In the wake of a relatively recent post where I discussed the made-in-2000 movie Battle Royale, I figured I’d go deeper into horror’s cinematic past and talk about the notorious 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust.
Very much a movie before its time, Cannibal Holocaust describes the trek of an American anthropologist (porn actor Robert Kerman, complete with porn ‘stache) into the South American jungle to find out what happened to a documentary film crew that had gone missing on their search for primitive cannibal tribes. After various adventures, the anthropologist finds the film crew’s movie reels, which show their unbelievably disgusting exploits and horrific fate. So it’s an early found-footage horror film, and movies like The Blair Witch Project (plus countless others) owe something to it in style, if not theme.
There’s no question that Cannibal Holocaust‘s overarching theme is media manipulation: documentary makers and news crews have a tendency to, if they can’t find footage to make their predetermined point, create the footage (or creatively edit it to fit the narrative they’re looking to develop). Viewers familiar with Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth will understand how unscrupulous filmmakers produce fiction and call it fact. In Cannibal Holocaust, the documentary film crew burns a tribal hut down (with the villagers in it) to tell the false story that this tribe was at war with another tribe. Later, and more disturbingly, they rape a young village girl and then impale her on a wooden stake to create the false impression that the tribe killed her for being impure. So when the tribe finally rises up to take their awful revenge, it’s almost a relief for the viewer. Almost.
Cannibal Holocaust‘s filmmakers killed a number of animals on-screen, including a pig, a turtle, a couple of monkeys, a snake, a tarantula, and a coatimundi. That was horrible and disgusting. I’d seen Bear Grylls murder a turtle on one of his shows years ago, but the movie’s turtle-disemboweling scene was unbelievably bloody and hard to watch. I felt awful for the little pig and the monkeys. They didn’t deserve that. But it worked. The graphic and real animal-killing scenes made you want to believe that the later human-killing scenes were real instead of staged.
You need a strong stomach to watch this film, so it’s not for everybody. I’m not even sure it was for me. But it’s effective. By now, the movie’s notoriety precedes it: my guts started knotting the moment the opening credits rolled. Still, it has weaknesses: the voices were horribly dubbed, the ending was a bit too pat, and the message was lost from time to time in a welter of pig guts and fake blood.
It’s still relevant, particularly today. There’s a reason why many, many films were patterned after it.