Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #352
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: February 7, 1980
Sub-Genre: Exploitation/Found Footage
Country of Origin: Italy
Box Office: $2,000,000
Running Time: 96 minutes
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Producer: Franco Palaggi
Screenplay: Gianfranco Clerici
Special Effects: Aldo Gasparri
Cinematography: Sergio D’Offizi
Score: Riz Ortolani
Editing: Vincenzo Tomassi
Studio: F.D. Cinematografica
Distributor: United Artists
Stars: Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes, Carl Gabriel Yorke, Paolo Paoloni, Lucia Costantini, Lionello Pio Di Savoia
Suggested Audio Candy
Riz Ortolani “Cannibal Holocaust”
Is there a point when a film-maker can go too far? If your answer to that poser is yes then you may well wish to cease reading now as I’m about to dissect what is commonly regarded as the most deplorable piece of celluloid ever committed to film. The movie in question is Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 exploitation feature Cannibal Holocaust and its ripples are still being felt over three decades later. Of all the 39 films seized by police and successfully prosecuted under the DPP’s 1984 Video Recordings Act, it is this which caused the greatest furor, particularly in Italy, where Deodato found himself in decidedly hot water for making what the courts believed to be a bona fide snuff movie.
He was brought up on obscenity charges ten days after its Milan premier and the director was looking at a life sentence for supposedly slaughtering his cast members. This wasn’t Ruggero’s day as he his four principal actors had all signed contracts to agree to no public appearances for a full year, so as to leave audiences guessing as to its authenticity. Considering the cannibals depicted were actually free range Colombian savages, the ice began to look disconcertingly thin beneath his feet. Mercifully for the Italian, their later presence in court was enough to encourage officials to drop the charges although his picture was banished and remained that way in the UK until 2011, when released with fifteen seconds cuts made to a particular scene of animal cruelty.
Ordinarily I’m disinterested in watching a censored version of one such nasty as they need to be seen in their entirety to allow for a true reflection to be gleaned. In the case of Cannibal Holocaust I make that one exception. The scene where an endangered turtle is removed from its natural habitat and dismantled in real-time leaves a somewhat pungent aftertaste and is something I have no objection to skipping over if I’m honest. However, unless I’m mistaken, I am the Keeper of The Crimson Quill, and charged with taking one for the team in such instances so take one for the team I bloody well did. Thanks a lot guys! Is the scene immoral? I would admit that it’s unnecessary given the fact that the point that humanity is often every bit as feral as the savages it portrays as such is hit home with some force through numerous scenes of molestation and entire tribes’ homes being burned to the ground elsewhere.
The plot involves curious archaeologist Harold Monroe (former porn star Robert Kerman) and his ill-mannered documentary team, offering chronicle of their journey to the deepest Amazonian rainforests as they bid to uncover the fate of an intrepid group of film-makers who disappeared somewhere within those coordinates while investigating cannibal tribes. After arriving via some breathtaking sweeping aerial shots courtesy of the gifted Sergio D’Offizi, wind up in a primitive Yacumo village and are met there with suspicion and hostility by the locals. Like all so-called intellectuals they ruffle some feathers and embark on setting the worst possible example for their breed, and our lines of empathy become blurred at that point. At that point, it becomes about survival of the fittest, and each of their punishments seems fitting given their crimes.
The thing that Cannibal Holocaust does particularly well is that it provokes a feeling of uncertainty in its viewer throughout. We’re left unconvinced as to whether what we are witnessing are real atrocities or not, even more so when Deodato decides to utilize hand-held footage to make his point. Therein lies its true brilliance as this predates Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog by twelve years and evidently provided motivation for Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ The Blair Witch Project; as well as countless other found-footage features in the process. In that respect, it is a true original, and worthy of the plaudits it has received over the past decade. It struck a chord in Japan in 1983 where only E.T. out-performed it theatrically and has amassed a gargantuan cult following including Sergio Leone who wrote a letter of thanks to Deodato, not without due cause either. But I’ll never truly love it.
The reason for this simple. I refuse to take a stance on the whole morality debate as that’s strictly subjective. While politicians are flapping their feathers and crying “burn the witch” I’m too busy trying to deduce whether the impalement is factual and being given no clear indication of the answer. For the record, the spiked savage in question was sitting atop a cunningly concealed bicycle seat which is an effective a gag as anyone Stateside was conjuring during the time. Is it repellent? Yes actually that would be an accurate assumption. Does it cross the lines of decency? Again, that’s a positive. However, this is a film primarily about cannibals and their kind live by an entirely opposing, and admittedly flimsy, rule-set to our own. Cannibal Holocaust simply has to shock; anything less would be far too civil and civilization is what’s under scrutiny here after all.
The director has since stated that he regrets ever having made the film although I would imagine that was said in the heat of the moment. But I would imagine that he is still plagued by visions of that poor defenceless turtle. Where Deodato’s film falls short of undisputed Italian genre classics such as Zombi 2, The Beyond, and Suspiria lays with its director himself. While House on the Edge of the Park, Body Count and Cut & Run are all decent enough movies, none achieved the mark of greatness in my opinion. All three had their merits, particularly the lattermost, but Cannibal Holocaust is the closest Deodato has ever come to his very own pièce de résistance. That said, his film represents disturbing, frequently thought-provoking cinema at its most earthy and its impact on the industry’s future trajectory will never be reversed.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 5/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Since when has it been acceptable for any film being the name Cannibal to be anything less than repulsive? If some smart ass calls out Cannibal! The Musical then I’ll gladly feed you to the savages. Dismemberment is the norm, feeling uncomfortable is par for the course also, but where Cannibal Holocaust really provokes its reaction is that Deodato showcases the darker side of humanity so candidly. The extremities that our documentary crew will stretch to in order to capture more invigorating coverage is intended to sicken and does so accordingly. If ever a motion picture is designed to stick in your throat then, Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom notwithstanding, then this would be that movie.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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