David Sodergren’s review published on Letterboxd:
Okay, let’s get this out of the way first. Cannibal Holocaust is a repulsive, disgusting movie. It’s reprehensible, disturbing and downright nasty. It’s also probably my favourite horror film.
Hear me out.
Cannibal Holocaust tells the story of a group of four documentary filmmakers who venture deep into the jungle to find a primitive tribe of cannibals never before seen by civilised man. The film opens with news footage of their disappearance and we meet Professor Munroe, the man tasked with finding out what happened to them. He finds their footage and brings it back home, with the bulk of the second half of the movie being the footage that they shot. It’s an early example of the kind of ‘found footage’ horror film popularised many years later by The Blair Witch Project and, later, Paranormal Activity and it’s ilk.
Despite being released in 1980, Cannibal Holocaust feels very much a film of the 70s, with its real-life animal torture and frequent queasy sexual assaults. It opens with a very wobbly helicopter shot of the jungle while Riz Ortolani’s extraordinary score plays, a beautiful piece that incorporates acoustic guitar, gooey synth and an orchestra. It’s totally at odds with the grimy nature of the film and acts as a wonderful counter to the graphic imagery we will soon be presented with. As mentioned, the first half of the film is in a conventional movie style, although even here the blurring of fact and fiction is apparent. The blunt editing of the talented Vincenzo Tomassi and the shaky hand-held camerawork create an almost documentary feel long before we actually get to see the footage shot by Alan Yates and his documentarians. It is this blurring that makes the film so disturbing, and therefore effective.
Now let me be the first to say that I hate animal cruelty and in no way condone its use on film. I have watched every single one of these films with my faithful companion Boris The Pug sitting next to me, and I make sure his eyes are closed when any of these scenes take place (it’s easy, he sleeps through most of them.) There are scenes in Cannibal holocaust of a muskrat being killed, a turtle being dismembered, and the deaths of a monkey and a pig. It’s repellant stuff that should never have been filmed. But filmed it was, and its use here, while disgusting, for once actually has a purpose. The film plays with the difference between real and reel life. At one point we see an old documentary supposedly shot by Yates, The Last Road To Hell (which of course uses the exact same colour and font as Cannibal Holocaust for its titles). This contains genuine Faces of Death-style footage of executions and death, but in a clever conceit we are told that this footage is faked by Yates. So here we have animals being killed for real and we are asked to believe is real, humans being killed for real and that we are subsequently told is fake, and finally humans being killed that is faked and yet we are asked to believe is real. Still with me?It’s an unbelievably tangled web that director Ruggero Deodato is trying to weave here. The use of real-life death adds a veracity to the claims of horrified audiences that the deaths of Alan Yates and his crew were real. Deodato even had to go to court in Italy when the film was released under at first obscenity charges, and later murder!
It’s a ghastly testament to the skill of all involved that the film could actually have such an effect on people. Ortolani’s score is one of the finest in the genre, particularly a hauntingly beautiful theme that plays out over the infamous impaled woman scene as well as the synth drum heavy piece that accompanies most of the horror. Robert Kerman adds some much-needed humour to the film (see his reaction to the line, ‘They just invited us to dinner’) and Carl Gabriel Yorke steals the show as the slimy Yates, who has a great way with a sly smile or a sideways glance to the camera.
But seriously guys, it’s a brutal and totally unforgettable film. The moments of horror are truly unparalleled amongst films of this age, and the shaky camerawork means that any deficiencies in the special effects are well hidden, and some of these images will linger long in your mind, whether you want them to or not.
It’s a film that disturbed me more than any other, but not just through mere shock value. People have compared Holocaust to watching a snuff movie, but that criticism is only further evidence of the immense talent and craftsmanship that went into the film. It’s a film that I would recommend to everybody and nobody, because I think it’s a masterpiece and yet I think that most people would quite simply hate it.
And at the end of the day, that’s okay.