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July 03, 2014

Cannibal Holocaust

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Ruggero Deodato - 1980
Grindhouse Releasing BD Regions ABC

What is striking about Cannibal Holocaust is how the film as taken a life of its own almost thirty-five years after it was produced. Much of the film's reputation is based on its reputation, the reports of the various times the film was banned for its depiction of violence. The after-life of Cannibal Holocaust is much like the film itself, where fact and fiction, outrage and ambivalence all seem to blur together. One of the pull-quotes is from Tim Lucas describing Cannibal Holocaust as the Citizen Kane of cannibal movies. This might not have been the intent of Lucas, but both films share somewhat similar trajectories with the character piecing together a mystery, trying to discern fact from legend.

I may be putting more into this film than Deodato may have intended, but there is, at least for myself, more here that the surface shock that has made the film a cult item for gore hounds. I am proceeding with the assumption that more readers have a general idea of the story, which is essentially in two parts - an anthropology professor goes to the Amazon to find out what happened to a quartet of young filmmakers who went searching for "lost" aboriginal tribes. The filmmakers have been discovered dead, but their film stock has been saved, and viewed by the professor. Cannibal Holocaut has since its initial release been considered the progenitor of the "found footage" horror genre.

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And it is the scene when Professor Monroe discovers the hanging film cans decorating part of a tribal village that I decided that Cannibal Holocaust is, in its own very idiosyncratic way, a film about the acts of making and watching movies. There is some kind of magic that the tribal people attributed to those cans of film, and to revisit a beloved cliche, movies are magical. Also, keeping in mind that much of the film is fake documentary that many people thought was actual footage, there should be consideration that there are audience members who put their trust in what they see on the screen, whether it is something that looks like it was videotaped in the woods of Maryland (The Blair Witch Project, or supposedly based on a true story (Fargo). Never mind that in real life, tribal people unfamiliar with films or how they are made would have probably taken that last roll out of the camera and left it exposed to the sun, heat and moisture, or that there are moments when you see the four film crew members in a single shot, making the more observant wonder: who's operating the camera? Deodata further confuses things by using documentary footage of actual atrocities filmed primarily in Africa and Southeast Asia. The film explores the various notions about the power of the image, and the investment the audience has on believing what they are seeing.

When the footage of the young explorers is viewed, Cannibal Holocaust takes a self-reflexive turn. There is discussion as to whether the footage should even be made available for public viewing. The depiction of sex and nudity simultaneously straddles the divide between exploitation and a critique of exploitation, especially when the lone female of the quartet questions what is being filmed. I am deliberately trying to avoid spoilers for those who have yet to plunge into what is frequently referred to as "the green inferno".

And again, without giving a key moment away, I would like to think that Cannibal Holocaust is a critique of the sense of privilege that those of the industrialized world have in a so-called "Stone Age" environment, especially the sense of of white male entitlement. It may not have been consciously intended by Deodato but the scene I am referring to made me think of American soldiers in Vietnam. The scene is anticipated by an earlier scene of local soldiers shooting a group of natives, powerful rifles versus blow darts. That Cannibal Holocaust has the ability to be provocative in this way is what elevates it above other films in this genre. I had put off seeing earlier versions of Cannibal Holocaust with a certain amount of dread, not interested in blood, guts and gore for their own sake.

In addition to the original release version of the film, there is also a version without scenes of animal cruelty, commentary tracks by Deodato and three of the actors, and scads of interviews. Deodato fans Eli Roth and Chas Balun have contributed to the liner notes in an accompanying booklet. While the film will always be the subject of controversy, there is almost universal agreement on the beauty of Riz Ortolani's score, which is available on a separate CD.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 3, 2014 07:46 PM