Wot's all this, then? A brief, NASTY overview
Cannibal Holocaust is particularly infamous for its scenes of real animal slaughter, so you may wonder why someone like me would even bother watching it. I watched it because of my interest in horror and exploitation cinema, of which this is one of the most notorious and controversial films: this one movie made a huge impact, for better and worse, on the history of horror in Europe and elsewhere, so I felt in a way duty-bound to come to terms with it. It is, after all, a well-made, original and thought-provoking film, even though it contains elements that I find totally indefensible. Nevertheless, I approached it with great reluctance because of what I'd heard it contained.
That reluctance would probably have been enough to stop me if I'd known in greater detail what the nature of the movie's animal violence really was. As it happened, I knew only that certain graphic scenes were included in the uncut version. I also knew that director Ruggero Deodato had insisted for years that all the animals killed in the film were subsequently eaten by his native extras — in other words, that these were animals intended for slaughter anyway, so the cruelty was somehow more excusable. Well, now... it's not that Deodato's excuses alone would have convinced me that the carnage was justified; not at all. But not knowing exactly what was in those scenes, I came to Cannibal Holocaustwith the impression that the animal violence in the film was primarily footage of the Indios killing their food.
And how would this make a difference? I can probably explain by referring to another film, one which is less known and consequently has less emotion attached to it. There's a dreadful Chinese horror film from the 1980's distributed under the unlikely name Succubare. It's one of the worst and least enjoyable films I've ever endured — to me, much more unpleasant than Cannibal Holocaust — and one that well deserves its obscurity. In one scene, the populace of a remote Chinese village gets together for a celebration, and in preparation for the event they slaughter an ox. The camera records every detail of the gruesome butchery. Watching this scene, I was not particularly offended by the act itself, which was done quickly and with the tremendous skill borne of long practice. These were simply genuine Chinese villagers preparing their food according to custom. But I was offended by the camera's leering over the carnage, in an attempt to nauseate the audience.
However, scattered through the same film were some incidents, totally unrelated to the plot, involving a real Chinese geek. He'd pop up at random points in the film, without preparation or explanation, to tear up a real, living animal with his teeth. He worked his way through snakes, lizards, and eventually a mouse. There was no reason and no excuse for these scenes to be included, and as sickened as I was by the earlier horrors, I was so appalled by the mouse scene that I had to stop watching and leave the room. In this case, I was equally offended by what was being done as by the film-makers' decision to include it.
I went into Cannibal Holocaust thinking the violence was more along the lines of the former example than the latter. It isn't.
To be fair to Deodato, he has recently stated he now regrets ever having shot that terrible footage. I'm not so sure I believe him. I think of the years of rationalizations he's put out in interviews and statements, and I wonder if he regrets his decision because he knows he did the wrong thing... or because the scenes have caused so many problems for him — more problems, perhaps, than even the simulated human violence has caused him.
Now, I can almost understand how the idea of putting some graphic animal slaughter in the movie might have seemed like a good thing to do on paper, when the movie was in the scripting stage. Theoretically, it would shock the audience into suspending their disbelief that the rest of the violence they were seeing was fake. But I believe it takes a certain sort of person to actually get through filming such a sequence... and then go on to film another... and then film another... and contemplate still more... and then, let the footage go through the editing process without comment; and then, at last, release the film to the world, animal violence and all, as the personal statement it was clearly meant to be. Those are the actions of someone who does not believe that what he's doing is wrong. I also think that if it's taken Deodato a quarter-century to acknowledge he overstepped himself, as apparently he has now, it confirms me in my suspicions.
Recently, a new DVD edition of Cannibal Holocaust has been released, and it includes the option to watch the movie without the animal footage. When I heard this, I was at first a little relieved. It seemed, at first glance, to clear up one of the biggest moral quandaries still surrounding the film. But then my sterner self took over. Even this sort of self-censorship doesn't really seem to me to solve anything. If you really want to see Cannibal Holocaust, it seems to me you have to see it as Deodato intended it to be seen. Unless you've seen the full movie, including those horrible sequences I consider to be Deodato's huge mistake, you really haven't seen Cannibal Holocaust; and, in fact, if you can't tolerate the thought of seeing the movie all the way through uncut, you probably shouldn't watch it at all.
There are plenty of other things to be alarmed about in Cannibal Holocaust aside from the animal killings. There are shootings, stabbings, slicings, maimings, and (of course) devourings, to illustrate only a few of the options on display. That should be enough to turn a large portion of the population of "normal" people away from the film. There are also several savage rape scenes. But these things are not the real source of the controversy over Cannibal Holocaust, because if a movie consisted simply of a catalogue of atrocities it wouldn't really be controversial at all. It would merely be sickening. There are such films, and they have the admiration of a small but vocal clique that likes to wallow in that kind of stuff (some might insist that one of my favorites, Lucio Fulci's spectacularly disgusting City of the Living Dead, fits into this category; if that's what you think, you really have no idea how much further into the depths a film can sink)... but few of these forgettable films have generated such intense argument, over so many years, as Deodato's film has. The reason is that Cannibal Holocaust, in spite of its horrors, is one of the canniest, most intelligently-made exploitation films of all time; and its obvious sincerity and technical competence make it very difficult to dismiss as just a "Video Nasty".
But... of course... it was dismissed as a Video Nasty. In fact it might be called THE Video Nasty, the sort of film that's a censor's blood-red wet dream. The existence of that highly-questionable list of "threats to the public morals" does nothing to help sort out the controversy over Deodato's film itself. Cannibal Holocaust is sometimes used as a justification for Britain's buffoonish exercise in censorship — of course they were within their rights, the argument goes; Cannibal Holocaust was one of the movies they banned. There's some sort of circular reasoning going on here that makes my head hurt, so I'm not even going to consider whether or not Cannibal Holocaust belonged on the Nasties list, or whether there should even have been a Nasties list in the first place. These are distractions; they are by no means the real issues confronting us when we talk about Deodato's film.
For all its excesses, the movie is structured absolutely brilliantly. It's separated into three distinct sections, each with its own distinctive style and approach. The framing story takes place in New York; initially it shows us a professor from Columbia University preparing to journey into the Amazon jungle to search for an American film-maker named Alan Yates. Yates, his three assistants and an interpreter went into the jungles to make a documentary on the people of the forests, but were never seen again.
The sequences in New York are haunted by the presence of the media. We're given the basic facts of the back-story in the form of a TV news show, and we're introduced to the key characters of the film through their appearances in the news program. Later on, almost every shot in the New York framing story is full of reminders of the presence of the media in everyday life. For example, the professor tries to fill in the story of Yates and his colleagues by talking to their friends and families, which he does accompanied by a film crew. Even a scene we would have taken for a private conversation takes on a completely different tone, because we've caught a glimpse of a boom mike swinging into place a few split-seconds before the scene begins.
The second major section of the film details the professor's adventures in Amazonia. This part of the movie is shot in a conventional third-person style; it seems like a mini-movie within the movie, and for the most part it succeeds as one of the best violent-adventure movies Italy ever produced. The professor has no experience among the peoples of the Amazon, but he uses his knowledge of other cultures and his basic understanding of human nature to gain the trust of the extremely suspicious natives. It turns out they have good reason to be suspicious of outsiders. There seems to have been something connected with the Yates party's visit that has left the local tribes in a state of deep disturbance.
During this part of the film, in contrast to other Italian gut-munch extravaganzas, the local tribes are treated with a good measure of respect by the script (there are exceptions to this, which I'll get to in a moment). Even though they are wary of the outsiders, and even though the professor and his guides would be no match for them if they decided to attack, the tribesmen treat the interlopers with scrupulous fairness. They test the foreigners' intentions, in part by testing their bravery and resolve; and when the professor and company pass those tests, they are allowed to come into the villages and see for themselves what's happened.
Yates and Co. have clearly been here, and left something like a superstitious dread in their wake. At the edge of a village stands a peculiar monument: a tower of human bones, interlaced with broken film equipment. The locals are terrified of it. It seems the only way to get to the heart of the matter is for the professor to go and meet the mysterious Tree People, of whom even the other Amazonian tribes speak in whispers.
The professor uses his wits and does indeed manage to gain the trust of the Tree People, but before he can get what he wants — Yates's canisters of film, which are being used as some sort of talisman — there is one more test he must pass. He must share a meal of human flesh with the tribe elders. And here we have possibly the best metaphor anyone could have thought of for Deodato and his film. In order to bring back the message he needs to convey, in order to get his film back from the jungle, he needs to do something horrible; something that will change him; something that will forever separate him from other civilized men. And after he's done that terrible thing, and has a chance to see what his sacrifice has gained him, he'll be forced to wonder for the rest of his life if the sacrifice was worth it.
The third, most notorious section of the film unfolds mostly through the footage that Yates and his crew shot. The footage is intercut with more scenes in New York, as the professor tries to find out more about Yates and the others; we're also given the chance to see the professor, the technicians working on restoring Yates's footage, and Yates's financial backers, as they review what's left of the film. If the professor counted on his understanding of human nature to survive in a primitive wilderness, his confidence in that understanding is shaken forever by what he sees in the film.
His first misgivings obviously came when he saw what effects Yates's visit had left on the people of the forest. His misgivings deepen when he is shown a few minutes from an earlier Yates documentary called The Road to Hell. In these fragments, we see gruesome footage of actual atrocities, from executions in Africa to burnt bodies in Cambodia. One of the backers of Yates's project confesses to the professor that everything Yates shot for that documentary had been staged. The film crew arrived at a time during a lull in the fighting, so they'd somehow arranged for these scenes to be created especially for them. It seems that the backers believe that "staged" means "faked", but it's equally clear from the professor's expression that he thinks something different... something more sinister.
And he's right.
Yates's raw footage from his expedition reveals incredible horrors, and since it's all seen through the eyes of the first-person camera, the audience is invited along as accomplices. When Yates finds that Amazon life, for all its brutality, simply isn't extreme enough to satisfy the lusts of his audience, he decides to manufacture some brutality of his own... "just like Cambodia", as one of his crew says. For example, when he finds that a raid by an enemy tribe and a native abortion ritual (gruesome as they are) simply aren't savage enough, he herds together some villagers at gunpoint, puts them all in a single hut, and then sets fire to the hut... to simulate an attack. Simulate, yes; but with real casualties. Afterwards, Yates and his technician-girlfriend (unaware at first they are being filmed) have sex amid the burnt-out ruins, in full view of the surviving natives.
In another instance, Yates and his buddies run into a girl from another tribe — a "little monkey", they call her — and they proceed to take turns raping her. When the crew encounter the girl again, she has been killed by her tribe — a predictable gesture; it's not uncommon even in modern, "civilized", "Christian" countries for the victim to be punished as much as (or even more than) the perpetrator. In this case, the girl has been impaled on a spit and left by the river. Yates's expression when he sees what he's wrought defies description: he's actually aroused by this atrocity. His perverse excitement is so evident that the cameraman has to call out and remind him that he's filming... whereupon the director's expression changes to feigned concern and outrage.
So hellish and inhuman is the behavior of the Americans that eventually the natives decide they've had enough. The film-makers don't realize they've gone too far; "We're going to win an Oscar for this!" shouts one, as he films the Tree People approaching through the undergrowth. In a few moments, that man is on the ground with a spear through his body. Yates keeps filming as the Tree People take out a grisly, but somehow appropriate revenge... involving rape, mutilation and cannibalism.
Deodato's underlying message is strident, simplistic and more than a little hypocritical; yet the point he makes is a valid one. His main concern is that we can't trust the people we count on to provide us with information about the world we live in. Some have suggested Deodato is aiming his criticism at the kind of people who would either make or want to see a cannibal movie, but I don't think that's really true. His real targets are those who pretend to be relaying the plain facts to us, but who are in fact aiming only for sensation... and if they can't find appropriately sensational news for us, then they'll just have to make it themselves. And we, the audience who hunger for just that sort of sensation, are co-conspirators in the act. Even now, some quarter-century after the movie was made, it shouldn't take us long to find contemporary parallels in the worlds of entertainment, journalism and politics... three areas which have become even more intractably mixed in the years that followed.
But even though Deodato made the film seriously and sincerely, with all the tools and talent at his disposal, we have to bear in mind that Deodato's medium is commercial exploitation. It's a kind of film that he makes with amazing fluency. However, exploitation cinema has its limits. There are too many times in the film when Deodato's skill as an exploitation director stands in the way of getting his point across. Deodato seems aware of the conflict: he has one of the film technicians sheepishly admit he's added music to Yates's raw footage to "punch up" the horrors (and it's music by Riz Ortolani, who provided the music for Mondo Cane!). Sure, the music heightens the emotional impact of the scenes, but if a serious statement was intended, either by Deodato or by the technician in the movie, the footage should have been left to make its impressions on its own.
But nowhere is the debt to pure exploitation more apparent than in the movie's first rape sequence. It takes place in the second major portion of the film, when the professor is travelling into the jungles. He and his guides witness, but are unable to interfere in, the punishment of a woman accused of adultery. The woman is raped and mutilated with a stone phallus, and then beaten to death. On the scale of atrocities, it's no worse than many of the other things we see. But here, Deodato slips out of objectivity, and films the violation with the same near-pornographic leer that he used in a similar scene at the beginning of House on the Edge of the Park. Such an approach might have worked in the context of the found footage of the third part of the film, but here it's a distressing lapse.
And we also have to remember that the movie is not an exposé; it's not a re-creation of an actual event, or a portrait of any particular real documentary film-maker (notwithstanding allegations that Yates is meant to represent "Mondo" director Gualterio Jacopetti). I've known people I've suspected to be capable of the sorts of things Yates does; but this doesn't change the fact that Yates is pure fiction, a straw-man for Deodato's argument. Consider this aspect of the movie, and suddenly its stance as a serious statement seems very shaky indeed. So yes, the movie does manage to convey its message with the force and subtlety of a sledgehammer; but since the movie makes its point by being so overtly sensational on its own, it's very difficult to say whether it's really succeeded or not.
And while we're on the subject of the movie's questionable ability to serve as a serious statement, it's time to bring back the issue of animal cruelty. For several scenes, Deodato instructed his Italian actors not only to kill some of the South American wildlife, but to do it in such a repellent and sickening fashion that it makes the actions even more inhumane. Deodato is here every bit as guilty as his fictional Yates of committing real violence for its shock value.
Cannibal Holocaust is a film of real contradictions: some of its violence is unconscionable, yet it is far from being an amoral movie. At the same time, in spite of its aspirations, it's too deeply mired in its exploitation origins ever to be considered a "serious" film. One thing is certain, though: it's not the sort of film a healthy soul will watch for pure entertainment. This is the rare movie that actually has the potential to wound its audience. I can understand why Cannibal Holocaust, of all films, might inspire otherwise reasonable people to ban it.
Yet I have to admit: after long consideration, I find I do not agree with that ban. I do think that the movie should be kept as far as possible from children; and I think the sort of spectacular and misleading advertisement that helped lead to the Video Nasties ban — ads which gave the impression the movie was just another mindless, harmless, gormless gross-out flick — was dangerously irresponsible. But to ban it? Let me put it this way: I don't believe anyone could make a film like Cannibal Holocaust and emerge from the experience unscathed. Similarly — provided you are possessed of at least a basic sense of humanity — I think that you are not likely to be the same person after watching the movie that you were before. You lose something; I don't think I'm exaggerating by saying that a measure of joy goes out of the world after you've seen it. Some people will take that as a recommendation, though I don't mean it to be. But I wouldn't want to be the one to forbid them the experience. Some may even find that a small piece of their souls was a fair price to pay. Personally, I think it's a testament to the film's overall quality that I still can't make up my mind whether the experience was worth it or not.
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