Courting Controversy: Cannibal Holocaust

Dave takes a look back at one of cinema's most controversial releases of the past few decades: it's Cannibal Holocaust...

There are some sick films out there, we’re told. Some films so vile that it’s necessary for whole sections to be excised before they can be viewed by the public. In the most extreme cases, it’s much easier to just ensure that such a film will just never be viewed in the UK, ever (unless you import it).

The BBFC were tasked with deciding what was acceptable or not following the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You’ve probably read about this elsewhere, or you can check out my rambling article about The Exorcist for more details. Suffice to say that the BBFC were seen, at the time, as the overseers of morality with their legally enforced ability to correct corruption with the swift slice of the scissors. 

However, if a local council felt strongly enough, they could choose to overturn a BBFC decision and show a film that had been banned, or provide a different certificate altogether. Though far from being a video nasty or a horror film, Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (certificate 18) was reduced to a 15 by Inverclyde Council. Spider-Man‘s 12 certificate was overturned by a number of authorities following complaints from parents intent on letting their children see a film featuring an obviously popular character.

While we all have the ability to confront a council about its approach to films, it’s far more likely that you’ll find people willing to complain about violence in films than it is to find those who want to see something that had previously been restricted by certificate or in its entirety.

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Some of the ‘worst’ video nasties caused more than just outcries of outrage. They resulted in the full weight of the law being brought down on the purveyors of perversion and an even greater response from the media, only to be swallowed up by the next available moral panic that came along.

This, dear reader, is where we find Cannibal Holocaust.

In Cannibal Holocaust, a group of young documentarians go along to the Amazon and encounter groups of cannibals who, having never seen westerners or their technology before, are suitably wary of the sophisticated visitors. Initially attempting to observe and catalogue the activities of the cannibals as part of a documentary, the filmmakers are rapidly drawn into the savagery of a world unlike any other, and experience animal dismemberment, torture, violence against women, cannibalism and an array of other unpleasantness. 

Sadly, their obsession with fame will lead the young group to force themselves upon the very lifestyles of the natives with deadly, shocking and horrific results.

The film lulls you into a sense of serenity with its introduction, backed by a piece of easy listening music, showing the rainforest from the sky in all of its tranquillity, untouched by man, before cutting to a western reporter talking about the way mankind has conquered the stars, but still doesn’t understand his own planet. He then introduces us to the four young documentary makers who didn’t return from the rainforest.

So, a second group is sent out to retrieve the first. Anthropologist Professor Monroe leads an expedition into the rainforest, accompanied by a handful of militia and a native guide. As Monroe finds equipment belonging to the initial group, it quickly becomes clear that things didn’t go well for them, and, boy, did they deserve their fate!

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As Monroe experiences the activities of the warring tribes, recording a journal as he goes along, he begins to piece together what happened to the reporters.

The tribes are wary of Monroe and his group, so he becomes one with his subjects, and as “naked and unfettered as Adam”. Monroe hopes to merge seamlessly with those around him (thankfully, this plans works when, out of the grass, pops a bevy of beauties all ready to bathe with him).  Titillation soon becomes terror as they discover the remains of the reporters, stripped of flesh and hanged from a tree as a sacrifice and warning to others.

Monroe manages to convince the tribe that he is friendly, retrieves the film canisters and plans to broadcast a documentary with the intact footage. Initially, everything seems to have gone well, with the group gelling together and talking about their plans. Things are looking good for Monroe’s documentary, focusing on how a group of westerners fell victim to the tribe through nothing more than misunderstandings.

However, their friends and family don’t have many fantastic things to say about them and there are many suggestions that they faked footage in their previous documentary, ‘Long Road To Hell’, to get their ratings and the respect of their contemporaries. As more footage is shown, a turtle is dismembered for food in graphic fashion, with internal organs splayed for all to see, the guide is lost to a botched amputation and things are getting a little dangerous. All this happens whilst the cameraman of the group is instructed to “keep shooting,” adding to the sense of ‘at all costs’ filmmaking.

By the time the third reel of footage comes around, we’ve got our first tribe. Intent on following them through their territory, they deliberately and callously injure a native to allow them to follow him before they walk into the tribe and start terrorising and brutalising. They justify their actions by calling it “survival of the fittest” before burning down a hut of trapped tribes people. However, we’re assured the footage is staged by the technician overseeing the construction of the documentary. As the hut burns, we’re treated to some inappropriately cheery music (the theme tune) and then Faye and Alan having sex, all the time with the camera rolling.

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Despite the television executives still having faith in the documentary, citing the public desire for sensationalism over the need for realism, Monroe is convinced that it is wrong to show it. He even goes as far as moralising that the tribes may have seen us as savages.

We see footage of a forced abortion, with the first group questioning their desire to continue and their quest for fame. They choose to force themselves on the people of the rainforest in order to shape what they are filming. Monroe finds this so offensive he wishes to distance himself from the footage. It becomes even worse when the men gang rape a tribeswoman, much to the outrage of Faye. You see, the civilised have truly become the savage and there’s no turning back now.

Even when one of their own falls victim to the cannibals, the camera is still rolling, the footage becoming priceless. Faye may be the voice of reason, but it no longer matters. Finally, as their future seems grim, we see cannibalism in all its visceral glory, unintentional voyeurs in a world we’re not meant to understand.

What helps with the ‘authenticity’ of the footage are the technical issues during the ‘documentary’ portions of the film, which include sound drop outs, incomplete scenes and poor camera angles. Coupled with the growing tension between the group, it’s what films like The Blair Witch Project would achieve with deftness and their own sense of notoriety decades later. With its fly-on-the-wall documentary style, Cannibal Holocaust is an entirely different beast to many of the horror films of the 1980s, possessing a raw intelligence and social message that is largely absent from many of its fellow video nasties.

So, it’s a shlocky film filmed with gore, blood, guts, violence and cannibalism, isn’t it? Surely nobody would take it that seriously!

Except they did.

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So seriously, in fact, that the director had to stand up in court and explain that women weren’t impaled on stakes, people weren’t eaten and animals weren’t dismembered all for the sake of entertainment. Well, two out of three of those statements are true, but more on that later.

Arguably, Ruggero Deodato’s most famous film, Cannibal Holocaust was submitted to the BBFC for home video release back in 2001 and came in at a svelte 86 mins and 3 seconds, having lost 5 minutes 3 seconds of footage for “scenes involving real cruelty to animals and to eroticised sexual violence, in accordance with BBFC policy and guidelines”. 

These cuts, as the BBFC website further states, were compulsory as, “UK law prohibits the public exhibition of cinema films if animals were cruelly mistreated during their making and the BBFC applies this test also to videos and DVDs.” Thus, it’s safe to say that this film is never likely to be released uncut in the United Kingdom.

Okay, here’s where I’ve led you a bit astray. You see, I like to focus on the UK side of the video nasties as, whilst these films may have been available in other territories during the 80s, it was in the UK that some of the interesting stuff was happening, as in, they were being banned. I stated that Deodato’s film resulted in a run-in with the law, which it did, in Italy. In England, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane also believed that people in the film were the victims of cannibalism.

One of the probable reasons for such conviction in what is shown is that the special effects are quite convincing. Aided by actual animal brutality, for which the film still suffers cuts and bans in many territories, the realism given to the killing of a ‘muskrat’ or turtle are easily transferred into believing that the impaling of a woman or the mutilation of a woman’s sexual organs as a punishment for adultery were actually happening. Showing this footage in the form of a documentary also drives the realism that we see.

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There’s also the cannibal scenes themselves, with people torn limb from limb and organs consumed with relish (the state of mind, not the condiment.) Furthermore, the tribes lack any sense of the western world. No talking in slow or laboured English, they are amazed by the accoutrements of western civilisation, wear very little clothing and perform rituals that would seem barbaric and, maybe, alien to we ‘civilised’ western worlders.

One of the most convincing sequences is a woman impaled on a stake. It was so convincing that Deodato had to re-create the scene to convince authorities that the girl had not really been killed. Add to this a castration scene that will make any man cross his legs and wince, followed by his dismemberment and consumption. Perhaps we should throw in the wooden spike used to rape a woman, or the ball of mud and stones used to disfigure her. There’s enough her to make the average viewer feel a bit uncomfortable.

Admittedly, the film did feature footage of actual executions, in the form of the short Long Road To Hell sequence. People are shot by men in uniform, bodies are piled up and death is all around. However, a comment provided by a studio executive suggests this footage had been faked by the film crew, casting doubt over what we are seeing. It’s supremely effective for the few minutes that we’re exposed to this footage.

The film premiered in Milan on 7th February, 1980 and was seized by the Italian courts ten days later, with the director arrested on charges of obscenity, then murder. Deodato found himself in an odd position, charged with the murder of three characters who died in the film.Thankfully, he did have a trump card in the form of the three actors and their ability to appear, very much alive and well, in the court. Obviously, the charges were dropped and Deodato freed. This didn’t mean that the film was free to be shown and it would remain banned for a number of years.

Deodato claims that the film is a tame version of a real life ‘found footage’ documentary that was suppressed by the media. It certainly isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that this could be true, as there are many parts of the world that we don’t fully understand, nor have we visited. It is also entirely possible that, if these groups were encountered, some would attempt to exploit them in order to create an image of the natives that we would find suitably sensationalist.

Does it shock today? Oh, yes. It’s definitely not a comfortable film to watch, though it does feel sedate in places. The animal barbarism, as I’ve stated far too many times, is stomach churning due to its blatant reality. The horrific treatment of human life stands in stark contrast to the beauty of the rainforest.

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The moral message of the film that there’s a small step between civilisation and primitive behaviour is as true today as it was when the film was made. In fact, up until recently there had been talk of a remake of the film that seems to have been cancelled. I doubt such a remake would have been as effective as the original, but it would have been interesting to see what would have been made of the material in a modern, Internet-connected world.