Cannibal Holocaust: Movie Review

Cannibal Holocaust
by Emir Husain

Cannibal Holocaust is a controversial yet influential 1980 grindhouse film, for which director Ruggero Deodato was briefly arrested in Italy on suspicion of actors actually being murdered for camera (later disproved). What better publicity for an exploitation flick about--wait for it--sensationalism in documentaries and the news?

At all events, the work of fiction, shot largely in cinema verité, is the trailblazer among the roughly fifty and counting “found footage” yarns, predating Blair Witch by nearly two decades. For that and more, it is an important film.

Be warned, however--for more than its name, CH is shockingly offensive and embarrassingly hokey.

As for the latter quality, aside from poor acting in places (especially non-”found” segments, ironically), much of the movie’s making and premise prove sufficiently campy:

1. Filming in the midst of the Amazon jungle, with real, friendly neighborhood natives playing--guess what--cannibals, basically.

2. Casting both Americans and Italians as a team of four sensationalist, globe-trotting Yankee "documentarians" in headlong pursuit.

3. Featuring porn veteran Robert Kerman as a morally unambiguous American anthropologist searching for ‘em after their subsequent disappearance (whereupon we discover, via their recovered film, their self-recorded destinies, naturally).

Particularly hilarious is the portrayal of the gibbering, grunting “savages” with a taste for long pig, carried as it is to ridiculously stereotypical extremes--yet not racist, given the overall anti-imperialistic narrative (although conflating the man-eaters with names of real Brazilian tribes does seem irresponsible).

But again, true to title, CH is transgressive, dishing up generous helpings of not just cannibalism, but graphic sexual violence and genuine animal slayings. These aren’t meant as assaults for the hell of it, one could argue, but to convey the story, however heavy-handed or clumsy the attempt, however dirty or diminished you’re left feeling.

Further to such view, counterpoints to the horrific imagery include
subtle symbolism and the main theme song, a brilliant, hauntingly
beautiful orchestral score by Riz Ortolani (although incredibly lovely
soundtracks to Italian horror classics, “giallo” thrillers and
exploitation films are common, oddly).

In any case, CH is found “boring” by *some* modern horror fans, jaded
by today’s torture porn and faux snuff, perhaps, to say nothing of the
real thing. In connection with the last, besides animal killings, the
movie does contain brief stock shots of actual Third World executions
and carnage, suggested in the film-about-a-film as merely “staged”
shots of the documentary-making protagonists--until the raw, unedited
Amazon footage betrays their forthright creativity for capturing
bloodshed, from soup to nuts, cannibal or no.

Also damning is the celluloid self-chronicling of their misdeeds for
its own sake, (à la Abu Ghraib, perhaps), not any public. In fact,
rather than *simply* propitiating the media god for riches and fame,
they film everything in their lives, from fun and games to
life-and-death matters, as if to subsume all existence to its gaze.

Such theme might be obscured in the ending, when the recovered footage
and broadcasters making their own hay of it leave the anthropologist
wondering “who the real cannibals are.” But it is all too real and
familiar today, therefore making CH strangely prescient.

My final thoughts regarding the animal killings: unfortunately,
they’re par for the course in Italian cannibal films (yeah, a genre),
but in this instance, at least, an absolution voiced is that the slain
animals were eaten by the natives. Most meat-eaters, myself included,
thus hold no ethical ground on the issue, save for two or three
unconscionable scenes. Infamous is the slow killing of a “muskrat”
(coatimundi, actually) by a knife pierced several times into its neck,
including at least one twist of the blade. The other example of such
sadism--albeit critically overlooked, usually--is the kicking of a pig
twice before it’s shot. As for the nauseating dress out of a giant
turtle, its head, legs, and organs still moving after decapitation,
species endangerment might be of concern.

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