far from it, it is still shocking and I’m almost sure that it always will be. It isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure, and many people will be put off before even contemplating watching it due to the obvious themes and scenes that follow it around, but it is a fantastic horror film. Uncompromisingly fierce, unsettling and depressing, it is, simply put, the very best cannibal film ever made, and one of the most shocking films I’ve ever sat through. If repulsive horror is your bag, then look no further, though I’m sure you have probably already been made aware of this by now.
The release from Grindhouse Releasing features the original cut of the film and an animal-cruelty-free cut of the film, which offers those who were unable to watch the original cut a way to see the film, if they so choose, a good thing indeed. The new hi-definition transfer of the original director’s cut is wonderful. There is just enough original grain kept in, but the crystal clear picture and fantastic sound is just perfect. Some might say that a film like this is not supposed to be watched in such a clear way, but I didn’t find that it made the film any less effective.
There are also a number of very interesting, informative and entertaining special features on the set, including commentary tracks with Deodato, Robert Kerman, Carl Yorke and Francesca Ciardi, new interviews with Deodato and a variety of the cast and crew, as well as a bunch of classic interviews. There is also a great CD featuring the excellent score from Riz Ortolani. There’s a wonderful booklet included too, and the artwork on both the main case, and the slipcover, make for a wonderful looking package that is a must-own for fans of the film or those wanting an in depth introduction to one of the most infamous films in the horror genre. This is undoubtedly the premiere release of Cannibal Holocaust that I’ve come across.
Cannibal Holocaust is available on 3-Disc (2 Blu-ray/1 CD) from Grindhouse Releasing, now.