A Review of Cannibal Holocaust
The grandfather of all found footage horror movies to follow, Ruggero Deodato's 1980 film is raw, unnerving, and utterly depraved. Though billed as the actual found footage of a crew of American 'documentary' film makers who traveled into the Amazon to find a lost tribe of cannibals and suddenly disappeared, the story is actually fictional. The 'documentary' plays as two parts, the first of which centers around a man named Monroe, an anthropologist who agrees to lead a rescue team back into the jungle, know as the Green Inferno, with the hopes of finding the missing film makers. Monroe hires guides and heads back into the jungle completely unprepared for the experience. While in the jungle, after witnessing a primitive ritual involving the genital mutilation of an adulteress, they are able to rescue a tribe of Yanomamo from a tribe of Shamatari. The Yanomamo people, though suspicious, make a peace offering in repayment for their kindness, and Monroe and his guides are even invited to partake in the cannibalizing of one of their enemies. Monroe obliges, much to the delight of the tribe. After finally gaining their trust, the tribe takes him to a makeshift shrine that contains the remains of the film makers that he had come to rescue. As a final olive branch the tribe agrees to give them the film canisters left behind after the murder of the crew, and Monroe heads back to New York to begin inspecting the footage for answers.
The second half of the movie centers around the examination of the footage. The producers of the documentary, who sent Monroe into the Green Inferno, then show him a quick look at Alan Yates's (the director of the now deceased film crew) previous work "The Last Road to Hell". It is a documentary about executions. In the clip, we are shown multiple executions from different parts of the world. After the clip is through, one executive tells Monroe that in reality Yates had staged all of these executions, and that none of it is actually real. Monroe seems taken aback by the fact that these executives appear to be more interested in sensationalism than in what actually happened, so he delves into the raw footage himself in the interest of making a more objective judgement.
This is where the film descends into insanity. Through the footage we learn more about the real intentions of the 'documentary' film makers, which is to exploit and manipulate the Yacumo people. The crew enter the village with all of the arrogance and bravado of the stereotypical American, and proceed to mock, torture, and brutalize these peaceful yet primitive people, all while filming their reactions. They force the entire village into a hut and burn it down in order to stage a scene. They urinate in their drinking water. And after degrading the tribe they move on further into the jungle.
The studio executives still plan on editing the footage and airing it, but Monroe, in order to convince them otherwise, shows them the unedited final reels. In the film, the crew finds a young Yanomamo girl alone in the brush, whom the men proceed to gang rape. The female crew member objects, but only to wasting film on it. Afterwards, they impale her on a pole and claim the natives did it. Finally the Yanomamo tribe seeks revenge for the rape and murder of one of their women. They attack, and it is in this final reel that director Alan Yates reveals the depths of his depravity as he continues rolling film even as his crew is murdered, mutilated, raped and eaten. Afterward the final reel is through, the producer orders all of the film be burned, and as Monroe leaves the building he wonders aloud, "I wonder who the real cannibals are."
The film has many defenders, though many detractors criticize the acting, the over-the-top gore, and the genuine animal slayings and point to an alleged hypocrisy that the film presents. Nick Schager criticized the brutality of the film, saying, "As clearly elucidated by its shocking gruesomeness—as well as its unabashedly racist portrait of indigenous folks it purports to sympathize with—the actual savages involved with Cannibal Holocaust are the ones behind the camera." Some argue that Schager's racism argument is supported by the fact that the real indigenous peoples in Brazil whose names were used in the film—the Yanomamo and Shamatari—are not fierce enemies as portrayed in the film, nor is either tribe truly cannibalistic (although the Yanomamo do partake in a form of post-mortem ritual cannibalism).
Although it would be very easy to dismiss this as just an exploitation film, which it is, it is also much more than that. It is an intelligent social commentary, however difficult to watch. And although I would agree with the detractors to a certain extent - the "found footage" and film within the film is racist, and does seek to portray a primitive and peaceful Amazonian tribe as savages - the film as a whole is a scathing condemnation of this form of racism. The last line in the film, said by Monroe is, "I wonder who the real cannibals are." This movie seeks to portray Western culture as the real savages. In fact, it is only when the tribesmen are pushed too far by the brutality of the American filmmakers, that they resort to any sort of violent behavior. And by that point in the film, you find yourself on the side of the tribesman. I found a sick sense of satisfaction seeing the filmmakers reaping what they had sown. And I think that was exactly the point the director was trying to make. That we should find a morbid pleasure in witnessing the destruction of the type of ignorance that many 'Westerners' seem to wear like a badge of honor. I can say nothing to defend the decision to kill live animals and reptiles on film, save to say that they are all killed for food, not out of sheer cruelty. This still does not excuse hurting an innocent creature for the sake of making a film, and I was unable to watch any of these scenes.
As far as the film itself, the movie is brutal. It is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The violence feels incredibly real. The feeling of dread sitting in your stomach as you watch it only grows higher into your throat as the movie comes to it's bloody final act. There are repeated scenes of rape, murder, dismemberment, cannibalism, torture, genital mutilation, and beheading shown with a realistic feel, and a grainy handheld camera style that compliments the tone of the film perfectly. Both make for a film that can only be described as shocking. It's no surprise that when it was released, it was banned in over 37 countries. The director was even put on trial for murdering the actors, and the film itself, confiscated as evidence. It outraged people, who couldn't handle the graphic nature of the film. But underneath it all, in my opinion, this film is anti-colonialism and anti-sensationalism wrapped up in cannibalism, and I am not sure it gets any better than that. I absolutely love this film and recommend it to anyone who thinks they have the intestinal fortitude to make it through until the end. Happy viewing!!!
- Leo Francis