Welcome to the first extended and much deeper critique to feature on my channel. The subject of this mini series is Deodatto’s Cannibal Holocaust, a film I have touched upon before. I felt it deserved a closer and more detailed look and I hope this will answer some of the recuring questions and offer some insight into one of the most controversial and provocative films of all time.
Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is simply the number one nasty and a film that can challenge the sensibilities of even the most jaded of horror film fans. In this mini series of videos I’m going to take a more detailed look at this film and explore ideas of what the film is about, its construction, the controversies and myths and it’s place in horror cinema history.
Cannibal Holocaust made it’s début in Britain via the then unregulated video cassette market, crashing into our homes and stoking the video nasties scare of 1984. Its brutal depiction of murder rape and the all too well known animal cruelty has ensured that it has remained heavily cut in Britain and that it will remain available only in its cut form in Britain for the foreseeable future.
Despite the extensive banning, cutting and prosecutions that this film has gone through it has endured all that has been thrown at it to stand as one of the most legitimately controversial, interesting, cutting, shocking and bold movies that suffered the wrath of the censor.
In this series of videos I’ll be looking in more detail at this highly controversial film and exploring the various facets of what is not only one of the most heavily censored and reviled films to hit the screen but a film that is also a multi faceted, clever and interesting piece of film making.
Welcome to Mondo Fiction……
Movie structure & genre subversion.
Cannibal holocaust splits into 3 distinct sections, the first is prefaced with a short justification of the trip by Dr Monroe in the form of a news report that sets up the reason for the trip. This opening (after, of course, the haunting and often reoccurring, Riz Ortolani score over the shots of the Green Inferno) immediately sets one of the main subjects matter for the film, the media. We are from the start given the camera’s point of view implying the authority of documentary. This is an important part of how this film works. Despite this opening being not entirely convincing and somewhat pre-emptive in tone it does set the subject and approach of this film very effectively by immersing us in the recorded reality that will reappear later.
At this point this device is little more than a method of explaining the reasoning for the dangerous trip but the blurring of lines between the documentary and the cinematic has already begun.
And so we venture seamlessly into the first part of the film. It’s important to notice quite how seamless this transition is. The preface runs straight into the first act of this film, this first act that is not retrospective, and it does so so neatly that the shift in perspective is not immediately recognised. The third person shifts from being the news camera to being a film camera, a shift from factual to fictional, and it does so so effortlessly and rather covertly that there is a certain disorientation. Looking even casually at this first act reveals that it is a cinematic contrivance though, It make no effort to be otherwise. Multi angle camera work, focus specific framing and editing and obvious cinematic camera techniques clearly place this outside of the journalistic style that prefaced it. It just takes a few moments to reorient yourself is all but this is indicative of how the film will run and Deodatto blurs the lines between the contrivance of cinema and the supposed and assumed reality of the media.
There is an abandonment of the real in this act, opting as it does to follow a more conventional cinematic approach that shares the commonalities of the cannibal genre with close ups of obviously fake rotting corpses and lurid displays of the clichés of the Italian horror market. There is little effort other than in the introduction to make this any more real than its average cannibal movie peers with the exception of the much lamented animal killings but this is one of the elements that are beginning to blur the lines of reality.
The second act of this film takes place back in New York where Monroe has recovered the film cans and is now interviewing the relatives and colleagues of the dead crew. This section acts very much as a transitional stage, tying the films narrative threads together by reintroducing the journalistic style that we encountered at the beginning, we are still in obviously contrived territory but the implication of what we’re watching is changing.
This change is emphasised by the footage that makes up the crews previous film ‘The Last Road To Hell’. This is an important element in the film and particularly because it’s included at this point. The movie is shifting its position and subverting the audiences expectations and perceptions of what is happening on screen. The Last Road footage, a true piece of Mondo filmmaking, is confusingly reality portrayed as a fictional reality, Deodatto twists reality and fiction into knots and the lines of reality and fantasy are almost irrecoverably smudged.
With the scene set and our expectations confused we are then hurled into the recovered footage that makes up the majority of the 3rd act.
The 3rd act takes a seemingly much less formal, or certainly less traditional cinematic, approach than the first two, famously using the hand held cameras of the film crew to show the events that run up to their demise. The film at this point makes such a radical change in its appearance and construction that it intentionally makes it appear to be an entirely separate film in most respects, however it is, as I will demonstrate later, reliant on the first and second act to create the illusion of reality.
It deliberately avoids immersing us entirely into the’ found’ footage, in fact it goes to great pains to separate us from the world that it portrays constantly breaking down and revealing its physically fabricated nature and oddly this has the effect of not softening the blows but surprisingly magnifying them. The shaky cameras, the pops and scratchy interruptions, the seemingly candid and supposedly irrelevant scenes that have nothing to do with their reason for being there, all these elements create a scene of spontaneity, an unplanned, non cinematic or rather real series of events that have been captured on the run by the film makers. After the obvious fabrication of the first and second acts the third act really jars our expectations, being as alien as it is in comparison.
This 3rd act also acts as a counterpoint to the 1st act. Here we have the antithesis of Professor Monroe, who is a decent and humane man, there we have the utterly detestable film crew of whom Monroe sought to discover the fate of.
I will at times later look more closely at how the film uses its construction to subvert the viewers perception of what they are watching when I talk about the narrative.
Cannibal Holocaust dips into a couple of genres, most significantly it stylistically leans heavily on the Mondo genre who’s own blurring of reality with fiction is a device that this film uses to critique the media. The films of Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti, Mondo Cane, Mondo Cane 2, Addio Zio Tom and most relevantly in this case Africa Addio, that popularised and lent it’s name to one of Italy’s more fascinating contributions to world cinema seems to act as not only a stylitstic approach that Deodatto uses to lash out at his targets but also as a template by which the film is, in part, built to.
The use of Mondoesque footage of jungle animals, the leering attention to strange practices and gruesome rituals of the savages from around the world are all trademarks of the mondo genre and the exploitative documentary style which it adopts is also taken on by Deodatto. The last Road footage is quite literally mondo, its use of news/documentary footage to construct a narrative of sorts is one of the defining features of Mondo, indeed ‘The Last Road to Hell’ is quite literally a mini mondo film within the main film.
It’s used not only to be shocking but to subvert the nature of the film that surrounds it. One of the challenges with Mondo is knowing what’s real and what’s fabrication or recreation, and as this is exactly where Deodatto is going so he hitches a ride, using the techniques of the genre that already walks the line between fantasy and reality in order to push us over the edge with the final act. While Cannibal Holocaust is not Mondo, save for the ‘Last Road’ footage, it most certainly presents a nightmare imitation, bringing all the attending baggage, good and bad that comes with the genre.
But more about that later…
Having looked at the structure of Cannibal holocaust we shall now turn our attention to the story itself. Deodatto’s narrative comments on two particular themes, the media and first and third world relationships. The media is a consideration that stands out most prominently, in fact as we have seen the very construction of the film itself is heavily stylised to implicate the media. There is a contrast of two types of media and both are tied together in the 2nd act not only in terms of the cinematic transition from one to the other but also in terms of implicating the familiar media, the kind we see every day [clip] with the extremities of Yates and company[clip].
The implication of the mainstream media in the events of the film is presented from the very beginning with the commissioning of the TV company of the search party. They seek a story, an adventure, even the very act of staging a rescue mission, is an opportunity to create a self congratulatory story and as such their motives are duplicitous and self serving.
As the movie moves into its first act, surreptitiously slipping from news to fiction we begin to get to know the people who know the jungle, as alien as they are to the green inferno they understand the ways and conventions of life in this brutal place and a balance of sorts is maintained. Through bargaining and manoeuvrings they manage to win back the trust of the locals who have obviously been mistreated by Yates and his friends [Clip: your friends messed up real bad?25:55]. Monroe’s guides know when to stand back and when to push but most of all they understand the process of exchange. [knowledge of the ways 27:00]
Upon recovering the film cans and returning them to the US Monroe is then employed to interview the families, friends and colleagues of the film crew. In this second act, quite apart from the film realigning its style to reintroduce the cameras eye view of the world we are beginning to learn something about the back story of the film crew and their methods.[clip last road they faked it] Through interviews with the people who knew them best we find out who they are, how they behaved and that they all had troubled backgrounds of one nature or another. Meanwhile the news company are planning to air the recovered footage, the nature of the contents of film cans is of no regard in the face of the sensational story. [clip]
So we enter the third act and the film stock of the doomed group becomes our focus. Rapidly their exploitative and cruel behaviour becomes apparent on screen and not just anecdotally as it was after we’d seen the last road film. Employing any means possible to gain the footage they want the depths to which they stoop are limitless, further critique of the media and the ethics of what they get and how they get it.
The news company that are staging the rescue mission are clearly in it for the exposure and sensation. The orchestration of trips publicity displays blatantly contrived footage within the films world which masquerades as reality mixed with the candid moments of the missing film crews pre expedition antics. [clip 4:30] This clip shows one of the editing techniques Deodatto uses to blur the lines of the films real world where we close in on the TV screen, a second hand experience, and then in the next cut we are there with the film crew, first hand. And again here[6:10]
where the jump is made back to the real world, and when I use that phrase I mean to imply the real world within the film, the present rather than the recorded. At this point we are being set up for the second strand of subtext, that of 1st and 3rd world relationships and exploitation. But more of that later…
The media are further implicated by their unrestrained attraction to sensation regardless of its cost.
Their acceptance of the film crews material despite the fact they know what was done to obtain it shows a hypocrisy and institutional racism and is exposed to be beyond just greed by the order to destroy the footage once they have witnessed the deaths of the white protagonists, the deaths of the natives merely excited them.
A further commentary on capitalism and how the third world is treated by the first world is to be found when the film is looked at as a whole
With its essentially 3 act form we are taken as an audience through several stages that form a commentary on the previously mentioned matters. The media are the most obvious point of focus and this is reflected in the structure of the film itself. The post credit opening footage sets the scene whilst also engaging us from the point of view of a camera but something else is happening too. The news report comes from New York, figuratively a different kind of jungle to the one we see in the credit sequence and a parallel is made between the two worlds, the civilised world has its civilised journalism and the savage jungle has, as we are soon to discover, Yates’s antithesis to the familiar media, however the two are not as far removed as we would be inclined to believe. The commentary of the reporter is run over shots of the city making the comparison between the two in a more subtle version of the final comment that Monroe makes at the end of the movie. [I wonder who the real cannibals are]
Then there are the two parties that venture into the green inferno. As we have seen Monroe’s party are sympathetic to the environment they’re in. As cruel and callous as Chaco can seem sometimes it is never without good reason and is always a product of protocol or necessity. He uses displays of strength or rather mastery in certain situations where it’s necessary unlike Yates who does it as much for kicks as for the purpose of making his movie.
Monroe and his guides as I have mentioned engage in exchange, not only of items that seem magical to the natives but in terms of how they interact with them. They gain what they need by participating in the ways of the locals, even to the extent of partaking in a ritualistic meal that thoroughly revolts Monroe. Monroe has to let go of his western sensibilities on several occasions, something he willingly does even when he finds it difficult to do so and the party as a whole act like guests in the country. Overall they participate in the spirit of give and take, far from running roughshod over the natives they go to quite extraordinary lengths to fit in as best they can.
Monroe himself is a moral, intelligent and thoughtful man who on occasions has to be reminded that this will not always do in this part of the world that is wild and violent. He is the antithesis of Alan Yates….
Yates is ruthless in a fashion that dispenses with any moral compass. He and his party continually take from the jungle and never give back. They take the largest animals they can easily kill, the turtle and gorge themselves where Monroe and his party take a small rodent and share it with their captive. Yates and his party wastefully kill the villages pig and mercilessly burn their hut to the ground, deliberately killing several of the locals just so they can shoot a scene and even go to the extent of literally taking a native girl and raping her. The mindless hell bent behaviour of the film crew are an obvious reference to western societies treatment of third world countries and Deodatto’s savage commentary makes extreme steps towards representing the injustices visited upon them.
He pulls no punches and assaults us with extreme imagery and ideas to represent the bitter criticism he has of the exploitative and abusive elements of the western world, this of course led to some serious criticism of himself personally, brutal censorship of the film and legal trouble across the world when Cannibal holocaust was released to an unsuspecting audience.
Please join me in the next episode when we’ll take a look at the myths, controversy and censorship of Cannibal Holocaust
UNFORTUNATELY THE SCRIPT FOR THE FINAL PART IS MISSING. SORRY ABOUT THAT.