Written by Kevin Jennings
Humans can have a remarkable capacity for both cruelty and voyeurism. If one knows where to look, videos can be found depicting the most violent, and depraved things imaginable. Many of these videos available are footage from wars and terrorist attacks, though there are some that are made strictly for sadistic pleasure, and perhaps a bit of profit. We won’t get into the content of such videos, as these are generally illegal material made for personal use or to be shared within a small circle of likeminded individuals.
Instead, today we’ll be looking at a more traditional film. The kind of movie that has actors, a production team, and a theatrical release. Depending on your personal tolerance for the obscene, you may draw the line for what constitutes “too disturbing” of a movie at Saw, Human Centipede, or Ichi the Killer.
What separates today’s movie from other potentially disturbing movies is a sense of realism and authenticity. While a movie like Human Centipede may be disgusting at times, it is clearly fiction. Not only that, it is clearly fiction with the sole purpose of being as gross as possible. No matter how unsettling a scene may be, there is still a disconnect with the viewer. It may be hard to watch, but at least it isn’t real.
This is the story of a movie that robbed viewers of that disconnect that could otherwise protect their sanity. It is the story of the world’s first found footage movie, designed to appear as authentic as possible to fool audiences. It is the story of a movie that seemed so real, the director was charged with murder until he could prove it was fake. Worst of all, this is the story of a movie where not everything actually was fake. This is the story of Cannibal Holocaust.
Cannibal Holocaust was the brainchild of Italian director Ruggero Deodato and writer Gianfranco Clerici, with whom he had worked before. Exploitation films play off of whatever trends are popular at the time, like zombies in the 2000s and 2010s. In 1980 Italy, the big exploitation trend was cannibal horror films. Directors loved these projects because it gave them an excuse to film in tropical locations while needing minimal budget for sets. This may have provided the setting for the film, but Deodato had more in mind than a run of the mill horror movie; he wanted to make a point.
The movie was inspired by the Italian media’s portrayal of the Red Brigades. The Red Brigades were a far-left terrorist group in Italy from the 1960s through 1980s. Among their many acts of terror in Italy were the kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who had resigned only two years prior. Deodato felt that some of the news coverage was depicting fake or staged events, which is what gave him the idea for the found footage plot device as well as some other themes.
Just below the surface, underneath a layer of gore and obscenity, the movie was a commentary on shock value and manipulation. Deodato felt that the media was using staged events to shock the Italian public into feeling a certain way. In turn he was going to use that same level of shock by presenting a fictional movie as fact to manipulate the audience towards the deeper meaning of the movie.
Digging further down, past both the shock itself and the commentary on media’s use of shock, was a harsh critique of colonialism. It turns out that it was not the Amazonian tribe of cannibals, but rather the white documentarians that had descended upon them that were the real savages.
In order to sell the idea to the public that the fictional footage discovered in the movie was in fact real documentary footage, Deodato had one more trick up his sleeve. He made all of the actors sign contracts that forbade them from going anywhere in public for one year after the film’s release. It was a clever idea, but one that would ultimately backfire.
The movie presents itself as a documentary. The basis is that an American film crew disappeared while making a documentary about cannibal tribes in the Amazon rainforest. Anthropologist Harold Monroe from New York University agreed to lead a rescue mission, which would be filmed, in the hopes of recovering the missing filmmakers.
Upon his arrival, Monroe is given a guide, an assistant, and a hostage. The hostage was a young man from one of the local tribes, and was taken prisoner by military personnel to give Monroe some leverage for negotiating the safe release of the lost crew.
He encounters the young man’s tribe, and releases the hostage in exchange for being taken to their village. At the village, Monroe is met with hostility, being told that the previous crew caused great unrest among the various native tribes. The next day, he is guided deeper into the Amazon where he encounters two other warring tribes. He and his crew are able to save a small group from one tribe from a band of warriors from the other, and are invited back to their village.
Despite being invited as a sign of gratitude, the natives are still wary of the presence of these outsiders. To gain their trust, he bathes naked in the river, where he is joined by the women of the tribe. After bathing, they guide him to a shrine where he discovers the skeletal remains of the missing film crew, along with their reels of footage. He is able to impress and intrigue the natives by playing music from a tape recorder, which he trades them for the deceased crew’s footage. Having completed his mission, it’s time to go back to New York.
So far, nothing too outrageous. There’s some mild violence, some nudity during a platonic bathing scene, and a few realistic looking skeletons. But this is only half the movie. The other half of the movie is contained within the canisters of film that Monroe returned with to New York. Executives from the company that hired the original documentary makers invited Monroe to host a broadcast of the documentary that would be made with the recovered footage. Having had no part in the film’s creation, he insists on watching the raw footage first.
The executives agree, but first they show him an excerpt from one of the director’s other documentaries, explaining that sometimes he would stage scenes to get more dramatic and exciting footage. Monroe is then left alone to watch the footage, in all of its brutal glory.
The original documentary crew also had a guide, but he was bitten by a poisonous snake. They amputated his leg to try to save him, but he died and was left behind. Shortly thereafter, they stumble upon a group from one of the local tribes. They needed to find the tribe’s village, so a cameraman shoots one of the natives in the leg, making him easy to follow to his home.
Once they reached the village, the crew immediately intimidated them, herding them into a hut. They then burned the hut down to stage a massacre that their documentary would claim was organized by a warring tribe. Monroe finished watching the raw footage, and was absolutely disgusted.
He contacted the executives to share his disapproval and plead with them not to air the documentary. They were insistent that the documentary would air, so to convince them otherwise he made them watch the final two reels of raw footage that, to this point, only he had seen.
The final reels opened with the male members of the crew tracking down a girl from one of the native tribes. They took turns raping her while the only female member of the crew told them to stop, not because what they were doing was horrible or inhumane, but because they were wasting film. That same girl is later found by the riverbank, impaled on a wooden pole. For documentary purposes they claim that the tribe killed her for having lost her purity, but it is heavily implied that they murdered her and staged the scene.
Shortly after, they were attacked by the tribe in retaliation for the rape and murder of the girl. One of the cameramen was struck by a spear, so the director shot him to make sure he couldn’t escape and was taken captive by the tribe. They then filmed as the tribe stripped him naked and cut off his genitals before mutilating the rest of his body.
The crew then continued to try to escape, finding themselves lost and surrounded in the process. In the commotion, the female crewmember was captured by the tribe. The director insisted that they needed to help her, but the remaining cameraman just kept filming as she was gang-raped, beaten to death, and beheaded. Finally, the tribe located the two men who remained and killed them as the camera dropped to the ground.
Having seen the additional footage, the executives canceled their plans to release the documentary and instead ordered all of the footage burned. Meanwhile, Monroe was left to ponder “who the real cannibals were”.
Reception and Controversy
The initial reaction to the film was positive, both from audiences and critics. In Italy, the movie grossed $2 million ($7 million today) in just 10 days, while in Japan it grossed $21 million ($74.5 million today). It was the second highest grossing movie of the era in Japan, losing out only to E.T. the Extraterrestrial. However, that was only the initial reaction.
After being in theatres in Italy for only 10 days, the movie was confiscated by the government and all copies were demanded to be turned over to the authorities. The scenes of violence, particularly sexual violence, were so realistic that Deodato was charged with obscenity. It was only going to get worse from there.
Cannibal Holocaust still got released in many other countries. During The theatrical run in France, the French magazine Photo printed an article that suggested the murders in the movie were genuine, and that the actors who played the original documentary crew had been killed for the camera. Following this article’s publication, Deodato, who was still facing charges of obscenity, was now also being charged with murder.
Nobody wants to be charged with murder, but there were two things that made this particularly problematic for Deodato. The first was that it was still only eleven months since the premiere in Italy. His actors had all honoured their contracts, which meant that nobody had seen or heard a word from any of them in almost a year, thus fuelling the rumours that they had actually been murdered.
The other problem was much more severe, and is the reason that even many fans of truly horrific and gory movies refuse to watch Cannibal Holocaust. Deodato wanted people to believe that the movie was real. He went to great lengths both with the practical effects in the film and the contracts with the actors to convince people that it was all genuine. But he also had one more, utterly reprehensible trick up his sleeve to manipulate people’s minds into thinking that everything they saw was real.
To trick people’s brains into thinking the fake human violence was real, the movie also included very real violence against animals. A coati (a member of the raccoon family) was killed with a knife, a tarantula and boa constrictor were both killed with a machete, a giant Amazon river turtle was decapitated and disemboweled, a pig was shot in the head at point blank range with a rifle, and a squirrel monkey was decapitated with a machete. If all of that wasn’t bad enough, the scene in which the monkey was killed required two takes, meaning a second monkey. The only possible silver lining is that the members of the Amazonian tribes that were working as extras ate the animals, so that their deaths would not be completely wasted.
Though the murder of animals does not carry the same penalty of law as the murder of humans, it’s still a terrible act. This revelation now only brought additional charges, but did nothing to help his murder defense.
Ultimately, Deodato was cleared of the murder charges. Though the court questioned why none of these actors had appeared in any media since the film if they were indeed alive, he was eventually able to locate one of them who got in contact with the others. Together they were able to clear his name. But only of murder. He and five others involved in the making of the film were convicted of obscenity and animal cruelty, though they only received a four month suspended sentence.
Due to both the controversy and the graphic nature of the film, it was banned in several countries. Italy, Australia, the United States, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, and several other countries all banned the release of the film. The United Kingdom almost certainly would have banned it as well, but the production company had a loophole. Theatrical releases were required to pass before the British Board of Film Censors, and they almost certainly would have banned the movie. However, the BBFC’s power only extended to theatres so Cannibal Holocaust was released straight to video in the UK to avoid this possibility.
Notably, this was the last movie that the United States as a whole has banned due to explicit content. There have been a few bans in specific states or bannings as a result of copyright or other legal disputes, but since Cannibal Holocaust in 1980, no theatrical release has received a nationwide ban resulting from obscene content. The US also removed the ban in 1985.
Today, Cannibal Holocaust enjoys a cult following. Many lists rank it as one of the 10 or 25 greatest horror movies of all time, but it still continues to top lists of the most disturbing films as well.
The story of the movie is just as complex as the movie itself hoped to be. It is quite likely that somewhere, buried beneath a pile of blood, animal cruelty, and far too realistic rape, there is a brilliant movie to be had here. The film had two major goals. The first was its social commentary on media and colonialism. The second was to create a found footage movie, the first of its kind, that audiences would actually believe was real. The contract Deodato had his actors sign to help sell the authenticity was a masterstroke.
Unfortunately, if there is a brilliant film at the bottom of all of this, the problem is a person would have to sift through 90 minutes of needlessly graphic content to find it. The goal of making a movie as a contemporary social commentary was almost certainly hindered by the fact that the movie found itself banned in many counties for years, or even decades.
Still, Deodato can find comfort in the fact that Cannibal Holocaust will live on forever in infamy. It may not be the only movie to ever trick viewers into believing it was a genuine snuff film, but it was the only one so convincing that it saw the director arrested for murder.