Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

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*. What is it about making movies in the jungle? Is there a worse environment to film in? As evidence, Coppola’s struggles shooting Apocalypse Now were documented in the documentary Hearts of Darkness. Ditto Herzog’s efforts on Fitzcarraldo in Burden of Dreams (and shooting Aguirre was no picnic either).
*. Then there’s this movie, the production of which was, by most accounts, a horror story nearly as miserable as the one Ruggero Deodato was trying to tell. Reports were that Deodato was a cruel, sadistic personality, and that the cast found the material so objectionable they wanted no part of it.
*. That someone like Deodato would put himself through such an experience, just to make such a mean exploitation film, says something about his dedication. Dedication to what is another question. His craft? Some principle of authenticity? The “moral” of his story?
*. That moral, or theme, is pretty simple. The intro sets it up with the contrast between the urban jungle of skyscrapers and modernist boardrooms with the stone-age “green inferno” of the Amazon. It’s the basic Heart of Darkness line: that the heart of an advanced civilization (London in Heart of Darkness, Manhattan here) is also one of the dark places of the earth. “I wonder who the real cannibals are,” the professor concludes, tritely and almost superfluously.
*. It’s a notorious film, sometimes dubbed the most controversial ever made. For an exploitation flick, that’s an achievement. As often happens, a lot of the controversy has died down. This wasn’t a snuff film, but one where the violence (toward humans) was pretty obviously fake. Though the image of the impaled woman is still striking, even iconic, in horror circles.
*. It’s interesting however that one of the most shocking things about it today is the full frontal male nudity. Gore and violence is something we’ve become inured to. But what’s that? A cock?
*. Then there’s the cruelty to animals. I don’t like it. I hate Deodato for doing it. It’s unnecessary. Apparently even Deodato came to regret it.
*. On the other hand, if you’re not a vegetarian what moral ground are you standing on? Isn’t a film like Franju’s Blood of the Beasts even more horrifying? You could say that the animals slaughtered by their millions as livestock every day are being used as food and not being killed for entertainment, but the animals we see killed here were apparently eaten by the natives. Meanwhile, Faye vomits at the killing of the turtle, but then is happy to eat its meat. It’s all rather depressing.
*. But I guess there’s no rule that says movies have to be uplifting.

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*. What’s galling, perhaps intentionally so, is the way the team members ham up the violence for the camera. They’re like a bunch of frat goons set loose on the jungle. Jack holds up the turtle’s severed head and mimes licking it. Then there’s the killing of a small pig. It’s tied to a stake and is shot at point-blank range with a shotgun. This, the kids claim, is evidence of “survival of the fittest . . . the law of the jungle, the strong over the weak”
*. Of course this is yahoo nonsense, and it gets worse once they torch the native village, deliberately forcing the children back inside the burning huts, for no purpose at all. In Nightmare Movies Kim Newman says “the intruders are a team of filmmakers who force the tribe into greater and greater acts of savagery in order to get sensational footage for their next movie.” Is that what’s going on? How savage is the tribe? I thought the filmmakers were trying to instigate some inter-tribal violence. But then why kill the kids? Especially when they are clearly the ones doing all the burning and killing and not a rival tribe. It seems as though they are just being complete idiots.
*. “Just like Cambodia!’ one of them says. Which is . . . what? A good thing? Ironic? Is Deodato saying something about American imperialism or its legacy in Southeast Asia?
*. Later they will gang rape a native girl, setting in motion their final, well-deserved destruction. In some ways then this is a precursor to the “idiot Americans abroad” or tourist-terror genre, later developed even further in films like Hostel, Turistas, and The Ruins (or, for that matter, Apocalypse Now). By the time we get to the end, we’re ready to see these assholes get their comeuppance.
*. Though I want to immediately add that the original team of explorers aren’t recognizably American. I say that not because they look like European actors playing Americans, but because of the way that Faye parades around the three guys while she’s stark naked. That’s not an American thing.
*. Another theme being explored is that of voyeurism. This is also a horror staple, and it’s indulged in quite a bit here, with the team sticking their cameras into the faces of rotting corpses and tortured bodies. Faye will complain during the gang rape scene that the guys are making a “porno,” and that’s a judgment that will be returned on her when she becomes the victim. It’s not a snuff film, but it’s very much a movie about snuff as an aesthetic.
*. Did Riz Ortolani even see the movie he was scoring? I mean, it’s a great theme but it’s so wildly discordant with the crappy quality of the movie we’re watching (though not necessarily with its story) that it’s jarring. It even changes up sharply at different points, and for no apparent reason. And why score the found footage at all? I don’t think it adds anything.
*. As much as I’d like to write it all off as a completely unredeemed piece of shit, the fact is there’s something here. In the first place, the odd structure where the two trips into the jungle echo each other in reverse order is actually well developed. It’s also a very early example of the “found footage” horror film, a genre that would only really take off after the success of The Blair Witch Project. And finally it has an emotional rawness, with the humans even rutting in the mud, and acting more beastly than any of the innocent animals they slaughter.
*. Depressing. But once seen, hard to forget.

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