Cannibal Holocaust Returns, and Here's Hoping You've Finished Lunch
What makes Cannibal Holocaust an almost intolerably vomitous viewing experience isn't its graphic depictions of rape, disembowelment, castration, and, of course, cannibalism. It's that this oft-banned 1979 upchuck special by Italian gore auteur Ruggero Deodato depicts its atrocities (including the real, on-screen slaughter of animals) with great skill, and a distressing sense of self-awareness. It seems to want to have the decency to be disgusted with itself while simultaneously critiquing the very audience that would be attracted to such a film. In short, there's no way to negotiate an ethical truce after engaging in the act of viewing Cannibal Holocaust, which, after years out of circulation, will be presented at the Charles Theatre with an uncut, digitally remastered print by the cinema preservationists at the Maryland Film Festival.
Cannibal Holocaust introduces us to New York anthropologist Dr. Monroe (Robert Kerman, aka '70s-'80s porn-star perennial "R. Bolla"). Monroe flies down to the Amazon jungles--lusciously limned in 35mm by Sergio d'Offizi--to investigate the disappearance of four young, morally threadbare filmmakers. After watching some indigenous people rape, mutilate, and eat one another (not necessarily in that order), and after joining in a human-flesh-eating feast himself, Monroe discovers the corpse of one of the filmmakers, camera and film in rotting hand.
Monroe returns to Gotham and, of course, hands the film over to profit-lusting TV executives who want to exploit the footage for some very special show. The rest of Cannibal essentially consists of intercuts between Monroe arguing with the executives about assorted moral issues and scenes from the disjointed 8mm record of the filmmakers raping, pillaging, and killing their way through this Third World "green inferno," up to and including their ultimate fate as cannibal confits.
In the opinion of Dan Krovich, Maryland Film Fest programming administrator, Cannibal isn't just a dark psychotronic oddity or yet another movie that The Blair Witch Project lifted from. He goes so far as to assert that Deodato--who faced jail in his homeland over multiple obscenity charges arising from the film--"is trying to make a statement on some issues, some of which are probably even more relevant today than when the film was made."
Some of those issues deal with artistic license, ethics, and our perception of reality in a world where the definitions of all three are compromised courtesy of our daily demand for, and gorging upon, mass media. "There are moments," says Krovich, not inaccurately, "when Cannibal Holocaust feels like an episode of Survivor gone horribly awry." Seen that way, the slaughter of a real water buffalo in Apocalypse Now, the success of the hideously gruesome Hannibal, and the killing of a real pig in the last season of Survivor become part of a thrill-at-any-price method not comfortably confined to Deodato's film.
But Deodato too often trips over the line between social commentary and just plain awfulness. During one seemingly endless sequence, the filmmakers capture and gut a muskrat. The animal shrieks and tries to break free, but no go. After all, the movie suggests, filmed spectacle creates fame, so what's a few spilled drops of muskrat blood? To be fair, other Italian filmmakers of the period, such as Umberto Lenzi (Cannibal Ferox) and, well, Francis Ford Coppola, have slaughtered animals in the name of art too. Or something. Krovich's rationalization that "I believe [that] in almost all, if not all, of those instances, the animals were used for food" may seem a mite desperate, but after viewing Cannibal Holocaust, just try feeling superior to such brutal behavior when you next tuck into a nice rare steak.
Even when Deodato's on the satiric mark, he's nauseatingly over the top. In one well-directed sequence, we watch the white filmmakers rape a tribeswomen and burn her village. As the real-life villagers are hounded out of their burning grass-hatch homes, one filmmaker hoots, "Just like Cambodia!" The one female film-crew member, Faye (Francesca Ciardi), isn't put off by the rape; she only objects to her compatriots wasting film on a scene for which they have no planned use.
Deodato tries to distance himself from his worst ideas via prescient acts of cheap-jack (but still effective) postmodernism. We see footage, taken from actual newsreels, of firing squads shooting partially clothed African political prisoners and lifeless female bodies piling up atop one another. A network exec, like the female filmmaker, is distraught--not at the atrocity, but that, in the fiction of the movie, the deaths are fake, a special-effects-enhanced part of one filmmaker's demonstration reel. In other words, Deodato is using footage portraying real murder to satirize the barbarism of a media system he himself used to distribute this very film, while also trying to demonstrate just how low American entertainment producers and audiences will go for kicks--all while making a film that goes even lower. The points are undeniable, the technique reprehensible, the multitextural reflections endless. And yet, if not for the aforementioned real atrocities, Krovich's claim that Cannibal is "one of the classics of the genre" would be incontestable.
Across the divide of more than 20 years, Cannibal Holocaust still speaks to us (in dubbed voices). Perhaps after decades of being rendered insensate by real fakery (the movies), fake reality (Survivor and its ilk), and reality turned fake (the Gulf War), we need stronger hits of the authentically awful to register much of anything beyond a collective, media-age yawn. Or, as one of Cannibal Holocaust's TV execs opines of (then) modern audiences, "The more you rape their senses, the happier they are."