Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Cannibal Holocaust: A Review

'Cannibal Holocaust' - the very title screams excess and exploitation, and normally I'd steer a mile away from that sort of thing (I'd rather not have to watch a film that exists solely to show extreme cruelty), but the film's reputation, and the fact that I'd previously written essays about it (without ever watching it) made me think that I should probably get round to giving it a go. Ninety minutes later, I emerged from the experience, challenged, provoked, disgusted and somewhat perplexed. I'll try to pick through my thoughts below.

I won't bother summarising the plot - you can find plenty of other synopses on the internet - although I suppose it's worthwhile noting that it actually does have a plot, and quite a lot of dialogue. In fact, it sets itself up as something of a social critique (though it's unclear how far director Ruggero Deodoto actually bought into this), rather than a brainless gore-fest.

I think you have to see the film very much a product of its time (though with the rise into the mainstream of increasingly gory horror/exploitation movies like 'Hostel' and 'Saw', there has been something of a return to that typically 1970s combination of explicit violence and some sort of twisted moral thinking that hovers between the perverse and "hm, maybe they've got a point there"). So: the 70s, as every one knows, were a time of film-making excess (or boundary pushing, whatever you want to call it), and 'Cannibal Holocaust' is probably the most notorious horror/exploitation film from that period (it was made in 1979 and released in 1980).

The emotional/ psychological vein it taps into, though, was common to films with much bigger budgets, and bigger stars: gritty, unflinching looks at the cruelties men are capable of, like the films of Michael Winner, boasted actors like Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance and Charles Bronson, and were fairly popular at the box-office. We might think of example such as the opening rape scene in 'Death Wish', or, more relevant to 'Holocaust', the western 'Chato's Land,' in which Charles Bronson's near-silent, Vietcong-like Indian warrior, Chato, slowly picks off a posse, mostly consisting of caricatured rednecks.

There are no heroes in 'Chato' - Bronson's actions are pretty barbaric (there's an unforgettable image where the penultimate posse member is shot, and falls face down into a campfire, and another when the final member is driven back into the desert to die by Chato), though the white man's are even worse. This raises an issue of moral compromise which Winner seems to have ducked out of somewhat - at times he seems to be actually advocating the sort of revenge that Chato takes, seeing it as justified because the posse have raped and murdered his family, and are racist bastards. Similarly, in 'Death Wish', Bronson's vigilante actions are celebrated (when the law fails - and, by extension, in Chato, the 'laws' of 'civilised' behaviour - you have to take matters into your own hands, and act with the sort of violence and cruelty equal to that dished out to you). Perhaps this is unfair to Winner - maybe he is taking no moral stand, showing both parties as equally vile, and presenting a completely nihilistic vision. But it's deeply unclear, and, while such uncertainty accounts for the film's unprecedented power, their deeply unpleasant, 'impure' feel, it seems somehow reprehensible (if no less reprehensible than Hollywood's increasingly overt glorification of violence, if it's to save cute little kiddies and is done by your favourite action heroes).

So to 'Cannibal Holocaust'. Like ‘Chato’s Land’, its plot involves the intrusion of evil white men into the territory of natives who prove to be just as brutal in retaliating to the atrocities committed by said white men, and like ‘Chato’s Land’, it presents somewhat confused moral messages. Even more than ‘Chato’, it could be described as a deeply misanthropic film, and, if anything, its targets appear even more confused. As another review I've read has noted, it sets up its crew of film-makers pretty much as straw men (while it may be true that news-crews exaggerate, manipulate, distort, etc, I find it unlikely that they'd go as far as to massacre pretty much a whole village)and thus muddies the message. Furthermore, while the anthropologist, Prof. Monroe, becomes the jaded voice of reason later in the film, earlier, he's not exactly a pillar of virtue, shooting several members of one tribe in cold blood so as to gain the trust of another tribe. The idea that 'Holocaust' is attacking the 'Mondo' films (some of which actually did stage shocking events) is rendered unlikely by the fact that, with its attempt at verité-realism, it comes across as a Mondo film itself –at least, in the final, 'documentary' section. (Incidentally, this 'film-within-a-film'/ 'real documentary footage' effect is nicely done, at a time when such tricks weren't common, as they are now (Blair Witch and all its spin-offs), and as indicated by the fact that people at the time thought this was a real snuff film.)

In making this film, it seems, Deodato deliberately plays up and questions his own role as exploitation film-maker (though by doing so he unwittingly undermines himself as well). When, in the penultimate scene, the TV executive orders the footage to be burned, one wonders if this was not the very same attitude held by those who tried to censor Deodato's work. For a film that exists seemingly to confront (and arguably, to exploit) the depths of human depravity, cruelty and violence, the Professor's stance (wanting to suppress the footage) seems protectionist, censorial. Surely it would make more sense to expose the film-makers for who they were (as is Deodato and the script's intention)? After all, their earlier documentary 'The Road to Hell' has been shown to have been faked, to some extent, yet people will believe it be real - would it not make more sense to expose the film-makers (and by extension, the culture of exploitative reporting that they embody)?

Furthermore, Deodato's attitude to the native tribes is confused. We're supposed to sympathise, or at least, to understand, the actions they take towards the film-crew, to see them as justified; while they react with initial suspicion towards Monroe, it never looks like they're actually going to eat him, but the massacre in a hut pushes them over the edge. Yet what to make of the native 'savagery'? In one (infamous) scene, the crew come across a naked woman, impaled on a pole. Alan smirks, seems to be enjoying the spectacle, but is then told 'you're on camera' and immediately changes to a face of concern, pronouncing that this is the result of some barabric sexual ritual, from a people who hold virginity as almost sacred (earlier on, in the film's first truly shocking scene, we've seen a native murder an adulterous woman by sexually mutilating her). Obviously, this is supposed to be yet another example of the thrill-seeking filmmakers' callousness and exploitativeness, but at the same time, it's unclear what moral attitude is being taken vis-a-vis the natives' 'uncivilised' practices. True, the girl may have been killed in this way because she has been raped by the film-makers in the preceding scene (although it's unclear whether it's the same girl), and the tribe's attitude to sexual 'impurity' demands such a grisly response, but that doesn't make the actual act of execution any easier to stomach.

And of course, there are the scenes of animal cruelty. We see a muskrat have it's throat slit, and hear its screams of agony. Is this supposed to be just a fact of life - look, meat-eaters, this is the suffering animals go through to get you your meat - or just another cheap trick? Monroe shows a little distaste, but doesn't seem too concerned. The disembowelling of the turtle is shocking (you see its legs move even as its insides are being cut out), an effect enhanced by the score, but would it be appear any more palatable (excuse the pun) if it was done with care, rather than lip-smacking relish? It seems ironic that Deodato condemns his characters for filming the turtle-killing (as indicated by the ominous and queasy strings that blare up on the soundtrack), yet is at the same time filming this staged event himself, for the purposes of his own film.

At one point, a TV executive tells Monroe "Today people want sensationalism; the more you rape their senses the happier they are" (of course, she hasn't seen the actual footage at this stage of the movie). I don't think anyone could come away from 'Holocaust' feeling happy, although they might well feel that their sense have been ‘raped.’ By pushing things just that little bit further, the film does succeed to some extent in exposing and challenging our attitudes towards extreme violence. It is strange how we find something like 'Holocaust' shocking and deserving of censorship ("ban this sick filth", as the Daily Mail might put it), but have become immune to the horrors and deprivations we see daily on our news screens. Our morality is very perverted if can react with absolute horror and outrage to fictional gore but, when confronted with real-life events such as those in Darfur, can switch on the auto-pilot response of "oh, isn't it awful, but we can't do anything, that's just the way life is"? Of course, Deodato IS exploiting his violence, just as his fictional film-makers are, and I suppose one could argue that the film's value lies as much in the issues that he DIDN'T intend to raise as the ones that he did. In that sense, it goes beyond (or below) being art - its value lies, not in its quality (though I didn't find the acting too bad, there are moments where one feels that things are about to tip over into porno, or worse) - but in the issues it raises, however it raises them. If there was ever a film that deserved the title 'thought-provoking', Cannibal Holocaust is that film.


You can download the soundtrack here: http://arquivosnet.wordpress.com/2008/09/20/soundtrack-cannibal-holocaust-1980/. Riz Ortolani's music is pretty effective, on the whole, though I’m not really sure that it works too well away from the film. Even in the film, it sounds a little dodgy – for example, the groan-worthy easy listening cue which plays over the title credits, and which steers things towards 70s porno when Monroe bathes naked in the river (the film's one concession to an idea of an unspoilt idyll, free from the trappings and repressions of modern life - "to be like them, naked and unfettered as Adam" as he puts it in the voiceover) – although it admittedly has some impact when played ironically over the village massacre, or at the climactic dismemberment of the film-crew. Meanwhile, the 'horror' theme, with its wrenching, mournful strings, is suitably disturbing, even without Deodato’s graphic images to accompany it (though the synth percussion effects are a little dated).


J.G. Ballard on Mondo films: http://www.ballardian.com/jg-ballard-on-mondo-films
Wikipedia on Mondo films: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondo_film
A review of ‘Chato’s Land’: http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=12010
A review of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’: http://www.braineater.com/cannibalholocaust.html
Another review: http://www.1000misspenthours.com/reviews/reviewsa-d/cannibalholocaust.htm
And another: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/film_review.asp?ID=1848
And another! http://www.lloydkaufman.com/roids/2005/11/11/cannibal-holocaust-review/
Review of the recent DVD release: http://www.eccentric-cinema.com/cult_movies/cannibal_holocaust.htm

Finally, 'The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media’, a 1984 book edited by Martin Barker, has a chapter on ‘Holocaust’, and discussions of other controversial exploitation/horror films from the 70s and 80s. If you want to acquaint yourself with the sort of issues surrounding these films (and it is a fascinating area of debate) without actually having to watch them, it’s a good place to start, though it might be a little hard to get hold of.

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