Friend of Wag: Cruelty of Cinema – Cannibal Holocaust
Since founding Wag we have been inundated with requests to take on writers. Our staff is pretty full at the moment, but every now and again, we will be letting a friend of ours stand up and speak their minds on filmed entertainment. Today, Brad Avery continues his series, Cruelty of Cinema, with a look at one cruel fucking movie.
Cannibal Holocaust’s reputation precedes itself. It’s well known that director Ruggero Deodato was arrested on murder charges after the film was released in Italy because officials found the special effects so realistic they believed he actually killed his actors. When it was revealed that no – he did not kill his actors, he was arrested again for obscenity. The film was banned in several countries including Australia, Norway, its native Italy, and was even declared a “Video Nasty” in the UK. So considering the mass controversy, sitting down to watch this film can be a little intimidating.
I don’t want to use the phrase “fortunate enough”, but I was able to see the movie in a theater, on 35mm. Calling it an endurance test is putting it lightly. Even before it begins you get that nauseous feeling in your gut and you want to turn around and leave the theater. But, it’s like when you’re in an amusement park and you tell yourself you’re going to ride the big roller coaster. You pump yourself up for it, and you keep saying you’re going to do it. And if you chicken out and leave without riding it you feel terrible. You keep saying I should have done it, I should have done it. Every part of you knows it’s a bad idea, but that one morbidly curious part of your mind won’t let you leave. In the end, after it’s all over and the lights come back up, you realize that you were right all along and you should have just got up and left as soon as that first rape scene begins. You rode the coaster, and now you’re puking up your stomach lining in the trash can. Cannibal Holocaust is a putrid film. It’s exploitative, sexist, racist, and abusive. It makes you feel wrong. It makes you loathe yourself for watching it. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt like I needed to just sit in the bathtub with the shower running while voraciously scrubbing myself clean. I chose this as my first review for my “Cinema of Cruelty” series because it basically sets out to do one thing – make you feel terrible. And it succeeds. If we want to gage a films quality by how well it achieves its goals, then Cannibal Holocaust is a masterpiece of trash cinema.
Cannibal Holocaust is a sort of hybrid of a traditional narrative film and a found footage movie. The story revolves around the discovery of the camera of a amateur film crew who traveled deep into the Amazon Basin in order to make a documentary on the native tribes. Obviously they never returned. In the present day, Harold Monroe, an NYU professor, has travelled into the Amazon in order to retrieve the footage. Once returning home with the footage, television executives can’t wait to air it on prime time.
Trying to list every horrid thing that happens in this movie could easily spark a discussion longer than the movie itself. But there’s certain aspects I can’t avoid. To start, there’s the animal cruelty. One of the most notorious aspects of Cannibal Holocausts reputation is that the numerous animal deaths shown on screen are real. Living, breathing, and sometimes adorable animals are murdered for the sake of making this movie. And there are no cutaways, the camera lingers on the bubbling innards of a disemboweled turtle; it zooms in on a muskrat as it has its throat slit right before the camera’s eye, squealing and squirming trying to escape. These killings serve no purpose to the story, they are just there.
And if animal cruelty doesn’t to turn you off, I lost track of the number of rape scenes. The first happens maybe fifteen to twenty minutes in, and they never slow down from there. Characters will wander into clearings where women are casually being forced down and assaulted. Of all the women seen on screen, there were maybe two who don’t get naked and/or raped at some point throughout the ninety minute run time.
Many critics are quick to point out the racist depictions of the tribesmen, and don’t think for a second that it isn’t there, but I think what is even more disgusting is how much this film loves to torture women. We see women brutalized relentlessly, while men are only the occasional victim. An old woman is abandoned to die in agony; a pregnant woman is tied up and beaten to death. Even the lone woman on the destined-to-die film crew is stripped down and raped before being torn apart by the savage tribesmen, the camera never turns away.
The film is a critique of the media’s obsession with violence, going as far as to specifically ask “Who are the real cannibals?” In a way, it’s Ruggero Deodato and his crew themselves. The film seems takes a sadistic glee in its images. It claims to be anti-violence, but it seems like they simply included that supposed moral in order to justify making a film as repugnant as this. But at the same time, its goal was to make a film so disgusting that even those who normally crave edgy and violent media are repulsed. So perhaps it is a success.
For all its disgusting images and complete lack of morals, Cannibal Holocaust is an important film. Like Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange is necessary to the existence of free will, Cannibal Holocaust is necessary to the existence of free speech. If we live in a country where we can express ourselves in any way we please, then doesn’t Cannibal Holocaust have just as much a right to exist as any other film? Would banning Cannibal Holocaust be any better than trying to ban Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita? The fact that every copy of this film wasn’t immediately burned on the pyre and wiped from human memory is a testament to the power freedom of expression has, and that is how it must remain.
To give credit to the film as a horror movie, it had every chance to become laughably bad. It easily could have been so ridiculously over the top that you can only laugh at the terrible actors being torn apart. But it isn’t. It is one of the most horrifying things I have seen in my life. It has the power to remind you of your own humanity. The fact that you recoil in horror and disgust reminds you of your own morals, that you are a civilized human being. Your sympathy for the victims in this film, the black hole of sadness you feel watching that turtle being torn apart or the pregnant woman being beaten to death, it tells you about yourself. It tells you that you’re not like them, that you are above this. Watching this film is the equivalent of voyeurism, and it punishes you for peeping. It gives you what you didn’t want to see, and it makes sure you will never want to see it again.
Maybe Deodato really tried to make a social commentary. Maybe he really wanted to make a point about violence. But even if he went in with the best intentions, he walked out with a piece of pure exploitation, one level removed from a legitimate snuff film. Cannibal Holocaust is trash cinema in its purest form, but it is trash that will stay with you. It is the gum someone spit into the waste bin, and now it is stuck to the bottom.
- Brad Avery