Believe it or not, Judge Bill Gibron actually thinks that this sleazoid slice of excruciating exploitation is one of the best Italian horror movies of all time. We knew there was something wrong with him.
More bungle in the jungle…and it's all right by me.
Certain films gain their reputation in a decidedly misguided manner. Recently, critics foamed over the fierce "brutality" of Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects, responding to its Grand Guignol glorification of violence like the second coming of the cinematic Antichrist. True, the film gets off on its own sense of creative cruelty, but it is nowhere near as vile or vicious as it thinks it is. Indeed, when compared to the Italian cannibal films of the '70s and '80s, Rob's little road movie is an artsy-fartsy wannabe. Let's face it—these Mediterranean moviemakers really know "'mean." The level of atrocity they use to anchor their fright flicks is monumental, and many of these films have truly earned their contemptible character.
A perfect example is Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox. Nothing more than a native revenge film covered in gallons of gore, this sleazy, seedy excuse for entertainment is so downright despicable and disgraceful that it hardly warrants its current status as a vaunted video nasty—especially when placed alongside the film that more or less inspired it. For many, Ruggerio Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust is the gold standard of "gone native" splatter, an exercise in excess so wretchedly overwrought that you are probably destined to go to Hell just thinking about many of its skuzzy set pieces. But the truth is far tamer. While Deodato's movie does contain a lot of unnecessary grue, it is also a winning vilification of the meddling media mindset. It also formed the basis for much of the Burkittsville ballyhoo that surrounded that otherwise direct rip-off known as The Blair Witch Project.
Facts of the Case
Hoping to locate a group of documentary filmmakers, Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, The Concorde: Airport '79) heads out into the Amazon, retracing the team's journey into the literal heart of darkness. After several near-fatal adventures, the Professor locates the remains of the crew, as well as many cans of film. Bringing the footage back to the United States, Monroe finally sees what happened to the hapless party. Turns out they were creating unmentionable atrocities just to film them, and the locals took issue with such antics. Eventually, the filmmakers were tracked down and slaughtered—on camera—as part of some horrifying, nasty Cannibal Holocaust.
For anyone who thinks that all Goona Goona movies are alike, a trip through this particular Cannibal Holocaust should quiet those concerns once and for all. Far more graphic than other jungle jive, but with an actual message method to its miscreant madness, this is one of the best Italian horror films ever—all for reasons that have nothing to do with terror or the macabre. Ruggerio Deodato has made a geek show as Greek chorus, a strident social commentary on the state of the news media glossed over with gore and gratuitous animal slaughter. While it is truly tainted, sickening stuff, one does not feel as filthy as say the experience of watching the last few minutes of Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox. Both movies trade in the same sort of repugnant imagery, but one film wants to play with the parameters of cinema. The other is just out for a splattery good time.
Cannibal Holocaust is actually two films in one. The first half of the movie plays like a typical B-movie expedition. A film crew is missing and the network hires the resident expert Dr. Monroe to find them. He hooks up with a horribly stereotyped Hispanic guide (you half expect the voiceover actor to break into a chorus of the clichéd "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" halfway through his line readings) and his young buff companion, and we're off to see the natives. The initial scenes of the film have Deodato riffing on the standard situations of the wilderness. We see kamen and snakes, monkeys and leopards. Every once in a while our José Jimenez-style scout stops and chews up the scenery with his tried-and-true travelogue tenets. Pretty soon, we wonder what all this is leading up to—and then Deodato drops his first of many brazen bombs.
The scene is simple enough—a native is punishing his woman for adultery. As the befuddled bwana look on, the man rapes her with a huge wooden phallus and then beats her to death with the same homemade sex symbol. Just before this, we've seen the first of many of the movie's infamous animal abuse scenes—in this case, the killing of a muskrat on camera. The little animal squeals in unearthly pain as the pocketknife pierces its throat, and in combination with the human horror show to follow, we quickly realize that Deodato does not intend to hold back. Indeed, he is about to show us even more.
Now, some will argue that the scenes of animal slaughter are nothing more than a nauseating nature snuff film, and they'd be right. Indeed, many of the more memorable moments come with the unnecessary torment and torture of innocent creatures. But this critic will argue that such blatant abuse is a filmic necessity. It sets up the whole potential premise of the film. When we see a pig being shot, or a sea turtle gutted and chopped up (it's the movie's single worst sequence) we instantly react. We put up barriers and prepare ourselves for the next instance of inhumanity. So when the special effects kick in (sorry, no real human blood is spilled here), our guard is already up and prepared. We let the moments in before processing their fakeness or reality. They have instant impact, before eventually being dismissed. Sure, some of the skin eating is obviously pork stretched over medical school skeletons. But there are a couple of sequences (including an incredibly vile abortion) that really rock your civilized sensibilities.
But Cannibal Holocaust isn't just a gut-munching gross out. Though it may seem odd to say it, Cannibal Holocaust is really a disgustingly dark comedy, a savage satire on the media and the methods it would stoop to in selling a story. Deodato was way ahead of his time here, attempting a Network-like denouncement of filmmakers and journalists who would rather "create" news than simply report it. We laugh at the moments surrounding the fictional Alan Yates and his team of intrepid psychos. It is hilarious how quickly they revert to rape, murder, and disgustingly deviant behavior, all in an attempt to "go native" and have the locals provide them with some sensationalized footage. Sure, the entire last act of the film (where the Blair Witch-style material from their final "adventure" is screened by the TV executives) is laughable, a kind of perverted pantheon of over-the-top elements. But Deodato uses this approach to both condemn and codify his characters. We need villains in this kind of film, and Alan and his pals make the perfect cannibal bait.
Indeed, the last 20 minutes of the movie are amazing—brilliantly directed and logistically perfect. We never question where a shot is coming from and Deodato pays enough attention to the limits of what his ambushed filmmakers could capture to never let the movie's reality lapse. What we end up with is a sequence with a very authentic feeling, something that could very well be the final moments in the life of some soulless, amoral moviemakers. As the natives get down to the business of getting even, the viciousness reverberates off the screen and suddenly we see the light. Cannibal Holocaust is not some kind of wild white man's burden. It's not an assault on how the modern world is destroying the Amazon. No, this is a film about man's baser instincts, and how they can lead him to ruin as easily as respect. The cannibals may be seen are cruel, crude skin eaters, but they are merely responding to the threat posed by out-of-control Caucasians.
That is why Cannibal Holocaust is a much better film than its imitators and inspiration. It is still repugnant and sordid, but most of the misguided grotesquery is in service of a very sound message. The acting is excellent all around, not stand-offish or filled with surreal showboating, and Deodato keeps his camera fluid, never locking down on one locale. This allows the audience to feel as lost in the cinematic jungle as the characters do. For most, there will be no forgiving the animal cruelty. Others will dismiss the deeper message as a splatter apologist arguing in favor of a decidedly juicy bit of junk. But the truth is that Cannibal Holocaust is a good movie gunked up by elements that are either unnecessary (monkey brain eating? Please…) or unexplained (the way in which the natives function among themselves is left to a lot of confusing speculation), a true milestone of moviemaking that is sadly slandered for issues far outside the main purpose of the narrative. As long as you are prepared for the repugnance, you will more or less enjoy this graphic, gritty cinematic experiment. Its reputation is well deserved.
One of the great things about digital packages and DVDs is that, sometimes, the home theater presentation offers more than one story. On occasion, the bonus features themselves can tell a tale as compelling as the one up on the screen. Such is the case with the marvelous, masterful two-disc 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition version of this film by Grindhouse Releasing. It needs to be said upfront—this is one of the best DVD presentations of the year, bar none. Not just from a technical standpoint—and the film really has never looked or sounded better—but from the way in which this company fleshes out the feature with interviews, commentaries, making-ofs, and differing versions to really place the film in the proper context.
First up, though, are the standard video and audio element—and they are spectacular. For a film made under less-than-ideal conditions (it really was shot in the Amazon, folks), the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is almost pristine. It has been cleaned up considerably, and all issues revolving around color and contrasts are rendered moot. As with most Italian movie making, the image is flat and simplistic, but this goes a long way in selling the film's alternate "reality." There is also a new Dolby Digital Stereo remix that really opens up the movie's muddy aural aspects. As usual, all dialogue is dubbed and sound effects are overwrought and unworkable. But thanks to the new audio remaster, the amazing music of Riz Ortilani is fabulously realized. Indeed, the film's soundtrack is one of its more amazing aspects—all moody menace and romantic repulsion.
The real "meat" in this release however comes from the eye-opening interviews and commentary track included. While not an outright apologist for his film (he admits that some things deserve to be changed), director Ruggerio Deodato is on hand to support and defend his movie. In the corner against him is the proudly pissed-off protagonist from the film, Professor Harold Monroe himself, actor Robert Kerman. In a lengthy Q&A that is part of the second disc's behind-the-scenes overview of the project, Kerman makes no bones about his hatred for the director, his designs, and the dreadful little film they created together. Bitter, spewing volumes of bile about his involvement in this cinematic septic tank, he makes outrageous comments about wanting Deodato dead, how he vehemently protested the animal abuse and how the film more or less undermined his entire career (this coming from a part-time porn star, mind you). As he puffs his chest and argues his insistent moral high ground, we realize that he will soon sit down with Deodato for a full-length audio commentary…and we can't wait for the sparring sparks to fly.
Well, they never arrive. Available in one of two intriguing fashions (you can either listen to the commentary, or access specific scenes of the pair watching and discussing the film), the alternative narrative track turns out to be a rather amiable affair. Certainly the pair disagrees about a number of things, but the verbal fisticuffs that Kerman promised never develop. Instead, the actor just rolls his eyes and makes the occasional face in response to Deodato's more amusing anecdotes. Toward the end, when death is filling the screen, Kerman does get in a few digs, but overall, the commentary traces the film's history, and highlights certain effects and how they were achieved. For more dished dirt, we have to turn to the remaining interviews on Disc Two. The rest of the material on Disc One contains an alternative version of the "Last Road to Hell" clip seen in the film (nothing major) and the ability to program the DVD so that you can experience an animal cruelty-free version of the movie (Yea!).
Another amazing oral history of what happened during the film's making-of comes from "Alan Yates" himself, actor Carl Gabriel Yorke. His recollections of what happened during the shoot differ from both Deodato and Kerman, and his hour-long conversation is full of delicious dirt. Yorke explains how frightened he was when he walked on the set the first time and saw the animal slaughter. Unable to speak either Spanish or Italian, he suddenly feared he was the main feature in a secret snuff film. His description of the movie's only sex scene is hilarious, and a confrontation with a producer over his pay is equally memorable. Yorke still appears a bit shellshocked from the whole experience and let's his feelings flow in long, involved stories of hardship and happenstance. Along with the hour-long documentary on the making of the movie (more onscreen discussions, some backstage footage) and the collection of trailers and other supplemental bits, this is a fully-loaded, completely complementary DVD experience. Indeed, you often feel like you're getting two films for the price of one here—Cannibal Holocaust itself, and the mesmerizing story of how the movie was made.
It's hard to stand as champion for a film that violates as many ethical and moral mandates as Cannibal Holocaust. No post-millennial moviemaker would kill animals on screen for the sake of a scare, and in our current climate of PC protectionism, treating the Amazonian Indians with anything other than regality and respect would be grounds for cinematic excommunication. Indeed, Deodato and several of the performers featured in the film would argue that they themselves have been metaphysically blackballed from some manner of superstardom as a result of being part of this Goona Goona geek show. Certainly the film's fetid reputation rides far ahead of anything else the movie accomplishes. But if one can get past the putrid, they will see a smart, savage look at modern man and the media god it serves. Cannibal Holocaust may be foul, but as a movie with something to say, it deserves better than a barf bag badge of (dis)honor.
Cannibal Holocaust is found not guilty and is free to go. Grindhouse Releasing is commended for having the chutzpah to release this film in the first place, and for the amazing DVD package that resulted.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Grindhouse Releasing
• Audio Commentary by Director Ruggero Deodato and Star Robert Kerman
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