EDITOR’S NOTE: As you probably should have gathered by now, this is an article about a film called Cannibal Holocaust. Subsequently, subject matter will be discussed which will probably make you feel bad about the world, and all links should be clicked with caution, particularly if you’re in your place of work. To soften the blow, all images within the article itself have been replaced by stills of beloved character actor Don Knotts.
Like many horror fans, I have a complicated relationship with Cannibal Holocaust. I’ve seen it, of course— you have to, if you’re a serious student of the genre. I own it, too, although I rarely feel the urge to throw it on. Occasionally at parties – admittedly, probably more often than most folks – I’ll find myself talking about it, and a friend will express that they’d kind of like to see it for themselves. I’ll laugh, and demur that, no, they really probably don’t. Owning Cannibal Holocaust is a little like being a responsible gun owner: I hope to never watch it again, but I keep it in case I ever have to.
Cannibal Holocaust is preceded by a reputation that any other film would have trouble living up to. Inspired by the rumors of so-called “snuff films” that popped up in the wake of the Manson trials, Italian filmmaker Ruggero Deodato adopted a canny angle for his new horror film. Shooting secretively in South America, the director created a faux-documentary framework, and swore his mostly unknown cast to a year of press silence. His scheme worked perhaps too well: upon his return to Italy, Deodato’s footage was seized, and the director was arrested on suspicion of murder. Deodato took the stand and, at great expense, flew assorted cast members from New York and Brazil to prove to a jury that they didn’t die on camera. Fortunately for Deodato, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and thrill seekers have made it a consistent seller (in markets where it has not been banned) for nearly forty years.
Make no mistake: Cannibal Holocaust is a thoroughly repellent film. Most egregious is its treatment of animals: over the course of the film, you will witness the actual murder and dismemberment of a coatimundi, a wild pig, a sea turtle (that poor, poor turtle), and a squirrel monkey— two monkeys, actually, as multiple takes were required to provide adequate coverage. This is on top of a constant atmosphere of racism, misogyny, brutality, and general ickiness. (To be fair, there is also a message against media sensationalism and the dangers of colonialism, but that’s a little tough to take seriously coming from CANNIBAL FUCKING HOLOCAUST). Here’s how ugly this film is: about halfway through, Deodato tosses in a reel of actual atrocity footage from various African war zones, and most reviewers don’t even find that worth mentioning. It is, in short, not pleasant.
And yet… and yet. And yet, for all its awfulness, Cannibal Holocaust has enough going for it that it’s tough to dismiss outright. For starters, there’s the score, a genuinely lovely suite of strings and analog synths composed by Italian soundtrack legend Riz Ortolani. Incidentally, Ortolani’s best-known work – the timeless pop ballad “More” – was originally written for another infamous Italian shockfest: the trendsetting pseudo-doc Mondo Cane. According to legend, Ortolani was so put off by having that film’s title grafted onto his signature tune that he swore off genre pictures altogether, only to be drawn back by a gushing fan letter from Deodato himself. Whatever the case, the good people at Mondo Records gave the soundtrack its first official vinyl release last year, which is a godsend for fans (like myself) who would like to hear the score without having to sit through the film itself. (You can go ahead and watch the clip below – it’s safe for work, and oddly relaxing).
As for the movie, I will say this: of the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of horror films I’ve seen in my lifetime, I can’t think of a single one to get as far under my skin as this one, and for a film like Cannibal Holocaust, that can scarcely qualify as a demerit. I’ve spent quite a lot of time pondering this matter, and the conclusion I’ve come to is this: despite the ensuing tidal wave of found footage horror movies, Cannibal Holocaust may be the only one to really, honestly succeed in blurring the line between fantasy and fiction. I knew the basics going in – the contract, the trial, the bicycle seat that poor actress had to sit on with a pole in her mouth – but I couldn’t say with absolute certainty that, say, Deodato and his crew didn’t actually burn down a native village (they didn’t; the village was a set, and the “natives” mostly drove in from the neighboring city). Plenty of films are scary, but Cannibal Holocaust actually feels legitimately dangerous.
And here’s the gutpunch: the reason why Cannibal Holocaust succeeds on this level is precisely the reason it cannot in good conscience be recommended. By killing real animals onscreen, Deodato’s crew prove that they’re fucking crazy, and make you wonder what else they’re willing and able to do for a shock. It’s no wonder Green Inferno, Eli Roth’s misbegotten homage from last year, failed to land. Like Tod Browning’s Freaks, no contemporary Hollywood film will ever be able to top Cannibal Holocaust at its own game, because none are willing to commit to its rules – and because its game is insane, dangerous, and rightly illegal in most of the civilized world.
So anyway. Cannibal Holocaust screens tonight at the Coolidge, as part of their back-to-school Midnight Essentials series. If you haven’t seen it, and are absolutely sure you know what you’re getting into – or if you have, and are enough of a lunatic to want to see it again – you should probably check it out. I may not be able to give it a full-throated endorsement (so to speak), but I also can’t condemn it as strongly as I feel I should. Love it, hate it, or tolerate it, Cannibal Holocaust is the all-time champ at what it is. God help us.
dir. Ruggero Deodato
Screens Friday, 9/16 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre– midnight!!