I first endured Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust as a lazy undergraduate. It was the sort of movie you watched in a state of half-dress, usually in a dressing gown and with your girlfriend reminding you to re-stow your Gentleman’s relish, lest you upset your visitors.
The man who’d brought it round on pirate VHS, was a fan of hardcore Italian pornography, specifically the work of Rocco Stiffredi, and banned video nasties. Collectively these two categories made up 95% of his film collection. The other 5% was Disney, naturally. Watching the new, that is to say, restored cut of the movie at this year’s Cine Excess ahead of its release on Blu-ray from Shameless Screen Entertainment, one can understand how the pornographic sensibility, the addiction to sensation, body horror, penetration and degradation, could inform the desire to see Deodato’s film. The line that separates extreme human sexuality from hardcore depravity is slight and I’m not sure my supplier would have recognised any distinction at all.
(Warning, for those unaware of this notorious film please be warned that the film stills are extremely graphic and could be disturbing to some)
I’d like to be the first, if I may, to partner Cannibal Holocaust with Sidney Lumet’s Network. Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay, a furious and cutting media satire, remains one of cinema’s most incisive treatments of television’s ability to distort, exploit and condition its audience. I cite it because in Deodato’s mind he was making a companion piece. The difference is that whereas Chayefsky’s treatment was the beneficence of a sharp intellect, using understatement to hammer its message home (has there ever been a better deadpan denouement than the line, ‘so ends the story of Howard Beale, the only man in history to be killed because he had lousy ratings’?), Deodato became confused and made the very thing he was ostensibly criticising.
Holocaust, inspired by its director’s hatred of hypocrisy in the Italian news media, with the stations condemning movie violence showing, and in some cases staging, real world horrors for their voyeuristic viewers, was conceived as a tract on sadism, exploitation, cultural illiteracy and the insensitivity of news gatherers. It’s curious then, that Cannibal Holocaust remains a film that invites you to attach those self-same labels to its cavalcade of grotesquery.
Put that to Deodato, and I did, and you get a shrug of the shoulders and a wagging finger – the same old blinkered journalists who’ve misunderstood his intent. The difficulty with film, however, is that it’s not like a half-remembered conversation; the evidence is up on screen. Forever.
That it’s shot with a pornographer’s eye is indisputable. The score that opens the movie over aerial shots of the Amazon would have made more than John Holmes’ ears prick up. The style announces that this is a movie that’s going to celebrate nature’s bounty and her beauty. Deodato’s intent was to undercut and provide a counterpoint to, the violence, both physical and sexual, that followed, but actually, his treatment follows the period porn movie precisely; it’s back to nature and then on with the penetration and the tearing and the uninhibited camera.
The idea was that in reviewing the plight of documentary filmmakers who first antagonise, then defile and desecrate the home of these Amazonian cannibals, mutilating real animals along the way, we’d understand the lengths that perfidious westerners would go to in order to gain notoriety in the name of anthropology. This team, had nature and the mindless prehistoric tribes people, not overwhelmed them, executing a sort of proxy revenge on behalf of a fully masturbated but now post-orgasmic and guilty audience, intended to deceive the home crowd, editing the footage into something labelled authentic. What, you may ask, could be more cynical?
Deodato’s decision to present the movie as authentic, a move so successful that Italian prosecutors had him arrested for the alleged murder of the leading actors, was supposed to teach the audience a lesson. The film would act as like a news reel in reverse; the audience would watch it, expecting something safe and prefabricated and instead witness horrors with a naturalistic aesthetic so raw that it would turn their stomach. They’d leave the cinema having learnt an important lesson about media exploitation and feeling worse for their insatiable voyeurism.
The problem is that Deodato has relied on that self-same tendency to build the movie’s notoriety over the intervening decades. He stokes it and plays to it at every given opportunity. This is a film that revels in its violence and misogyny, and while the team’s attempt at constructing a set of events is condemned, mirroring Deodato’s own deception, the treatment of both animals and prosthetic humans is, for the filmmaker, manifestly self-indulgent.
It’s the ending that gives the game away. Arguably, if the point was to highlight that sensation, culled from the misery of others, for the purposes of entertainment, is wrong – still the official line after 30 years, then the appropriate ending would be for the team to get away with it. After all, the media gets away with it all the time, Deodato would argue, and what would stoke audience indignation more than to have been privy to the process of constructing a narrative at the expense of others, only to see the filmmakers proudly present it at the close?
Instead, the pornographer in Deodato demanded a money shot; thus a film that wags its finger at its audience’s lust for gang rape, murder, female suffering and other big names from the school of cruelty, concludes with a sequence designed to satisfy those self-same cravings.
The cameraman who raped a tribal girl has his penis severed, the woman who stood by while her team mates gang raped the same woman, who earlier watched as the men beheaded a turtle, is punished in kind; not because she did any of those things you understand but because she’d didn’t object, which is rather unfeminine, so we’re permitted to enjoy her violation and destruction as a means of gaining some belated satisfaction.
Whether Deodato was conscious of his own hypocrisy is unclear; he hasn’t answered those questions satisfactorily, but what is clear is that Cannibal Holocaust remains a gore whore’s primal fantasy. Much has been written about its treatment of animals, but I suggest this is gross sentimentality. More interesting and more pertinent, are questions raised about the instincts indulged at the camera’s behest. Deodato’s film both asks the question and provides an unpleasant answer.
Cannibal Holocaust played at this year’s Cine Excess Film Festival.