*. This movie is usually credited as being the origin of the “Mondo” film genre: semi- or pseudodocumentary movies full of sensational and even shocking material gathered from around the world. Their abiding concern was with sex and violence, and they weren’t particularly well made. Before long, “mondo” had become a synonym for trash.
*. In 1962 people weren’t sure what to make of it. Was it trash? Or was it art? Half a century later we may be better equipped to answer that question, as there is nothing shocking or sensational left about it. Since it no longer works as trash, if it’s still worth watching it must be for whatever other qualities it has.
*. I’ll start off with all the things I don’t like.
*. It’s not a documentary. Parts of it are quite obviously staged, the most embarrassing being the crowd of women tearing the shirt off Rossano Brazzi. I also had doubts about the turtle on Bikini Atoll. Yes, wildlife on these islands was affected by the bomb tests, but is it nuclear fallout that causes the turtle to turn inland to die? How would we even know?
*. It’s racist. They try and soft-sell this by asking what behaviour we find craziest. Are we more amazed by the people mourning their lost companions at the pet cemetery or the ones eating dog at a resaurant? The producers also hold (old, fat) white people up to mockery on several occasions (for example at the fitness club for women, and with the Hawaiian tourists). Most notably, the drunks of Hamburg are probably the most disgusting bunch of people we meet. But the image of the brides being fattened like geese in their wooden cages, or the native woman suckling a pig (in a place where, the narrator tells us, the life of a child is equal to that of a pig), or how the Chinese in Malaysia are said to “spend their energy at the table or in bed” more than make up for all this.
*. It’s sexist. Women are the objects of “booty cam” leering, and are frequently presented as horny animals desperate to mate. If they’re young and good looking they’re indulged; if old they are made to seem grotesque.
*. It’s dated. Originally marketed as a shockumentary, there is little here to upset a modern audience. I suppose the abuse and killing of animals is the worst of it (the geese being fattened, the pigs slaughtered with clubs, the cattle being beheaded, etc.). But as David Flint notes, in the age of reality TV and YouTube the moment of the Mondo movie has passed.
*. I don’t think the visit to Bikini belongs. It’s a nature vignette, and this is a movie about humans and their interaction with their environment. A turtle laying eggs and dying is only indirectly related to that (through the supposed effects of the atomic detonation).
*. Is the narrative voice — cultured, arch, ironic, mocking, jaded — necessary? I don’t think so, but I can’t turn the sound off because then I lose the beautiful score by Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero. Deodato liked the score so much he hired Ortolani to score Cannibal Holocaust on the strength of it (which was also a beautiful, if not entirely appropriate, score).
*. And yet despite all these misgivings, I find this film to be not only highly watchable but at times fascinating. Why?
*. It has a thematic coherence, moving us by imaginative, globe-trotting leaps through universal human rites: mating, eating, dying. And this sort of movement, almost a collage, is occasionally quite effective in its juxtapositions.
*. What also strikes me is the congruity and incongruity of those universal rites with the swinging ’60s sensibility. The Paris art scene, Rossano Brazzi, the Jack LaLanne fitness club and Japanese spa with their strange (not to mention dangerous-looking) exercise machines, all set against cave dwellers, tropical islanders, and tribes of the rain forest. We’re both in time and out of it.
*. The envoi, with the cargo cultists waiting for God on their mountaintop underscores the moral of the piece. Is there some human unity in all this diversity, to be reconciled among the stars? Or are we just birth copulation and death, then a handful of dust to be pissed on by dogs who represent the final revenge of the natural world we’ve spent our lives fighting?
*. The cargo cult is the perfect note to end on. We’re in the presence of a myth that’s been drawn together out of strange artifacts and wreckage, mixing high and low, advanced and primitive, the spiritual and the carnal. Presenting a mosaic of these cultural fragments, introduced with ironic narration, it’s the closest thing I can imagine to The Waste Land on film. O keep the dog far hence, that’s friend to men!
*. After more than fifty years the medium has changed again, but not, I think, the message.