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With all the recent hype and furor surrounding Asian gore films such as “Ichi the Killer” and more extreme fare like the “Guinea Pig” series, it’s sometimes easy to forget the wave of splatter that surged forth from Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whilst some of these films, such as Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie” or Joe D’Amato’s “Anthropophagus”, have lost most of their impact and now serve mainly as slices of somewhat camp nostalgia, a handful have retained every ounce of their power to shock and revolt.
“Cannibal Holocaust” is chief amongst these, an infamous test for the stomach and sensibilities of any viewer. It remains so not only because of its extreme content, but also the fact that it is a skillfully made film utilizing a semi-documentary approach that really allows it to get under the skin, walking a fine line between social commentary and being an almost archetypal piece of exploitation cinema. Although I doubt its claim of being banned in 49 countries (this number does seem to vary depending on the DVD release) is still — or indeed ever was — true, “Cannibal Holocaust” is without doubt deserving of its reputation as one of the most disgusting and nihilistic films ever made.
The plot structure of “Cannibal Holocaust” would later serve as an inspiration for later day horrors such as “The Blair Witch Project”: a group of filmmakers disappear, leaving behind footage that depicts their horrifying fates. The missing crew in this case had traveled to the jungles of South America to make a documentary on lost cannibal tribes. However, as the footage later shows, the filmmakers were a nauseous bunch, committing their own atrocities in the name of getting a better, more exciting film. Through their own film, we see that they were not averse to murder, rape, and acts of sickening animal cruelty, putting the so-called savages to shame. Unfortunately for the crew, their shocking behavior pushes the cannibals too far and they end up on the menu themselves, conveniently managing to catch their final moments on camera.
“Cannibal Holocaust” was directed by genre mainstay Ruggero Deodato, who also gave fans the similar “Jungle Holocaust” and sick shockers such as “House on the Edge of the Park”. Although it has to be said that the vast majority of his efforts are shoddily made at best, “Cannibal Holocaust” is clever and effective, skillfully manipulating the viewer with a gritty faux realism that makes the gore scenes horribly convincing. This is achieved through the use of grimy, shaky camera work, justified by the fact that we are supposed to be watching the real footage shot by the crew. This is very well done, and the jumps and choppy editing do indeed give the impression that we are watching a documentary rather than a piece of fiction.
It also helps that the actors are very convincing in their reactions to the intrusive camera, and most of the inconsequential scenes ring just as true as those of horror and death. Another, less pleasant way in which Deodato accentuates the carnage is by throwing in grotesque scenes of animal death that seem like they belong in one of the films of the ‘Mondo’ genre. The stark, horrifying reality of the scenes manipulates the viewer, making us think that if these killings are real, perhaps the rest of the film is just as real. Although the end definitely does not justify the means, this loathsome device achieves its aim, adding to the overall feel of the proceedings.
The human gore in the film is frequent and shocking. Even without the pseudo-realistic framework, the effects are convincing and are probably enough to catapult the film into the upper echelons of splatter. We see castration, a shockingly crude abortion, dismemberment, mutilation, and of course, countless shots of entrails being removed and lovingly devoured. Although the viscera fairly flies at the screen, very little of it seems gratuitous, and the matter of fact way in which it is presented does underline the fact that Deodato was trying to make a point about our supposedly civilized world.
This message is actually delivered quite succinctly, and without heavy handed preaching, albeit through the nihilistic tactic of making pretty much every character in the film a monster. The narrative is very bleak, giving the audience no one to identify with or root for, a realistic approach that again helps the film not only to shock, but to make us think.
At the end of the day, in spite of any poignant social messages, it is impossible to recommend “Cannibal Holocaust” to anyone who isn’t prepared to endure its extreme content. Easily as shocking today as it was over twenty years ago, the incessant carnage is insinuated into the more realistic aspects of the film so skillfully, that while watching it is difficult for any viewer not to suspend disbelief to some degree. As a result, “Cannibal Holocaust” is an impressive and surprisingly intelligent film, though not necessarily an entertaining one in the traditional sense.
Ruggero Deodato (director) / Gianfranco Clerici (also story), Giorgio Stegani (dialogue)
CAST: Robert Kerman …. Professor Harold Monroe
Francesca Ciardi …. Faye Daniels
Gabriel Yorke …. Alan Yates
Perry Pirkanen …. Jack Anders
Luca Barbareschi …. Mark Tomaso
Salvatore Basile …. Felipe