Blurring the line between fact and fiction and demolishing the boundaries of good taste, Cannibal Holocaust is a barbed and malignant satire of broadcast journalism, manipulating viewers through an unpalatable mélange of zoosadism, rape and anthropophagy. If viewed objectively, it thrives as a polemic against Western neocolonialism, unflinching in its depiction of white reporters defiling and murdering their aboriginal subjects, leaving no transgression uncharted in the name of realism. One could argue that this single-minded pursuit of authenticity is courageous and that Ruggero Deodato’s assault on media immorality contains a certain self-reflexive integrity, but intellectualizing the experience does little to dilute the ferocity of the images. Cannibal Holocaust poisons the mind and, in a world of sanitized entertainment, is a dangerous artistic object.
Sporting an unanticipated structural complexity, particularly for rough exploitation fare, Deodato’s framework progresses from news exposé to cinematic jungle expedition to raw documentary footage, rotating film stock and photographic style along the way. The lion’s share of the narrative revolves around Dr. Harold Monroe, a New York University professor saddled with retrieving a missing filmmaking crew from “The Green Inferno,” ultimately uncovering the crimes against humanity captured in their humidity-damaged reels. As the sweat-soaked academic treks through the brush, wheezing from a combination of exhaustion and fear, a palpable menace permeates each image of untamed wild, stirring discomfort through ominous location footage and graphic clips of stomach-churning carrion.
We observe barbarous tribal rituals through Monroe’s eyes, voyeuristically peeking through the palm fronds as an adulterous woman is desecrated with a cylindrical piece of stone. The camera lingers as the sacrifice is dragged through the mud, gawking as she thrashes against the weight of her assailant, concentrating on the bloody pulp that coats the end of the jagged rock. Deodato’s violence speaks in the same visual language as pornography, emphasizing penetrative and vagocentric attacks, utilizing the female body as canvas for vulgar entertainment.
Though prurient methods are employed to shock the viewer, Deodato’s intentions may be less insidious than the ramifications, since his primary objective is to inspire panic, not subjugate a gender or race of people. His subtle moments outshine the more aggressive fare and lack its queasy depravity, building tension through the reciprocal anxiety shared by Monroe’s party and the “Tree People,” their inability to communicate serving as the crux of the conflict. The skillful application of symbol also benefits thematic concerns, intertwining Western technological fetish with biotic material, embodied in the deific shrine of flensed bone and optical lens that acts as a tomb for the disgraced documentary team.
Surviving the voyage and returning to New York with the bulk of the crew’s canisters, Monroe and an editor pore over the dailies, their appalled utterances blanketing the footage like the unseen voices on a commentary track. The black leader inserted between reels and intermittently waning diegetic sound add a fragmentary nature and textural roughness to the images, convincingly distressing each cell and paralleling the on-screen atrophy. Isolated in the editor’s chamber, the abhorrent behavior captured on film begins to overwhelm the senses, stimulating nausea through an unexpurgated violation of land, animal and human. As the so-called objective observers torch a village and fornicate on the incinerated remains of its inhabitants, a melancholy shroud envelops the forthcoming action, elevated by the quivering, regretful pulsations of Riz Ortolani’s score.
Matching the sensationalistic visual display, Ortolani’s recurring theme pairs organic and inorganic sounds, marrying simple acoustic guitar and string to strangely touching and sorrowful waves of synthesizer. The pathos and emotional heft of the orchestral performance is sweeping, playing counterpoint to the film’s misanthropic perspective and imparting a gracefulness to an otherwise jarring work of art. Conversely, Ortolani’s other pieces, particularly those made to accompany gruesome makeup effects, are guttural and downtempo, ascending and descending between bubbling orbs of computerized dread.
The discomfort of shifting sonic tones and audio imperfection amplify the revolting frankness of the climax, stirring dizzied physical reactions through vivid passages of feticide, gang rape, castration and impalement. The simulations on display are suitably disgusting, but none rival the abomination of actual murder, exhibited by the production’s slaughter of no less than 5 animals before a leering camera eye. Zooming in to bask in the convulsions of the death rattle, a turtle is butchered in methodical steps before the lens, separated from its shell and left to wriggle as its innards pool on the sandy earth. Whether the ingestion of the turtle’s meat is validation enough for the sequence is up to the beholder, but any vegetarian (this critic included) would deem these tactics as an unethical and artless attempt at verisimilitude.
The yin yang of Cannibal Holocaust’s unscrupulous cruelty and technical innovation make for quite the paradox, placing an asterisk next to its designation as found-footage progenitor and unsung magnum opus. Its ethnocentrism can be vindicated by comparison, likening first-world prejudices to horror cinema’s history of disregard for mental illness (Psycho), religion (The Exorcist) and foreign relations (Dracula). Defending its deft editing, thematic patterning and willingness to repulse is just as equitable, but nonpartisan viewership and much ponderous discourse can’t obscure the inexcusable, permanently sullying an otherwise daring provocation.
Cannibal Holocaust (F.D. Cinematografica, 1980)
Directed by Ruggero Deodato
Written by Gianfranco Clerici
Photographed by Sergio D’Offizi