Day 19: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Director: Ruggero Deodato

Starring: Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, Francesca Ciardi, Robert Kerman, Carl Gabriel Yorke

Runtime: 96 minutes

I was wavering on whether I would include this one. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding this movie, which hasn’t subsided to this day. The depictions of rape, extreme violence, cannibalism make this a hard movie to watch. It is also problematic from a moral point of view: seven animals were killed during filming, six of which appear onscreen, including a scene where the actors behead, dismember, and consume a large turtle. After the film was released, Deodato, an Italian filmmaker, was summoned to court in Italy upon allegations that some of the actors were actually killed during filming. That just goes to show you how much this movie blurs the line between what is real and what is simulated.

Though an extremely violent “exploitation” film, it aspires to social commentary. How effective that commentary is can be questioned. Supposedly, Deodato meant it is a criticism of the Italian media, which he believed staged certain scenes of violence to portray terrorists in a certain way. The title Cannibal Holocaust leads you to believe it is about a violent cannibal tribe, but it is actually about a group of American filmmakers who go into the Amazon (where those scenes were actually filmed), and enact scenes of violence as material for a documentary, which they portray as being committed by a native tribe. However, the tribe gets revenge once they go too far, and the footage is found by the university that sent them; now the media wants to broadcast the footage, in order to capitalize on the gruesome deaths (and in a way that makes the tribe out to be the antagonists). The lone dissenting professor says at the end of the film, “I wonder who the real cannibals are.”

But sensationalism surrounded the film’s release—Deodato made the actors sign contracts not to appear in any media for a year after it opened, which initially played into the legal case against him, until he got the actors to appear in court. And Deodato employed exploitive practices himself—the killing of the animals, bullying some of the actors, especially the actual natives who were used and were not credited or compensated. Some of the actors also objected to the animal cruelty, and claimed not to be paid what they were promised. One described him as “cold and uncaring.” So just how much to buy into his social commentary is a difficult question.


Still, despite all this, and the fact that the film is (for me), hard to re-watch, I think it is important in horror history, and intriguing in the questions it poses (which can’t be easily answered). Many filmmakers are exploitative—take Hitchcock, for a mainstream example—so do we condemn and not watch a film of his, if one of his actress’s claims he exploited her? A water buffalo was killed for Apocalypse Now, so do we condemn that film as well in indignation at animal cruelty? The double standard that is used for Cannibal Holocaust shows the hypocrisy of some of the film’s declaimers—ironic given such protestors are claiming the film is being hypocritical.

It’s worth a watch if you’ve got a strong stomach, but to me it’s more of a curiosity than something of high artistic or even entertainment value.

Cannibal Holocaust

Filmmakers set a hut on fire–with natives inside–as part of their “documentary.”


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