“Cannibal Holocaust” (1980)
Studio: F.D. Cinematografica
Starring: Robert Kerman, Carl Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi
Directed by: Ruggero Deodato
Running Time: 95 min.
Synopsis: A professor is sent off into the Amazon to find a group of documentary filmmakers who set out to do a documentary on cannibalism.
Cannibal Holocaust has always had this reputation to it all the years I heard about it for being one of the most shocking and controversial films ever made. I first heard about the film in the late 80’s and didn’t see the film until I found it on DVD in 2007. For years I read articles about the film, seen a few pictures, read some reviews online, and searched high and low for the film. When I finally found it, for me, it was like finding the holy grail of exploitation. When I watched it I wasn’t disappointed and I was glad I wasn’t. Other films that waited to see for years haven’t lived up to their hype, but this was not the case with Holocaust. The film is great on so many levels and is a masterpiece of horror. After viewing it, in my opinion, it is one of the most controversial films ever made next to I Spit on Your Grave.
The film starts off with Dr. Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) from New York who goes down to the Amazon into The Green Inferno to search for four missing filmmakers who were making a documentary down there about cannibalism. The group never returned and Monroe is sent to find them. Along with his guides, the good doctor stumbles across a few tribes that lead him to traces of what happened to the group. Eventually, Monroe finds the filmmaker’s reels and also finds what looks like their remains. Monroe makes peace with the tribe and is able to get the film from them. He returns to New York to uncover what is on those film reels and what happened to those four filmmakers.
Cannibal Holocaust is a mixture of a mystery, documentary, drama, horror film, exploitation film, and a shocking piece of cinema. Ruggero Deodato, the director of the movie creates an excellent film of terror and realism. In a way, you are watching two different stories throughout the film. The first act is the story of Monroe going through the jungle in search of the filmmakers. The second act is Monroe taking the film to New York and viewing it where we see the documentation of the four filmmakers. The first half is presented as a narrative film, while the second half is shown in a documentary form. Even though there are two different ways the movie is shown, it still works and gels well together.
First I want to point out the opening to the film. You would expect some type of shocking opening with cannibals running wild eating some poor soul, but that is not the case. The opening they have is prefect and gives the film a mystic. The scene is done very simple with aerial shots of the Amazon, but what makes the scene is the beautiful score from Riz Ortolani. It’s a soft beautiful, but haunting form of music being played during the opening credits. Looking at the Amazon below you can only imagine the horrors that are about to take place in the next ninety minutes or so. This scene alone gives this film so much credibility and makes it stand above other cannibal and grindhouse films. Ortolani score throughout is one of the best movie soundtracks ever and it captures the tone of each scene.
One example of another scene where the music follows the tone of the story is a part where Monroe and his guide stumble across a ritual being performed. It involves a tribe’s woman who is being punished for adultery. A tribe’s man takes her away from the village and takes a sharp stone in a phallic shape and slams it into her vagina until she bleeds and is later beaten to death. This is a very disturbing scene and the music captures every moment of it. It starts off very dark as the ritual begins and then becomes heartbreaking as we feel for the victim. At one point Monroe wants to stop this, but is warned by his guides not to interfere, so he has to sit there and watch this horrible act take place.
The film creates a great sense of mystery as the doctor goes through the jungle. It almost has an Apocalypse Now feel to it like how Martin Sheen is going through the jungle in search of Marlon Brando. During Monroe’s mission, some of the mystery is revealed the further he goes into The Green Inferno and all of it is revealed once he views the film reels. Deodato does an excellent job with crafting a great story and giving it this great mystery of what has happened to these people.
Without giving too much away I want to mention the parts where the film reels are being viewed. These scenes are great and done in a documentary style. The leader of the group, Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke) is shown with his girlfriend, Faye (Francesca Ciardi) and the rest of the crew Jack (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark (Luca Barbareschi) going through The Green Inferno and interacting with the people there. What you learn from the films that Alan will stop at nothing to get what he wants on film. As you continue to watch them you start to figure out some things and realize who the real monsters are.
The movie of course is very notorious for some of its brutal scenes that include, rape, mutilation, amputation, castration, decapitation, stoning, ripping out a fetus, and of course cannibalism. Some of the scenes looked so real to people that when the film was released in Italy, the filmmakers almost were sent to jail for murder. They had to get all the actors and bring them to court to prove that they were alive. Although they did kill live animals in the film and this is one of the main reasons why this film is so controversial. It has been banned in many places because of the gore and violence and also the animal killings. There’s even a feature on the DVD where you can watch the film minus the killing of the animals.
The cast is great as well. Robert Kerman who mostly starred in porno films in the 70’s, plays a great lead role as the doctor. Kerman also continued in the cannibal genre by starring in Eaten Alive (not the Tobe Hooper film) and featured in Cannibal Ferox. Umberto Lenzi directed both films. Carl Gabriel Yorke does a good job as well, playing the cocky Alan Yates. Yorke plays it with realism at times, which makes it more authentic since it suppose to be a documentary. The other cast members are good as well. Actor Perry Pirkanen who plays Jack also has a small part in Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox.
Almost twenty years after Cannibal Holocaust was released, another film took a note from Deodato by making a mockumentary. That film was the horrible Blair Witch Project. Although their film was entirely shot with their so-called found footage, their marketing scheme was just like Holocaust saying that the film was real. When Blair Witch came out it was said that this was a different and original way of filmmaking and marketing, but they forgot that it was done twenty years ago. Even Deodato says that he was frustrated with the publicity that Blair Witch got for being an original concept. To me Holocaust is a way better film than the God awful Blair Witch Project will ever be.
Cannibal Holocaust will always be a shocking horror film and also a well put together movie. The story pulls you in as the secrets are revealed scene by scene. Deodato, who is no stranger to the cannibal genre with making Last Cannibal World three years earlier, but with Holocaust it’s a whole different animal with mixing horror, exploitation, and realism to make this masterpiece. Deodato went on to make other horror films after Holocaust and only House on the Edge of the Park was the biggest stand out under Holocaust and the rest were mostly forgettable. He plans on returning to the Cannibal genre with a follow up to Holocaust called simply Cannibals, but I doubt it will capture the same magic. Cannibal Holocaust will always be Deodato’s best and one of the most controversial films ever made.