An Exploration of Cannibal Holocaust (1979) by Daniel Stillings

Cannibal Holocaust (Poster)CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979)

Dir: Ruggero Deodato

Writer: Gianfranco Clerici

Starring: Francesca Ciardi, Luca Barbareschi, Robert Kerman, Perry Pirkamen.

Running Time: 96 minutes

It is no underestimation to describe Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1979) as one of the horror genre’s defining films, and for a variety of reasons also one of its most troubling, for audiences, censors and critics alike. According to the director himself, the film began life when his son became upset by images of real violence he had seen in a television news report, used less through a desire to inform the public of world events than through a need to give the viewers increasingly sensationalistic thrills. Out of this experience, Deotato began work on a screenplay that would form a pointed attack on the whole concept of sensationalistic reportage in general, and also work as a critique of the cycle of shock-documentaries known collectively as “Mondo” movies, specifically the works of two filmmakers, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi.

Gualtiero Jacopetti a journalist who had previously penned the narration for Luigi Vanzi’s two nightclub act compilation movies – European Nights (1959) and World By Night (1960) – directed and produced what is generally regarded as the feature that kick started the genre, Mondo Cane (1962). The film consisted of a series of cultural juxtapositions to prove in the words of the title, “It’s a dogs life,” but it was the images of real death that had the greatest impact on audiences and the film’s imitators. The following year, Jacopetti directed a sequel, Mondo Cane 2 (1963) which became the first director / producer collaboration for Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi who had been associate director / producer on the first movie with Paulo Cavara.

Cannibal Holocaust#1The two then went on to direct and write Africa Addio (1966) which set the tone for all mondo movies that followed it. Known as Farewell Africa in the UK, Africa Addio followed the continent’s transition from colonialism to independence. Jacopetti and Prosperi had initially entered the continent to work on another project only to be caught up in the political upheaval, and decided to turn their cameras on that instead. The film is literally packed with images of death, a fact stressed even more when an edited version of the film was released in America in 1970 called Africa: Blood And Guts. Shorn of nearly an hour of its more pleasant, contextualising footage, this new 83 minutes version was an unrelenting bloodbath, and a box office hit.

In the film, animals are seen slaughtered by the dozen and people are put up against a wall and shot, none of which was faked for the camera…well not quite. Jacopetti and Prosperi were both guilty of manipulating footage on the two Mondo Cane films, going as far as to restage Quang Duc suicide by fire in the second film. In Africa Addio this manipulation of events reached even further. In one nauseating sequence, a family of hippos are slaughtered in a sequences seemingly staged for the camera. More serious though were the allegations that the filmmakers encouraged the unlawful killing of a man by a mob in order to procure powerful and shocking footage for their documentary. This was the starting point for Deodato’s movie.

When a group of four documentary filmmakers disappear in the South American jungle, the TV company who employed them funds an expedition to be headed up by a professor called Monroe to find them, or discover what happened to them. On arrival they soon pick up their trail but the discovery of the rotting remains of their guide Filipe do not bode well for discovering the missing four alive. These suspicions prove well founded when they eventually make contact with the Yamamono tribe who display evidence of contact with them, some wearing camera lenses as jewellery and another a wristwatch.

Cannibal Holocaust#4The tribe are initially distrustful of Monroe and his team, but when they aid the tribe during an altercation with another Indio tribe, they are accepted, and lead to what turns out to be the skeletal remains of the four missing filmmakers, and the cans of exposed film they shot before whatever fate befell them (eagle-eyed viewers will notice the plot gaffe involving the film cans that puts a real crimp on the film’s logic). Back in New York, the TV station intends to use the footage Monroe brought back to form the basis of a piece entitled “The Green Inferno,” but on viewing the footage, the unpalatable truth of what actually transpired deep in the jungle begins to become clear.

From a technical standpoint, Cannibal Holocaust is brilliant. By the film’s half way point we know the fate that befell the missing filmmakers, but that fatalistic edge just amplifies the visceral tension in the second half when we actually get to see the footage shot by the now dead crew. As the atrocities committed escalate to the point where the seemingly peaceful Indios fight back with equal ferocity, we are repeatedly reminded that we are watching a film within a film by cutaways to the faces of Monroe and the TV executives’ disgust at what they are watching. While suspension of disbelief is not absolute when viewing the crew’s grainy “found” footage it is still powerful stuff, the look of which seems to have been inspired by Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle In America (1976), and though Deodato’s footage is not as shocking as the faked snuff material in that film, its use here much more complex.

This idea of presenting fake footage as real is complicated by the material that makes up the documentary within the film entitled The Last Road To Hell shown to Monroe as an example of the unscrupulous tactics the four filmmakers were willing to employ to get the footage they need. Monroe is told that the documentary is fake, but in reality the footage (“bought from an English company” according to Deodato) is real. This is according to David Kerekes & David Slater’s two books, See No Evil: Banned Films And The Video Controversy and their excellent dissection of the mondo genre, Killing For Culture, but a close inspection reveals some possible slight of hand. One stand out moment during the sequence in which a young boy is shot at point-blank range several times before collapsing out of sight appears to display evidence of blood squibs being detonated as he is shot when viewed frame by frame. The footage in this scene also appears to be of a different quality to the murky, authentic footage that surrounds it. All the material has turned up in several other mondo documentaries over the years.

Cannibal Holocaust#5The use of this real documentary material in a fictional narrative is dubious, but no more so than the use of real concentration camp footage in Stanley Kramer’s Oscar winning Judgment At Nuremberg (1961), and Deodato’s intended reading of the film would still be sound if not for the fact that in filming the grainy sensationalistic found footage the film deplores, he staged several animal killings for real, most notoriously involving the dismemberment and disembowelment of a live turtle. This particular sequence is utterly nauseating  and imbued with a gloatingly sadistic quality that makes it extremely difficult to watch. Claims have been made that the cast can barely hide their real sense of disgust and that actress Francessca Ciardi vomits for real, but any reservations the actors may have had to slaughtering the animal are not really evident, and the shot of Ciardi’s vomiting is obviously fake.

In Luca M. Palmerini & Gaetano Mistretta’s book Spaghetti Nightmares, Deodato claims, “The rats, wild pigs crocodiles and turtle were killed by the Indios themselves, for food. I simply followed them on their hunts – the equivalent of shooting the butchers at the city slaughterhouse, except that I always had someone from the animal protection league breathing down my neck.” As the actors are clearly visible hacking up the turtle in the scene described above, this is clearly untrue.

Much of the criticism written about Cannibal Holocaust tends to ignore this when discussing it. Kim Newman in his seminal study of the horror field Nightmare Movies described the film as, “the definitive cannibal movie and an auto critique of the genre,” and David Prothero in The BFI Companion To Horror said the movie is, “Deodato’s demythologising response to his own trend setting entry [Last Cannibal World (1977)] and the acme of the sub genre.” David Winter also alluded to the problem describing it as Deodato’s “crippled classic.” Tim Lucas who has a great appreciation for the film describes it in The Video Watchdog Book as, “one of the most devastating nightmares ever committed to film,” but goes on to address the animal cruelty issue head on saying, “it also uses footage of live animal slaughter to make its human slaughter effects appear more realistic, which is reprehensible.”

Cannibal Holocaust#7 For Lucas, the hypocrisy over Deadato’s use of the footage he objects to does not negate the value of the film as it does for Stanley Wiater, who wrote in Cut: Horror Writers On Horror Films, “unlike nearly all the other cannibal films, these acts are not committed by the natives, with the viewer assuming these animals were later eaten by savages in a typically savage manner. Here the slaughter is committed by the explorers as part of the plot. Either way, the very idea of animals being literally butchered as part of a fictional story where humans beings are supposedly butchered is morally reprehensible to say the least.”

The desire to find an argument that will justify the use of the real animal slaughter footage is desirable to fans but simply unattainable. Cannibal Holocaust’s reputation a one of the horror genres defining texts is well established, and guarded by fans to the point that drawing attention to the hypocrisy inherent in Deodato’s thesis is frowned upon. But dishonest claims about how the real scenes of animal slaughter were obtained are not the only false statements Deodato is guilty of.

In an interview with Deodato conducted by Emily Booth for the TV series Shock Movie Massacre about the similarities between The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), and in the latter’s similarity to Cannibal Holocaust, he claimed, “I had the idea to convince my young actors to sign a contract that said that they had to disappear for a year and pretend to be dead. When the film came out, it was confiscated by the authorities who accused me of having really killed the journalists, so I had call the actors and ask them to reveal that they were still alive just to prove that I didn’t kill anyone.”

Cannibal Holocaust#8In addition to accusing the makers of The Blair Witch Project of stealing his ideas, he dismisses director Daniel Myrick’s claims of ignorance simply as “Lies.” The problem with this statement is that despite going through pages of interviews and analysis, I was unable to find any corroborative evidence for Deodato’s claim concerning the stunt with the actors. Bearing in mind his false statements concerning the animal killings depicted in the film, it would appear likely that these claims are also untrue (If anyone has more information on this, I would love to hear it). In reality all three films explore quite distinct themes, despite these similarities: Cannibal Holocaust is intended as a pointed attack on the mondo cycle, The Last Broadcast is more about the documentary medium as message in itself, and The Blair Witch Project offers no context for what it show, relying solely on “found” footage, presented as real to scare the shit out of audiences.

Cannibal Holocaust opened in Italy on 8th February 1980 but was withdrawn four weeks later because on the scenes of animal cruelty. It was declared obscene by the High Court in Italy (using an old law that either forbid the import of bulls for use in the corrida or an old Fascist law forbidding the torture of guinea-pigs, depending on what source you consult) and banned. After three years and two more trials, Deodato eventually won his case and the film was again released in Italy with a “14” certificate. In France it was released with an “18” certificate after approximately 8 minutes of footage was cut amidst rumours printed in the January 1981 issue of Photo that the film was a genuine snuff movie (similar accusations would plague the film in the UK when it was seized in April 1993 during a comic mart in Birmingham). In Japan, it was the biggest box office draw after E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982).

Cannibal Holocaust#9Deodato’s movie was first sprung on an unsuspecting British public via GO video’s cassette released in the UK in the early eighties. Though this version was eventually withdrawn after being successfully prosecuted as a “video nasty,” it was not the complete version as was widely believed. Details totalling 6 minutes 24 seconds were removed included all references to the fact that the woman clubbed to death in the “social surgery” scene was pregnant, all the below the waist shot of the girl impaled on the pole, and it is also rumoured that the distributor cut many of the artificially damaged frames, but this is unconfirmed.

In addition to these edits, the sequence in which the crew chase the native girl before raping her is played twice. Rumours of an official re-release of the film on video in the UK never transpired. Despite its unavailability in the UK, it could still be purchased on the continent on videotape courtesy of Cult Epics in Holland and later on DVD from EC Entertainment. Unlike GO’s banned UK version, these were almost complete (for unknown reasons they were missing a few seconds of footage from The Last Road To Hell sequence).

In light of BBFC policy change, VIPCO submitted the uncut version of Cannibal Holocaust for a video certificate. They left some surprising and explicit things intact but still insisted on 17 cuts totalling 5 minutes 44 seconds before passing the film with an “18” certificate. The cuts are: 1 cut (17 seconds) deleting the scene of a musk rat being killed with a switchblade, though shots of the carcass remain; 3 cuts (47 seconds) to the ritual punishment of the native woman by the river, deleting the shot of her legs being forced apart including the sight of her vagina, details of the man using a dildo to rape her including a shot of the dildo covered in blood, and shot of the man forcing a clump of mud with bones protruding from it between the woman’s legs; 1 cut (11 seconds) deleting the scene of a native woman being raped, though a long shot remains; 4 cuts (1 minute 43 seconds) all shots of the turtle being killed (the cutting off of its head, it’s still kicking leg, and the animal being eviscerated in close-up) have been removed though a shot of the empty shell remains; 1 cut (21 seconds) a monkey having its head sliced open and its blood drained into a bowl have been removed; 1 cut (20 seconds) footage of the tethered pig being kicked and shot in the head have been deleted; 4 cuts (30 seconds) removing the more explicit details of the native girl being raped; 1 cut (1 minute 33 seconds) shots of Faye being stripped naked and raped twice, the second time while the natives hold her legs have been cut entirely; and 1 cut (2 seconds) deleting a shot of Faye’s vagina as she is carried away resulting in a jump cut.

The cuts to Cannibal Holocaust posed a difficult conundrum. The scenes of animal cruelty contained in the film are nauseating and almost unwatchable. The only difficulty with the censors’ intervention in 2001 was that in removing the footage of animal slaughter, they turned the film into the unambiguous critique of the mondo genre it most definitely wasn’t. Would it not have been more beneficial to an audience that they see the hypocrisy of Deodato’s thesis undiluted rather than have it misrepresented to them with a false impression of what actually happened during the making of the film? The BBFC admitted to playing it safe at the time in light of the films reputation and its history as a video nasty, but when the DVD label Shameless resubmitted the film in 2011, the board had a clearer and more defined idea of how to apply the revised guidelines, and waived all but one of the original cuts (the 15 second shot of the muskrat being killed was deleted and replaced with alternate footage).

Cannibal Holocaust (Cover)Over three decades on from when it first came to the attention of horror fans world-wide, and now almost completely intact, Cannibal Holocaust can finally be judged more clearly, animal violence and all, but now it seems as though Deodato himself realised his error, preparing a special edit to remove or obscure much of the animal violence (it was included in the Shameless edition). This new version solves nothing, the animals were still killed, it’s just seems like an apologists attempt to cover up what actually happened. Cannibal Holocaust is the horror genre’s most frustrating film. It’s an impressive work prevented from being the intelligently savage critique of the mondo cycle Deodato intended by the hypocritical inclusion of about two minutes of grotesque footage, and it’s a real shame because it didn’t need to be that way.

Daniel Stillings

Daniel Stillings

About Daniel Stillings

About Daniel Stillings Daniel is a little strange, the result of being traumatised watching a videotape of Zombie Flesh-Eaters when he was 11. He once had a picnic where they shot The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (a fact he was unaware of at the time) loves Jean-Luc Godard and Steven Seagal movies (if only they'd collaborate) and hates mobile phones. He also plays guitar in a covers band, but secretly yearns to be a member of The Residents...or maybe he already is!
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