Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust ★★★★★

It used to bug me, the dumb meta-commentary grafted onto Cannibal Holocaust about consumption of media violence. It always seemed like a stupidly oblivious move from Ruggero Deodato, and a way to distance himself from making one of the purest exploitation pieces in cinema. These things are still true, but this time around it struck me that it doesn't really matter. Even though Deodato added some bits to flail around the implications, he still made Cannibal Holocaust.

This appearing somewhat recently on Joe Bob Briggs' show was an excuse to revisit this film for the first time in several years, and at first all I wanted to watch was the film's opening credits sequence. Which is an all-time favorite just for how it absolutely does not belong at the beginning of the film; an unhurried aerial shot of the Amazon, at home in a bland travelogue, paired with an incredibly mismatched score of romantic strings and cheesy synths. This is the first of many layers of weird, quasi-reality that make this film hit in a way that few others approach. In the back of your mind, as you watch the title "Cannibal Holocaust" appear against the weirdly saccharine credits sequence, you wonder if you're watching something that's real or if someone somewhere made a mistake. Once I'd satisfied my initial interest I decided fuck it, might as well do the whole thing now.

It struck me this time around, surprisingly, that Robert Kerman isn't a bad actor. He's one of those little factoids around the film now, a porn actor making the transition to the "legitimate" screen in a film that most people would consider to be on a moral plane worse than porn. A real "haw haw" moment for most. And for all that he's pretty decent at being the one person in this movie that has anything resembling a normal conscience. Disregarding his painful last line at the end of this, he's a sort of believable presence, an intrusion of the real world on this insane murder fantasy that lets you know that no, you can't really ignore what's happening. Sometimes you can watch something apeshit and just sort of write it off because the world in which it's taking place is apeshit, but Kerman's performance drags you back into a more relatable place every time you're thinking of just rolling with the insanely violent action. You don't get to forget that you're watching this from the "civilized" world.

As for the action, this viewing cemented my views that this is one of the nastiest, most brutal cinematic experiences you can find. The first thing to shock the senses is, of course, the graphic violence. People are torn apart and eaten pretty regularly throughout this, the natives gleefully devouring organs and flesh over and over again. Not a unique thing in and of itself, and nothing you haven't seen in a thousand other splatter films. But the way this is grafted onto the chassis of a jungle adventure narrative, a side-effect of the cannibal film's birth from the mondo genre, makes it far dirtier somehow. Like it's a National Geographic TV special that's been interrupted by the camera crew being butchered alive.

The regular sexual violence is distressing, and it frequently intersects with the more gory physical violence. This is where Cannibal Holocaust begins to distinguish itself. Deodato knows full well that this film is meant to titillate all of the forbidden sensors in the modern brain, and what makes this film stand out is that it's going to press hard and unapologetically on every single one of them. This is the fulfillment of the initial teasing of movies like Mondo Cane, which played with voyeuristic sex and violence urges but never fully dived in. There's no teasing here. This is full-on gang rapes, ritualistic sex murders, penetration and impalement with various foreign objects, unwilling abortions, and generally a spirit of disgusting transgression that leaves you feeling like you watched something you shouldn't have.

The animal slaughter scenes probably get the most notoriety, and for good reason. They're real, they're cruel, and they are absolutely unflinching. The sea turtle scene turns my stomach no matter how many times I've seen it, every time. These are another set of junctures where reality starts to feel blurred, making the rest of the film's noxious violence feel horrifyingly realistic even when you can spot the flimsier effects and know exactly how they got the famous impalement shot. Men Behind the Sun achieved a similar effect with its footage of a real autopsy spliced in among effects that were no less disgusting for how cheap they were.

If the grotesque imagery on its own weren't enough for you, there's the greasy, poisonous feeling of watching the exploits of a white film crew terrorizing indigenous populations. The missing documentary crew are presented as the villains of the story, and villains they are, killing and raping as they get deeper into the jungle, the violence they inflict ultimately being paid back in kind. You realize, of course, that even though Deodato is presenting a dim view of Western exploitation of native peoples, he himself is exploiting South American villagers, enlisting them for his camera and presenting them as dehumanized savages. That feeling of watching The Other that was the stock and trade of mondo films is pushed to the hilt here, and the viewer is essentially being whisked through a filmed zoo exhibit, being shown creatures that are a mockery of humanity, and feeling all of the same things that a colonial administrator would. Which is a deeply unpleasant experience.

It doesn't take much to confuse the mind into blurring narrative and reality, in case current events haven't screamed that conclusion at you enough lately. Cannibal Holocaust holds a number of cinematic title belts, but the one I'd hand it is definitely psychological fuckery. From the very beginning you're put off balance and it just gets more fucked from there. The bit where the film crew in the movie is said to have staged graphic footage for their movies, and then you, the viewer, are shown real film of murders and executions, is especially devious. All of this adds up to a gonzo, outlandishly violent movie that feels so psychologically real that Deodato got his ass tossed in jail for murder after this came out.

This is a repulsive, vile experience on more levels than I can articulate. I can't even credit Deodato with a ton of artistry in accomplishing that, since there's things in this film that work against its purest depictions of human debasement. But that's how powerful this is, that it works at what it does so well that even the director's more amateurish impulses can't stop it. This film does not hold back at all in its mission, and if cinema is about imparting experience and feeling then this is one of the most successful examples of it we have. This is one of the ones on my shortlist that I feel like everyone should see at least once, just to understand what the medium is capable of.

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