New To Blu: Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust gets a new release on blu-ray this week. Here's Blake's review.

You know that old axiom: “There are some things that, once seen, cannot be unseen”? There’s no better way to describe Cannibal Holocaust. I was fortunate(?) enough to see this film for the first time on the big screen during a midnight revival release in 2005. If I said I knew what I was getting into, it would be a boldfaced lie. Not only was I completely ill-prepared for what was about to befall me—and fellow Movie Sleuth critic, Andrew Kotwicki—but by the time I left the theater, I felt like a gutted muskrat.

What the hell was this movie? It felt like Faces of Death decided to fornicate with The Blair Witch Project, and its hell-spawn offspring was newborn porn’d by the sick bastards who made A Serbian Film. Yes, that reference is anachronistic as hell, but dammit, it still applies. Twenty-four years after its release, this is still a hum-dinger, and first-time viewers will be just as unprepared for the almost fetishistic carnage as it continues its gruesome assault on human decency in high definition.

"The jungle cut of Zoolander
somehow wasn't as sexy as
Ben Stiller had hoped."
With that being said, this film—busting at the seams with real animal killings and deplorable human behavior—may now in fact be more prescient than ever. Ruggero Deodato’s tale of a sensationalist documentary crew’s fatal foray into the Green Inferno of the Amazon, the native savage tribes who may or may not have murdered them, and the professor whose rescue mission is to return their footage back to civilization, draws some clear and cynical conclusions about the fourth estate. In his own way, Deodato was far ahead of his time, recognizing the insanity of creating scandal and terror for the sake of passing it off as “headline news.”

Taken as a whole, it’s a very lop-sided film. The traditional narrative that bookends the documentary footage seems like the overlong prologue you have to read before you get to the juicy stuff summarized on the hardcover jacket that made you want to buy the book in the first place. Granted, this portion of the film has its own sadistic barbarism, including a ritual abortion-killing and—what else?—the animal cruelty Deodato sets his clock by. But once the footage shot by the documentary team is brought back and spliced together for our viewing… I certainly don’t want to say pleasure—our viewing experience, that’s when things really kick off, and we get a full blast of Deodato’s genius right to the face.

"Anorexia. The other white meat."
Look at the state of current world affairs, and it becomes more difficult to dismiss a film like this—schlock value and all—as mere exploitation cinema. That’s not to say that it doesn’t succeed on that level, because it does. Cannibal Holocaust shows us copious amounts of aboriginal nudity, genital mutilation, pointless animal cruelty, bodily dismemberment by the gallons, and gloriously overgrown 1970s pubes. Yet somehow the film manages to balance all of that out by being impeccably crafted, with iconic special makeup effects, fair performances (Italian post-sync dubbing not withstanding), a perplexingly beautiful score by Riz Ortolani, and all shot in a cinema vérité style before the days when directors had to beat us over the head with realism by shaking the ever-loving snot out of the camera. “You see how shaky this is?! It’s like you’re actually there!!!” Actually, it feels like a precursor to an epileptic fit, but thank you for reminding me why Michael J. Fox wouldn’t make a good cinematographer.

That was foul of me. I apologize.

"Don't bring a porn 'stache
to a beard fight!"
Cannibal Holocaust is a film that makes no apologies. In fact, it’s grown into the britches it was too small for in 1980. There is something to be said of filmmaking this reckless. Not only was the film seized by Italian authorities, Deodato himself was brought up on charges of “obscenity.” For as much as Eli Roth will try to recapture its iconic spell with his upcoming opus, which not only borrows the bare-bones plot from this film, but sports its original working title… nothing like it will be made ever again, and maybe all of that is for the best.

Oddly enough, this movie represents the perfect example of what can happen when you turn a madman with a camera loose in the jungle. It’s the exploitation equivalent of a father knocking over a half-gallon of orange juice in front of his kids, just so he can point at it and scream in a boisterous voice, “See?! This is what happens when you f**k around!” Well, Papa Ruggero, I think it’s safe to say we all learned our lesson.

- Blake O. Kleiner