Cannibal Holocaust was a film I had heard a bit about: I knew it was considered the original found footage horror film and that it was the movie which infamously killed an actual animal on screen.
TW: this movie is violent and features multiple depictions of sexual assault, sensational depictions of violence, and actual violence against animals. Although I often try to inject humor into my writing it’s truly difficult to talk about this film in a way that isn’t frank and disturbing. My commentary includes a summary and some thoughts on the nature of such a film.
Holy shit guys.
You know it’s bad when I tell you the cannibalism is one of the (no pun intended) MOST palatable parts of the film.
I will give credit where it is truly due: the music in this film is incredible. The soundtrack is so completely unnerving – striking a sharp contrast between this ridiculously hopeful opening theme that gives way to scenes of shocking depravity often musically marked up a very distinct effect (the effect in question can be heard at the 3:20 mark in this video). I guess my viewing of this was “rewarded” by a richer appreciation of the musical reference to its soundtrack in the movie Baskin during one of that movie’s most gory scenes.
Let’s start with this: I generally avoid movies with rape scenes. I know some people are confused by this decision. After all I stomach many horror films featuring unrelenting non sexual violence. But rape scenes are often a hard limit for me. It’s the reason I have never watched I Spit on Your Grave or Irreversible.
So when the first graphic rape scene took place in this film I was upset but not shocked – I had a feeling being an exploitation film this was to be expected. I still wanted to see the film that had such an effect on the genre I enjoyed so much. By the third or fourth brutal rape scene I was very upset. I ended up fast forwarding through portions of the final scene of the found footage. I had already received the message and it had quickly become overkill.
The basic premise is this: an anthropologist is sent to the rain forest of South America in order to try and find a missing documentary crew – having to interact with a few different dangerous indigenous tribes in order to do so.
The anthropologist looking for the missing film crew is forced to eat human flesh in order to gain the trust of one of the tribes and is rewarded with the footage of the documentary crew – all of whom he finds out have been murdered by the tribe.
He manages to get the footage back to America. He watches it. He is then horrified to realize a television station wants to air the footage and explains it simply cannot be aired as it flies in the face of all human decency.
The footage shows four seemingly wild yet idealistic white twenty somethings venturing into the green inferno. Very early on they are playing around with their camera and film the lone woman of the group while she is undressed without her consent – already hinting at what kind of people these kids truly are.
Early on into encountering one of the indigenous tribes they purposely antagonize the tribe and stage a massacre – locking much of the tribe up in communal hut and setting it on fire to burn them alive – while claiming in their documentary that another tribe attacked them and they just happened to get this horrific footage. The woman in the group and her boyfriend proceed to have sex on top of the smoldering remains of the hut when it’s over.
When people say this film is infamous for killing an animal on scene – first of all it’s multiple animals. Also they chopped a monkey’s head off with a machete TWICE because they messed up the footage the first time and had to reshoot the scene. Second of all the most deeply upsetting example involves them dragging a huge river turtle (at least three feet long) out of the water and smashing it’s shell open and pulling out its insides. And the tired argument that non-vegetarians cannot be offended by these moments is ridiculous because we are talking about the difference of killing an animal with a pragmatic purpose (to eat) versus killing animals for amusement on screen in intentionally disturbing manners for kicks.
Eventually the four young white filmmakers stumble across a lone woman from one of the tribes and the men decide to rape her on film. The lone woman in the film group makes a halfhearted attempt to stop this from happening – claiming they are wasting their film by shooting this. Whether she is truly more concerned about the film getting used or the gang rape is ambiguous. It also seems implied while her boyfriend is busy taking advantage of the tribal woman that Faye is taken advantage of by one of the other crew members.
The next scene is something many people claim is depicted as ambiguous but is anything but. The most shocking single image and moment from the film is the tribal woman the filmmakers victimized shown impaled vertically in a post – the post exiting out her mouth and entering through – I’ll give you one guess. The filmmakers pretend to be horrified – pretending the tribe killed her because they made her impure – but lead filmmaker Alan can barely hide his smirk as he gazes up at his handiwork.
Those moments to me are the pinnacle of the depraved horror at the heart of this film. The rest of the footage shows the tribal avenging themselves by gang raping and beheading Faye. The other two left are quickly caught and killed as well. This is finally enough to convince the television network to not air the film and suggest “burning it all completely.”
The director of the film regrets the treatment of animals in the movie (just in case you needed reminding they killed two monkeys because they had to reshoot the shot), and has said the inspiration came from news footage of the Red Brigades made to be even more sensational and violent than it already was.
Do that justify the means to the end? In the very last scene of the film, our anthropologist professor muses out loud “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” as a truck drives by in the background with the same symbol as one of the tribe’s tattoos:
I feel divided between what I think this movie’s intention is (to be exploitative shock), its effects on me (a lingering disgust and deeper understanding of the horrors of Western colonialism and the brutality of human nature regardless of its level of civilization), and how I see other people digesting its message (a sharp divide between thinking its sick in the awesome way and being as disgusted as I am).
I would have to fall on the side that a film that utilizes actual indigenous tribes to reinforce extreme stereotypes, killing animals for cheap thrills, and excessive depictions of misogynistic violence is still contributing to the oppressive system it seems to want to critique. The fact that its haunting and extreme nature have stuck with me is not a testament to its success but merely its shameless drive to be as shocking as possible.
I would also hesitate, such as in the instance of Cannibal Holocaust, to think any Western person – even if they are full of earnest intention – would ever be capable of making a successful critique of the very system of privilege we have have created for ourselves and benefited from. To truly critique something like Western colonialism we need the storytellers to be the people exploited by this system.
The film was shocking and realistic looking enough to have it pulled from theaters within ten days of release. Italian courts also required the filmmaker to not only produce the actors and actresses to affirm they were alive (he had contracted them to stay out of the media for a year following the release to add to the feeling of realism) but they also had to recreate the impalement scene to show how the effect was done.
As a horror film fan I’m glad I watched it but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It took me a long while to recover from this one.