You know, back in the 80s, when I was trying to get a movie made, I called myself a gorehound and like a lot of others, read Fangoria and Deep Red, and this movie was one of the Big Dogs, the ne plus ultra of nastiness. Speaking of Deep Red magazine, its editor, the late Chas Balun was one of Holocaust‘s most ardent American supporters; to him we owe the term “Italian Gut Muncher”. The box for the Grindhouse Releasing Ultimate Platinum Super Collector’s Restored Version proclaims it to be THE ONE THAT GOES ALL THE WAY!!!
Yet… I had never seen it. My interest was minimal. I don’t much care for jungle movies, or movies that simply serve as a catalog of atrocities. I had watched some tape – maybe it was one of those short-lived video magazines – that was a compendium of scenes from various flicks, and it had all the money shots from Cannibal Ferox under its American video name, Make Them Die Slowly, and that was enough for me, for years. But in those years, I was assured that there was more substance than that going on in Holocaust, and when Grindhouse Releasing did their thing, I figured this was going to be my shot at seeing it under the best conditions possible.
I suckered frequent movie-watching partner Rick into sharing the burden with me. That was easy, because Rick has a long-standing grudge against The Gates of Hell. Rick can be a bit gullible when it comes to movie ballyhoo, and when he was told that Gates was banned in 92 countries because it was the ultimate experience in gut-wrenching terror, he was at the theater opening day, money in hand, guts ready to be wrenched. I like Gates more than Rick did, shall we say. For instance, I do not rant and rave for an hour about it when the subject comes up. So I said to Rick, “I have a movie that was actually banned in three countries I can verify. It says it goes all the way.” And he was in.
Unfortunately for me, Rick scoffed at Grindhouse’s generous offer of an “Animal Cruelty-Free Version”, saying, “We’re going all the way!” I guessed if Grindhouse put this much trouble into restoring it, I should at least watch the whole thing. Yyyyyyyyyyyeah, no. I could have easily done without that part of it.
If you live on some planet where this sort of thing hasn’t reached you yet: A documentary crew of four young people (Carl Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen and Luca Barbereschi) set out into the Amazonia (a region we are constantly reminded is called “The Green Inferno”), seeking to make a movie about people still “living in the stone age”. After they’ve been missing for two months, Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman), an anthropologist, goes into the Green Inferno to search for them.
This part of the movie is pretty standard jungle adventure. The indigenous tribes are especially wary about white men, and Monroe realizes that the four missing people are the cause. He eventually tracks them to a remote tribe called The Tree People, where he finds the bones and smashed equipment of the four; slowly gaining the Tree People’s respect (with a tape recorder, and by joining in on the ritual eating of enemy guts), he is given the fifteen cans of film the group had shot.
Back in New York City (really, they never miss an opportunity to drop in a landmark), the network who backed the four’s other documentaries wants to show the returned footage. Munroe is against it. This second part of Holocaust involves the restoration of the recovered film, and Monroe interviewing people who knew the crew. The most cogent thing learned is that the leader of the group, Alan (Yorke) was “a real son of a bitch” according to even his father and his employers. Monroe is shown their previous movie, Last Road to Hell, which looks like execution footage lifted from Africa Addio. He is told that the footage is faked. That’s what Alan did – he incited or he faked. (Note: that shit wasn’t faked).
The last third of the movie is Monroe realizing these executive idiots haven’t watched all the footage, and insisting they do. And here is where the money shots start afresh. The fifth member of the party, the guide, is bitten by a snake, and the venom is so potent that that a quick amputation of the leg doesn’t help. The four decide to continue on, anyway.
(There are what we call Idiot Plots, which depend on the stupidity of the characters to advance. These guys take the cake. They take a whole bakery full of cakes.)
They shoot a member of the first tribe they encounter in the leg, so he’ll be slow enough for them to follow to his village. Then, awing the villagers with their boomsticks, they round them up and torch the huts. Then Alan and Faye (Ciardi) make love in front of the cowed villagers. Going further, they find an errant woman from the Tree People and gang rape her. (They are also mean idiots) . This means eventually they are going to run into a large group of Tree People – too many to shoot – and find themselves rather messily on the menu – and that on camera, to boot. Alan’s the last to go, and I guess hoping that the God of Whiteness will protect him and his film, he keeps rolling.
I’m not going to go into detail on the deaths here, except that they are very well faked – director Ruggero Deodato was actually accused of murder because he somehow managed to convince the four actors to disappear for a year to lend the story credence. There are other man-on-man horrors, but the animals are going to hit you the worst, because those deaths are real and graphic. There are two (very) small saving graces; one is that everything is on the menu in the Amazonia, and after the scenes were shot, the animals were given to the natives to eat, for which they were grateful. That’s a coatamundi, a turtle (that scene is infamously heinous), a snake, a couple of monkeys, a pig. They also list a spider, but that one looked fake, and nobody eats spiders. The other silver lining to clutch at is that the filmmakers now say they regret those scenes, and specifically asked Grindhouse Releasing to excise them. They did, via the branching capabilities of the technology – the Animal Cruelty-Free version runs a good six minutes shorter.
This isn’t even Deodato’s first cannibal movie – he and Umberto Lenzi kept trying to one-up each other on the gore-meter (“The Gore Score”, as Chas Balun would say). The thing is, in that contest, I give Deodato the clear edge. He apprenticed under Roberto Rosselini and Sergio Corbucci. As Eli Roth points out, from Rosselini he gets the power of low-key neo-realism, from Corbucci the canny use of violence to make a political point. Our documentary crew are walking examples of white privilege who push it too far, and pay the price rather nastily.
So does Cannibal Holocaust go “All The Way”? Yeah, it does. Yet somehow Deodato’s framework and execution keeps it from feeling like totally sleazy exploitation. It’s definitely exploitation, but you feel like a point is trying to be made, somewhere in there, amidst all the screaming, rape and gore.
Way back when, when I was writing about The Blair Witch Project, I was asked why I hadn’t included Cannibal Holocaust in my brief history of found footage movies. Well, it was, um… mainly because I hadn’t seen it. But this really is the first one, right down to the “based on a true story” hook. That’s a coin that has been counterfeited so many times as to make any use of it suspect, but legend (ha!) has it that there was a similar party lost to cannibal tribes, there was footage, an Italian network was going to show it, but decided not to and ordered the footage destroyed. The footage still leaked, though, and a projectionist was fined for stealing it – this is mentioned in the text at the end.
Aaaah, who knows. Now I’ve seen it. I don’t have to shuffle my feet shamefully at movie nerd meetings anymore when the subject comes up. Here’s the NSFW trailer:
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