One of the (if not the) most notorious exploitation films of all time, Cannibal Holcaust (directed by Ruggero Deodata) was banned in several countries upon its theatrical and subsequent video releases. The splendidly named Deodata was arrested in his homeland of Italy and charged with obscenity of making a ‘snuff’ film, a situation he brought upon himself by allowing viewers to believe that the film was actually a documentary on a tragic Jungle expedition.
Wiki has a rather good article on the film, and here is some of it;
“Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is a controversial exploitation film directed by Ruggero Deodato and is based on a screenplay written by Gianfranco Clerici and Giorgio Stegani. Filmed in the Amazon Rainforest, it focuses on a team of four documentarians who head deep into the jungle to make a documentary on the primitive native tribes that live there. After two months and no word from the team, a famous anthropologist is sent on a rescue mission in hopes of finding the team alive. The film stars Robert Kerman as the anthropologist Harold Monroe, Carl Gabriel Yorke as director Alan Yates, Francesca Ciardi as Alan’s girlfriend Faye, Perry Pirkanen as the cameraman Jack Anders, and Luca Barbareschi as fellow cameraman Mark Tomaso.
Cannibal Holocaust is one of the best known exploitation films due to the controversy it caused upon its release. After premiering in Italy, the film was seized by the local Magistrate and Deodato was arrested for obscenity. He was later accused of making a snuff film based on circulating rumors that the film’s actors were slain for the camera. Though Deodato would be cleared of these charges, the film was banned in Italy, the UK, Australia, and several other countries for graphic gore, sexual violence, and for the genuine slayings of six animals featured in the film. While many nations have revoked the ban, it is still banned to this day in other countries around the world. Despite this notoriety, Cannibal Holocaust is seen by some critics as a social commentary on civilized society.“
When VHS top-loading videos were the thing to have in the early 80s, we were lucky enough to get one (rented, from Granda Rentals, because they cost about £500 to buy in 1982). The scene was set, one Friday evening in October, for my mother to go to the local Video Rental shop ‘Replay’ in Fazeley, and rent out a couple of videos (after paying the £25 joining fee, which entitled you to the first 2 rentals for free, as I recall – after that, rentals were £2.50 each). Their was palapable excitement as we waited for my mum to reveal what she had rented. She produced 2 brick sized VHS cases, with blank blue covers. On the spines were typed
Clash of the Titans (A)
Cannibal Holocaust (X)
This was in the days of the old ‘U’, ‘A’, ‘AA’ and ‘X’ film ceritifications – see the link;
Film certification 1970-1982
so we (me, brother, sister) knew we were going to watch Clash of the Titans, and that was it. As a 12 year old at the time, I wasnt going to get to watch an X rated film. I dont really know what made Cannibal Holocaust appeal to my mother (she seems such an innocent soul);
Anyway, that cover used to haunt me as I went around the aisles and viewed the display cabinets at ‘Replay’ and the several other Video rental shops (and one video rental van) in and around Tamworth, Staffs in the early to mid eighties. My mum said that she couldnt watch the film because it wasn’t ‘what she had expected’ (???). That just added to the intrigue. When, in 1984, the Video Recordings Act took Cannibal Holocaust (and many other ‘Video Nasties’) from the rental shops, it only made its murky glamour ever more appealing.
I finally got to watch the film in 1998, when, at a car boot sale in Buckinghamshire, I chanced upon a man selling reasonable bootlegs of all the Video Nasties, with the original cover art (in washed out photocopy colour). I purchased Cannibal Holocaust and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and got a typed-up list of all the goodies he sold, a list over several pages long. He did mail order, £5 per film. I got a couple more videos via the post, including a grainy copy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, but then he never got back to me when I requested Clockwork Orange and The Beyond. Never found out what happened to him. It is amazing to think that only 10 years ago this was how you had to go about obtaining a relatively gory horror film. It seems like it could be than 50 years ago when you look at how the internet has revolutionised how you obtain films, either through the likes of play.com and amazon, through to torrent sites and youtube and other video hosting sites.
Anyway, I watched the film. Some parts were pretty repulsive (the animal death and cruelty scenes are horrendous, and Deodata has since admitted in an interview (that was bundled as an extra on a DVD release of the film) that he regrets including these scenes. Apart from that, the film is brutal, exciting and very gory. There is an atmosphere of dread and desperation within the film, and inevitability as the cast meet their fates.
Critical response to the film is mixed;
“Critics remain split on their stances of Cannibal Holocaust. Supporters of the film cite it as serious and well-made social commentary on the modern world. Mike Bracken called it one of the greatest horror movies ever filmed, and also stated, “Viewers looking for a film that’s powerful, visceral, and disturbing have a new title to add to their must-see list.” Sean Axmaker praised the structure and set up of the film, saying, “It’s a weird movie with an awkward narrative, which Deodato makes all the more effective with his grimy sheen of documentary realism, while Riz Ortolani’s unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score provides a weird undercurrent.”Jason Buchanan of All Movie Guide said, “…while it’s hard to defend the director for some of the truly repugnant images with which he has chosen to convey his message, there is indeed an underlying point to the film, if one is able to look beyond the sometimes unwatchable images that assault the viewer.”
Detractors, however, counter with the genuine animal slayings, questionable acting, and hypocrisy that the film presents. Nick Schager criticized the brutality of the film, saying, “As clearly elucidated by its shocking gruesomeness — as well as its unabashedly racist portrait of indigenous folks it purports to sympathize with — the actual savages involved with Cannibal Holocaust are the ones behind the camera.” Schager’s racism argument is supported by the fact that the real indigenous peoples in Brazil whose names were used in the movie — the Yanomamo and Shamatari — are not fierce enemies as portrayed in the movie, nor is either tribe truly cannibalistic (although the Yanomamo do partake in a form of post-mortem ritual cannibalism).
Robert Firsching of All Movie Guide made similar criticisms of the film’s content and claimed that the “…pie-faced attempts at socially conscious moralizing make it rather distasteful morally as well. The fact that the film’s sole spokesperson for the anti-exploitation perspective is played by porno star Richard Bolla should give an indication of where its sympathies lie.” Slant Magazine’s Eric Henderson said it is “…artful enough to demand serious critical consideration, yet foul enough to christen you a pervert for even bothering.”
Cannibal Holocaust currently has a 57% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 4.7. The film came 8th on IGN’s Top 10 Grindhouse films.“
The mention of Riz Ortalinis “unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score” brings me onto that very thing – the theme tune for the film. Ortalini is an Italian film composer, whose work includes the soundtrack for Mondo Cane (a documentary film that consists of a series of travelogue-vignettes that provide (the intended) Western audience with a shocking glimpse into cultural practices around the world). In some respects, it could be said that Mondo Cane was an influence on Deodata and his making of Cannibal Holocaust. His work has also been used by Tarantino, in the excellent Soundtracks for Kill Bill.
Here it is, in all its unsettling loveliness;
and here is the trailer for the film;
A few years ago David Kerekes (of Headpress) and David Slater produced a book that explores the history of death on film, and there is a section on Cannibal Holocaust in there. It’s fascinating and well worth tracking down – amazon have it;
Finally, if you are at all interested in the curious witch hunt that got Britain in a state about some (mainly bland or bad) horror films, you should check out John Martins’ book, “The Seduction of the Gullible: Curious History of the British “Video Nasties””. Its been reprinted twice, but is currently out of print, but you can find copies out on ebay or amazon. He also released a sequel, but the book I have mentioned remains definitive.
There are also some good resources on the internet for this curious slice of British History;
and absolutley it seems as if even now, in 2008, when we are hardened to the graphic ‘torture porn’ of the likes of ‘Saw’, ‘Hostel’, ‘Vacancy’ and ‘Paradise Lost’, someone has not forgotten about the good old days….