Cannibal Holocaust (1980): Exploitation as Irony

cannibal holocaust screenshot 4

When I heard the title Cannibal Holocaust, I knew I had to watch the film. How could you not watch a film called Cannibal Holocaust? It’s like the best death metal band name or improv troupe name.

Cannibal Holocaust tries to be so many things: a horror film, an exploitation film, a morality tale, and cinematic artistry. To say if it succeeded in these individually is of course subjective, but the most interesting thing about this is that several of these goals are in direct contact with each other. If it is a morality tale about the savagery of humans, does showing this savagery make it null and void, because the film’s exploitation is what makes it popular?

Cannibal Holocaust is a regular on film lists of controversial films, graphic films, disturbing films, and rightfully so. There’s the surface level visceral gore, the premise of the film, and the actual behind the scenes strife that surround the film. For Pete’s sake, there’s the name of the film. It’s so gloriously named that you start to have a reaction before even knowing anything about it. Upon hearing the same, I of course knew that I had to see it.

Some would claim that The Blair Witch Project was the pioneer of the found footage genre. It certainly brought it to the forefront of mainstream horror, but it certainly wasn’t the first to do it. Cannibal Holocaust uses found footage as an element of the horror, and audiences fell right into the trap of believing that the violence seen in the film was real. It starts out with a narrative, in which the story of a group of filmmakers, sent to document the lives of a remote tribe, never returned from their voyage.

An obvious first criticism is that this film has a lot of characters to keep track of; there’s the original expedition, the recon crew, the television producers, the indigenous people, etc. It is not even worth trying to discern them from each other for the purpose of this overview. Any talented editor of the screenplay would have made this observation as the first criticism. The film begins with Monroe, an NYU anthropologist, who is sent to find out what happened to a documentary film crew who never returned from the Amazon. After some dangerous encounters, he is able to retrieve the original film reels of the first expedition after negotiations from the people who killed and were in possession of their bones. He brings it back home to the interest of television producers.

Monroe and the television producers view the “found footage”, which, obviously is anything but pleasant. The original filmmakers rape and abuse the native peoples, resulting in retaliation and their eventual murder and cannibalism. Monroe leaves the shocked producers, vowing to destroy the tapes, with the voiceover pondering “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” It’s a really cheap ploy to bring the morality of the movie together. It also has a double meaning, calling both the television executives cannibals for wanting to capitalize on violent content, as well as the original film crew, who cannibalized the indigenous tribe with their exploitation and violence. It’s like sticking this one tag at the end of the film will suddenly turn it from a grindhouse film into moral masterpiece. Sorry, but too little too late. When you subject the audience to violent rapes, animal mutilation and torture, and violent cannibalism, you can’t suddenly reverse that. There was a reason it was included in the first place.

This film is not just unwatchable for the controversial content, it is at its core, not a well made film. There aren’t any cinematic qualities that the viewer can get out of it. It’s a niche film, those of us horror aficionados tend to see so we can have it in our arsenal. Watching it now, the early eighties quality, and the fact that it is a film about Americans filmed by Europeans, gives it that general feeling of weirdness, in the same sense that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had that sense of weirdness. The actors were surprisingly ….unattractive. Now, I actually don’t like saying this, because I am all for having more actors that “look like us” and not perpetuating an impossible standard of beauty, but perhaps compared to what we take for granted in today’s films makes that point stand out. The soundtrack also adds an added sense of peculiarity; during general sweeping shots of travel on the river or wide shots of the forest, the soundtrack consisted of lazy, meandering, elevator-esque music that would better be suited backing lovers on a picnic. If the juxtaposition was intentional, then well done, because it was disturbing. During violent attacks, synthesizer music better suited for a vintage video game backs the scenes. I generally chalk it up to that “early eighties” sensibility, which is a cheap generalization but I can’t imagine this movie is smart enough to be intentional about making the music ironic.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Spoiler alert, I would not recommend this film, so it is worth it here to mention the most disturbing parts. A man and a woman from the original film crew have animalistic sex, which was not in the least beat tantalizing to me, because it was not quite clear how consensual it was. This, I can only suppose, was included to contrast to the violent rape of an indigenous girl in the mud, whose cries of pain and struggling seemed just a bit too real. As punishment for her “impurity”, her tribe kills her and impales her on a pole through her vagina and out her mouth, in a scene that made viewers question if it was real (to their credit, it damn sure looked realistic). Throughout the original footage, the crew kills and mutilates several animals, including snakes, monkeys, and muskrats, and in a scene which I’d prefer to forget after writing this, a large tortoise being torn apart and dissected for the purpose of food.

Eventually, the original crew members are captured by groups of indigenous men and torn apart and mutilated by the mob, leaving behind severed heads, rib cages, entrails and lots of blood. Oh man, so much blood. For a film that seems so low budget, these scenes are very damn realistic, and some quick cutaway edits must have been used. The woman is violently disrobed, groped and savagely raped while being beheaded, and yes, all of that looks pretty real. So, kudos to the special effects crew, I suppose. Mission accomplished. And I am sure CGI couldn’t have been used.

I have a high tolerance for the staged violence and horror films, and although those scenes weren’t pleasant, I took them in stride as I usually do with horror movies. The most disturbing aspect of this film, however, was the use of authentic indigenous peoples. Obviously, I don’t know what the true feelings of these individuals were, and it is demeaning of me to assume that they did not have a full awareness of what they were getting themselves into, but it just did not sit well with me. Being indigenous, did they truly have an understanding of how their appearances would be portrayed? Is this the way they should have been portrayed? Much of the time they appeared nude, which, although was culturally accepted among them, having it committed to film for a Western audience felt incredibly exploitative.

Cannibal Holocaust adds nothing to techniques of cinema, and is a supposed morality tale that contradicts itself. When Monroe asks “who are the real cannibals?” you could include the actual filmmakers, who have essentially tricked its audience into also falling into this category. Forget “it’s so bad it’s good”, this film is really so bad there’s no reason to have it in your movie-watching history at all, not even for bragging rights.

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2 Comments

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  1. Hi!

    I liked your article very much. I agree with you totally on this film. I don’t know – probably because I’d heard its title hailed so many times – but I also tried Cannibal Ferox (1981) only last month. It really is appalling – much worse than Cannibal Holocaust.

    You know – if I remember rightly – the filmmakers of Cannibal Holocaust were arrested and put on trial for allegedly making a snuff movie – that’s how real the scenes looked (especially to audiences in 1980).

    I think you’ve got a typo in the 2nd paragraph: “…several of these goals are in direct contact with each other.” Contrast?

    Thanks for sharing – great article! Weird, though, how you only post negative reviews. I understand that’s the nature of your site… but maybe you really should go and see a shrink about that.

    Only kidding!! :Op

    My site does the opposite – only positive reviews so people don’t waste their time. So I guess, in a way, we’re doing the same thing, a la “watching (absolute rubbish) so you don’t have to”; I’m “recommending only really good films so you don’t waste your time”.

    Okay, I’m babbling on! All the best!!

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