Cannibal films were an integral part of exploitation cinema in the 1970's. They can been seen as one of the more colorful subgenres of exploitation films, similar to the "nazisploitation" or "blaxploitation" films each occupy their own niche. As with any successful concepts in exploitation, cannibals became an almost inescapable force in film. Almost all of the big name directors (mostly Italian) tried their hands at the cannibal film, with varying degrees of success.
Despite illustrious company, it is Ruggero Deodato's 1979 film "Cannibal Holocaust" which represents the pinnacle of cannibal cinema. Deodato had arguably kicked off the cannibal boom in 1977 with "Ultimo Mondo Cannible" (most commonly found with the titles "Jungle Holocaust" or simply "Cannibal"). While this earlier film served as the template for many future imitations, "Cannibal Holocaust" is a surprisingly powerful film that stands head-and-shoulders above its competitors. Deodato managed to create not only a cannibal film, but a striking work of social commentary as well.
When taken at a base level, the plot of the film is fairly straightforward, particularly for the cannibal genre. Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) journeys into the jungles of South America to locate a missing documentary crew. He and his exploration team encounter a series of perils ultimately leading them to the Yanamamo Tribe, a group of alleged cannibals. Unfortunately, the Professor is too late to save the crew but he is able to return with their footage.
Deodato takes this simple plot and expands upon it using two inventive techniques: "found footage" and the assertion of truth. It is the "found footage" technique for which the film has garnered the most attention and acclaim. Once returning to the US, Professor Monroe begins to review the deceased crew's footage. This cinema-verite style footage is shaky and of a different quality than the rest of the film. It is in this style that the saga of how the crew met their end is presented. The first-person, grainy footage gives an added dimension of terror to the film. The viewer feels as if they are there with the crew, experiencing the horrors with them.
The "found footage" technique lends credence to the second technique, the assertion that what you are watching is real. The film is presented as a true story with the found footage of the crew being authentic. The technique worked a little too well, as Deodato was forced to make public appearances with the actors that portrayed the ill-fated crew to prove that they weren't actually killed. Both techniques were later utilized (stolen?) by "The Blair Witch Project", albeit without the framing story.
Deodato made the film as a reaction to what he felt was a glut of violence presented by the media. This is shown through the interaction between Professor Monroe and the news agency that had backed the documentary crew. They continually push Monroe to finish editing the footage because blood and guts equal ratings. Both the media and the documentary crew represent a lust for profit over the wellbeing of humans. The crew has no qualms committing inhuman acts against the tribes they come across. To them, other humans are a means to an end; their suffering will be turned into profits.
Despite its brilliant post-modern metanarrative and social commentary, "Cannibal Holocaust" is most famous for the amount of violence in the film. It was once marketed with the tagline "The Most Grueling Film Ever Made." An argument can be made that this is more than mere hype and actually a truthful statement. The film was banned in several countries, a claim made by many films erroneously to lend them a bit of infamy. The violence in this film is extreme, even by exploitation standards. It's a difficult piece of film to sit through for even the most hardcore grindhouse fans.
Even the gore in the film has a greater purpose however. There is a clear dividing line drawn by Deodato between the acts of violence committed by the cannibals and by the so-called civilized people. The cannibals use violence in situations to punish those that have transgressed against the tribe, or in situations of necessity. "Civilized man" however uses violence whenever it pleases him. Despite the gruesomeness of the cannibal's actions, few will walk away from the film feeling sympathetic towards their victims.
Cannibalism as a device in horror has a long history both in literature and film. "Cannibal Holocaust" is not merely focused on the societal taboo of flesh eating. The greater theme of the film is the difference between the civilized and the uncivilized. Though the graphic violence can be hard for most to stomach, the most disturbing aspect of the film is what Deodato is saying about modern society. The film asks the questions: "What is it to be 'civilized'?” and “Is it a good thing?" The moral questions raised about the media and our bloodthirsty society in 1979 has only been made more poignant through the passage of time. Though difficult to watch, this is a must-see film.
Brining things up to date...since the release of the EC Laserdisc sometime in the mid 90s i believe, countless VHS rips, and even an Ebay only edition of the DVD was released through Canadian company Substance, which really isn't a bad release, its just a hack of the EC laser. After the success of Grindhouse's Cannibal Ferox and Beyond releases, Bob and Sage bought the rights to Cannibal Holocaust and put their life's work into restoring the film and creating the definitive edition. It has been four years and the fans have yet to see the Grindhouse DVD. Many fans (myself not included), have been lucky at seeing the uncut Grindhouse release of the film in theatres across the U.S. I doubt Cannibal Holocaust will ever been shown theatrically in the Midwest, so until then I'll just have to wait till the "true" dvd is released, and be pleased with my Substance edition.
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