Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

It's like the Swiss Family Robinson if they were cannibals...
and yes, I'd like to read that book very much

The vast majority of my movie reviews so far have been of cheap Italian zombie films, so I thought I'd branch off a bit and review a cheap Italian cannibal film. Hey, I didn't say I'd branch out very far!

The cannibal genre has it's roots in the Mondo, a kind of Italian pseudo-documentary that catalogued bizarre and shocking practices from around the world. It began in 1962 with the film Mondo Cane (literally "Dog World") and the genre was popular throughout the 60s. The cannibal genre began in earnest with Umberto Lenzi's Man From Deep River in 1972 and by 1980 the audiences wised up and realised just how cheap and despicable the films were, and Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust is largely to blame.

Cannibal Holocaust follows the standard cannibal film template. A group TV execs task a team headed by Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, you can tell he's an academic because he wears a tweed suit and smokes a pipe) to find out what happened to a documentary crew who disappeared in the Amazon jungle. The first half of the film mostly consists of the group trekking through the jungle with the help of a captive Yacomo native. On their journey they witness a native woman being punished for adultery with a primitive dildo that certainly isn't ribbed for her pleasure. Eventually they meet up with the Yacomo tribe and gain their trust by exposing their wing-wongs. Once at the village, they are offered a delicious stew, freshly regurgitated by native women. Yummy! Eventually they are led to their destination, the lands of the warring Yanomamo and Shamatari tribes. By killing some of the Shamatari, they gain the trust of the Yanamamo tribe and soon discover the gruesome fate of the documentary crew. Monroe manages to trade some of his equipment for the missing film cannisters.

One he gets back to civilisation, he tries to find out a little bit more about the filmmakers. He discovers that they not well liked and may employ questionable methods in their quest for newsworthy footage. He shows the TV executives the recovered film, and we spend the remainder of the film watching the footage.

The three-man, one-woman film crew are immediately established as a bunch of dicks. They jabber on about how famous this footage will make them and act like jerks to everyone around them. Once in the jungle, they decide to film themselves killing some animals because, I guess, that's what TV audiences want to see.

Now, it takes a lot to offend me. I've seen enough of these kind of films to realise that it's useless getting worked up over some cheap piece of exploitative trash (after all, I keep watching them). An Italian covered in pig guts I can deal with, but the thing that appalls me about this film is the animal cruelty. Monkeys, snakes, muskrats and turtles are mutilated and killed onscreen. Apart from being morally despicable, it's cheap and lazy filmmaking. The shock and disgust it engenders quickly turns to loathing for Deodato and his crew.

The crew end up meeting with the Yanomamo, but fail to obtain the juicy violence their audience craves. In order to create more compelling material for their shock-doc, they rape and murder their way through the cannibal village until the natives decide to turn the tables. In a lengthy sequence, several of the filmmakers are raped, killed and mutilated while the surviving crew members hide nearby and film it all. In the end the cannibals discover their hiding spot and beat them to death.

In the end the TV executives order the film burned and, because Deodato must consider his audience a bunch of idiots, the film ends with Monroe wondering "who the real savages are". Perhaps it was the bunch of cynical Italian dirtbags who decided that animal mutilation made for compelling cinema, and worse, hypocritically asserted that it was in service of a profound message about ruthless filmmakers?

Whereas a lot of cannibal films play out like gory adventure flicks, full of corny dialogue and hammy performances, Cannibal Holocaust's tone is somber and serious. Technically, the film is quite accomplished, especially among the lenient standards of the cannibal genre. It works best in during the mock-documentary portion, where the grimy, low-tech feel lend an authenticy and hide any rough edges in the special effects. The gore effects in particular are very convincing.

In order to generate publicity for the film, Deodato had the actors sign contracts stating they wouldn't appear in public for a year after the completion of filming. Unfortunately his plan backfired, and upon his return to Italy, Deodato was prosecuted for making a snuff film. He demonstrated to the court how some of the more convincing gore effects were achieved (the infamously impaled woman, for instance, sat on a hidden bicycle seat with a piece of balsa wood in her mouth) and appeared on television with some of the actors. He cleared himself of the murder charges, but he was charged under obscenity laws due to the animal mutilation. For a long time the film was banned in many countries, or released in a truncated form.

If you can stomach it, I'd give this film a chance. It's central message is ham-fisted and hypocritical, but it's genuinely powerful and far more accomplished than most cannibal films. Of course, that's like being the smartest kid in Special Ed.

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