Cannibal Holocaust achieved notoriety because its graphic violence aroused a great deal of controversy. After its premiere in Italy, it was seized by a local magistrate, and Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges. He was charged with making a snuff film, due to rumors that some actors were killed on camera. Although Deodato was later cleared, the film was banned in Italy, the UK, Australia, and several other countries due to its graphic depiction of violence, sexual violence, and the actual slaughter of seven animals. Some nations have since revoked the ban, but the film is still barred in several countries. The critic David Carter suggests the film is a commentary about civilized society.
Filmed in the Amazon, the film tells the story of the search for a documentary film crew who had gone to film indigenous tribes and been missing for two months. A second team, headed by the New York anthropologist Harold Monroe, recovers their lost cans of film and learns their fate. Much of the film is the portrayal of the recovered films' content; the sections of "documentary" film function similarly to a flashback and grows increasingly disturbing as the film progresses.
The film opens with a television documentary about a missing United States film crew, who disappeared on an expedition to the Amazon Basin to make a documentary about indigenous cannibal tribes. The team was Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke), the director; Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi), his girlfriend and script girl; and two cameramen, Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi). Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), a New York University anthropologist, has agreed to lead a rescue team and flies to the Amazon to meet his guides, Chaco and his assistant Miguel. The group has a Yacumo hostage captured by the military, and is used to help them negotiate with the natives. The team arranges his release in exchange for being taken to the Yacumo village.
There the team meets hostility and learn that the film group had caused great unrest among the people. The next day, Monroe and his guides head deeper into the rainforest to locate two warring tribes, the Ya̧nomamö and the Shamatari. Following a group of Shamatari warriors to a riverbank, they intervene and save a smaller group of Ya̧nomamö from death in a conflict between the groups. The Ya̧nomamö invite Monroe and his team back to their village, where they are treated with suspicion. To gain the villagers' trust, Monroe bathes naked in a river. A group of Ya̧nomamö women who watched him take him to a shrine, which he learns holds the bones of the missing American filmmakers. Monroe confronts the Ya̧nomamö about this. After playing a tape recorder for them, he trades it for the first team’s surviving reels of film.
Back in New York, executives of the Pan American Broadcast Company invite Monroe to host a broadcast of a documentary to be made from the recovered film. Monroe wants to see the raw footage first. The execs introduce him to Yates' work by showing an excerpt from his previous documentary, The Last Road to Hell. One of the executives tells Monroe that Yates staged a scene to get more exciting footage. Monroe reviews the footage, which the audience sees "along" with him. The first reel follows the group’s trek through the jungle. They promptly spot a large turtle which they proceed to kill and eat. Their guide, Felipe, is bitten by a venomous snake. The group amputates Felipe's leg with a machete in an attempt to save his life, but he quickly dies and is left behind. The remaining four succeed in locating the Yacumo. Jack shoots one in the leg so they can easily follow him to the village. The second reel starts with the group's arrival at the Yacumo village. They force the entire tribe into a hut and burn it down in order to stage a scene for the film. Monroe expresses concerns over the staged scenes and unethical treatment of the natives, but his worries are ignored.
Monroe expresses his disgust to station executives about their decision to air the documentary. To convince them of his view, he shows the remaining, unedited footage. The final two reels begin with the team locating a young Ya̧nomamö girl, whom the men gang-rape as Faye tries to stop them. Later, the team films the girl impaled on a wooden pole. They claim the natives killed her due to an "obscure sexual rite". After they move on, the Ya̧nomamö attack the team in revenge for the girl's rape and death. Jack is hit by a spear, and Alan shoots him so the team can film how the natives treat his corpse, after which they cannibalize it. Following this, Alan tells the camera that they have lost their maps and medical supplies and are trapped. He attempts to scare off the natives by shooting a flare gun. As the three try to escape, Faye is captured. Alan insists they try to rescue her. Mark continues to film as she is raped and beheaded. The Ya̧nomamö locate the last two where they are hiding. As the camera falls to the ground, the reel ends showing Alan's bloody face. The executives order the footage destroyed. However, the epilogue informs us that the projectionist smuggled out the reels, which he later sold for $250,000. As Monroe leaves the station, he laments "I wonder who the real cannibals are".
- Robert Kerman as Harold Monroe
- Carl Gabriel Yorke as Alan Yates
- Francesca Ciardi as Faye Daniels
- Perry Pirkanen as Jack Anders
- Luca Barbareschi as Mark Tomaso
Production began in 1979, when Deodato was contacted by German film producers to make a film similar to Ultimo mondo cannibale, which was also directed by Deodato. He accepted and immediately went in search of a producer, choosing his friend Francesco Palaggi. The two first flew to Colombia to scout for filming locations. Leticia was chosen as the principal filming location after Deodato met a Colombian documentary filmmaker at the airport in Bogotá, who suggested the town as a location ideal for filming. Other locations had been considered, specifically the locations where the film Queimada (1969) directed by Gillo Pontecorvo had been shot, but Deodato rejected these locations due to lack of suitable rainforest.Leticia was only accessible by aircraft, and from there, the cast and crew had to travel by boat to reach the set.
The locale presented many problems for the production, in particular the heat and sudden rain storms, which sporadically delayed filming.
Principal photography began on June 4, 1979, but it was delayed shortly while awaiting the arrival of Yorke. The scenes featuring the film team were shot first with handheld 16mm cameras in a cinéma vérité style that mimicked an observational documentary. After shooting with the film team was completed, Kerman flew down to film his scenes in the rainforest and then to New York City to film exterior shots in the city. The interior shots of New York were later filmed in a studio in Rome.Production on the film was delayed numerous times while filming in the Amazon. After the original actor to play Alan Yates dropped out, filming was halted for two weeks as new casting calls began and the crew awaited the arrival of Yorke from New York City.During principal filming with Kerman, the father of the actor who played Miguel was murdered, and production was again halted as the actor flew back to Bogotá to attend his father's funeral.
Tensions on the set were high, due in part to the location and to the content of the film itself. Yorke describes the set as having "a level of cruelty unknown to me," while Kerman described Deodato as remorseless and uncaring (He and Deodato got into long, drawn-out arguments every day of shooting, usually because of remarks made by Deodato). One particular aspect that led to disagreement amongst the crew was the genuine animal killings. Kerman stormed off the set while the death of the coatimundi was filmed, and Yorke refused to partake in the death of the pig (which he was originally scripted to execute), leaving the duty to Luca Barbareschi. The squeal of the pig when it was shot even caused him to botch a long monologue, and retakes were not an option because they had no access to additional pigs. Other cast members who objected to the film's content include actress Francesca Ciardi, who did not want to bare her breasts during the sex scene between her and Carl Yorke. When she refused to comply with Deodato's direction, he dragged her off the set and screamed at her in Italian. She had earlier suggested that she and Yorke actually have sex in the jungle before filming, in order to relieve the tension of the upcoming scene. When Yorke declined, she grew upset with him, alienating him for the rest of the shoot.
These tensions were further heightened by some reportedly unscrupulous payment practices. The film’s producer (Palaggi) paid the crew each Saturday, and Yorke has stated that his first payment came in the form of Colombian pesos. After calculating the exchange rate, Yorke discovered that his payment was significantly less than what had been agreed upon. When Yorke confronted the producer, Palaggi threatened to pay him nothing for his work, to which Yorke responded by refusing to shoot another scene until he was paid fairly in American dollars. Yorke has also discussed Deodato’s unfair treatment of the extras. In the scene in which the film crew burns the Yacumo village, Deodato drafted local Colombians to play the Yacumo. According to Yorke, Deodato persuaded them to crowd into a blazing hut to capture the authentic look of a massacre: “This was terrifying. I know how scary it is to watch this movie. To watch it being made was . . . more scary . . . because there were real humans in there, and I’m not sure what they were getting paid, or if they were getting paid. As far as I know, they were just getting lunch.” The names of the Colombian locals cast in the film do not appear in the credits, which further reinforces the accusation that they probably received no monetary compensation for their work. Robert Kerman has made similar criticisms: “He was a sadist. . . . He was particularly sadistic to people that couldn’t answer back, people that were Colombian [and] people that were Italian but could be sent home.”
Deodato said he conceived of the film while talking to his son about news coverage of the terrorism of the Red Brigades. Deodato thought that the media focused on portraying their violence with little regard for journalistic entegrity, and believed that the media staged certain news angles. He said the film team in Cannibal Holocaust symbolized the Italian media.
The Italian screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici wrote the script. He had collaborated with Deodato in his previous film, Ultimo mondo cannibale, and had written other horror films. Changes from Clerici's original screenplay included certain characters' names in the American film crew. Clerici wrote several scenes that did not make the film's final cut. One was said to show a group of Yanomamo cutting off the leg of a Shamatari warrior and feeding him to piranha in the river. The underwater camera did not operate properly and the piranha were difficult to control, so Deodato reportedly dropped the scene. Still photographs taken during the scene are its only known depiction. The "Piranha Scene" is a popular topic amongst fans of the film.
For the film, Deodato cast many inexperienced stage actors from the Actors Studio in New York City. Luca Barbareschi and Francesca Ciardi were cast in part because they were Italian actors who also spoke English. Deodato decided to make the film in English to appeal to a wider audience and to lend the film "credibility." He also needed to establish a European "nationality" so the film could be distributed among European countries.
Deodato also hired Perry Pirkanen and another actor from the Actors' Studio. The latter dropped out shortly before the production team left for the Amazon (he appears in the film as an ex-colleague of Yates). The casting director Bill Williams chose Carl Gabriel Yorke for the role. Yorke was chosen in part because he was the right size for the costumes and boots, which had already been purchased.
Robert Kerman had years of experience working in "adult films" under the pseudonym Richard Bolla, including the well-known Debbie Does Dallas. Kerman was recommended to Deodato for his previous film, The Concorde Affair, in which Kerman played an air traffic controller. Kerman went on to star in the Italian cannibal films Mangiati vivi! (Eaten Alive) and Cannibal ferox, both directed by Umberto Lenzi. Kerman's girlfriend was cast as an executive, as the production needed an actress to be available in both New York City and Rome.
The film historian David Kerekes contends that the film's sense of reality is based on the direction and the treatment of the film team’s recovered footage. Using the cinéma vérité technique he learned from his mentor Roberto Rossellini, Deodato filmed Cannibal Holocaust. In an interview, the production designer, Massimo Antonello Gelend, called his style "hyperrealistic."
David Carter of the cult horror webzine Savage Cinema says that Deodato's methods added a first-person quality to the film team’s footage, claiming, "The viewer feels as if they are there with the crew, experiencing the horrors with them." Kerekes says, the "...shaky hand-held camerawork commands a certain realism, and 'The Green Inferno,' the ill-fated team's film-within-a-film here, is no exception." He writes, "...this very instability gives the 'Green Inferno' film its authentic quality." Deodato was proud of other aspects of the cinematography, namely the numerous moving shots using a standard, shoulder-mounted camera (that is, without the use of a steadicam).
Kerekes noted the animal slaughter and inclusion of footage from The Last Road to Hell as adding to the sense of reality of the film. Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment compares the effect to Vsevolod Pudovkin’s theory of montage, saying, "In Cannibal Holocaust, we see the actors kill and rip apart a giant sea turtle and other animals. The brain has been conditioned to accept that which it's now seeing as real. This mixture of real and staged violence, combined with the handheld camerawork and the rough, unedited quality of the second half of the movie, is certainly enough to convince someone that what they are watching is real." Deodato says he included the execution footage in The Last Road to Hell to draw similarities between Cannibal Holocaust and the Mondo filmmaking of Gualtiero Jacopetti.
Cannibal Holocaust premiered on February 7, 1980 in the Italian city of Milan. Although the courts confiscated the film based on a citizen's complaint, the initial audience reaction was positive. After seeing the film, director Sergio Leone wrote a letter to Deodato, which stated, [translated] "Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world." In the ten days before it was seized, the film had grossed approximately $2 million, ten times the original investment of $200,000.
Critics remain split on their stances of Cannibal Holocaust. Supporters of the film cite it as serious and well-made social commentary on the modern world. Mike Bracken called it one of the greatest horror movies ever filmed, and also stated, "Viewers looking for a film that's powerful, visceral, and disturbing have a new title to add to their must-see list." Sean Axmaker praised the structure and set up of the film, saying, "It's a weird movie with an awkward narrative, which Deodato makes all the more effective with his grimy sheen of documentary realism, while Riz Ortolani's unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score provides a weird undercurrent." Jason Buchanan of Allmovie said, "...while it's hard to defend the director for some of the truly repugnant images with which he has chosen to convey his message, there is indeed an underlying point to the film, if one is able to look beyond the sometimes unwatchable images that assault the viewer."
Detractors, however, criticize the acting, question the genuine animal slayings, and point to an alleged hypocrisy that the film presents. Nick Schager criticized the brutality of the film, saying, "As clearly elucidated by its shocking gruesomeness—as well as its unabashedly racist portrait of indigenous folks it purports to sympathize with—the actual savages involved with Cannibal Holocaust are the ones behind the camera." Schager's racism argument is supported by the fact that the real indigenous peoples in Brazil whose names were used in the movie—the Yanomamo and Shamatari—are not fierce enemies as portrayed in the movie, nor is either tribe truly cannibalistic (although the Yanomamo do partake in a form of post-mortem ritual cannibalism).
Robert Firsching of Allmovie made similar criticisms of the film's content, saying, "While the film is undoubtedly gruesome enough to satisfy fans, its mixture of nauseating mondo animal slaughter, repulsive sexual violence, and pie-faced attempts at socially conscious moralizing make it rather distasteful morally as well." Slant Magazine's Eric Henderson said it is "...artful enough to demand serious critical consideration, yet foul enough to christen you a pervert for even bothering."Cannibal Holocaust currently has a 64% fresh rating on the film review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 5.2. The film came in eighth on IGN's list of the ten greatest Grindhouse films.
Cannibal Holocaust is seen by some as social commentary on various aspects of modern civilization by comparing Western society to that of the cannibals. David Carter says, "Cannibal Holocaust is not merely focused on the societal taboo of cannibalism. The greater theme of the film is the difference between the civilized and the uncivilized. Though the graphic violence can be hard for most to stomach, the most disturbing aspect of the film is what Deodato is saying about modern society. The film asks the questions 'What is it to be 'civilized'?' and 'Is it a good thing?'" Mark Goodall, author of Sweet & Savage: The World Through the Shockumentary Film Lens, also contends the film's message is "...the rape of the natural world by the unnatural; the exploitation of 'primitive' cultures for western entertainment."
Deodato's intentions regarding the Italian media coverage of the Red Brigades have also fallen under critical examination and has been expanded to include all sensationalism. Carter explores this, claiming that "[The lack of journalistic integrity] is shown through the interaction between Professor Monroe and the news agency that had backed the documentary crew. They continually push Monroe to finish editing the footage because blood and guts equal ratings."Director Lloyd Kaufman claims that this form of exploitative journalism can still be seen in the media today and in programming such as reality television.Additionally, film historian Andrew DeVos has argued that the animal deaths are so harshly condemned because of Cannibal Holocaust’s genre classification as an “exploitation film,” whereas animal mutilations in movies perceived by critics to be “art films” or “classics” are often ignored. DeVos cites several examples, including The Rules of the Game (1939), Andrei Rublev (1966), Weekend (1967), El Topo (1970) Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Apocalypse Now (1979).”
Despite these interpretations, Deodato has said in interviews that he had no intentions in Cannibal Holocaust but to make a film about cannibals. Actor Luca Barbareschi asserts this as well and believes that Deodato only uses his films to "put on a show." Robert Kerman contradicts these assertions, however, stating that Deodato did tell him of political concerns involving the media in the making of this film.
These interpretations have also been criticized as hypocritical and poor justification for the film's content, as Cannibal Holocaust itself is highly sensationalized. Firsching claims that, "The fact that the film's sole spokesperson for the anti-exploitation perspective is played by porno star [Robert Kerman] should give an indication of where its sympathies lie,"while Schager says Deodato is "pathetically justifying the unrepentant carnage by posthumously damning his eaten filmmaker protagonists with a 'who are the real monsters – the cannibals or us?' anti-imperialism morale."
Since its original release, Cannibal Holocaust has been the target of censorship by moral and animal activists. Other than graphic gore, the film contains several scenes of sexual violence and genuine cruelty to animals, issues which find Cannibal Holocaust in the midst of controversy to this day. Cannibal Holocaust has been marketed as having been banned in over 50 countries, although this has never been verified. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Cannibal Holocaust as the 20th most controversial film of all-time.
Original Italian controversyEdit
The original controversy that surrounded the film's release was the belief that Cannibal Holocaust was an actual snuff film, or that the actors were murdered in order to film their deaths for the movie - in January 1981 the French magazine, Photo, published an article entitled "Grand Guignol Cannibale", suggesting that Cannibal Holocaust was, in fact, a "genuine" snuff movie.