Judge Patrick Bromley prefers Jem and the Cannibal Holograms.
Our review of Cannibal Holocaust: 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition, published December 12th, 2005, is also available.
The most controversial movie ever made.
I have always been afraid of Cannibal Holocaust. It is a movie preceded by its reputation, known for being relentless violent and brutal to the point where the movie has been banned in multiple territories and director Ruggero Deodato was brought up on charges of obscenity and even murder. Knowing the effect the film had on those who had seen it and were repelled by it made me actually afraid to watch it. The movie seemed dangerous.
But with my ever-growing interest in cult and exploitation films and the upcoming release of Eli Roth's The Green Inferno—his tribute to the Italian cannibal genre—it seemed like the time had finally arrived for me to see Cannibal Holocaust. My timing couldn't have been better, either, as Grindhouse Releasing's new Blu-ray of the film offers the chance to see the best possible version ever released and learn quite a bit about the production and resulting controversy thanks to an extensive collection of supplemental material.
Facts of the Case
After an American documentary crew goes missing in the Amazon while shooting a movie about cannibal tribes, NYU anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, No Way Out) leads a search party to get them back. He encounters and ultimately gains the trust of the tribe, retrieving the footage shot by the film crew but not the crew themselves. Upon taking the film back to New York to turn it into a documentary, Monroe discovers the truth about the crew's fate—and it's more horrifying than anything he ever could have imagined.
The Evidence "Classics" are defined in all kinds of ways. The way we usually talk about classics in movie terms is to describe films that have more merit than most and which everyone should see. We tend to reserve the classification for "important" movies like Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz and The Godfather?the list goes on. But there are also classics of a different kind—movies that are classics of their own genres or which provide an exemplary model of a much smaller subset of film.
In its way, Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust is very much a classic—a classic of exploitation cinema, a classic of the Italian cannibal genre (which, I assure you, is a thing), even a classic of the now-ubiquitous "found footage" genre, which Cannibal Holocaust essentially helped invent. But is it any good?
My answer is "sort of." Like all film, horror is totally subjective. What affects some leaves others cold and vice versa, so while there are devoted fans of Deodato, of cannibal movies and of this film in particular, it would be a lie to say it all worked for me. When the film is at its most horrific—particularly during those last 30 minutes, when much of what we believed to be true is turned on its head in ways I didn't necessarily see coming—it works. Cannibal Holocaust shares DNA with Tobe Hooper's original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in that it feels brutally immediate, less the work of a director and film crew than of maniacs with cameras (and, if some of the behind-the-scenes stories of Cannibal Holocaust are to be believed, that might not be so far off). There is a reason the movie was brought up on charges and Deodato had to produce his cast in court to prove they weren't actually murdered, as the final moments of the film have an authenticity and true horror that doesn't feel replicated or "pretended." The use of real Amazon locations and a real tribe help everything feel real, which only adds to the sense of dread and awfulness that permeates the film's climax.
But then there's a bunch of other stuff that doesn't work as well, like most of the scenes of Monroe first looking for the crew and interacting with the tribe. Some of it is interesting from an anthropological perspective—I like when a movie shows me something I've never seen (and probably will never see) before—but it doesn't quite function as well as it should it terms of making a horror movie. There's little that's revealed in the last 30 minutes that has really been set up by the first 60 except for answering the question of "what happened?" While I understand the need for the framing device in which Monroe goes out looking for the crew, comes back to New York and even screens it for a group of horrified executives, it diminishes the movie's impact. Maybe Deodato is taking a page from the Psycho playbook and offering a denouement that allows the viewer to come down from the climax; whatever the case, I couldn't help but Monday Morning Quarterback the last moments of the films and wish it ended with its unsettling images instead of people in suits walking out of a room (I don't think that's a spoiler). I guess the whole found footage aesthetic wasn't quite there yet.
One of the advantages of Grindhouse's new Blu-ray of Cannibal Holocaust is that it allows viewers to watch a version of the movie without the scenes of animal slaughter. This has always been the most controversial aspect of the movie—the rest is just filmmaking, special effects and urban legend—as it's in these sequences it really does go too far. The scenes actually lend the later moments of human murder a different kind of authenticity, making it all feel "real," but it's so hard to watch that it turned me against the movie too much to really win me back. Deodato has since admitted he regrets those scenes, and perhaps his willingness to cooperate with Grindhouse releasing a version of the movie that is, essentially, edited is a step towards rectifying that mistake. For purists, the original, uncut movie is still available, but I will not be returning to that edit. I'll be going cruelty-free in future viewings of Cannibal Holocaust and, God help me, I suspect there will be future viewings of Cannibal Holocaust.
Grindhouse Releasing's exhaustive Blu-ray of Cannibal Holocaust is as much a historical document of this famously controversial film as it is the best presentation the movie has ever received. The 1.85:1-framed widescreen film gets a full 1080p HD transfer and looks genuinely beautiful. Though there are age spots and scratches—as well as some variance in quality as the movie shifts from 35 to 16mm and back—the colors of the jungle are lush and gorgeous and there is a layer of film-like grain over the whole thing that makes it look really spectacular. While some might argue that a movie like this should be seen on beat-up, degraded VHS (to help give it more of that "snuff film" quality), there is a fascinating disconnect that happens between the beauty of the images and the ugliness portrayed that makes for a movie that, if not exactly better, is certainly more interesting. Two audio options are offered, both in lossless form: the first is the original mono track for purists, while the second is a richer and, I would argue, better stereo track that offers more atmospheric surround work and highlights Riz Ortolanti's terrific score, which is offered on a separate soundtrack CD in this collector's edition.
The movie comes with a pair of commentary tracks, the first from director Deodato and star Robert Kerman and the second from actors Carl Yorke and Francesca Ciardi, both of which provide a good overview of the production and look back on the movie with a new context. A brief featurette, "Last Road to Hell," offers a slightly longer look at some violent and disturbing footage taken by the film crew. Rounding out the special features on Disc One are five different trailers for the film (including the original U.S. trailer, a trailer for its re-release, the Italian trailer and others), all presented in HD.
The second disc of the set contains most of the supplements, which consist primarily of interviews with most of the movie's major participants. The main one is a nearly hour-long interview with Deodato, who speaks about each of the films in his "Jungle Trilogy," which also includes Last Cannibal World and Cut and Run. The interview is broken up by film and can be accessed thusly on the menu. He speaks at length about the controversy surrounding the movie, particularly the animal killing, as well as the court case that follows the movie's release. Other participants are interviewed as well: Robert Kerman speaks for over 30 minutes about his dislike for the film, Carl Yorke talks for an hour, Francesca Ciardi for almost 40 minutes, Salvatore Basile for 30 minutes, composer Riz Ortolani for five minutes about the score and camera operator Robert Davanzati talks for just over 10 minutes about the production and response to the film. Everyone interviewed is incredibly honest and candid about their experiences and almost to a person expresses disgust with the scenes of animal slaughter. Also included is a panel discussion with Deodato from Cinema Wasteland, a Q&A with Francesca Ciardi recorded in Glasgow and footage from two different conventions, one a reunion with Deodato and Carl Yorke and the other with Deodato and Robert Kerman. Over 200 images make up a still gallery that includes behind-the-scenes photos, promotional photos, production stills and more.
Also accompanying the disc is a 23-page booklet featuring several essays on the movie, including one from The Green Inferno director Eli Roth.
It's hard to say I "enjoyed" Cannibal Holocaust, but it certainly is an effective horror movie in its best moments. Deodato has more on his mind than just being shocking and awful—though there is plenty of that—and seems interested in saying some things about human nature, unpleasant as it may be. It remains one of the most essential and influential exploitation movies of all time and Grindhouse has put together a package worthy of the film's reputation—they give this grimy Italian cannibal film the treatment The Criterion Collection typically affords movies deemed to be classics. On its own terms, Cannibal Holocaust fits that bill.
See it, but know what you're in for.
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