Title: Cannibal Holocaust
Runtime: 98 minutes (uncut) / 95, 92, 87, and 86 minutes (various edited international versions)
Language: English, Spanish (international releases overdub the dialogue with local languages)
Rating: X (USA), NR (USA, after a subsequent resubmission to the MPAA), 18 (Germany, Italy, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, the UK), and 16 (Argentina, France)
Not that any sane person would want to watch this movie, but as with all writeups reviewing movies, I should warn that massive spoilers ensue below.
* * * *
Those who filmed it were devoured alive by cannibals!
Cannibal Holocaust is a truly disturbing film. Even to the steeled gore movie fan, much of it is very difficult to watch. The whole thing is tense and suffocating, even the tastefully written acoustic/tribal guitar incidental music, and the plot elements don't do much to alleviate the terror; in fact they only act to increase the viewer's loathing for what the movie is showing them.
It started out with a short story by veteran Italian screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici. Noted horror director Ruggero Deodato bought the film rights and, along with a minimal film crew, ventured to Colombia (the South American country, not the university) and New York in the late 1970s and spent 1978-79 making Cannibal Holocaust with a varied combination of American, European, and native actors. They didn't venture too far into the Amazon basin, although the movie really makes it look like they did. The final product took about six months to capture on film and a another six months in post-production.
To date, this movie has been completely banned in Australia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, and was also banned for a time in the United Kingdom and the United States. Various edited versions, which cut the footage by up to 12 minutes in the most heavily-edited version, were quietly released in a few countries. In every country in which it has seen release, it was given a rating of 18, with the exception of Argentina and France, both of which rated it 16, and the American distributors, having received an X rating when they finally submitted the movie to the MPAA in 1984, resubmitted it in 1985 and received an NR rating. After the film's release in Italy in 1980, director Deodato was made to prove in court that none of the people that had appeared in the film were actually killed. To do this, he showed up in the courtroom with the film's principal actors, the special effects crew, and the props master. He was successful in his claim and was acquitted.
The gore and violence is extreme, as you might expect. In fact it has an epic reputation, along with the Guinea Pig series of films, as the most brutal cinematic endeavor ever put on film. Everything is done very realistically, although all the special gore effects were made using standard fake blood along with prop dummies and latex. Despite the normally limiting qualities of such things, the realism is unbelievable. Realism, however, often causes problems, and with Cannibal Holocaust, it was no different.
four documentary filmmakers
disappeared in the jungles
of South America
while shooting a film
The plot is separated into two parts, each taking up one half of the movie. The first part involves Professor Harold Monroe of Columbia University (Robert Kerman, a longtime porn actor trying to make it in the mainstream is here a bit off the mark), who, at the behest of an unnamed television network, ventures into the Amazon to find a film crew that had set out to make a documentary a year before but had never returned. He arrives in the jungle, locally dubbed the "green inferno," in an unspecified South American country and meets up with a Colombian military unit, who hook him up with Chaco (Ricardo Fuentes) and his assistant, both of whom are experts on the local landscape and culture. Before Monroe arrives, the military unit captures a native during a battle. They turn the native over to Monroe and company, who then head out into the jungle, intending to use the native as a bargaining piece to deal with one of three local cannibal tribes: the Yacumos, the Yanomamo and the Shamatari. After a long while of trekking through the jungle, the trio and their captive encounter members of all three tribes, and use various bargaining techniques to get what they want. Eventually, they find a remains-festooned shrine made up of the bones of the filmmakers they're searching for, who have been killed and eaten by the Yanomamo tribe. The Yanomamos are also in possession of the filmmakers' last worldly goods, which includes all the film they used while making their documentary. Miraculously, the film is still in the cans and has apparently not been opened and exposed. Monroe trades his mini-cassette recorder for these, and then heads back to New York to view the film for himself and show his findings to the television network.
Six months later
their footage was found.
The first part of the footage seems innocent enough; mostly it consists of the four filmmakers (three men, one woman, plus a local (male) guide) wandering around the jungle. The general attitude of the movie changes pretty quickly, though. After enough wandering, the group gets hungry, so cameraman Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and guide Felipe (Salvatore Basile) hop in the river and catch an large, adult turtle. They rope it, then winch it ashore. They then proceed to behead and dismember it in grotesquely elegant detail, and then roast the parts over an open fire. This was one of several parts of the movie that really disturbed me, as the killing of the turtle was not faked. I watched in horror as the turtle continued kicking its legs as its head was hacked off, and even as its shell was cracked and then removed. This is followed by Felipe and Jack gleefully tearing out the poor creature's innards and mounting them on sticks, throwing them aside (and at each other), or holding them up to the camera. As all this occurs, still photographer Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi) vomits in extreme closeup. For some nonsensical reason, the screenwriter made this character an animal rights activist and feminist, although her ideals aren't held too closely based on what goes on during her jungle sojourn. After the turtle is dismembered and cooked, we're treated to a scene where everyone (Faye included) is gratefully eating chunks of roasted turtle.
All is not well, however, as in the following scene, Felipe is bitten on the leg by a snake. In a startling closeup, his leg is hacked off with a machete while he screams hysterically. They catch the snake and then cut it in two on camera (which was also not faked for the sake of cinema). The guide quickly turns green and expires over the course of a few scene cuts. The four bury his body in undergrowth and continue on.
A bit more trekking follows until we come upon a group of Yacumos engaged in a ritual, which we watch at first from a distance and then at extreme closeup as the camera closes in on the scene unfolding. The director, Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), narrates. He says it's a society purification ritual which is used to purge disease, though how he knows this is left unsaid. What he's describing is a group of perhaps a dozen naked Yacumos gathered around a heavily pregnant, naked Yacumos woman, who is bound by rope at the wrists and ankles to a pair of posts. A few of them are hitting the woman in the belly, trying to get the fetus out, which they eventually do, in gory blood-drenched detail. The rest of the group is banging on the woman's head with stones, also in extreme detail. The woman's head and vulva sprout blood as a man carries the fetus to the riverbank and buries it in the mud.
Afterward, they find a Yacumos village, and laughingly set fire to it while herding its people into the burning buildings, and shooting those that flee, all for the sake of their documentary.
Here is a summary of some of the rest of the more notable scenes, in no semblance of order:
- A mud-soaked rape of a native girl, perpetrated by Alan, which Faye protests by buzzing around the camera's eye like a hornet. Faye is supposed to be Alan's girlfriend, so cameraman Jack, after taking his turn with the native girl, physically restrains Faye while she continues to violently protest. Alan doesn't seem to mind as he's preoccupied with his own rape. Everyone is completely covered in sticky, glistening mud.
- A ritual rape carried out by a native man on a native woman, which we watch from a distance. He uses a variety of large, spiked stone dildos to accomplish this, then puts the woman's evidently dead body on a boat and then launches the boat.
- The disembowling of a marsh rat or agouti with a hunting knife, in extreme detail. It squirms and squeaks throughout. Not faked. Chaco feeds some of the creature's entrails to the captive native, who gleefully devours them (though this part is probably faked).
- The four filmmakers encounter the site of a previous ritual. The single notable and focused-upon body is impaled through the anus up through the mouth with a large pole, approximately the circumference of a young tree. The impaled girl is, apparently, the very same girl that Alan and Jack had perpetrated their mud-soaked rape upon in the previous scene.
- Many more rapes and killings, as well as scenes of cannibalism and human remains done with such extreme care that you'll swear they're real.
Who are the real cannibals?
Monroe and his television associates watch the footage with increasing unease. Right up until the end, they want to air the footage. They feel that "people have a right to know," to use that age-old standby. Monroe is insistent on destroying the footage. After the final film reel is viewed, the TV people are finally convinced, and agree to destroy it. The final reel shows what became of the filmmakers.
- Jack Anders, cameraman. Members of the Shamatari tribe, whom we are led to believe are the most savage, appear and surround the group, capturing them one by one. Jack is first. First, the group strips him naked. Then, a tribesman brandishes a stone axe and with one swift stroke, severs the shaft of his penis. His arms and legs are forcibly removed, and then his head is pulled off. The group carries off the parts but discards the head. We're left with a long shot of the head glaring accusingly with dead eyes at the camera.
- Faye Daniels, still photographer. The tribe grabs ahold of Faye and doesn't let go. They drag her some distance away and then strip her naked, taking extra care to rip off her white cotton panties as violently as possible. They force her to the ground and hold her there while a few tribesman take turns violently raping her. She screams and screams, and is then dismembered. Still she screams, until a quick blow with the stone axe severs her head. A tribesman picks up her head and dances around with it.
- Alan Yates and Mark Tamaso, director and cinematographer/sound man, respectively, are left holding the cameras. The tribe closes in around them and we're finally left with a shot of Alan's increasingly bloody face staring wide-eyed into the camera as he's being killed. Mark (Luca Barbareschi) had hardly any screen time or dialogue, so he's left to chronicle the final demise of his boss, even as he himself is killed. How nice.
The footage abruptly cuts to a black screen as the film runs out, and then we cut back to the viewing room in the TV network's office. An uncomfortable silence permeates the room. One of the executives rises from his chair and picks up a telephone receiver. He gives an order to destroy the film, then hangs up. All file out of the room, with Monroe going last, silently admonishing the TV executives for their own savagery. Finally, we cut to the ground floor of the building, where Monroe is coming out of a revolving door. He stops to light up his pipe, and in a voiceover, he thoughtfully intones the film's last words and the basic tenet of its plot:
"I wonder who the real cannibals are?"
Cannibal Holocaust is available on DVD in regions 0 (NTSC) and 2 (PAL), depending on the country and the seller. You can usually find it at specialty video stores for about $25/£15. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is one of the all-time top-grossing films to be released cinematically in Japan, where gore movies are a significant part of popular culture.
As the credits roll, the following "note" appears, in an effort to make the film look legitimate (it doesn't help):
Projectionist John K. Kirov was given a two-month suspended sentence and fined $10,000 for illegal appropriation of film material. We know that he received $250,000 for the same footage.