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To this day, “Cannibal Holocaust” remains the undisputed champion of found footage, continuing to shock, enrage, and appall new generations.

Cannibal Holocaust

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ABOUT THIS COLUMN
And so it begins… one man’s monthly quest to venture into the darkest corners of cinema. It’s a journey to seek out the shocking, disturbing, and most notoriously deranged films in existence and to determine if they live up to their ghoulish reputations. WARNING: The following program contains material that might be inappropriate for some viewers. VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED. 

CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)

THE PLOT:

After an American documentary film crew disappears in the Amazon rainforest, an anthropologist, Professor Harold Monroe (played by Robert Kerman), leads an expedition hoping to find the crew alive. As they venture deeper into the “Green Inferno,” the rescue team is caught between two warring cannibal tribes – the Yacumo and the Yamamomo.

As they work to gain the tribes’ trust, the rescue team discovers the skeletal remains of the film crew along with their canisters of film. Eager to see what the filmmakers were able to capture before their demise, Monroe returns the film to a broadcast company in New York City, where its ungodly content is revealed.

THE BLOODY BACKGROUND:

Said to have been inspired by the sensationalist news coverage of the Red Brigades, a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization that operated out of Italy during the 1970s and ‘80s, director Ruggero Deodato sent the globe into a tizzy with 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. Undoubtedly the most notorious of Italy’s wave of “jungle cannibal” films that kicked off in the early-1970’s with Umberto Lenzi’s Man from Deep River, Cannibal Holocaust was a fearless take on an already seamy corner of cinema, so fearless that it found itself banned in 50 countries.

Despite its provocative content, Cannibal Holocaust pioneered the “found footage” style of filmmaking, which caught mainstream attention with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and peaked with early-2000s hits like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity.

THE DAMN DIRTY DETAILS:

Just ten short days after premiering in Milan, Deodato’s shocker was yanked from theaters, and all copies were seized by authorities. The director was arrested and slapped with obscenity charges, with the authorities wholly convinced Deodato had made an actual snuff film.

In a clever marketing move, several actors agreed to disappear from the public eye for a year following the film’s release, adding to the concerns that the performers actually perished during production.

The near-seamless special effects made things worse for Deodato, with one particular sequence involving an impalement being singled out. Deodato ultimately presented his actors and actresses in court, and he provided behind-the-scenes footage of the actress involved in the impalement sequence, showcasing how the filmmakers achieved the stunt.

So was born the legacy of Cannibal Holocaust, as the film would face significant backlash for featuring actual animal slayings, one of which was performed twice, to the horror of the crew. It has rightfully angered animal rights activists and even exists in a cut with all the animal cruelty removed.

Upon its worldwide rollout, the film was banned in multiple markets and was even pulled out of theaters in the United States due to its severity. Since its release, Cannibal Holocaust has remained a hot-button horror movie, sharply dividing critics and audience members who continue to debate its artistic merits. It further receives static from many who were involved in making it, with multiple individuals admitting they regret being involved with the production.

Grindhouse Releasing offers a handsome Blu-ray (with a 4K release looming in the distance), which is absolutely a must-own for horror devotees. The late Deodato’s masterpiece has also invaded streaming services, popping up on Peacock, Amazon Prime, and good old Shudder, nudging it dangerously close to mainstream pop culture.

THE HORRIFYING TRUTH:

On July 15th, 1974, television news reporter Christine Chubbuck took her own life on air, making her the first person to die by suicide during a live broadcast. Before ending her life, Chubbuck was doing a report on a shooting that had occurred at a local restaurant the previous day. The station attempted to roll footage that was taken from the scene, but the reel jammed, leaving Chubbuck in front of the camera to deliver the following statement before revealing a gun:

“In keeping with the WXLT practice of presenting the most immediate and complete reports of local blood and guts news, TV 40 presents what is believed to be a television first. In living color, an exclusive coverage of an attempted suicide.”

She would then place the gun behind her ear and pull the trigger, leaving those at home in disbelief.

Before her suicide, Chubbuck had voiced her disdain with the news station’s desire to focus on gory new stories that concentrated on violence rather than actual substance. While she did suffer from severe depression surrounding her health, career setbacks, and her love life, Chubbuck would tragically perish behind a haunting message, one that still attracts morbid curiosity despite the footage of suicide being unavailable.

Christine (2016)

Her death would be prophetic, as to this day, the media heavily favors “if it bleeds, it leads” type journalism, with scandals and atrocities acting as the driving force for ratings.

(Note: There’s an excellent 2016 film on Tubi called Christine, starring Rebecca Hall, inspired by the real-life tragedy.)

With Cannibal Holocaust, Deodato said he was inspired by macabre new reports in Italy that centered around violence at the hand of the Red Brigades terrorist group.

He also said he felt these stories were often manipulated for maximum shock. While I’m confident there is truth to Deodato’s suspicions, it’s undisputable he was also inspired by the popularity of the Italian “mondo” films, which centered on bizarre rituals, grisly stock footage, and nauseating animal cruelty, which were often staged.

He no doubt took aim at the crowds that flocked to these exploitative shock reels, which emerged in 1962 with Mondo Cane, directed by Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara, and Franco Prosperi.

The popularity of these films would spread, making their way into the decaying movie houses on 42nd Street, where swaths of patrons would leer with sickening elation, almost like they were bearing witness to a sideshow spectacle or a public execution.

Consider these films the dark web before the invention of the internet.

Of course, the “mondo” films would all race to outdo each other, with even the United States jumping in with 1978’s Faces of Death, which would fabricate material while mixing in authentic carnage just to up the ante.

And in between “mondo” releases, Americans had been getting their daily doses of bloodshed on the boob tube, gasping at the horrific footage of violence inflicted on Civil Rights demonstrators, political assassinations, and the carnage flowing off the battlefields in Vietnam.

It almost feels like the barbarism kicking around CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST was something of a minor culmination for a world increasingly reared on televised anguish.

Deodato’s film is just as vomitous as you’ve heard, with the director resorting to unspeakable means to achieve his vision.

The controversy surrounding the real slaying of animals is repugnant, but it’s also clearly deliberate, almost as if it is mocking films like Faces of Death and the mixing of the genuine and the staged. Is it right? Absolutely not, but it blackens the bruises that the film dolls out even further.

Deodato is almost daring the viewer to keep watching, wading deeper into the inferno. And we do. We keep pushing on, waiting to see what atrocity he will stage next to keep us swaying where we sit.

And as Deodato brings Cannibal Holocaust to a close with a stunning assault that leaves the viewer frozen as if they just saw Medusa’s scalp of snakes, he has Kirkman’s Monroe ask a simple yet haunting question – who are the real cannibals?

The initial response seems to apply to the actions taken by the documentary team, who delighted in tormenting the natives before the tables were turned, but it’s a question that continues to reach out past 1980 and well into our modern times, where the all-seeing eye of the camera looms ominously everywhere we go. Monroe’s question seems an extension of Chubbuck’s grim statement before she committed suicide.

We are the real cannibals, the ones who represent the civilized world, yet can’t resist a news report dipped in blood and tragedy.

And shame on the ones behind the scenes, the producers, camera operators, or the ones armed with an iPhone and desire for clicks. The voyeurs who simply can’t resist capturing a video of the aftermath of a mass shooting or livestreaming their acts of hostility, the chefs all too eager to satiate the public’s hunger for gore and to etch their names in infamy.

If anything, Cannibal Holocaust jams our faces in the muck with force because it simply has to, and it is more than happy to be the villain because of it.

You’re supposed to be repulsed and even ashamed by what Deodato subjects you to before rolling the credits over that ethereally iconic score from Riz Ortolani, which drones away over the castrations and beheadings like the musical embodiment of a dawning epiphany. We don’t even need to hear Monroe’s question.

Deodato deliberately places it there so we realize we aren’t imagining the truth laid out to us — and because we needed to hear someone else call us on our animalistic bullshit.

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