Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is often described as one of the most controversial films ever made. It’s easy to understand why. Provocative and polarizing, its content is both shocking and subversive. Ruggero Deodato’s most notable work has incited repulsion in some, admiration in others. It would be easy to dismiss it altogether as exploitation. Doing so would ignore its innovation and underlying themes of satire and deconstruction. Cannibal Holocaust blurs the lines between civilization and savagery, a separation that isn’t always clearly drawn. Dr. Harold Monroe’s (Robert Kerman) closing “I wonder who the real cannibals are” monologue is indicative of the conceptions Deodato’s work manages to challenge. More than that, they seem to reflect the experience of both the protagonist and the film’s audience. Whatever one’s opinion might be, there’s no denying its contribution to narrative cinema. Pioneering what would become known as the found footage horror film, there’s a sense of realism about it that’s truly unnerving.
I’ve always found Cannibal Holocaust to be a film of duality, with the first half seen through the eyes of the “civilized,” and the second an expose on the savage. The very beginning seems to support this concept with the sprawling forest of the Amazon contrasting with the urban jungle of New York City. Narration from a television reporter announces the recent disappearance of four documentary filmmakers, who have undertaken a journey to the Amazon to document lost cannibal tribes. Assigned to find them is an anthropologist named Harold Monroe. The perception of the civilized human can be seen in how the missing crew is presented in the first act. As Monroe arrives in the Amazon, our assumptions are similar to the reporter voicing concern in the beginning. Perhaps, like other explorers before them, death from those wary of outsiders might be the cause. The primitive nature in which the tribes are depicted further this assumption. Monroe witnesses an adulteress being put to death by a riverbank, which reinforces the belief that an indigenous peoples’ way of life is inferior and barbaric when compared to our own. When the footage is found with the bones of the filmmakers, there’s a brief feeling of empathy as the first journey of the film reaches its conclusion.
As the missing footage returns to New York, the truth about head filmmaker Allen Yates (Gabriel Yorke) and company slowly begins to unravel. Monroe is shown one of Yates’ earlier works, The Last Road To Hell. The film within the film features executions that appear to be taking place in Uganda during the reign of dictator Idi Amin. These are followed by images of death and suffering from other underdeveloped countries. The veil is lifted when they’re revealed as being faked by Yates for the purpose of third world sensationalism. Many have remarked that this coincides with titles such as Mondo Cane (1963), famous for its use of sensational imagery. Earlier in the film it was briefly mentioned that Yates had made documentaries on Vietnam and Cambodia. The Last Road To Hell is satirical and shocking.
In my opinion, American involvement during the Viet Nam war was one of the largest influences to changes in the horror genre during the late 1970s. It’s where the Norman Rockwell persona of Americana begins to fade. All across the country television sets beamed images of carnage, death, and war at its most vivid. Photographs taken during the My Lai massacre in particular stripped away the conception of the American as the “good guy.” This deconstruction allowed real life horror to come home and roost among the white picket fences and barbecues. John Carpenter and Wes Craven brought new visions of terror to suburbia with Halloween (1978) and Last House on the Left (1972). (Last House was itself a satire of American television during the conflict.) The Last Road To Hell completely deconstructs any preconception of Yates and company as the good guys. For the first time we see him as he truly is—a person with no journalistic integrity, relying on falsehoods for the sake of sensationalism and notoriety. In an interesting critique of the television industry—executives want to broadcast Yates’ footage as part of a documentary entitled The Green Inferno, even going so far as to describe the public’s need for sensational images. Perhaps Pier Paolo Pasolini was correct when he described the medium as nothing more than cultural alienation.
In discussing the found footage, an elephant in the room has to be addressed: Cannibal Holocaust contains scenes in which real animals are killed. One scene in particular has the filmmakers decapitating and dismembering a turtle, then consuming it. First and foremost, this segment gives the impression that a group is attempting to survive in the jungle. For what it’s worth, it furthers the illusion of realism displayed to the audience. However, I personally can’t condone the action. Whatever aesthetic it might add—it’s still sensational violence against an animal. This is where the polarization regarding this film is at its strongest. Someone has every right to not watch a movie because of animal cruelty. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have those who criticize these objections as people being weak or unable to deal with said content. I’ll be blunt on this—those who complain about someone not wanting to witness an animal being harmed are normally complete tools. (Pardon my lowbrow terminology). The scene with the turtle in particular shows actress Francesca Ciardi vomiting in repulsion. This reaction happened to be real.
Yates’ practice of staging scenes for the sake of sensationalism continues as the footage progresses. The audience is subjected to barbarism in its true form. If the lines between civilization and savagery were only slightly blurry before—here they’re completely eradicated. Decimating a village and setting it ablaze mirrors several images of American soldiers torching hamlets during the Vietnam War. If anything, this is where the satire of the conflict is at its strongest, with the filmmakers waving rifles around like an invading paramilitary group. As the village burns, one of them even remarks that it’s “just like Cambodia.” The horrified expressions upon the natives faces’ as they sit helplessly in their burning huts is unnerving. It’s a moment where the supposed savage has their existence threatened to the point of extinction by a foreigner taking what they need. In this case, images for ill-gotten recognition. In the years following Cannibal Holocaust, the world would see American involvement overseas increase, going so far as to decide the fates of multiple regimes. This isn’t just an example of art imitating life, but art providing a glimpse into the future.
As it’s been established that Yates and company will meet their end somehow, we approach this conclusion with morbid anticipation. There’s a stern warning from Monroe as this third act begins—not wanting to have anything to do with the remaining footage, describing it as inhuman. A criticism once leveled against Cannibal Holocaust is that Robert Kerman, a well-known pornographic actor, is the film’s main voice of morality. Kerman tragically left us in late 2018. Yes, he starred in several pornographic films including Debbie Does Dallas (1978), but simply dismissing his portrayal in Cannibal Holocaust because of his other work is utterly despicable. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same person overlooked David Cronenberg casting Marilyn Chambers as the lead in Rabid (1977).
As the group meet their end, one that mirrors the brutality and barbarism they’ve inflicted upon others, their cameras continue to roll. Yates chases his sordid objective to the very last. Similar to the end of George Custer, arrogance writes his final chapter. The auteurs’ bloody face falls before the camera lens, as tribesman stand over their quarry. The reel ends, and our journey down the last road to hell arrives at its inevitable conclusion. It’s safe to assume that we ourselves been deconstructed in some way by the time Monroe delivers his closing monologue.
The discussions regarding the content of Cannibal Holocaust continue. The polarizing reputation it’s gathered will always exist. I’m a firm believer that any film that challenges an audience to engage in thought and discussion deserves to be recognized as worthwhile. Deodato compels us to examine the society we live in as well as ourselves. Although a complete understanding of who we are might be forever out of reach, Cannibal Holocaust might help us understand the contemptuous side of human nature a little bit more.