Cannibal Holocaust

September 29th, 2011

A crew of young documentary filmmakers venture into a part of the Amazon jungle known as ‘The Green Inferno’, to obtain candid images of the indigenous, cannibalistic tribes. They never return and an anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) heads a rescue party to find them. He recovers their film reels from the feared Yanomamo tribe and brings them back to New York City, where the footage is developed by a television company. The shocking images reveal the reasons for their deaths, raising questions not only about the ethics of the tribes, but also about their ethics as filmmakers.

Cannibal Holocaust’s reputation precedes it, often cited as “the most controversial film ever made”. The stuff of horror movie legend, fans will often note how director Ruggero Deodato was arrested after the film’s Italian premier, the courts believing it to be an actual snuff film. Quickly censored and banned in many countries because of its animal slaughters and depictions of sexual violence, it still remains difficult to see Cannibal Holocaust uncut, as it was originally intended.

Deodato’s 2011 edit attempts to tackle one of its most overtly contentious aspects: the animal cruelty. The human violence has been revealed to be staged, but no excuses can be made for the killing of various animals; including a coatimundi, a turtle, a spider, a snake, a squirrel monkey and a pig. Completionists will contend that the director is bastardising his own masterpiece (it is fashionable to argue for the most complete cut of a film) but the scenes remain as affecting as they have ever been. The killing of the turtle is the most notably doctored, Deodato resorting to the Grindhouse method of adding false blemishes, hiding the gore behind a tapestry of scratches and colour damage. It is an irritating amendment which feels forced (why is there no damage of this ilk to any other, less significant scenes?) but certainly less nauseating. It is a rather futile attempt on the director’s behalf at demonstrating animal compassion through a film which has six animals killed on screen. As it happens, these killings, however abhorrent, did happen and are ingrained in the mythology of the film’s production. The blu ray also provides a version with the scenes intact (minus the killing of the coatimundi).

The high-definition transfer looks glorious, the quintessential ‘video nasty’ having spent a large portion of its life circulating as a bad transfer on VHS. A commendable effort has been made to restore the film, revealing of how well produced Cannibal Holocaust actually is. Arguably the first in a slew of ‘found footage’ films, the horror comes from the suggestion that the images you see are ‘real’. Today’s post-Blair Witch spectator is unlikely to believe that they are watching genuine footage, but Deodato captures the violence with such documentary authenticity and realism (influenced by his mentor, Italian neo-realist Roberto Rossellini) that it is among the most disturbing ever captured on celluloid. He toys with our perception of the ‘real’ by juxtaposing very realistic staged violence with truly real violence against animals. Whilst these aspects make for an effective, horrific experience they also force you to question your role as the moral spectator.

Like Haneke’s Funny Games, this is a work of social/media-commentary. The final line of dialogue may drive the point home like a punch in the face, but the narrative poses questions regarding the ethics of filmmaking throughout. Inspired by the Italian ‘mondo’ films – exploitative documentaries which depicted sensational material for the purposes of shock and titillation – the filmmakers are presented as deceitful, cruel individuals who have no intention of representing the world as it truly is. The actions of the tribes-people are borne out of ancient custom which modern man may fail to comprehend, whilst the actions of the filmmakers are exploitative and inexcusable. The way that they act towards the tribes makes their grisly fate inevitable. Some claim that the director is attempting to have his cake and eat it (filled with entrails presumably) by offering sensationalism whilst also providing commentary on it. However, since this is such an unpleasant experience (one that I would happily never have again) and the violence so unromanticised, I find it problematic to argue such a case.

In a documentary included on the disk, Kim Newman notes how the tendency to describe the film purely in terms of the gory scenarios (common practice for many ‘video nasties’) misconstrues it entirely. From the unlikely opening, a helicopter shot of the Amazon rainforest set to Riz Ortolani’s unforgettably gentle theme, Cannibal Holocaust is never quite what you expect it to be. It doesn’t feel like a horror film, so much as an incredibly hard-hitting drama, and an indictment of a cannibalistic media. Like The Life of Brian, Apocalypse Now or Blade Runner, it will always be remembered, not only as a work of cinema, but as an event which had a profound effect on modern culture.

Words>Andy Wilson

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