Alan Yates and his crew of documentary filmmakers disappear into the jungles of the Amazon while shooting footage of the local tribes, who are believed to be cannibalistic savages. A rescue party led by Professor Harold Monroe is sent out after them, but all that they manage to recover are two of the crew's film reels that are encased in their skeletal remains. What Professor Monroe will discover about the events leading up to their deaths will be more horrifying than anyone could have ever imagined!
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. Its name alone conjures up images of death and destruction. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST lives on in infamy as one of the most controversial films ever made. Ruggero Deodato's cult shocker belongs to a pure breed of exploitation filmmaking from the late 70's and early 80's that some embrace and others despise. It is important to note that many films of this time reflected a very reckless and irresponsible period both in America and abroad, a time when the furthest reaches of moral decency had already been crossed. Rape, torture, murder... These things no longer shocked modern audiences. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE had made sure of that. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is the next step in the evolution of shock cinema, and despite the negative reputation that it has earned over the years, it is a provocative and highly influential piece of cinematic history.
It is impossible to discuss CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST without taking on the topic of animal cruelty. If CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST had been the first film of its kind, it could be argued that the scenes depicting the senseless murder of animals were only added to heighten the level of realism within the context of the jungle setting. This is not the case. Several films had come before it that included similar acts of animal abuse, and, as sad as it may be, the inclusion of such scenes had become characteristic of the genre. Deodato never glorifies the use of violence against animals anywhere within the film; quite the opposite, in fact. The scenes are clearly used to invoke anger and hatred towards the offending characters. In this regard, Deodato ultimately achieves the intended effect, although this is hardly an excuse. Then again, the cynical viewer will see this as being nothing more than cheap exploitation with absolutely no redeeming value other than to shock and disgust. This is a longstanding debate that has divided Horror fans for decades, but the film's merit cannot be decided based on these scenes alone.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is groundbreaking in the sense that it is the first so-called "found-footage" film, whereby the images shown to the audience should be accepted as being fact. While this form of cinéma-vérité has been copied and imitated repeatedly in the decades that followed, for the time, it was quite unique and revolutionary within the genre. Deodato takes great care in insuring the film's integrity. The footage is raw, gritty, worn, and ultimately unnerving. Early on, Deodato has his characters change lenses and adjust the camera settings, just as a real filmmaker would have to do in the field. Audio cuts in and out at various points, while different portions of the film have been lost or damaged. Deodato also knows to leave in some of the more mundane moments in their journey to show that this is not just a clipshow of grotesqueries, but a true account of the events as they occurred. Everything from the jungle setting to the indigenous tribes and the stomach-churning effects looks authentic. It is no wonder the director faced criminal prosecution when returning to Italy; by all accounts, it actually looks like he went out into the wilds of the Amazon and had his entire cast killed and eaten by cannibals! This is CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST's greatest strength, and what separates it from others like it.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST also takes a deeper thematic approach than any other film of its kind. It seems rather odd that an exploitation film such as this would even attempt to tackle the subject of sensationalism and violence in the media, but it does, and it does it well. The lengths that the characters go through to get their shots are more sick and depraved than anything the natives could have ever achieved on their own. Here, Deodato also explores the concept of civilization versus savagery in the same way that Wes Craven had done in 1977's THE HILLS HAVE EYES. There is one inherent problem in all of this that critics commonly cite as being its second greatest flaw: the film is entirely hypocritical. It uses the most extreme depictions of graphic violence and gore in order to prove its point, thereby rendering any altruistic alibi a fraud. In concept, the idea behind the film is simply brilliant, but in execution, it becomes guilty of the very crimes which it professes against.
Now, there are also those that watch the film for nothing more than its gooey gross-outs, setting aside the questionable morality of the filmmakers and any deeper social significance in order to enjoy the profuse amounts of blood and guts that drench the screen from beginning to end. There is no denying that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST features some of the most gruesome gore and disgustingly realistic special effects ever to come out of Italy. Even the hardest of Horror fans will have difficulty digesting some of the cannibal terrors and bodily dismemberment without so much as wincing. Although it has been labeled as being misogynistic based on some of the brutal acts that are committed against the women in the film, the men fare no better than the ladies when it comes time for their punishment. Rape and genital mutilation are only the beginning, but the most iconic image that Deodato creates is that of a female villager who is impaled from the waist on through to her mouth on a giant stake. It is a sad but beautiful depiction of death that is quite symbolic to the plot.
No amount of convincing will ever shift the opinions of those that stand at either side of the spectrum when it comes to CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. Ironically, those viewers that take such a profound offense to the film are ultimately the ones that prove its worth. If art is meant to invoke emotion, then CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is art in its purest form. No viewer can walk away unmoved by its powerful images. What is most surprising is how CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST often serves as the scapegoat for the cannibal genre at large, when it is the only film that even comes close to justifying itself beyond being mere exploitation. Similar films like Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX or Sergio Martino's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD share all of the negative traits as HOLOCAUST, with none of its merits, and yet they rarely face the same persecution. This is what makes CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST a cult-classic and an important piece of Horror history.
If you liked CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, check out:
CANNIBAL FEROX, JUNGLE HOLOCAUST, MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD.