Cannibal Holocaust Review
Having experienced a grainy VHS copy of Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust approximately 13 years ago, it was with some trepidation that I approached a second viewing of this most notorious of so-called video nasties. My enduring memory after having absorbed Deodato's exploitative semi-parodic mondo circus of the obscene was one of deflation, disappointment, cynicism, and a vague accompanying sense of nausea. Far from the sharp, insightful, and rigorous critique of Western exploitation I had been expecting, I instead witnessed a catalogue of crude and seemingly meaningless acts of abuse and torture strung together with a plot so threadbare as to appear virtually non-existent. Worst of all, the infantile approach to the live killing and mutilation of animals left me feeling sickened, and I determined to avoid a repeat viewing.
Some years have passed since that time, and a number of things have changed. Extreme cinema has developed positively beyond expectations to deliver some of the most exhilarating, intelligent, and challenging films you can experience today. I've grown older, have read many documents celebrating Deodato's supposed masterpiece, and perhaps see the world through different and more balanced eyes to those I owned in the days when VHS was the norm. And finally - and perhaps most significantly - Deodato has rejected any notion that he wanted to perform the animal killing scenes, has stated he is an animal lover, and has presided over this director's edit of Cannibal Holocaust, an edition which maintains the acts of the obscene acted out by the (consenting) human subjects, and apparently removes or obscures much of the violence against the (non-consenting) animals. Naturally, this is going to upset the Cannibal Holocaust purists (who will also be able to 'enjoy' the original on this double-feature Blu-ray), but for fans of extreme cinema with a conscience, such as myself, this suddenly becomes a very appealling opportunity to witness a celebrated vision of the extreme without the depressing inclusion of gratuitous live violence against animals. Does the extraction of the irresponsible animal cruelty reveal the much touted masterpiece lying beneath?
It's difficult to explain just how shocking Cannibal Holocaust is over thirty years later. Deodato's exploitative shocker is so transgressive and obscene, even by today's standards - and by the standards of those accustomed to extreme cinema - that one ends up exhausting terms of reference within which to place the work, or words by which to describe it. When the bar of the sickening and the shocking has been raised to such taboo-tearing highs (and don't forget that the Italian director was in some very hot water with the authorities over the release of this film), it becomes rather difficult to summarise this work in any meaningful way, and it's this very position that seems to delight Deodato's most ardent fans. Yet a string of well-orchestrated acts of subversion strung together for the base and lascivious instincts of an audience do not make an important film nor even a good film, and the key to assessing such entries as this involve exploring the meanings behind the madness, and if the film is seeking to tell us anything.
If you watch the extras on this new disc, you'll hear Deodato discussing the intentions behind his shocking mock-documentary. In an early example of the 'found footage' genre, Deodato was apparently looking to criticise the media (the Italian media was growing increasingly blood-thirsty and unrestrained), and their relentless efforts to catalogue the shocking. This is indeed clearly evident as Deodato documents the plight of four highly irritating and arrogant filmmakers who fly out to the Amazon in order to film their documentary The Green Inferno, believing that the scenes they capture will buy them inevitable success.
At a very crude level, Deodato is successful in parodying the sick excesses of press coverage, highlighting the self-fulfilling prophecy of media intrusion in the news-making cycle. Yet where Cannibal Holocaust fails terribly is with its utter lack of credibility and authenticity, a failing which renders any commentary as completely impotent. As the four morons plough their way into the jungle whilst indulging in pathetic jokes, pranks, and profanity, we're left questioning the whole premise of the plot. Could these idiots really secure funding for an expensive Amazonian expedition? Could they really have put together their last documentary chronicling African war crimes?
This lack of credibility thwarts any ambitions the movie has towards a serious commentary on the perfectly acceptable target of Western hypocrisy and its growing lust for violence, both physical and sexual. The depiction of the tribes people is ignorant and ill-informed. The characterisation of the professor who heads into the jungle to discover the 'lost footage' of the imbecilic documentary makers is unconvincing. The section where the professor jumps into the water naked and is followed by a gang of giggling young tribes women is so absurd as to be laughable. And the fact that the stupid filmmakers continue to film the demise of their colleagues and friends at the hands of the tribes people only a few feet in front of them stretches any credibility until it breaks. Inevitably, the person behind the camera is caught within seconds after they capture the death of their counterparts. The only reassuring aspect here is that 'found footage' movies continue to battle with this challenge, though few deal with it as poorly as Cannibal Holocaust.
What is perhaps most frustrating about Cannibal Holocaust is that despite the below par and unconvincing performances, Deodato can at least put together a half-decent picture, in a technical sense anyway. In relative terms, his filming, pacing, and general direction is superior to that of his nearest exploitation rivals, such as Umberto Lenzi, presumably due to skills honed during his time working under Roberto Rossellini and Sergio Corbucci. Additionally, the effects are strong for the time, and whilst it follows a truly repulsive scene of violation against a woman, the discovery of the body impaled on a pole is undeniably technically impressive.
"I wonder who the real cannibals are?", flippantly muses Robert Kerman's Professor Harold Monroe at the long awaited close of Deodato's horrific jungle bloodbath, and this final sentence sums up the utter disregard this shocker holds its bloodthirsty audience in; though maybe in some instances, this disregard is justified. To suggest that this crude and simplistic parody of violence-chasing documentary makers is a brutal but incisive commentary on the increasingly obscene tastes of Western culture is disingenuous to the extreme. Whilst on a very basic level you could claim that this movie critiques the delivery of Mondo movies, increasingly shocking news programmes, and revealing documentaries, any credence is shattered by its cynical targeting of the same base desires as the output it claims to criticise. It's ridiculous to feign shock and outrage at the female sexual violence which plays out like a misogynist's wet dream, and unthinkable to suggest that the reprehensible live torture and killing of animals is graphically displayed for anything other than the morbid fascination of a target audience.
Perhaps the only enjoyable moment throughout this miserable one hour and 35 minutes comes towards the end, as the uber-irritating filmmakers finally meet the justifiable wrath of the tribes-people, and castration, decapitation, and disembowelment forms their final moments. Other than this, there are very few reasons I can offer as to why you should view this chronicle of obscenity, but there are plenty of reasons I can give why you shouldn't.
Shameless Entertainment continue to expand their grisly catalogue with this release of Cannibal Holocaust. The presentation uses the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a resolution of 1080p.
As the title credits roll atop the scrolling images of endless rainforest, the grain is excessive, and plenty of noise is visible on the screen. I thought at this point that the presentation was likely to be a disaster, but a few minutes later the image settles into its stride, and the picture benefits enormously from the high definition presentation. The high definition doesn't expose the film's age too much, and despite the fact that the movie features copious amounts of handheld low grade footage, the image quality is surprisingly good throughout.
This includes the reproduction of colour. The lush greens of the forest are recreated in splendid fashion, and whilst the sun can over-saturate at times, the image always feels appropriate for both the age and the nature of the movie itself.
The menu system here isn't fantastic, showing the two edits of the movie in vertical order, but it proves just functional enough.
Since this is Deodato's edit which supposedly reflects his regret at the inclusion of animal violence in the original cut, a brief and uncomfortable discussion of the changes is almost unavoidable. It's important to state here that Deodato's edit does NOT remove the animal violence in its entirety. Indeed, much of the violence is still present, so it's important not to go into the viewing with a blinkered view. The early death of the 'muskrat' is cut with shots of the sky and monkeys in the trees (with the screams of the creature in crystal clear audio), though it soon switches to the animal as its innards are removed and thrown at one of the filmmakers. The infamous turtle scene remains an absolutely repulsive and distressing viewing, and one of unimaginable cruelty. The creature is dragged out of the water, hacked, and beheaded, and one of the idiotic filmmakers displays this magnificent creature's removed head to the camera, and pretends to kiss it. This really is the most despicable of scenes, and undermines any statement by Deodato that he rejects and regrets the animal cruelty in his film.
Other such scenes follow in similar fashion, including the outrageously meaningless and pointless beheading of the monkey, and despite the half-hearted obscuring of the cruelty with 'film damage', the brutality remains disturbingly clear.
There are trailers for other documents of brutality, such as House on the Edge of the Park, and Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling and The New York Ripper.
Cannibal Holocaust, in an aural and visual sense, is a real dichotomy. One of the few successes in the entire presentation is the decision to commission Riz Ortolani to compose the soundtrack. In stark contrast to the brutality of the visuals, the soundtrack showcases a surprisingly delicate nature which suits the early shots of the sprawling rain forests.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 HD Master Audio soundtrack (you can also select the standard Dolby Digital 2.0) proves a solid presentation, and I've no complaints about the clarity, levels, or tonal balance. Shameless have done a good job with this disc, especially considering the three decade age of the feature.
I'm not sure if they classify as extras, but Deodato gives an introduction both to the disc itself, and to the separate versions of the film.
The ironic aspect of the two central extras here is that they are far more enjoyable than the movie itself.
Film and be Damned: Interview with Carl G. Yorke and Ruggero Deodato is an engaging forty minute piece featuring interviews with the lead actor and director. Both provide engaging enough commentary, and Deodato provides some surprising nuggets, such as his strained relationship with Robert Kerman, who was continually suspicious and refused to enter the rivers without a wetsuit beneath his clothes.
The Long Road Back From Hell: With Kim Newman, Professor Julian Petley, Professor Mary Wood, featuring Carl G. Yorke, Ruggero Deodato and Francesca Ciardi is even more engaging, and despite the efforts of the academic and media commentators to over-intellectualise the piece, it still makes for intriguing listening and opens aspects of the movie which you may not have previously considered. Some of the commentators take things way too far, such as Professor Wood who claims that the animal violence is because of men using it as a substitution for the real violence they wish to inflict upon women. There is absolutely nothing to substantiate this that I can see, and Cannibal Holocaust contains copious enough disturbing (and unnecessary) sexual violence against women that there is little substitution or projection required. Kim Newman's additions to the piece are perhaps the most enjoyable and balanced here.
Most intriguing of all about the interview pieces is the comments of the actors. The actors featured here clearly feel duped by their inclusion in the animal deaths, which they were not briefed about before agreeing to the film (or even before visiting the jungle), and the actors did form a rebellion at one stage. Yorke also speaks of his reluctance to perform the scene where he violates a tribes woman. Francesca Ciardi speaks of similar moral wrangling, and shows regret about her nude scenes, and the scenes depicting her violation.
Note that there is also a Theatrical Trailer, the obligatory Shameless Trailer Park, and an Easter Egg which I have not made an effort to find.
Shameless Entertainment have put together a decent enough release of Deodato's infamous Cannibal Holocaust, and the extras here actually prove more interesting than the main article itself. What a shame that Deodato misses the opportunity to make a real comment on Western culture by reveling in the cynical approach of his supposed targets of criticism. Those who were originally expecting to find the much touted masterpiece beneath the revolting animal violence will be sorely disappointed; not only is much of the animal violence still present in this release, but the remaining content is still bereft of intelligent comment.