From among the Video Nasties

When I hit upon the idea of a Video Nasties retrospective, I had little in the way of a planned schedule, but one thing was always clear, from the first instant: it had to end with Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. Almost certainly the most widely-banned film in history, and notorious even among those who could not otherwise name a single Italian horror film, it's a movie that is considered even by most of its ardent defenders as something to be endured rather than enjoyed or respected in any degree. It seemed that if I was ever going to watch this film - something which I had long ago promised myself that I would never do - this was the right time.

To set the stage, allow me to quote in full the text placed at the beginning of the film on the 2005 Region 1 DVD released by Grindhouse Releasing:
The following motion picture contains intense scenes of extreme violence and cruelty.

As distributors of this film, we wish to state with absolute sincerity that by no means do condone the artistic decisions employed by the makers of this film. However, as firm believers in the constitutional right of free speech, we do not believe in censorship.

To quote Thomas Jefferson, "It behooves every man who values the liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others."

Therefore, we are presenting CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST for the very first time in its uncut, uncensored original form, with all sequences photographed by the filmmakers, however offensive and repugnant, presented fully intact.

What you will see will definitely shock and offend you. Nonetheless, it should be viewed as a disturbing historical document of a bygone era of extreme irresponsibility which no longer exists, and, hopefully, will never exist again.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".
-George Santayana

No, of course not, the chance to make money by releasing the most controversial film in history had nothing to do with it, you noble defenders of liberty and intellectual freedom! That is verily why you are named for that beloved and wildly influential freethinker and social activist, John Stuart Grindhouse.

Snark aside, I quoted that in full because it is illuminating in its incredible desperation, with two separate Appeals to Authority, shrill and sober-minded words like "believe" and "offend" over-used something dreadful, and "historical document" wielded like a paladin's shield. Leonard Maltin begging us on his bended knees not to be angry that, 75 years ago, Disney animators were racist, could not possibly have put together a more neurotic, hackles-raised defense than that.

Which should tell us, even if we do not know it already, that Cannibal Holocaust is a major thing that a hell of a lot of people are terrified to touch, and what is especially major about it, as you may or may not know, is its scenes of animal murder. Look at any consideration of the movie, positive or negative, and it will spend a lot of energy on the animal murders - and I certainly do say "murder" and not "slaughter" with intent. For, whatever else I might think and argue, the animal scenes are the wrong choice, full stop.

If you don't know what I'm talking about: in the course of filming, a number of actual wild animals that were actually alive were killed, on camera, by the actors. This most notoriously includes a turtle that is dragged out of the river, decapitated, stripped down to the bone, cooked, and eaten, all in front of our eyes. It is not fun to watch; nor is it meant to be fun to watch. But more to the point, it is morally indefensible to kill an animal in the creation of a work of art, if that animal would otherwise have remained alive. I will not merely concede that, I will trumpet it from the hills.

But still...

There is absolutely no way in which Cannibal Holocaust can be said to be particularly outrageous in this regard, and why this film, of all films, garnered the reputation as the "watching animals get killed" film is forever going to remain a mystery to me. The fact is, just about every single Italian movie about cannibals in the '70s and '80s - there were a lot - involves footage of live animals being killed, and in nearly every case, that animal would not have been killed if not for the filmmakers' whim. Then we must add to that tally all the non-cannibal narrative movies in which an animal is killed onscreen - the Italian and Spanish film industries were not terribly shy about this into the '80s, and it's not impossible to find even in American films of sufficiently old vintage - and then head over to the nasty realm of Mondo cane and its bastard children, "documentaries", which were mostly just shocking footage strung together in no real order. In fact, I am just about willing to guarantee that you have watched a movie in which an animal is killed on-camera, because it happens in Apocalypse Now - and while that is effectively documentary footage, it's still pretty fucking obvious that the water buffalo involved is suffering pretty nastily.

(And don't even get me started on Jean Eustache and Jean-Michel Barjol's Le cochon, a phenomenally poetic documentary of one pig's journey through a small country slaughterhouse).

Deodato has since apologised for the animal footage in Cannibal Holocaust; but he didn't have to, because there are easily dozens and probably hundreds of films that do exactly the same thing. They're just not, for whatever reason, notorious. And truth be told, Deodato's film isn't even all that offensive: from all I'd heard of the turtle scene, I anticipated a miserable five minutes of watching an animal getting tortured to death. Instead, the very first thing that happens is that its head is chopped off - while its subsequent limb-spasms are hideous to watch, we can rest assured that the now-dead animal suffered for a fraction of a second, at most.

And again, just because it happened hundreds of times doesn't mean that those hundreds of films weren't equally guilty of incredible, disgusting immorality; no turtle should ever have to die for art (though at least the actors and crew subsequently ate it, so it wasn't a complete and utter moral crime). I'm just arguing that context and perspective are definitely things that need to be brought to bear in every case, even in the case of something as wanton as Cannibal Holocaust.

That took way too long, but it's the elephant in the room - you can't even pretend that you're here to discuss Cannibal Holocaust without dealing with the Animal Question, and I wanted to get it out of the way. Because the film in which those animal deaths are found is, even without bringing them into the picture, an absolute hell of a thing to consider: so unsparing and explicit in its depiction of human death and dismemberment that Deodato and producer Franco Di Nunzio were brought up on charges in two separate countries that they had, in fact, murdered their actors (these charges were dropped on account of being goddamn ludicrous, when the actors in question appeared on Italian television to demonstrate their relative lack of being deceased). Whether the film in question contains even the slightest degree of aesthetic value... but we will get there.

The first thing you notice is that the film is meta-textually dense; any more layers of extrapolated meaning and it would start leaking representational structures like a rusted-out bucket. The very first images after the credits (which are aerial shots of the Amazon basin), establish the conceit that all of Cannibal Holocaust is a news report, or maybe it's a documentary, about the assignment by NYU anthropology professor Harold Munroe (Robert Kerman) to find out what happened to a team of documentary filmmakers who went missing in South America months before. This outermost documentary framework is quickly and silently dropped, but still, the idea that we're watching a fake documentary about a man watching documentary footage that is real in his world, and which was meant to be theoretically real in our world as well, though it is faked - well, that's just a whole lot of meaning to sift through. And I have not mentioned that the missing documentarian, a certain Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke) is said, within the movie, to have shot footage of guerrilla executions in Africa for a documentary called The Last Road to Hell; when we see this footage, it is genuine, our-world footage of guerrillas executing men in Africa (including this footage, I'd argue, is every inch as distasteful and morally objectionable as the animal deaths: I suspect it's not similarly condemned because a) it's not prominent; b) it's not obvious that it's actually legitimate footage of people being shot, because c) it's not even a little bit bloody). By this point, we have a slurry of true/false dichotomies that begin to make my head a bit woozy just trying to keep track of them all.

All this meta-narrative density has two effects: the first is related to one of the film's pet themes, which is the unreliability of media. Deodato conceived of the movie while watching TV news, and noting with dismay how much emphasis the program placed on the borderline-fetishistic treatment of violent acts. His film is therefore a broadside against the manner in which media producers obfuscate and confuse and leave things an intractable mess of truths and constructed "reality", and to a degree, this is borne out in the very structure of the thing - and by the way, this theme, as well as the bog-standard cannibal film idea that "it is we in the 'civilised' West who are the true beastly savages", is presented with an inordinate lack of anything approaching grace or subtlety (by the way, I am not maintaining that a lack of subtlety is an aesthetic crime in a movie titled Cannibal Holocaust). If you can watch the movie, and the actions of Alan Yates, an immensely shitty man, without noticing that the argument is being made that it's just terrible how the media treats violence as entertainment, then you are being willfully ignorant.

It is often said that this theme makes Deodato something of a hypocrite, which I don't agree with: there's a significant difference between being an exploitation filmmaker, wringing entertainment out of extreme gore and sexualised violence that is scripted, staged, and altogether fake; and being a news producer who leads a broadcast with the story of a child being raped and murdered because it helps you to sell laundry detergent. Admittedly, Deodato does himself no favors in a film with violence extreme enough that the filmmaker should really have run screaming from even the possibility of hypocrisy. Then again, Cannibal Holocaust is such a massively ugly, brutal, punishing movie, that calling it "entertainment" is disingenuous at very best.

Back to the plot: Munroe travels to South America, worms his way into one (non-cannibalistic) tribe, observes several dreadful things there, and then travels on to a (cannibalistic) tribe where he finds the missing Yates and his crew - their bones, anyway - along with all their reels of film. Back in New York, he and Yates's producers view the parts of the film that could be salvaged (four months in the jungle isn't very nice to celluloid, especially celluloid being kept by people who have no concept whatever of photography), which basically means that we in the audience watch the footage, with frequent cutaways to Munroe loudly bemoaning how ungodly wicked the producers are for ever imagining that this could or should be shown to any human being anywhere.

In that footage, we find Yates, his girlfriend Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi), and cameramen Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi) tearing their way through Amazonia, staging atrocities (at one point burning down a straw hut with people trapped inside), raping the local girls, giggling with enthusiasm at the mutilated bodies they find, and finally, being destroyed in a particularly vengeful manner by the cannibal tribe that they have so epically pissed off. No gore movie in my experience has ever done such a thorough job of making its victims as impossibly hateful as Cannibal Holocaust: the best example I can think of to demonstrate what I mean is a moment where Faye, the "good" one of the crew, objects to the others filming their gang-rape of a young native woman, on the grounds that it's a waste of their precious remaining reels of film, since it can't be shown to an audience.

As such, Cannibal Holocaust not only veers close to the awkward position of inculcating and then rewarding a desire for savage vengeance against its characters, it plunges right over the cliff, laughing as it goes. You'd have to be Jesus Christ reborn not to find yourself a bit gratified at some of the brutality meted out to these unutterable assholes. Which is, along with the animal thing, and the African footage thing, one of my serious problems with the movie, and the one where Deodato has the hardest time avoiding the hypocrisy charge: you can't depict a whole-hearted psychopath getting his genitals chopped off by a mob of cannibals in such a way that we cannot possibly avoid agreeing that he deserves it, and then say in all seriousness, "turning violence into entertainment is unethical".

That being said, it's not very likely that anybody is cheering at this or any other point during the film, unless they suffer from some kind of social disorder. Cannibal Holocaust is joyless, as devoid of anything remotely resembling pleasure as any motion picture I've seen that didn't involve that other Holocaust. It is grueling, I think it's fair to say, not because of its gore (which isn't really any more convincing or outré than in any other cannibal movie, though it is probably the goriest of all subgenres), but because of how Deodato frames that gore - and as I've already claimed this summer, regarding The House on the Edge of the Park, Deodato was some kind of genius when it comes to hyper-violent cinema.

I mentioned that the meta-narrative underpinning the whole film had two effects: the second is that it leaves the audience fairly incapable of extracting where "reality" lies within the film's boundaries, and this merely serves to give it a bit more heft than most other cannibal movies - until the 53-minute mark, when Munroe starts watching the footage, and it becomes entirely possible to understand why people actually thought this was a snuff film. The "found footage" is of an entirely different quality than the rest of the movie: faded, full of terrible light damage, scratches, stains, and emulsion damaged so badly the image can't be made out whatsoever. It is absolutely plausible that it was sitting out in the heat and humidity for ages. Moreover, since we (presumably) have been completely flummoxed by where the edges of the mise en scène are meant to be, the footage is far more convincing than any of its contemporaries, despite possessing gore effects that are as patently false as in any of them (take the film's signature effect, a woman who has been spitted on a pole: once you know the trick, it's impossible not to see it). And it's not just the treatment of the physical film, but the massive shift in how the film is composed, lit, focused, that makes it seem like a wholly other object than the preceding "movie" footage (so, kudos to cinematographer Sergio D'Offizi for being an incredible genius).

Beyond any of that, Deodato simply approaches the film with a level of gravity and commitment not to be found in any of the other prominent cannibal films, not even his own earlier Jungle Holocaust/Last Cannibal World. The great majority of cannibal films are, bluntly, cheesy and ramshackle; they are disgusting and sickening almost without exception, but they're next to impossible to take seriously. It's hellishly easy to take Cannibal Holocaust seriously: everything about its construction puts us into a heightened state of acceptance, and Deodato's greater skill (by far) than an Umberto Lenzi or Jesús Franco means that what we're being asked to accept is already more potent and difficult to deal with than in the others.

It's for this reason, I think, that Cannibal Holocaust has such an infamous reputation, despite being in and of itself no more obnoxious and degrading than any given cannibal movie: it makes you feel it. Whereas Lenzi's depiction of monkey decapitation is gross and upsetting, Deodato's lingering treatment of turtle butchery - again, despite the obvious fact that his turtle suffers less than Lenzi's monkey - makes your soul feel scabbed-over.

The question then comes down to: why on God's earth would anybody watch Cannibal Holocaust? I have a partial reason, if not a terribly good one. It's an extension of why we like any horror film (not that it's really horror: it's just sheer gore exploitation): there's nothing inherently "pleasant" about being terrified, except that for a great many people, it's a primary motive in watching a certain kind of film. And this is because, despite what you might have been led to believe, art isn't about making you feel nice; it's about making you feel. At the risk of sounding unbearably trite they're called movies because they move you (okay, not actually), and being moved to a place of absolute misery is no less valid than being moved to happiness or lust or pleasant sorrow. There is no catharsis here: but there is the ability to access negative emotions that are an equally valid part of human experience as joy or the like, and it is inherently right that we should be able to access true emotion via art.

Like I said, not a terribly good reason. The fact of the matter is, Cannibal Holocaust is basically perfect: it achieves its goals (emotionally if not intellectually) in virtually every respect. Deodato made a movie whose purpose is to make me feel awful, and I do. So awful, in fact, that I cannot imagine ever deliberately watching the film again; so awful, that the closest I will ever come to recommending the film to anyone is that if someone mentioned their intention to watch it, I would clap their shoulder and say that it's not my place to stop them. It's not quite true what some people have said, that the film makes life itself a bit less joyous (and I have, for the record, seen films that have done that to me); but it absolutely leaves you feeling dreadful in a way that, however true to human emotion it may be, is the farthest it could possibly be from "satisfying". It is a powerful thing, though - when you gaze into Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Holocaust will also gaze into you.

Human Body Count: 20, plus an indeterminate number in the hut-burning, and even the thought of counting the African footage in something as essentially superficial as a body count makes me feel a little queasy.

Un-faked Nonhuman Body Count: 6 or 7, depending on how you count:
1. Coati (referred to as a muskrat), throat slit
2. Turtle, beheaded and butchered
3. Tarantula, bashed into pieces
4. Snake, beheaded
5. Monkey, skullcap chopped off
5b. A second monkey from a different angle
6. Pig, shot in the head.

Nastiness Rating:: 5/5, truly Nasty. I mean, come on, it's Cannibal fucking Holocaust.