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The Devil Made Us Watch It: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

cannibalholocaust 3Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is often considered to be the first and most contentious found-footage horror films, but only part of the film is comprised of the elusive “found” footage with the majority of the film comprised of a more traditionally shot narrative film. After a film crew goes missing in the Amazon, anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) goes in search of them. Once Monroe shows the indigenous tribes that he is no threat to them, he is able to recover the lost film canisters which hang by the bones of the filmmakers. When Monroe returns to New York, an American network wants to broadcast the footage and call it The Green Inferno but upon viewing the tapes Monroe and the executives learn that it was the film crew that went into the natives’ habitat raping and torturing members of the tribe to elicit sensationalized footage.  This led to the torture and death of the film crew as the tribe retaliated.

Look at any click bait article with a headline claiming to list the most shocking films ever made and Cannibal Holocaust will almost certainly be in the mix, its depiction of the vilest aspects of humanity is as unflinching as its gory special effects. However, Cannibal Holocaust does come from a very specific film lineage that the film itself criticizes. Mondo Films were a form of exploitative documentary (or shockumentary) made infamous by Italian filmmakers of the 1960s with semi-famous titles like Mondo Cane and Mondo Bizarro. These films deal with explicit content such as sex and death and often situate them in other cultures making those cultures seem primitive and undeveloped. Perhaps the most upsetting element of these films is the filmmakers’ faking some of the most graphic scenes of violence and death and presenting them as real. Deodato uses the tropes of Mondo filmmaking within Cannibal Holocaust to expose the hypocrisy present within the documentary format.

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In Cannibal Holocaust, Deodato uses several framing techniques within the film to heighten its reality. The film begins with a news prologue that informs of the thrust of the film – filmmakers gone missing, anthropologist sent to find them. The film the shifts from its news angle narrative to a traditional film narrative with Monroe meeting up with his guide and venturing into the jungle to find the filmmakers and their film. Cannibal Holocaust begins to break this structure once the film returns to New York and the network wants to broadcast the found footage. Monroe goes and interviews the families of the filmmakers who all basically state that they were good for nothing dead beats and bad people. The film then shows the filmmakers’ film taking on a more traditional “found footage” style including shaky cam, and off-colour remarks from the filmmakers. This is at once immersive and distancing. Cannibal Holocaust posits the documentary found footage as fake because of the filmmakers’ tactics and the more traditional narrative film which follows Monroe as truth because he debunks the filmmakers’ narrative.

Deodato creates a semi-traditional film narrative which exposes the fake in the supposedly real. His critique of popular media is shown with a heavy hand and through all of this it is important keep in mind the politics and filmmaking history of Italy. While Cannibal Holocaust is presented as an American product it is an Italian film, one which critiques its own lineage. While under the Fascist regime of Mussolini (1922-1943), films were another mode of propaganda glorifying fascist ideology. During this time part of Italy’s film mandate was to film in real locations in Italy to bolster nation pride. From this point we can see the growth of Italian Neo-Realism with films like The Bicycle Thief. The urge to show things as they supposed were combined their history of corrupt politicians using their homeland as a tool for control is part of the origin of Cannibal Holocaust. During the Mussolini regime, films that were supposedly real were illusions, fantasies of a government desperate to control their citizens. Cannibal Holocaust for all its shocking scenes offers its most frightening moments in its glimpses of the treachery of the documentary format.

While this film has been criticized time and again and wound up leading the Video Nasty movement in the UK, Cannibal Holocaust is a dissemination and indeed a condemnation of those who would fake and perjurer the truth for the sake of entertainment. In many ways Cannibal Holocaust can be read as a cautionary tale of morality and the abuse of power. It is a film about atrocities, ones created by people in power who in Cannibal Holocaust are those that hold the camera.

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About Alexandra West

Alexandra West has written about horror films for Toronto Star, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Rue Morgue. She lives, works and survives in Canada.

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