Way back in the far simpler days of 1979 (but released in 1980), Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust took the stance that for all the civilized world's superiority, modern man can still too easily fall into callous and cruel behavior. And, that he did it in a jungle/cannibal film, just goes to show why genre cinema has always been the best place to get your message flick mixed in with some good, cheap, vulgar, exploitation thrills.
Documentary filmmaker Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), his girlfriend Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi), two cameramen, and a guide disappeared while filming in the Amazon. Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) leads a small expedition into the jungle to find out what happened to them. Besides the inherent danger they face from nature, they venture into areas that are inhabited by warring tribes of cannibals, most notably the swamp dwellers, the Shamatori, and the elusive "tree people," the Yanomamo. As Monroe feared, Yate's documentary crew met a grisly end at the hand of the cannibals, however what he finds on the crew's recovered footage tells a far more disturbing story than he could have expected.
This is a very well known film, but I am still going to play coy with the details because it serves the film better for any newbies. Suffice to say, what starts out as a by-the-numbers cannibal/jungle film, changes in the last half where we witness the raw documentary footage of the Yates expedition and the film takes on a cinema verite air. As a matter of fact, that the last half was the obvious inspiration for The Blair Witch Project- the viewer is meant to not be sure if what they are seeing is real. The film was also promoted as such, using unknown actors, selling the idea that it all actually happened. What is also most noted about the film is its grue and gore, from tribesman performing ritualistic rape, abortions, castration, impaled bodies, not to mention the cannibalizing, as well as the films actual, all too real violence against animals, in this case a anteater-rat looking thing, a piglet, a turtle, and a monkey.
Now, I didn't find out about Cannibal Holocaust until the mid-late 80's and it took me a good number of years before I actually stumbled upon a fringe video store with an all day wine-drinking proprietor who stocked oodles of bootlegs and weird stuff. The one thing I've never quite wrapped my head around is that it came out in 1980. It feels so much like a post-Vietnam era grindhouse flick, that I always assumed it came out a good six to eight years earlier and some smart theater probably double billed it with Last House on the Left. Regardless if came after the first wave of disillusioned post-Vietnam cinema, Cannibal Holocaust is a definite reaction to those times.
Previous Euro jungle/cannibal films like Man From Deep River (1972) and Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978) took the typical stance of being adventure-horror films depicting modern man lost among the primitives. Deodato wasn't content to just go for that. He had previously delivered another fine jungle film, Jungle Holocaust (1977, aka. The Last Survivor, The Last Cannibal World), that likewise explored similar themes and aimed for more then just entertaining thrills. While Cannibal Holocaust transports viewers to an exotic place full of strange customs and primitive behavior, the subtext takes a definite stab at the media. Again, that is why I say it feels like such a post-Vietnam film, because that was the first war where journalists exposed the horrors (and futility) of warfare and made it commonplace for ma, pa, and little Jimmy to sit around the tv at 6PM and see those atrocities right before their eyes. To hammer the point home further, one of the Yates crew can be heard saying, "It's just like Cambodia, man."
Cannibal Holocaust's history is filled with controversy. Aside from the real animal violence causing it to be banned in over fifty countries, it's fake violence proved to be convincing enough that Deodato was dragged into Italian court where he had to prove it was fictitious. He also went on tv talk shows with the actors in order to prove the Yate's crew hadn't met a grisly end in the primeval forest. He sort of paid the price thanks to film makers like Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, who infamously manufactured stagy scenes and paid off villagers, tribesmen, and Congo soldiers to gain material and fulfill their sensationalistic agenda for mondo documentaries like Mondo Cane, Goodbye Uncle Tom, and Africa Addio. Even to this day, the film hit another blockade when Grindhouse had to go through a number of printers and accommodations because of the DVD artwork.
And, in a karmic way, I think Deadato deserved all the hassles he got. He did allow the animals to be killed. He did exploit the natives he filmed and perpetuated a stereotype about them that is far from the truth. In that sense, despite any "message" the film might have, he is still no better than any other mondo doc or exploitation jungle film makers like Lenzi, Martino, Jacopetti, or Prosperi.
I say all that, and I really like the film. Without a doubt, the film's content and method is questionable, and those that abhor violence and cruelty to animals have every right to object to the film and flat out should not watch it. However, part of being a human being is that one can make allowances in their art and entertainment. Some things are a product of their time, and I'd no sooner totally damn Cannibal Holocaust than I would Birth of a Nation. And, hell, Robert Mapplethorpe's subject matter might not always have been pleasant, but damn if his compositions werent pretty. You can sort of say the same here- I don't condone everything I see onscreen in the film, yet, as conflicting as it may seem, I think the harsher material does artistically further the film as a work of shock cinema.
Despite being a group of filmgoers known for their sadistic streaks, for many horror fans Cannibal Holocaust manages to be too bleak and off-putting. Like the Pope said about Passion of the Christ, "It is what it is." To complain about a cannibal film being disturbing and distasteful is a bit like complaining about a musical having too much song and dance.
The DVD: Grindhouse
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. When it comes to films like this I get a knee-jerk reaction when I see the words, High-definition mastering. I prefer my older genre films to retain a rough edge. Luckily the folks at Grindhouse didn't clean it up too much. Grain and some slight dirt and lines reveal the films age and the last half of the film, as intended, is suitably rough looking. Not to say this is not a quality print, it looks fantastic.
Technically, the non-progressive transfer is quite sound with no severe compression issues. The sharpness is quite good. Contrast levels are damn near perfect. Colors are especially impressive and Grindhouse did an excellent job with the two distinctive parts of the film. The 35mm sections have a very natural look, revealing good fleshtones and the lush greenery and muck of the jungle. When it switches to the "found" 16mm footage, the color takes on a much more warm tinged saturation, making the finale all the more nightmarish.
Sound: English, Original Mono or Stereo Remix. Again, remixes always have me worried. But, Grindhouse does a good job, just making a more subtle stereo track that doesn't go overboard. Those with low end systems, plain ol' tv speaker set-ups, may find the remix is a bit fx/score heavy. Both tracks are nice and clear, though limited in range, forgivable because it is due to the source. Riz Ortilani's wistful and doomed synth score is especially impressive.
Extras: Packaged in a retail-friendly slipcase, the disc itself has the films more infamous promotional imagery. Mini poster replica and Liner Notes by Chas Balun.
Disc One: First off, the film can be viewed in no less than three different ways, in original, uncut theatrical form, in an animal cruelty-free version (which speaks for itself), and in an on camera commentary version (you view the film with commentary and a little icon pops up that connects you to footage of director Ruggero Deadato and actor Robert Kerman during the commentary recording) Feature Length Commentary by director Deadato and Kerman. Pretty good, keeps moving, mainly anecdote driven ("We got stuck in the mud there"), but informative and light. Five Trailers for the film Bios (for the characters) "Last Road to Hell" Alternate Version (1:43). One sequence of the film shows a clip from another of the film makers docs, "Last Road to Hell." This is an alternate version, literally only a couple of seconds longer with a shot or two added and different credits. DVDRom link to the Original Script.
Disc Two: "In the Jungle" documentary (Italian with English subtitles). Just a tad over one hour, this featurette gathers most of the main crew to deliver anecdotes on the making of the film, the conditions, the reaction and controversy, as well as Deadato as a film maker. The discussion covers all the essential ground, including point/counterpoint views on the more distasteful aspects of the film. Best of all, aside from the usual talking head stuff, the doc shows a great deal of behind the scenes footage made by the crew. Interviews: Robert Kerman Exposed (35:35), Riz Ortilani (4:58), and Alan Yates Uncovered (51:13). Good interviews with the actors covering thier careers and involvemnt in the film. Ortilani breifly discusses working with Deadato and scoring the movie. Still Gallery: Production Stills, Behind the Scenes, Publicity Material, and Mondo Cannibale. Necrophagia Music Video Bios/Filmographies for Deadato, Kerman and Yorke. Very detailed text. Trailers for Cannibal Ferox, The Tough Ones, The Beyond, Cat in the Brain, I Drink Your Blood, Scum of the Earth, and Gone with the Pope. DVD Credits.
Finally, both discs contain Easter Eggs (mostly on disc two), found by navigating the various pages and looking for a little skull on a pike icon. There is quite a bit of footage, from a Grindhouse screening of the film and fan reaction, to convention interviews, to some negligible but amusing stuff (see Deadato go on a search for some apple pie).
Conclusion: A landmark shock film that is both deplorable and relevant. Suffice to say, Cannibal Holocaust is not for everyone. Grindhouse is sensitive to those viewers who might be offended and include the option to watch it in a PETA-friendly cut. For thick-skinned horror lovers, it is a film that is almost as poignant as it is gruesome. Grindhouse has really gone the extra mile for fringe film fans and lovingly put together an excellent package. Might end up being the horror purchase of the year.