Cannibal Holocaust: If It Matters, It Produces Controversy.
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Derived from this title’s logic, it can be stated that Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust certainly mattered. In fact, it is widely regarded as the ‘most controversial movie of all time’ and the movie which pioneered the then revolutionary found-footage genre. To illustrate this reality in the 1980’s, the movie was banned in over 40 countries and resulted in its production crew being arrested under obscenity and murder charges which were later dropped once the actors were proven to still be alive.
In short, Cannibal Holocaust is a horror-reality set in ‘civilized’ New York City and the ‘uncivilized’ tribal regions of the Amazon rainforest. Surprisingly, this cheap horror serves as an impactful social commentary about various subjects ranging from manipulation to superiority complexes and greed. However, it shines in its depiction of dedicated media sensationalism. So, how does a movie portraying explicit sexual assault and genuine animal cruelty retain its relevancy as a classic piece of educational cinema? What differentiates this movie from cheesy horrors such as Saw and Killer Klowns from Outer Space? Well, the devil is in the details.
The movie’s central features should firstly be discussed as it constructs a basis for the commentary. The movie revolves around an anthropologist searching the Amazon for a group of young documentarists who had traveled into the rainforest for a project involving the documentation of cannibalistic natives’ lives and ended up missing persons. When the anthropologist inevitably encounters the tribe in question, issues arise over differences in culture and language. Moreover, tensions increase over the fact that the skeletal remains of the aforementioned documentarists were located near the camp. A tense agreement is reached when the tribe’s chief hands over the documentarists’ abandoned film reels in exchange for the anthropologist’s music recorder. Throughout the film, we explore bits of the found footage alongside the reaction of the movie executives wishing to publish the tapes to expose the savage nature of the uncivilized. The viewer also deepens their knowledge regarding the supposed ‘brave’ documentarists who gave up their lives for ‘research’ and discovers that this group was not as innocent as believed and that sinister intentions had befallen them.
Henceforth, the viewer observes the tapes in a found-footage style, giving the impression that the viewer is in a familiar environment with Western/English-speaking protagonists and in a sense of familiarity. The filming also employs Verité techniques, accustoming the viewer to the sense of observing the mysterious/alienating jungle setting from a distance which is unsettlingly close and personal. A similar filming technique is applied in the now-classic Blair Witch Project.
In the eyes of a globalized and “civilized world”, the Amazonians’ lifestyle would indicate savegary. However, what is crucial to remember is that what this tribe does for the sake of survival is definitely not considered by the documentarians. All aspects which differentiate these two clashing are taken for granted by the “civilized invaders”.
The tapes quickly reveal the priorities of the documentarists, indicating that the notions of greed and sensationalism are preferred over authentic documentation. Dedicated to creating an explosive story, the documentarists commit heinous acts to the natives and their surroundings as they involve themselves in (real) exotic animal slaughter, a massacre involving the arson of a village and gangrape. The violence and retribution of the tribe upon the documentarists is rather justified and their cannibalistic nature is a cultural contrast to all but the natives. This bears the question; Should the movie executives display the exaggerated nature of the natives to the public, at the expense of knowing the criminal acts of the ones capturing the footage and knowing that the sold narrative is a hoax? Or, should the truth be revealed to the world? Well, the aligned messaging of the film makes for a surprising and disconcerting twist.
Whilst the plot is substantially thicker in its entirety, the broader message of the film is revealed through this description. Context and perspectives are fickle tools that consistently makes the viewer question the protagonists and the antagonists, who the bad guy and the good guy is, and makes one question if the production is deep or dumb. Yet, these intentions are precisely the reasons making this film brilliant. It is a production like no other that manages to frighten you with depictions. Not exclusive to violence and cannibalism, but rather focusing on the disappointing reality of cultural clash and its results alongside prejudices which all have and demonstrate throughout the film as we alter our own narratives. The production is beautifully stitched together to reveal small contrasting truths which alter our perceptions of characters as they reemerge.
How can we assess the success of the film ? Not through box office rates but the success of its messaging. The director employed scarily-advanced movie techniques to make it a sensational hit, as nothing is scarier than a horror edging on the edge of reality and fiction. The common knowledge about shooting a fictional film on a handheld camera was non-existent in the 80s and legitimately caused heart attacks and frightened 9-1-1 calls in theaters as viewers believed they were watching a snuff film. With a shocking name such as ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, should we be surprised?
In the directors’ goal of making an international ‘Taboo hit’ of a film, he fell to the same moral depth point as the documentarians. Namely, media sensationalism.