These days we’re awash with pseudo-documentary horror and found-footage movies, and it would be easy to blame their overpopulation on The Blair Witch Project, a film made for a handful of dollars that, with the aid of a very smart marketing campaign, made millions. But in truth reality horror dates back much further. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, released in 1980, is the first true example of the form. Superbly made, it too used word of mouth and the press to push itself to infamy and success, and as such remains one of the most important films in the history of horror cinema. It also remains, with some justification, one of the most controversial.
When a film crew go missing whilst upon an expedition to the Amazon to examine the indigenous people, a rescue mission is dispatched. The team find no evidence of the original crew, but obtain several cans of film which they take from one of the tribes. Upon their return to New York a TV company wish to make a film from what has been recovered, and set up a screening to view the raw footage. It’s the watching of this footage that comprises the bulk of the movie, as the executives (and we as an audience) discover what has happened. We see the fated crew head into the rainforest and encounter the tribes, see them force the locals into situations that will make for more exciting viewing, and finally watch as a tribe turns against them with savage violence.
Cannibal Holocaust deserves its reputation as one of the most brutal films ever made, even against modern standards. Its grimy, cinéma-vérité style gives an immersive experience, and the rape and death of the film crew is vicious and unrelenting. Even when the camera is dropped to the ground the lens captures the sexual violence and extreme gore, the microphone picking up every scream and primeval grunt. But it’s the real violence against animals that offended, and continues to do so. A staple of the Italian cannibal genre, Deodato shows a pig, monkey and snake being killed, and worst of all, the vivisection and decapitation of a large turtle. It’s upsetting to watch, and very obvious from the reaction of several actors involved that they were unhappy with the proceedings. Following the release of the film Deodato found himself in court, accused of producing a snuff film with the supposed real death of a native girl impaled on a pole, the stake through her body and emerging from her mouth (an idea played on by the filmmakers who initially suggested they had found the girl dead in the jungle during filming). Deodato was naturally cleared of charges when the effects used were demonstrated, but the ensuing publicity ensured the film was a worldwide hit.
In the years that have followed Cannibal Holocaust has achieved legendary status, banned in several regions of the world and released in various cut and censored versions, and following the Video Recordings Act of 1984 the film was subsequently removed from shelves in Britain, with bootlegged copies the only way to experience it (I originally saw it on a fourth generation VHS copy during my teens, and it was virtually unwatchable). Following several poor DVD versions, the Shameless label has finally given it the treatment it deserves. This Blu-ray release is flawless in both picture and sound, and here the film is presented in two versions: the first being the longest available cut, with a mere 14 seconds censored, and the second being Deodato’s own edit, which cleverly uses pixilation and blurring to hide the animal torture. He talks at length about his regret over this*, and the cut skilfully removes this element while retaining the powerful impact of the film. The disc also contains interviews with cast and crew and an in-depth documentary that offers much insight and critical analysis.
Regardless of your opinion, either that this is a cleverly constructed take on the savagery of the human condition or a nasty, unrelenting splatter film — I believe it to be both — Cannibal Holocaust is essential viewing for anyone with the slightest interest in horror, and perhaps during these times of constant reality television and the availability of uncensored footage through the internet, more relevant than ever. But know your tolerances before heading into this one. It bites back.
Cannibal Holocaust is available on DVD and Blu-ray now
*This regret is highly unlikely to be genuine, Exquisite Terror‘s editor having witnessed a Q&A with Deodato at Manchester’s Festival of Fantastic Films in 2005, during which the somewhat blasé director expressed utter indifference.