Cannibal Holocaust’s Enduring Legacy

spaghettibannerI’m very happy to help fellow cinema aficionado Nitrate Diva in this year’s Italian Film Culture Blogathon, but it is a bit intimidating to take on a subject that so many have already taken on.  For instance, we should note at the outset Cannibal Holocaust started the “found footage” genre–with later examples being Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project.  Many, many cinema bloggers have taken up the film, and to try and find something new to say about Cannibal Holocaust seems a tall order indeed.

The consensus is that this film is one of–if not the most–violent and exploitive films ever produced.  It is rumored that there is a much longer version out there, but this 96-minute version is more than sufficient.  Despite the title on the video, this version is dubbed into English, and there are no Spanish subtitles:

This epic revolves around the viewing of found footage from an ill-fated journalistic expedition to South America to find cannibalistic tribes.  Ratings-hungry studio execs are looking to a local anthropologist who recovered the film to make a documentary of the ill-fated expedition.  The anthropologist, played by hardcore porn veteran Robert Kerman (NSFW), urges the execs to cool their heels until he shows them all of the found footage.  Once they see the intrepid journalists engaged in all manner of depravity towards the flora, fauna, and inhabitants of the jungle–including a couple acts that could be legitimately prosecuted as war crimes if our explorers were military folks instead of journalists–and then get their just reward in the final scene, the head honcho exec orders the footage burned, and Kerman wonders who the real “savages ” are–the white explorers laying waste to all they encounter, or the brown “primitives.”  This last bit is the key to the whole film, and offers a sort of weak rationale for why this films is so violent.

Robert Kerman in Cannibal Holocaust
Robert Kerman in Cannibal Holocaust

The film is most notorious for the scenes of the journalists killing animals–these were real, not staged; in all 6 animals were killed on film.  In the most infamous scene a large turtle is caught, beheaded, totally dissected and finally eaten by the actors.  Also, a pig is shot, and a coatimundi (often mistaken for a monkey) is also killed on camera and consumed.  The actors were not aware animals were going to be killed on set, and the incident with the coatimundi nearly caused a mass walkout by the cast–until they remembered they were miles and miles from anywhere.  The lead journalist–Alan Yates, played by Carl Gabriel Yorke–refused to speak publicly about his role in this film for 25 years.

This sort of activity filled the set with tension, as you might guess: Kerman refused to have anything to do with killing the pig, and privately according to Clifford and Landis, Kerman said later of director Ruggero Deodato “The guy is a real sadist.”  Kerman prayed that God would punish Deodato and the movie would flop. Clifford and Landis concluded: “It says something when a director can drive an actor who’s been desensitized by years in the sex industry to prayers of destruction.”  For Deodato’s part, he often says that he grew up in the countryside and has a different relationship with animals than cityfolk.  But it’s hard to imagine that someone with simply a different relationship to the animal kingdom would go as far as he did–to the point where much of the cast was wretching in the jungle off camera.  Says Deodato:

[People] don’t make the connection between the food on the table that mummy has cooked from the supermarket, and the fact the animal has actually been killed. When you go to a Third World country people kill animals. I saw pigs and rabbits being killed growing up on a country farm when I was young. My son has not seen this because times have changed, he hasn’t had the experiences I have, for him it all comes pre-packed.

This seems a pretty weak argument for what we see in the film, and strikes me as unconvincing.  Deodato makes the point that his film is about casual acceptance of violence–if he were serious about that, I would expect to hear more about that, rather than this bit on having a different relationship to the animal kingdom when I was a kid…

Director Ruggero Deodato on set of CH.
Director Ruggero Deodato on set of CH.

The film, to the degree it has a moral center, revolves around the question of “who is the real ‘savage’?”  Deodato often takes to the convention circuit and gives us his rationale.  Mainly, this film was a response to the casual acceptance of horrific levels of violence in contemporary society.  In a 2011 interview he mentions the actual Holocaust as one example, and in another conducted by his son in 1998–(part one; part two) he explains: he was appalled at media coverage of Red Brigade political violence and terrorism in Italy in the 1970s.  Specifically, how the media of the day was stepping all over one another–and victims of the violence–to get the most salacious stories of suffering on the air.  That’s interesting, and this rationale brings to mind works like Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, but I’m not sure how it explains what others saw as pure sadism on set.

But this comparison may overthink CH‘s rationale.  The disparity between an artistic meditation on apathy towards violence and a movie that was designed as a receptacle simply to put successive acts of extreme violence on film seems too much to overcome–and suggests the debate we see every time Quentin Tarantino releases a film: is it art or is it trash?  With CH there is also the matter of it being an alleged snuff film–that the violence in the final scene was so realistic as the cannibals set upon the journalists that a court was going to charge Deodato with murder.  To drum up publicity, he made the cast not appear in other films or the press, which helped give the illusion that he had indeed created a snuff film. This sort of thing does not strike me as something someone trying to make an artistic examination of the role of excessive violence in our society–it sounds like publicity stunts or perhaps performance art.  It all seems a bit much to start comparing CH  with works like Apocalypse Now, and I doubt any amount of  retroactive rationales or rehab will bring Deodato and Cannibal Holocaust into the realm of art, but it will remain a solid hit with the cult exploitation film community, as well as those who can’t look away, for some time.

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