There are countless horror and exploitation films that have reputations of being extremely shocking, disturbing, and terrifying (and are often sold on that hype) that, in actuality, don't live up to what you've heard of them. A lot of them are still genuinely good, well-made movies, but, be it due to their now dated nature, the jadedness of later generations, or the simple fact that they've been outdone by other films that came in their wake, they've lost a lot of their power to shock and truly horrify. Let's face it, few diehard horror fans, as well as modern filmgoers in general, will agree with the popular notion that The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever made or will be truly disturbed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (that movie is still a horror classic in my opinion, mind you). For that matter, even notoriously "nasty" movies like The Last House on the Left haven't left much of an impact on me. I don't know if that says anything about me as a person or the films themselves but regardless, I will say that, at this point in my life and with all the movies I've seen, it's really hard to truly shock or horrify me. However, I really had no idea what I was getting into when I decided to check out this gruesome flick. I first learned of it in a book I bought in the spring of 2006 simply called Horror Films, one of a series of that takes a number of noteworthy films in a genre, with other examples being science fiction and comic book movies, and discusses them both in regards to their content and their influence. The books are nothing but complete text save for a section in the middle where they show some images from the various films and, in the case of this particular one, Cannibal Holocaust was the only one that they showed a piece of cover art for rather than an actual image, with a very grisly painting of a cannibal munching on what appears to be some entrails. It was weird since, having never even heard of this movie before, I had nothing real to visually connect to it while I was reading the section of the book on it, although I think I may have had appreciated that once I actually got down to reading it. I don't remember what my first impressions about the movie were upon reading that chapter other than it sounded like it was a pretty disturbing flick. Naturally, they talked about the animal killings in that chapter but, since I was very naive at that point and had never seen an Italian horror film before (even though I did know of guys like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava) or knew of how utterly insane they tended to get, I didn't really believe that there existed a movie where animals were actually killed on-camera. Although, I must say that as time went on and I learned more about the movie, saw some clips from it, and realized that there were indeed real animal slayings on display in it, I actually wondered at one point if there wasn't actual human death in it as well!
In any case, after I finished reading that book, which also informed me of the many other Italian cannibal films made around that time, I didn't think much about Cannibal Holocaust for a while, although I did see the Grindhouse Releasing DVD of it at an FYE at one point. It wasn't until I saw some featurettes and documentaries about it on YouTube that I even saw some actual clips and images and I was pretty struck by what I did see. Granted, what I saw wasn't the absolute worst stuff in the film for obvious reasons but it was, nevertheless, pretty damn disturbing, and made even more so by the music score. I had never thought about actually watching the movie before then but, after seeing that footage, I was caught between my own curiosity of wanting to see what else this movie would dare show and being pretty repulsed by both what I had seen and the knowledge that there were real animal killings in the movie, feeling that this wasn't something I needed to expose myself to. But, that wasn't the first time I'd had come to that crossroads with a movie and whenever it happens, curiosity always wins the battle; Cannibal Holocaust was no exception. So, in early 2009, after everything I had heard and read about it, I decided to bite the bullet and I got a copy of that Grindhouse Releasing DVD. I was really happy that they had put in the Animal Cruelty Free playback option because that was how I knew I was going to watch the movie from the start, and how I always have except for one fluke time that I didn't that I'll get into later, but even with that stuff removed, by the time the film was over, I was really shaken. This is truly one of the few movies that lives up to its hype of being touted as, "The most controversial movie ever made!" and, "The one that goes all the way!" and is definitely the most disturbing movie I've ever seen. Disturbing is not something I go looking for and I don't think I'll ever subject myself to anything as horrific as this, with A Serbian Film and the August Underground films being prime examples of these types of movies that I could live without seeing, but I will say that Cannibal Holocaust is very, very effective in what it sets out to do. So much so that I have a very complicated relationship with it. If you've seen my list of My 101 Favorite Horror Films, you'd know that Cannibal Holocaust is, at this moment, at the very bottom of that list but, over time, I've gone back and forth, wondering if I should have put it on there. As much as I appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do and how the movie pulls no punches, it's hardly a movie you put on to watch simply for entertainment value and one that I always rather dread viewing (which is why it took a while for me to start this review). Plus, my feelings on the film really shifted when I saw the full uncut version a couple of years ago, as I'll discuss presently. In the end, I'm very conflicted about this movie but, regardless, I will try my best to keep my opinions straight throughout this review. (I'm also going to have to be careful of the images I put in here because I could very easily land in hot water, so you're not going to see as many as you often do.)
It's been two months since anyone has heard from a group of young, documentary filmmakers who traveled into the Amazon jungle to make a film about cannibal tribes purported to live in a remote area known as the Green Inferno. New York University organizes an expedition to uncover what happened to them, with noted anthropologist Harold Monroe assigned to lead it. Upon arriving at a Colombian military outpost on the Amazon river, Monroe learns that the soldiers have captured a native of the Yacumo tribe who was part of a group eating human remains at the edge of the jungle; more significantly, the tribesman has a cigarette lighter that Monroe identifies as having belonged to one of the missing filmmakers. Monroe then meets his two guides, Chaco and Miguel, with the former explaining that the reason some Yacumos, who are not actually cannibals, were eating human remains was possibly to expel evil spirits from the jungle; specifically, white men spirits. The group, who make the Yacumo native lead them to his village, journey into the jungle and come across some horrific sights, such as the badly-decomposed corpse of the filmmakers' guide, before finally finding the village. After establishing peaceful relations with the Yacumos by releasing their prisoner, the team moves on and eventually finds the Yamamomo cannibal tribe. Although they're allowed to stay, the team are treated with fear and suspicion by the tribe, just as they were by the Yacumos, leading Chaco to suspect that the filmmakers did something that was less than civilized. They're soon shown the remains of the team along with their film canisters and Monroe, determined to take the film back to America, manages to gain the tribe's trust and permission to do so. Upon arriving back in New York, Monroe is commissioned to host a documentary about the filmmakers' fate that is to be cobbled together from the footage they shot but decides to actually view it first. When he does so, he sees the absolutely reprehensible acts the filmmakers committed against the natives in order to spice up their film and becomes determined to not only distance himself from the footage but to also convince the NYU board executives that this material must not be aired in any form.
A number of directors, even some of the most admired in the history of cinema, have had reputations of not being the easiest people to work with. Celebrated filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, James Cameron, and David Fincher, among others, are just as known for their less than warm and fuzzy, and in some cases, downright tyrannical, personalities as they are the terrific movies they've made. Italian filmmakers in particular are known to get really riled up and not have the best personalities for dealing with people, with maestro Lucio Fulci being well-remembered for apparently having been quite a sadist and misogynist. But, all that said, I don't know if there's a living director today who is more genuinely reviled for what he did, except for maybe known child molester Victor Salva, than Ruggero Deodato. He may not have been the first Italian director to actually kill animals on-camera (nor was he the last, unfortunately) and certainly not the first to raise his voice to anyone during a disagreement, but after hearing all of the stories about the making of Cannibal Holocaust, it seems like he crossed the line in many more ways than one. Besides the animal cruelty, which many of the cast and crew objected to, Deodato seems to have been nothing less than a mean-spirited, filthy-mouthed bully on the set, saying whatever was on his mind without thinking about how it may affect others, which really angered actor Robert Kerman, screaming at people who wouldn't do what he told them to (he dragged actor Francesca Ciardi off-set and gave her an earful when she wouldn't do a graphic sex scene the way he wanted), and was just a generally unpleasant person. Kerman has often described Deodato as a sadist with a soul, that he was particularly cruel towards people who couldn't answer back without losing their jobs, and that he forced the natives who played the cannibals to do incredibly dangerous things with no pay whatsoever. Not surprisingly, these stories of bad behavior, coupled with the extreme content of this film and some of his others like House on the Edge of the Park, have earned him a reputation as a misanthropist. I don't know if it's that extreme and Deodato, to his credit, has condemned his past actions in recent years, but I know one damn thing: if I were an actor, I would stay as far away from him as I could!
I don't know much credit I should give to his actual acting since his voice in the film is dubbed (although the dub performance, by noted dub actor Edward Mannix, isn't bad) but, regardless, Robert Kerman is one of the few really likable people here. For that matter, his Prof. Harold Monroe is more or less the only sane character in a very nutty, violent world, both in the jungles of South America and in New York City. He's a compassionate, rational man but, unfortunately, that attitude doesn't do him any favors in the jungle, where he is constantly reprimanded by his guide, Chaco, for being far too soft and concerned for the well-being of the Yacumo native they're using to find the village, saying that he needs to understand that they're the ones in charge. The poor guy is also just clearly out of his depth in general and unprepared for the horrific stuff that they see along the way, particularly the Yacumo punishment for adultery that they spy on, which he has to be restrained from stopping since doing so would prove disastrous for all of them, and the disgusting local customs he has to partake in, like having to eat human flesh with the Yamamomos. But, regardless, he's able to use his intelligence to gain the trust of the cannibals to be allowed to take the crew's film canisters back to civilization. Upon viewing the footage, Monroe soon learns how immoral and repugnant the filmmakers were, particularly Alan Yates for how he would stage the deaths of innocent people to juice his film, and, unlike the NYU executives, who only want sensationalism for their intended documentary, comes to see them as the true savages, not the cannibals who killed them. After viewing the entire film, Monroe becomes absolutely enraged by what he's seen, describing this "documentary" as, "offensive, dishonest, and inhuman," refuses to have anything to do with it, and tries to convince the executives that it must not be shown in any form. After showing them the last reel, they finally agree with his assessment and order the footage destroyed, although by this point, Monroe has lost a lot of faith in humanity and the civilized world in particular, thinking to himself after he leaves the building, "I wonder who the real cannibals are?"
Two characters who are only in the first half of the film but who I'd like to briefly mention since I do like them are Monroe's two guides, Chaco (Salvatore Basile) and Miguel, who's played by an actor whose identity is apparently unknown. Even though Chaco at first comes across as a nasty asshole and is rather harsh towards Monroe, whom he clearly feels does not belong in this place, I actually grew to like him since he's the guy who knows the law of the jungle and forces Monroe to listen to him to keep them from getting killed. Granted, he'll pull a knife on you if he has to when you don't listen to him but, again, he's just doing what he has to do save both yours and his necks. He's also wise enough to sense early on that the filmmakers caused quite a mess amongst the two tribes and that, as a result, they'll have a hard time establishing peace with them. I like how casual he is even in hostile and tense situations like when they first arrive at the Yacumo village and after they've seen the filmmakers' remains, going about his business and slicing a small stick with his knife after the latter incident. And finally, I like how he becomes impressed with how Monroe is able to gradually get the Yamamomos to trust them, especially when he gets them to "invite them to dinner." As for Miguel, although he doesn't say much, you get the feeling that this is what Chaco was like when he was younger since he knows the law of the land just as much as he does, although he's much calmer and more collected about it. I like how unflappable he is when he's trying to gain the Yacumos' trust by standing there and allowing them to shoot poison darts at his feet and when he's showing them a switchblade in the village. Not much else to say other than I think Miguel's a cool cat and I wish I knew the name of the actor who played him. Whoever he is, I feel major sympathy for him in one shot when his eyes are bloodshot because he's been crying over his recently murdered father. To have to go to your father's funeral and then come back to such a horrific, uncompromising film must have been really gut-wrenching for him, which is probably why his name isn't on the film.
After you witness the horrendous things that they did, it's hard to even call the deceased documentary filmmakers human beings, particularly Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), the head of the team. Before you see the footage that he and the others shot, you learn from someone who tried to work with him refer to him as a, "ruthless son of a bitch," who demanded everything, including blood, from those who did work with him (are we talking about Alan or Ruggero Deodato himself?) and you also see a bit of The Last Road to Hell, a film that he shot beforehand where he actually paid off some soldiers to execute people for the camera. But, once the footage they shot in the Amazon starts rolling, you see that Alan was little more than a psychopath with a camera. He was a complete bastard with no morals whatsoever and would stop at nothing to get the most sensational film he could, filming the death of their guide Felipe (Ricardo Fuentes) and the amputation of his leg after he's bitten by a poisonous snake, having his team shoot at and butcher animals on camera for no reason, and killing a number of Yacumos by forcing them to stay inside some burning huts in order to stage an attack on them by the Yamamomos (you can hear Alan yell, "It's beautiful!" at one point). Even more appalling is how, after that latter act of barbarity, Alan seems invigorated and empowered by what he's done to the point where he has sex with his girlfriend right in front of the natives who managed to escape the fire. But, just when you think it couldn't any worse, you see Alan and the other men in the team take turns gang-raping a Yamamomo girl and filming it for no good reason since there's no way they could use it in the documentary (it was probably for Alan's sick kind of posterity), him smirking at the grisly sight of said girl later being found impaled (for all we know, they could have done that and not the Yamamomos) before feigning horror at it, and even killing one of his cameramen after he takes a fatal hit from a spear and filming his body being absolutely evicerated by the cannibals. The only time he shows any real human emotion is when he becomes frantic over his girlfriend, Faye, whom he'd mostly treated like crap throughout the film, being taken by the Yamamomos and has to be told by his other cameraman, Mark, that they have to think of themselves and get the film back to civilization. But, the two of them pay the price for sticking around and filming Faye's death when the Yamamomos spot them and finish them off. I think it's fitting that the last thing Alan sees before he dies is that the very camera that he'd used to film the carnage he'd caused is capturing his own consequential death.
As utterly evil as Alan is, the other members of his crew are far from saints as well. His two cameramen, Jack (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi), willingly go along with every hideous thing that he orders them to do and seem to enjoy it as much as he does. Jack, in particular, comes across as a very disgusting and vile person with how he films Faye when she's walking around naked in the hut they stay at before heading off into the jungle and when she's relieving herself at one point during their trek, his generally standoffish attitude (the way he spits at one person holding the camera in one shot always gets me), how he shoots a Yacumo in the leg in order to slow down the party they come across so they can follow them back to the village, and his unquestioning participation in the murder of the Yacumos and gang-raping of the Yamamomo girl. Going back to Faye, he seems to be particularly sleazy and perverted towards her when you see the stuff I've already mentioned as well as when he gets on top of her while he's completely naked in the mud after he finishes taking his turn raping the native. Plus, he just looks particularly nasty with that dirty blonde hair and moustache (originally, I said that anyone like that makes my stomach churn but I decided to rephrase that since it was really unfair and insulting to a lot of people; I apologize to anybody who saw that). I don't have as much to say about Mark since he's not as prominent as Jack but, like I said, he's just as unscrupulous as Alan and Jack are and does everything horrible thing he's told to do. In fact, Mark seems more sadistic to me than Jack. For instance, look at the excited, mocking face he makes right when they're about to amputate Felipe's leg on-camera, as well as how willingly he goes along with the butchering of the turtle and the shooting of the pig, how he forces the Yacumos to stay inside the burning hut, and how he's the one who tells Alan when he becomes hysterical after Faye is taken by the cannibals that they have to get the film back to civilization. And like Jack, he's pretty sleazy with how the two of them film Alan and Faye having sex after the slaughter of the Yacumos.
Some other characters I'd like to mention before we move on are the Colombian soldiers seen at the beginning of the film, particularly the one who could pass for Louis Gossett Jr.'s twin brother. While there isn't much to say about them since they're only in this one part of the movie, I figured I'd mention them since it's obvious that they're really suffering from being stuck in such a hot, miserable hellhole like the Amazon jungle and that the medicine that they use to try to save themselves from any poison they come into contact with has usually expired by the time they get it and is worthless as a result. I also like the one guy for how, after he takes a swig of a beer, he spits it out and says, "A skunk must have pissed in that!" The other noteworthy ones are the NYU executives, one of whom is played by Robert Kerman's girlfriend at the time, who intend to turn the footage shot by the team into a documentary and are not at all fazed by what they've seen. In fact, the female executive seems downright invigorated by the footage of the Yacumo massacre and has a debate with Monroe about just how immoral what Alan and his team did was. She and the others aren't at all shocked by what was done to the natives, passing it off as Alan going overboard as he usually did, and it's only when they see the wholesale slaughter of the filmmakers themselves that they order the film destroyed, although they did seem to be changing their tune during the rape scene and the impalement.
Besides being the most well-known of the Italian cannibal movies made in the 70's and early 80's, Cannibal Holocaust is also noteworthy for being probably the earliest known example of the "found footage" gimmick. While that wouldn't become commonplace until the 2000's with the success of films like Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity movies, and only a third of Cannibal Holocaust is made up of the actual found footage, it's nevertheless the oldest film I can think of that made use of the idea of someone disappearing or something happening and the answer to the mystery being shown to the audience through footage that has been recently discovered. This technique is one of the aspects of the film that helps lend it its power and make it feel like what you're seeing could actually be real. While the section of the film that involves Prof. Monroe journeying through the jungle to find the missing filmmakers is most certainly realistic and gut-wrenching as well, the crudeness of the footage shot by Alan Yates and his team, with its cinema verite look and feel due to the constantly-shaking camera, the frenetic panning and editing when things become intense, and how the footage sometimes feels darker than it should be due to the filmmakers not having the diaphragm set correctly and such, makes it feel especially authentic. I think this is also what helps make the violence during this section feel more real. Instead of the camera focusing and lingering on gory makeup effects that could have easily looked fake after a while, you're seeing it through the eyes of a hand-held, shaky camera that virtually never stops moving and is unable to get the best glimpses of what's going on due to the instability of the person holding it and because what's happening is often obscured by the overgrowth of the jungle. When you combine that with the camera being stopped and then turned back on after some time has passed during the event that's still going on, it's hard not to think that what you're seeing is real.
One thing I think that Cannibal Holocaust does really that I don't hear anyone talk about it is "de-glorifying" the South American rainforests. What I mean by that is how the rainforest is often talked about as being a very beautiful, magical place, particularly by all of the activists who strive to keep it from being cut down (not that that's not important, mind you, because it is) as well as in classic adventure movies and literature, and while I won't deny that there is an inherent beauty to untouched, wild wilderness like this, it's hardly the paradise it's often made out to be. I don't know if it's due to how it's shot, which is sometimes nice as you can see in that one image here, or just the subject matter or what but in this film, the rainforest, particularly in the footage the Yates team filmed, is portrayed as a very ugly, inhospitable, savage place. I think the reason why the place feels particularly unpleasant to me in the film footage, aside from the obvious, is because of the nasty, yellow and green look that hand-held camera often has to it but even in the sections there that are shot like a typical film, the place is not at all inviting. It's hot and humid, the ground is nasty and littered with all sorts of disgusting bugs and such, there are spots that are nothing but thick mud, you have to butcher animals in order to survive, and on top of that, you've got these tribes who kill each other in the most gruesome ways, cannibalize each other, and even commit violent sexual acts against the women such as rape and a horrific ritualistic punishment for infidelity. Add to that the graphic, uncensored nudity of the film and the inhuman acts the Yates team commit against the natives and you've got a movie that's anything but an advertisement for vacationing in South America.
Speaking of the nudity, that shocked me just as much as the violence when I first saw the film. Obviously, I've seen a lot of movies that have some or a lot of nudity in them, particularly horror films, but since I hadn't seen that many Italian horror films by the time I first saw this (the only ones I had seen were Zombie and City of the Living Dead), I had no idea that they tended to not hold anything back when it comes to the skin as well as the gore. In fact, I was shocked when I watched the trailers before the movie, which I often do, and saw all of the uncensored penises and vaginas on display there as well. The question of nudity in a film actually adding something to the plot has become something of a joke by this point but I think the unflinching nature of it here helps give the movie even more of an uncomfortable feeling. When you see all of this stuff, often in ways that don't titillate at all like the rapes, the infidelity punishment, and Alan and Faye having sex right after killing a bunch of Yacumos for their film (it also doesn't help that I don't find Francesca Ciardi to be that attractive, so seeing her naked as many times as she is does not help), it's constantly reinforcing that this truly is a film that's, for better or worse, not going to pull any punches and is going to force you to look at a lot of things you'd rather not. (I know I didn't need to see Robert Kerman wading around naked in a river with a bunch of naked Yamamomos joining him and actually playing with his junk at some points.) Of course, the nudity is hardly the only thing graphic here.
I don't know think I ever have, nor ever will, see a movie that's as realistic and nightmarish in its violence as Cannibal Holocaust. The film's low-budget nature, coupled with the constant raw feel of the camerawork during the section involving the Yates team footage, makes it very easy to believe that what you're seeing is the actual, gruesome demise of real people. It's not hard to understand why this was thought to be a snuff film when it was originally released in Italy in February of 1980, with the film's marketing campaign and Ruggero Deodato's contract with the actors for them to disappear from the public eye for at least a year adding even more fuel to the fire. If you worked on a very low budget and yet you had to demonstrate how a particular effect was done so people won't think you're a murderer, that's quite an accomplishment! Even knowing that no one was actually killed during the making of the film, it's still often very hard to watch. In addition to what I've already said, another reason why it's so effective is because it's not done in a cartoonish manner like in a lot other horror films made around that time. You're not watching up-close shots of blood squirting everywhere, limbs exploding, or eyeballs being squeezed out of a person's head but rather very realistic, crude makeup effects that you're either only getting obscure, quick glimpses of or agonizingly long, drawn out sequences that are shot in a way that keeps them from feeling fake. The decomposing remains of Felipe that Prof. Monroe and his guides stumble across feels horrifically real because of the little remaining bit of hair and flesh you see atop the skull and the nasty bugs crawling through the eye sockets, and the hideous Yacumo punishment for adultery that they spy a native put his unfaithful wife through, by violating her with a phallic-shaped stone and shoving a mud-ball with bits of rock into her vagina before bashing her brains in, is absolutely unbearable to sit through. Rape is never pleasant to watch, and the violation of that one Yamamomo woman by a Shamatari that they come across, as well as the drawn-out gang rape of the native later on, are no exceptions and neither is the skinning alive of another Yamamomo that you witness. The remains of the filmmakers are pretty tame compared to the corpse the team found earlier, even with the beetle and worm crawling through the eye-sockets of one skull, but the sight of Monroe being forced to bite into a big chunk of human meat to gain the complete trust of the Yamamomos is another story. Hope he enjoyed his meal.
As if you weren't already horrified enough by the first section in the Amazon, the Yates footage sends the horror quotient up through the ceiling to the point where you'd be certain that some of what you're seeing is real. The crimes they commit against the Yacumos by attacking their village, killing the pig that was food for them, and forcing them to stay in a hut that's burning down, are repugnant enough, as is the scene of Alan and Faye having sex afterward and the aforementioned raping of the Yamamomo woman are hideous enough but the shots of a dying old woman by the side of the river (I'm not sure exactly what happened to her but I've read that she could possibly be someone who managed to escape the burning hut) and especially the abortion and death of a would-be mother actually make me heave a little bit. God, that is hard to look at! The film's iconic image, of course, is the Yamamomo girl who's found vertically impaled, either by her tribe due to her violation by the filmmakers or by the filmmakers themselves in order to create a sensational shot and there's no denying how convincing it is. If you look carefully, you can see the bicycle seat she's sitting on but that's probably the last place you're going to be looking, if you're even looking at the screen at all. Besides the gruesome detail you see of it (I think the most convicing shot of it, though, is the first one from far away, which is why I put it here; as well as because I was afraid to show any of the closer shots) and the fact that the actor doesn't flinch or breath at all when she's being filmed, just the idea of being impaled through the anus and out the mouth like that makes my skin crawl. And finally, the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film is nothing but pure fucking carnage as we see Jack get speared, finished off by Alan with his shotgun, his body get taken away by the cannibals and then completely butchered, with his penis being cut off, his body sliced apart by the natives' clubs, and his organs being pulled out, cooked and eaten, before Faye is taken, raped repeatedly as revenge for what they did to the native girl, and killed herself, with a shot of her head being taken off. You don't see what happens to Mark but you do see a shot of Alan's bloody face as he hits the ground in front of the camera and slowly dies. After all of that, I was exactly like the executives in the screening room: sitting there in stunned silence, unable to say anything or even move. And if any of the images you've seen in this section have made your stomach churn, just remember that this is the tame stuff.
What's ironic is that the "fake" violence in the film is so realistic and stomach churning that it's likely you're unaware that in the middle of the film, you saw some real people getting killed. No, Ruggero Deodato didn't actually get away with murder but what he did manage to do is package some real execution footage from Nigeria or some place into the documentary The Last Road to Hell that Alan Yates and his team are said to have filmed beforehand. The length of the footage varies depending on what version of the movie you see but, regardless, what you're seeing there is the real deal and yet, it's so "bland" compared to the rest of the violence in the film that you probably wouldn't think twice about it. I must confess that I was guilty of that during my first viewing of the film. I kind of suspected that stuff was probably real, since the film stock just has that old "news reel" type of look to it and the camerawork is even more amateurish than the Yates footage, but I was hit by a sledgehammer so many times afterward that I quickly forgot about it. Of course, when I later found out that it was indeed real, I was pretty disturbed. I've seen a lot of real disturbing images throughout my life, particularly in high school when we had to watch Bowling for Columbine on Martin Luther King day one time and when I saw an image of a monk setting himself on fire during my religion class, and while the level of how it affects me has been different from one example to another, it's still always disconcerting and freaky to know that you've seen the deaths of real people. And yet, when it comes to The Last Road to Hell footage, I sometimes wonder if I've become so numb to this kind of stuff that it took the horrific staged violence of the film to really get my attention, something I'll elaborate on in a bit.
Actor Gabriel Yorke has said that his relationship with Deodato changed drastically after the scene where the pig is killed on-camera and that the film's set had a level of cruelty to it that he'd never experienced before. That's exactly how I felt when, on a fluke, I decided to watch the film in its full, uncut form... something that I wish I hadn't done. You're given fair warning by the people at Grindhouse Releasing that what you're about to see is truly horrifying and will offend you but even that couldn't prepare me for the pure sadism that is the animal cruelty on display here. While it was all horrific and needless, the infamous turtle scene is what really got me and almost caused me to start crying. When it was over, I was thinking, "Thank God! God dammit, Ruggero Deodato, you're a piece of shit! You should be ashamed of doing something like this!" Now, I know that, given what I said up above, you're probably thinking that I have some very mixed up priorities, and I want to stress that I don't think animal life is more important than human life (remember, I've said all of the violence in the film is shocking), but the idea of defenseless animals being tortured and killed, real or not, has always ripped my heart out. It's why I always turn the channel whenever one of those commercials about saving animals from people who are abusing them pops up. I just can't take it. I'm not a crazy member of PETA or anything and I'm certainly not a vegetarian but I am an animal lover and I don't like seeing them being tortured and killed for a movie or anything else. (And yes, so sue me, I am one of those people who's perfectly fine with eating meat but doesn't want to see how what I'm eating ended up that way.) I can deal with it on nature documentaries and such since what we're watching is nature taking its course but when I know it's being done deliberately by the filmmakers, I'm pulling the plug. Like I said, I know that this film is hardly the only one where real animals were killed on-camera, with more or less the entire Italian cannibal subgenre and even beloved directors like Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now being guilty of it, but Deodato's, who himself had done this before on a previous cannibal movie he'd made, insistence on lingering on the suffering of these animals comes across as particularly reprehensible to me and it's small wonder why he ran into so much legal trouble (that said, I do think it's unfair that Coppola and other Italian directors who had done this like Umberto Lenzi got off without so much as a slap on the wrist). And for what? It doesn't add anything to the film except, admitedly, helping to further blur the line between what's real and fake here, which in itself isn't necessarily a good thing since it further enforces the idea that this is a horrific, nasty film by a man who's quite questionable as a human being. (Deodato has said he regrets what he did but the guy goes back and forth on what he thinks of the overall film so much that I don't know what to believe from him anymore.) He could have gotten across what he was trying to say without resorting to that. Bottom line, animals should not be killed for a movie or anything else. We engage in entertainment to kind of get away from that stuff and so, when someone actually does that, it's nothing less than just being immoral and inhuman.
(Knowing what a hot-button topic that is, I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to start any type of debate but rather just giving my personal thoughts on one of the film's most disturbing aspects. Plus, that's what I feel. If you feel differently, fine, but I don't want to see any comments taking me to task and calling me an idiot for position. I'm serious. Now, onward.)
Deodato has also shown that you can't put much stock in a lot of what he says in regards to the motives he had for making Cannibal Holocaust: sometimes he says that he intended to make just another cannibal movie and other times, he says that there were political motivations and intended social commentary behind it and many critics and film analysts feel that there is much to support this. For many, this is Deodato commenting on the need for sensationalism in the media, with the man himself saying that the inspiration came from the Italian news coverage of the terrorist acts of the Red Brigades and how he felt that it was done with little regard to journalistic integrity and that some of the footage was set up in some ways. For him, the hideous actions of the Yates team were meant to reflect the Italian media but you can also most definitely see that in the attitudes of the executives who push Prof. Monroe to put together a documentary from the Yates footage. Let's face it, the female executive's assertion that people want sensationalism nowadays and her, as well as the others', excitement about what can be created from the footage, even though so much of it is horrific and unusable for prime time television, is hardly subtle. But at the same time, as James Marriott wrote in that Horror Films book I mentioned in the introduction, Deodato may have been onto something given how, as I said earlier, how The Last Road to Hell's containing real footage of execution is almost never mentioned by viewers whereas everything else, which is much more horrific, is all that's ever talked about. For that matter, instead of deterring you, the images you've seen in this post have probably made you interested in actually seeing the film if you already haven't. It's also been suggested that the film is something of a condemnation of the "mondo" films, those series of documentaries that were very exploitive in nature and often combined real footage with stuff that was staged for the camera, with genuine animal slaughter being one example of the latter (although he still shouldn't have done it, it's understandable why, given how those films and other cannibal movies got off scott-free, that Deodato was surprised at how much legal trouble he got into for killing animals here). However, a common criticism of these interpretations is that they make Deodato look like a major hypocrite because the film itself wallows in the same sensationalism that it's trying to condemn, with the long, drawn-out sequences of horrific violence, the fact that the cast and crew of the actual film did the same stuff that the Yates team are criticized for (i.e. killing animals to add more shock value to the film and such), and that the real natives used to play the cannibals weren't treated all that well during filming and were basically exploited too. While it is hard to argue with the other assertions since they're, well, right there, and also because the film was sold on how horrific it is, the way I look at the treatment of the violence is the same way I do the similar criticisms that are leveled against Se7en: sometimes, you need to actually show the horror of what you're condemning so that the audience will understand what you're going for. That's not to defend some of the horrific methods Deodato employed to achieve his goals, mind you, because he did go overboard in many aspects, but I do think it was necessary in order to make the viewer get what you're talking about.
What I find more troubling myself about Cannibal Holocaust is how, when it's all said and done, I think to myself, "Man, we suck as a species." This is a film that truly shows the dark side of humanity and the evil that it's capable of, even when said humanity is supposed to be civilized. This so-called "civilized" team of documentary filmmakers committed some of the most monstrous acts possible against the animals of the Amazon and the natives all in the name of western entertainment. As horrific and nasty as the filmmkers' deaths are, in a way it's justified for the horrible things they've done but even then, they've left such an atmosphere of fear and distrust in the jungle that the normally non-cannibalistic Yacumos are forced to partake in an ancient ritual of it in order to rid their home of what they feel to be evil spirits. The feeling of superiority that the filmmakers and executives have towards the primitives are also very disconcerting, leading the executives to only seem to decide not to show the footage and have it destroyed when they see the gruesome fate of the filmmakers, despite all of the horrible stuff they had done to the natives. But, even so, the tribes portrayed in the film are hardly model human beings too, with their hideous ritualistic punishments and gruesome ways of making war with each other that involve skinning alive and raping of women. It's not much different from what modern, civilized societies do to each other during their conflicts. One doesn't seem to torture the other for their own entertainment but, still, there's hardly much of a difference between them and us and so, when Prof. Monroe ponders at the end, "I wonder who the real cannibals are?", it's tempting for me to say, "Both." Granted, the compassion that Monroe and his guides (Chaco's no saint but he's certainly much better than the Yates team) show towards the tribes and how they extinguish the tensions in the air with gifts and taking part in their customs, as nasty as they are to westerners, is encouraging but, still, this is one of those movies that doesn't pull any punches in showing the atrocities that people, both primitive and civilized, are capable of.
The influence of the Mondo films on the movie is most telling in Deodato's decision to have Riz Ortolani, who had scored Mondo Cane, perhaps the most well-known of those documentaries, to do the music and he actually scored it in a way similar to how those films used their music, which was use to very upbeat and downright beautiful music to accompany very grim images. Case in point, the main theme of Cannibal Holocaust, which you first hear during the opening tracking shots of the jungle from an airplane, is a very beautiful, syrupy melody that sounds like it should be in a romantic love story, not a savage film like this. Its placement during some very horrific scenes like the filmmakers attacking the Yacumo village and for a brief moment during the carnage-laden climax is all to effective in making them all the most unsettling, and the way you hear it again over the ending credits after the horror you've just witnessed makes you just sit there and turn that gruesome stuff over in your head again and again in a vain attempt to make sense of it. Weirdly enough, there are several funky, upbeat pieces of music listed in the film's soundtrack that sound like a mixture of typical porn music and disco but, other than possibly on the small radio the Louis Gossett Jr. lookalike is listening to when Prof. Monroe first arrives, I don't remember ever hearing this stuff in the movie. Maybe I was too shell-shocked at those points to comprehend it. There are some fittingly disturbing pieces of music as well, most notably this utterly apocalyptic bit you first hear during the scene where the Yacumo woman is punished for adultery. It's made up of very powerful strings and synthesizer sounds that are already grim when they start out but then crescendo into a very sad, almost operatic piece that perfectly punctuates the horror and tragedy of what's going on (it made the turtle scene even harder to watch than it already was). Speaking of synthesizer, throughout the different parts of the score you hear this distinct, "pew" sound that works much like the shrill, screeching noise in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, adding to the uneasiness and making you stop and go, "The hell was that?" The music during the scene where you see the impaled girl is pretty mellow and relaxing, like the main theme, but the themes for the cannibal attacks fit perfectly with the absolute mayhem going on. It starts out with those "pew" sounds, followed by some rough, scratchy synthesizer music, and then goes into pure nightmare mode with loud, shrill, screeching strings that grow louder and louder as the sequence goes on, all the while accompanied by those "pew" sounds and some rhythmic clapping noises. Despite what you may think about the film itself, I think it's hard to deny that the score is excellent, beautiful at times, horrific other times, but always effective.