‘Eaten alive! The ultimate terror movie…’
Cannibal Holocaust is a 1980 Italian cannibal film directed by Ruggero Deodato (The Washing Machine; Dial: Help: House on the Edge of the Park) from a story and screenplay by Gianfranco Clerici (The New York Ripper; The Antichrist).
The movie was filmed in the Amazonian rainforest with real indigenous tribes interacting with American and Italian actors and follows on from the director and writer team’s Last Cannibal World (1976). It stars Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, although no actors are acknowledged in the opening credits.
‘For the sake of authenticity some sequences have been retained in their entirety’
Led by New York-based anthropologist Harold Monroe (Kerman), a team is assembled to search for a missing film crew who had ventured deep into the Amazonian rainforest to film a documentary about tribes still practising cannibalism.
Assisted by local guides, Monroe ventures into the unknown and meets with members of the local Yacumo tribe who it seems were greatly upset by the film-makers whom he is seeking. Later meeting with the warring Yanomamö and Shamatari tribes, he gains the trust of the former by immersing himself in their culture, only to find the best they can do to help him find his friends is show him a pile of bones and some film cans.
After securing the tapes by taking part in a rather unpleasant cannibalistic ceremony, he returns to New York to try to piece together what has happened. We learn that the documentary, titled ‘The Last Road To Hell’, though veiled under the pretence of being a thoughtful study of ancient rites and culture, is an appalling catalogue of brutality on the part of the Americans to stage footage for maximum effect back home.
The final reels show a sudden turn in events, after molesting a female member of the tribe, they later find her ritually impaled as a punishment for ‘her’ crimes. However, she isn’t the only one to face trial, the cannibals seeking to avenge her fate by hunting down the film crew in merciless fashion. As the final reel finishes, Monroe wonders aloud, just “who the real cannibals are”?
Though, quite rightly, hailed as the benchmark and indeed the last word on the cannibal subgenre, Cannibal Holocaust was far from the first venture into jungle brutality. The Richard Harris-starring A Man Called Horse (1970) had appeared a decade earlier and, even as a mainstream feature, alerted directors to the potential for shocking but fact-based films as serious money-makers, though earlier explorations in the pseudo-documentary field, classed as ‘mondo films’, beginning with Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti’s 1962 film Mondo Cane (A Dog’s World), had seen many film-makers cutting their teeth using sometimes outrageously exploitative footage.
It wasn’t until Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 film Man from Deep River, that the genre took off, with Italy firmly leading the way. Deodato’s own (excellent) Last Cannibal World appeared in 1976 to exceptional box-office results. Sergio Martino’s The Mountain of the Cannibal God even featured Ursula Andress in the lead role, despite the graphic content, a sure sign of the bankability of the cannibal boom.
With the success of Last Cannibal World and the backing of German investors, Deodato and his producers, Franco Palaggi and Franco Di Nunzio (who also produced Deodato’s grimy, relentless House at the Edge of the Park) scouted South America for suitable locations, eventually settling on Leticia in southern most Colombia, despite the remoteness meaning that getting there involved arduous trekking and boat trips.
Armed with a screenplay by the prolific Italian writer Gianfranco Clerici (The New York Ripper, The Antichrist, Last Cannibal World) they assembled a largely unknown cast but one that spoke English, both establishing a certain amount of credibility in terms of their background and making the film more saleable to foreign markets.
By far the most famous name was Robert Kerman who had made quite a name for himself in the adult film industry using the pseudonym R. Bolla. Continuing to act, though hampered by his former hardcore career, he has since appeared in Cannibal Ferox and even a minor part in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002).
The only other member of the cast to have had any sort of career not completely overshadowed by their role in Cannibal Holocaust is the Italian/Uruguayan Luca Barbareschi, who entered politics as part of Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2008 and gained more notoriety in a filmed exchange with a journalist which resulted in the reporter being knocked out by Barbareschi.
Though Deodato has claimed that the shocking, visceral nature of the film and its dynamics are a commentary of events in Italy during the early 1970’s when the Red Brigade launched terrorist attacks in an attempt to bring about a revolutionary state through a destabilised country, this echoes slightly of many of his retrospective assertions about the film to paper over accusations over his allegedly tyrannical methods of direction.
What is clear is his adoption of cinéma vérité techniques which used methods including provocation and staged scenarios in order to portray a ‘truth’ and realism to their films; these has already proved popular and successful in the mondo films of the 1960’s and 1971’s. The pops and crackles on the viewed footage (filmed on 16mm to add to the authenticity) in New York and the scratched frames add a genuinely convincing edge to the action.
Adding to the documentary feel is the oft-discussed violence and cruelty inflicted upon animals in the film, ranging from shrew-like fluffy creatures (actually a coati), a large spider, two monkeys (the lopping off of the head required two takes), a tethered wild pig and perhaps most notoriously, a turtle that suffers a protracted death for no other reason than to prompt revulsion and disgust from the audience.
Deodato’s views have mellowed significantly over the years, indifference changing to ‘but the locals ate them afterwards’ to complete rejection, re-editing the film to excise the footage in 2011. Recollections from the cast, particularly Kerman who objected throughout the the animal deaths (and also Perry Pirkanen, who apparently cried after the turtle scene, a strange paradox considering his apparent on-screen glee). Viewed over thirty years later, these scenes are still amongst the strongest and most stomach-churning in the whole of the horror genre.
There have long been rumours that the coitus scene between Yorke and Ciardi was not simulated, Ciardi already having been admonished by Deodato for her ‘prudishness’ in not wanting to bare her breasts. Real or not, it is another example of the blurring between fact and fiction that permeates the whole film.
Deodato was also accused of underpaying his actors (and not paying the locals at all), as well as dictatorial behaviour throughout the shoot, upsetting and alienating most of the cast at one stage or another. The cast had a clause in their contract which stated that they were to give no interviews nor make any appearances regarding the film for a year after its release, so as to create the impression that they had indeed been slaughtered in the film. This backfired badly (or depending on your viewpoint, worked magnificently) as the authorities, convinced by the animal sequences and incredibly realistic gore, arrested Deodato on counts of not only obscenity but also murder.
In order to prove his innocence, the very much alive actors were gathered together to appear in a television program whilst many of the scenes had to be explained in great detail to convince the court that no-one was killed during the filming. The most iconic image in the film, that of the raped cannibal girl having been impaled on the wooden spike was revealed to be an actress sat on an obscured bicycle seat with a small piece of wood held between her teeth. It must be said that all the scenes of death and violence within the film remain as incredibly convincing and impressive as the day they were first screened.
The controversy did no harm to the film’s success, taking an alleged $5 million in the first ten days of release alone. Commercial video releases also did a roaring trade, the UK Go Video VHS release being a mainstay of homely video libraries for two to three years before the Video Recordings Act declared it prosecutable to rent or sell. It was also banned in many other countries, including Germany, Australia and New Zealand, but bucked the trend in Japan where it became the second biggest grossing film in the year of its release.
The film’s soundtrack was composed entirely by Italian composer Riz Ortolani, whom Deodato specifically requested because of Ortolani’s work in Mondo Cane, particularly the film’s main theme, “Ti guarderò nel cuore” (also known as “More”). Ortolani was (and still is) known for his rather romantic, sweeping scores, full of large string sections of plaintive melodies. His work on Cannibal Holocaust, perhaps surprisingly, is no different, the main theme being achingly beautiful, a reflection of the stunning settings but a counterpoint to the horrific violence portrayed.
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The score has become a classic of the genre and helped to elevate Ortolani to the upper echelons of Italian soundtrack composers, his work having since being used by directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn.
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Though the cannibal subgenre ran out of steam in the mid-80’s, the influence of Cannibal Holocaust is still felt today, the found-footage theme being used in the likes of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, whilst also inspiring directors like Eli Roth — whose jungle-set The Green Inferno is an obvious homage — to forge their own careers.
Rather like many of the zombie films of the 1970’s and 1980’s, many films have passed themselves off as sequels to the original film but despite interest from Deodato in his own follow-up, set in an American city, slated to be titled simply Cannibals, this has yet to happen and the film remains as a stand-alone beacon of depravity, gut-churning set-pieces and one of the great achievements of horror cinema.
Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA
Grindhouse Releasing issued a Blu-ray in the USA on July 1, 2014, packed with extras:
- Three Disc Deluxe Edition – 2 Blu-rays + CD
- New hi-definition digital restoration of the original director’s cut
- Spectacular digital stereo re-mix and original mono mix
- Two feature-length commentary tracks – with director Ruggero Deodato and star Robert Kerman, and with stars Carl Yorke and Francesca Ciardi
- New in-depth interviews with Ruggero Deodato, Francesca Ciardi, assistant director/co-star Salvo Basile (shot in Columbia!) and cameraman Roberto Forges Davazati
- Classic interviews with Robert Kerman, Carl Yorke and Oscar-nominated composer Riz Ortolani
- Extensive still galleries and theatrical trailers from around the world
- CD – original soundtrack album by Riz Ortolani newly remastered in stunning 24bit/96khz sound from the original studio master tapes
- Glossy 24-page booklet containing liner notes by director Eli Roth, legendary horror journalist Chas. Balun, Euro-music expert Gergely Hubai and Italian exploitation film authority Martin Biene
- Reversible cover with original art by notorious illustrator Rick Melton
- Beautiful embossed slipcover
- Nine Easter eggs – including the Grindhouse Releasing theatrical re-release premiere and Necrophagia music video directed by Jim VanBebber
Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen,Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Carl Gabriel Yorke.
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