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Cannibal Holocaust is the Star Wars of cannibal movies. It's the Star Wars of found-footage movies, and pretty much exploitation films in general. Which is to say that after this massive lump of offal floated down the Amazon in 1980, the world would never be the same. Though certainly not the first cannibal movie, the nastiness that is Cannibal Holocaust seemed to have come out of the blue, punching viewers, animals, reporters and court systems in the face. Most genre fans worth their salt have choked down this cinematic nugget already, but let's see if a long-awaited state-side Blu-ray release will be the thing to bring in new appreciation, and a whole new generation of fans.
Holocaust chops a smart and simple story into pieces, with gorgeous flyover shots of the Amazon river giving way to scenes of a brash young group of documentary film-makers fixing to hit the jungle in a search for cannibals. Though full of enthusiasm, these kids are douchebags, and you just know that things will not end well. When the kids go missing, and a party (including Robert Kerman as Professor Monroe) goes down to find out what happened, we find out just how bad it got. Monroe finds the kids' lost footage hanging from the trees in the most disturbing cannibal village ever put to screen, brings it back to the states, screens it for some producers hoping to make a buck, and jaws drop. A producer concludes they should burn the footage immediately.
Even at this late stage in the movie-making game, Cannibal Holocaust is still as shocking as it gets, a true catalog of atrocities and a non-stop barrage of degradation. So relentless is the movie in its message of humanity-as-cesspool - from the scumbag film-makers to the beastly cannibals - that at a certain point in viewing it, you simply lose track of how awful it is, succumbing to numbed shock. The beauty is in how carefully the movie is put together. Every affront is calculated to generate maximum effect. This, by the way, is coming from a reviewer who's seen Holocaust, (as well as pretty much any other 'sickest film ever' you might name) numerous times.
So what's going on here? Why is Holocaust so special? Director Ruggero Deodato's crafted a brilliant picture that gleefully pushes every button viewers have, ramping the effects thereof in several ways, perhaps most effectively through clever and callous juxtaposition. During the first shock scene, when we the viewers are asked to "sit back and enjoy the show" of the rape and murder by stone dildo of a naked Yanamamo woman, composer Riz Ortolani's score becomes sweetly elegiac, an aria pushing geek-show cruelty way beyond the pale. Nothing about the scene is remotely enjoyable, but spreading Ortolani's assuredly saccharine benediction on top of a scene that's already offensive on multiple levels just makes it that much harder to take. The same goes for Robert Kerman's naked frolic in the river - scored by a florid love theme - a scene in which the White Man 'goes native' to assure the cannibals that he's OK, only what happens is he's set upon by a bunch of hysterical naked cannibal women who playfully fondle him. It's another truly ugly scene of ethnocentric xenophobia wrapped up in exploitation garb and shuttled down your throat with nauseating treacle.
Of course the most notorious and effective use of juxtaposition involves both the 'found footage' conceit and the use of real filmed violence to blur the lines between what is real and what isn't. Setting up our hot-shot documentarians, producers in New York screen for Kerman the group's earlier effort, "The Long Road to Hell" - a little movie about military unrest in Africa. The footage contains shocking images of executions and dead bodies, heavy, gut-wrenching stuff. This execution footage is 100% genuine, and very disturbing. The kicker of course, is that in the world of Cannibal Holocaust, the producer reveals that the documentary crew had faked this footage (a 'put-on' using actors) to give their movie more power. What better way to convince viewers that Deodato's special effects-based footage of our protagonists getting all cut up is actually real, than by presenting authentic death video as being fake? Well, if you're Deodato, you ramp that up by liberally salting your movie with actors actually killing real animals for the camera. Not only does this further blur the line between fantasy and reality, it pretty much shits on it.
After several viewings of Holocaust, the animal cruelty just seems to get more disturbing. Fairly reliable accounts indicate the killed animals were eaten - in fact you can pretty much see the actors chowing down on film. It comes down to the fact that the animals were killed for entertainment (ours) as well as food that makes it questionable. It's the glee with which the actors kill the animals, scattering offal like chiclets, it's the part where the guy kicks a tied-up pig a few times in the head before shooting it that make these scenes indefensible, despite the fact that their presence effectively cements the place of Cannibal Holocaust as one of the most disturbing movies of all time.
The craft with which Deodato launches Holocaust into the realms of pure insanity - as his documentary crew devolves into drug-fueled savagery - is unassailable. The movie bounces back and forth between documentary realism and sideshow hysteria with whiplash speed. Frenzied shots of a man undergoing a little trailside amputation might for instance butt up against shots of a glowing tow-headed boy frolicking in a park in New York, only to go back to derisive shots of squatting natives scrabbling over intestines to nosh on. It's an unbalancing act that ensures the feeling that anything could happen in this movie at any time. That's also down to the fact that offensive, nasty, horrific violence, sexual violence, murder, cannibalism and animal abuse is pretty much happening non-stop.
Deodato's bleak, nihilistic world view - essentially that all humans are savages deserving of degredation - is presented in hard to swallow form. Leering contempt is doled out judiciously for the 'primitives' the 'civilized,' and the actors themselves. The untrained native actors, made to simulate horrific acts, often appear confused and disgusted, unsure if the joke isn't actually on them. Meanwhile it's your soul that takes the beating. Cannibal Holocaust's power hasn't diminished over time; on this gorgeous Blu-ray, that power simply grows, overwhelming and brutal. "Sit back and enjoy the show"? We're captive, Deodato, we have no choice. But enjoy it? Not bloody likely. DVD Talk Collector's Series.
Grindhouse Releasing graces us with a new 1080p, MPEG 4 AVC, hi-definition digital restoration of the original director's cut, in a 1.85:1 ratio. Film grain is evident, but the sharp image is spectacular, while colors are rich and vibrant. You can actually detect the warm glow of the sun at times, a change from what I recall as an otherwise unrelentingly gray atmosphere. And yes, the blood is very red. This top notch effort only increases the impact of an already brutally stunning movie.
Audio choices are represented by a digital stereo remix and the original mono mix of the soundtrack. Ordinarily I'd recommend listening to the original mix for authenticity's sake, but in this case, the stereo mix is a great improvement, opening up the score in all its beauty, while making the rest of the audio, - dialog and sound effects - more immersive and effective. Would an even more eleaborate mix be necessary? I don't know, but what is presented does the job perfectly well, adding just the right amount of extra-oomph to make the move that much less bearable.
Cannibal Holocaust comes in a stylish embossed slipcover, featuring the iconic image of the woman on a stick. The Blu-ray-sized clear keepcase has two spindles for the two discs, and an insert advertising for Rotten Cotton and Tenebrarum publications. Our copy has a reversible cover, with more explicit art on the reverse side. Also included is a 22-Page Booklet on thick glossy paper, touting a centerfold of that same woman on a stick, and essays by Eli Roth, Chas Balun, Gergely Hubai (writing about composer Riz Ortolani) and Martin Beine (Comparing the screenplay to the actual film). The booklet is lovingly illustrated with stills from the movie and poster artwork.
That isn't all, though, not by a long-shot. In addition to two Blu-ray discs for the feature and extras, you get a Bonus CD of the Newly Remastered Score by Riz Ortolani, which sounds great and will give your morning commute a whole new flavor. In addition, you get Two Commentary Tracks on Disc One, featuring Ruggero Deodato and Robert Kerman, Carl Yorke and Francesa Ciardi. Disc Two is packed with over three hours of old and new interviews. New ones include Ruggero Deodato, Francesca Ciardi, assistant director/co-star Salvo Basile, and cameraman Roberto Forges Davazati, while classic interviews with Robert Kerman, Carl Yorke and Riz Ortolani also appear. The interviews are consistently fascinating, revealing mostly the devastating effect Holocaust had on pretty much everyone involved. You will also find a Convention Panel segment from Cinema Wasteland, a Q&A with Ciardi from Glasgow, and two uncomfortable Reunions from conventions, with Yorke and Kerman separately meeting Deodato again after years without contact.
You might as well throw in Tons of Still Galleries, (sadly, not auto-nav, so keep your hands on the remote) as well as 14 Trailers for other Grindhouse Releasing efforts, and quite a handful of fairly-easy-to-find Easter Eggs scattered over both discs, one of which shows the lengths to which people will go to see Holocaust in the theater - including their stunned reactions as they watch the film!
Lastly, there is the option to watch the movie in an Animal Cruelty-Free Version.
Cannibal Holocaust sneers at the title 'Most Disturbing Movie Ever' and rips its throat out with dirty, plaque-riddled teeth. The movie has lost none of its power to shock, in fact it's only gained power over the years, and this awesome 3-Disc Blu-ray set, (with one disc a CD of the soundtrack) simply cements the reputation. Looking fabulous in BD, Holocaust is here again to rape your senses with a non-stop barrage of callous degradation, calculated to make you question your view of humanity. Seriously, this movie takes what other transgressive movies have to offer and spits on it. But Grindhouse releasing doesn't spit, it gives us a beautiful transfer and a boatload of extras (some old, some new) to enjoy. Even though this is a double or triple dip for the title, you'll want to be sure to snap it up, while holding on to previous releases (most notably Grindhouse Releasing's Deluxe DVD edition from a few years ago) since some of those extras did not port over. That said, this is truly the most controversial, disturbing movie of all time, one that earns the coveted DVD Talk Collector's Series ranking hands down.
- Kurt Dahlke