Ruggero Deodato’s disturbing and ever-problematic “Cannibal Holocaust” comes to the High Definition format in the UK, looking improbably lush and gorgeous, in what is also a premiere for the director’s own revised animal-friendly cut of the brutal film he shot over thirty years ago. On the face of it, this sounds like the kind of cunning ruse UK DVD companies habitually try and pull to justify the interference of a certain censorship body, citing the fact that an elderly director has now approved a BBFC-slashed print as a way of selling their bowdlerised version as a new ‘director approved’ cut rather than just something that has necessarily had to be interfered with by unsympathetic censorious forces. But actually, in this instance, that is not the case. The original version of “Cannibal Holocaust” is also included on the disc and is virtually un-tampered with apart from 14 seconds of animal cruelty taken from the scene in which a squealing and obviously distressed muskrat is shown being gutted alive. The BBFC-approved version of this sequence in the original edit now comes with a discreet cut to a tree top scene of monkeys scurrying through the canopy, but the bloodcurdling ululations of the animal’s death throes have been left on the soundtrack unadulterated to indicate that the event actually took place. All the staged sexual violence and all the other animal killings including that of the turtle, have been left untouched, an astonishing turnaround considering that up until this new submission of the film by Shameless Screen Entertainment, all previous UK versions were missing up to ten minutes of footage!
This revision of the BBFC’s own previous ruling also results in the curious and ironic development that Deodato’s revised 2011 cut is actually slightly less bloodthirsty than the new BBFC approved version! The director has released a statement alongside this Shameless UK Blu-ray edition which says that he’d never wanted to shoot the animal killings in the first place, and that the fact that he did so was all down to pressure exerted from his producers back in Italy. Deodato’s new cut doesn’t remove the fact that the animal violence took place, but instead involves the addition of extra fake scratches and light fogging on the screen to partially obscure what is going on, or the addition of missing frame effects to obscure the actual moment of death. Personally I’m not sure of the need for this retrospective bout of coyness; the kind of awful cruelty the performers were forced to perpetrate during the course of the film’s South American shoot should never have happened in the first place; but on the other hand, the fact that it did shouldn’t now be ‘obscured’ or made to look more artistically tasteful either, in my view. Surely turning away from the more morally dubious and unjustifiable aspects of the film merely blunts its acutely self-reflexive commentary on its own culpability. One of the most disturbing features of “Cannibal Holocaust” has always been the way in which its ground-breaking film-within-a-film structure leads to the inevitable, almost accidental conclusion that Deodato is creating an indictment of himself, the viewer, the media and the industry (particularly the Italian film industry at the time) through a cunning manipulation of diegetic space that produces a giddying narrative ’hall of mirrors’ effect, in which what is real and what is not is constantly being revised and challenged, often with uncommon subtlety and even humour. Deodato’s background in neorealist cinema as a former assistant director to Roberto Rossellini, and also his involvement in the violent, exploitation-heavy world of Sergio Corbucci, come together in “Cannibal Holocaust” in a form that is and should always be a challenge to the viewer: It’s a film you shouldn’t want to watch in its entirety but feel drawn towards anyway, and it’s a film that is in many ways repellent and irredeemable (the disgraceful animal slaughter is a marker of that, which shouldn’t therefore be erased or prettified); but it is also provocatively intelligent and daring enough to take itself, and any audience willing to come along, to the very edge of a moral precipice and dare us all to take a peek over the side. “Cannibal Holocaust” is not only self-reflexive to the nth degree, it is almost entirely self-negating!
Deodato’s subtle humour first makes itself felt immediately at the end of the opening title sequence, which features the muddy snake-like thread of the vast Amazon River winding its way through an expansive vista made up of seemingly endless swathes of dense jungle foliage, accompanied by one of the more soothing melodic acoustic-backed passages from Riz Ortolani’s profoundly affecting score. As we gaze down on the awesome sight from a god-like aerial vantage point a caption comes up reading ‘for the sake of authenticity some scenes have been retained in their entirety’ -- an ambiguous statement which, in an ironic fashion, both acts as a jokey reference to the usual convention in dramas and documentaries alike when they are purportedly reconstructions of true events, of providing a reassuring caveat that seeks to create audience distance by emphasising that some scenes are dramatic re-enactments rather than the real thing. Here, as well as seemingly claiming the opposite while using exactly the same formalism of reassuring, authoritative language, the effect becomes rather more confusing, and it’s hard to know to what this claim of ‘authenticity’ can be referring, as even just in the space of the opening five minutes alone, Deodato launches into a disorientating array of filmic genre switches of perspective and point-of-view pull-back-and-reveals that sum up one of the film’s main themes: that of the conscious artifice employed through filmmaking devices involved in the construction of documentary ‘truth’.
The aerial shots of the jungle are swapped for an aerial panorama of the New York skyline, which cuts to a triumphal looking news host reporting from the top of a skyscraper as he talks of modern man’s omnipotence, and how his ‘conquest’ of the moon has been followed by his conquest of the Galaxy (presumably he means solar system?) and is surely to be followed by his inevitable conquest of the entire Universe ‘in the not too distant future’! It’s a curious spiel, marked out by the repetition of the world ‘conquest’ delivered with an almost deranged level of hubris, and is followed by street level views gazing up towards the pinnacles of a series of towering phallic skyscrapers as the newsman reminds us that there are still people in other parts of the world living in the stone age and practicing cannibalism.
Deodato then foreshadows the very last scene of the film when Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman) leaves a darkened New York screening room and emerges on a city street in broad daylight to ask aloud, rather unsubtly and clumsily (and unnecessarily), ‘who are the real cannibals’, having just witnessed the climax of the found footage which becomes pivotal to the rest of the action. It’s a moment often derided as being terribly corny and obvious, but actually the director makes the same point much more cleverly and humorously in the opening segment when he cuts to an image of a crowded, traffic-congested New York avenue, its sidewalks crammed with heaving bodies and coloured with a riot of advertising hoardings bearing down from all angles as the smarmy anchor man continues to talk of those ‘people still living in the stone age’, and describes over this ironically juxtapositioned street scene the ‘primitive tribes isolated in a ruthless hostile environment where the prevailing law is the survival of the fittest’. Deodato then cleverly switches perspective without warning as this New York scene freezes on a group gathered outside a shop window display in an electrical appliance store where a TV turns out to be broadcasting the very same report we still thought we ourselves were watching until seconds ago!
We now join this small gathering to continue watching the same news footage, this time from the black and white monitor of the shop window TV, as the reporter reveals the subject of his piece is the uncertain fate of a group of four documentary filmmakers and their guide, who disappeared two months previously while making a documentary on the various primitive tribes who inhabit a remote region of the South American jungle on the border of Brazil and Peru. We’re given heroic portraits of these pioneers ‘armed with cameras, microphones and curiosity’ and learn that their leader Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke) is a respected documentary filmmaker, well-known for award winning films on Vietnam and Africa. The story of the group’s disappearance is given an extra jolt of human interest tragedy when we learn that missing script girl Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi) was also Yates’s fiancé, and cameramen Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi) were devoted best friends. It’s made clear to us now, that the TV channel which is reporting all this information also financed the filmmakers’ trip into the wilderness in the first place, and was also there to cover their flight by light aircraft into the uncharted region of jungle where they were eventually to disappear without a trace.
The perspective switches once again, and we are no longer seeing the grainy footage originally shot by the news channel, and as it now appears on the TV in the window display, but for real, in lush 35 mm (presumably it is the camera footage as it was being filmed at the time, so this counts as a kind of flashback) and in real time. Later we will see exactly the same scene again, but this time in film salvaged from the cameras of the four travellers themselves, interposed with their self-recorded footage of the gang messing about in their hut just before setting out on the trip, where they voyeuristically film Faye naked after a shower without her consent (an uncomfortable, prying voyeurism towards Faye will be a recurring motif of the group’s lost footage). The reporter now tells how the TV channel has joined up with New York State University to finance another trip into The Green Inferno, this time by renowned NYU Dean of Anthropology Professor Harold Monroe, in order to find out exactly what happened to the intrepid adventurers and hopefully rescue any survivors from the original expedition.
This is all merely the lead in to what then quickly seems to become a fairly conventional, if beautifully shot (and especially gorgeous looking in HD) section of the movie, that doesn’t feel all that different in nature to the many Italian cannibal films which came out of the country during the 1970s, including Ruggero Deodato’s own “Last Cannibal World”/ “Ultimo mondo cannibal” (1977). The perspective shifts to that of the conventional diegetic arena in which the camera is not explicitly made a part of the unfolding drama (Monroe and his team aren’t filming their own jungle adventures, after all) and Ortolani’s score inhabits the usual extra-diegetic realm of underscore which adds emotional colour to the proceedings.
This lengthy middle part of the movie plays like straightforward jungle action-adventure at first: a member of one of the several Indio tribes who inhabit the region is captured by Brazilian soldiers (who are first shown massacring a group of them with machine guns) and found to be wearing Faye Daniels’ cigarette lighter around his neck. The captured native leads Monroe and his cynical guides back along the trail once followed by Alan Yates and his crew, the travellers finding ominous traces of the missing documentarians along the way which cleverly foreshadow the horrors we will observe in their discovered film footage later on. Although it feels like a conventional film at this point, “Cannibal Holocaust” proves tougher and much more sociologically hard-hitting than many of the earlier adventure orientated cannibal films in the genre: Deodato focuses on the abuses the westerners heap on the indigenous tribes-people: in particular, Monroe’s guides ply their captive with cocaine to keep him placid as they trek through rich, steaming jungle and eventually use him in an exchange that allows them access to the reclusive Yanomamo tribe. This is presaged by a notorious sequence, once heavily censored in British cuts but now included in its entirety, in which Monroe and his grizzled companions observe the ritualistic rape and murder of a native adulteress. One of the problematic things about the film is its heavily stylized depiction of the primitive peoples who appear on screen throughout. Although Deodato uses real but un-credited native peoples from the Amazon basin in many of the contentious sequences which pepper the movie, the rites and rituals the film depicts in no way seek to represent the reality of the natives’ lives or their habits, and instead revert to the usual stereotypes that concentrate exclusively on acts of violence -- particularly against women. Even the striking tree ‘nests’, in which the natives are shown crouching and observing the western intruders into their world, are entirely the invention of the film’s production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Of course, Deodato in a manner ‘fesses up’ to his own deception by creating a parallel with the missing documentary filmmakers’ deliberate and systematic faking of native violence in order to satisfy their own rapacious hunger for fame and fortune at home, revealing their own descent into naked atavism in the process. The difficult thing with “Cannibal Holocaust” is that it is always perfectly aware of its own perfidious nature and comments on it as it goes along!
After having literally stumbled upon the rotting skeletal remains of the guide who led the previous expedition (looking like a maggot-riddled extra from a more than usually foetid Lucio Fulci film) Monroe and his team find a peaceful looking native settlement where the people seem agitated, and the tribal elder indicates a great atrocity has recently been committed against them, pointing to a burnt out hut which contains the scorched remains of many people. The team presumes that the Yanomamo’s arch rivals the Shamatari, with whom they are perpetually at war, were responsible for the massacre, and Monroe notes that one tribal girl is wearing a necklace made up of some of the belongings of Yates’ film crew. Monroe joins in with local native practices, observing their brutal ritualistic murder of someone who has evidently transgressed in some way against their law and then finding himself invited to take part in the ensuing gruesome feast on the dead native’s fresh, bloody remains. He also goes romping in the lake with naked nubile native girls in order to insinuate himself with the tribe, before finally being given the horrific answer to the mystery of what happened to Alan Yates and his filmmaking crew: the native girls have built a macabre totem, ‘a painted ogre to drive away evil spirits’ which turns out to have been constructed from the bones of the dead and cannibalised filmmakers, along with their discarded camera equipment and still-unbroken canisters of film!
The film abruptly switches locations and takes us back to New York, and we’re now in the vast conference room of the television channel that co-financed Monroe’s expedition. The TV executives are planning a television documentary on the Monroe trip in which the first airing of the newly discovered Yates footage will play a central role. Monroe is being employed to review all the material and edit it for inclusion in the forthcoming documentary. As a prelude to getting down to the business of sorting through their footage, Monroe also starts shooting his own documentary footage and we see excerpts from his interviews with various family members and colleagues of the doomed Yates expedition, whose vastly differing accounts beautifully set up the mostly rather unpleasant bunch of characters we will see later on in the film.
We also see Monroe re-watching the earlier documentary films Yates has made for the TV channel, and it is at this point revealed that Alan Yates wasn’t averse to faking footage or setting up certain situations for the cameras. This is where Deodato’s main influences and his concern with media exploitation of violence come together and make themselves most apparent. Yates’ documentary, “The Last Road to Hell”, turns out to be a Mondo-style assemblage of atrocity war footage in which Deodato has himself imitated the look of the influential genre, first instigated in the early sixties by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi with “Mondo Cane” (1961), by combining his own staged sequences mixed with real footage of Nigerian firing squad executions.
Monroe starts watching the camera footage recorded by the team in the Amazon; we now cut between these increasingly nihilistic excerpts to Monroe and the execs discussing whether they ought to be screened publicly. Deodato was both fascinated with how beautifully “Mondo Cane” had been shot and edited (the film had been scored by Riz Ortolani which was the main reason Deodato wanted him for “Cannibal Holocaust”) and repulsed by the media’s exploitation of the political violence which was at that time becoming common on the streets of Rome. While Deodato’s films, such as the violent thriller “Live Like a Man, Die Like a Cop”, were being ruthlessly censored, news reports were happily screening the most appalling footage of real-life murders which were being carried out by the Red Brigade and other extreme terrorist groups in the 1970s. As the team’s own footage, recorded by themselves just before setting out into the jungle, is played, the projectionist remembers them as being ‘terrible prima donnas, but they got results,’ and Alan Yates as being ‘one ruthless son-of-a-bitch!’ who demanded everything from his team, including blood. These turn out to be prophetic words indeed as we now witness Alan, Faye and the others hacking their way through the Amazonian wildlife with uncommon glee.
The main point of these sequences would seem to be to illustrate how western ruthlessness and hunger for fame and fortune rapidly degenerates into the most brutal form of atavistic behaviour once cut adrift from civilising norms. ‘Every so often,’ says the projectionist who is screening the material for Dr Monroe’s benefit, ‘I’ve laid in some music to juice things up a bit.’ This is the explanation for why, when the four drag a giant turtle from the river and film themselves meticulously dismembering it (a chilling leg spasm accompanies the head coming off) Ortolani’s most doom-laden music cue is heard accompanying the vile spectacle. But it is exactly the same music cue we earlier heard in the staged sequence of ritualistic rape, mutilation and murder Deadato simulated for the film’s fake indigenousness rites. The difference is, of course, that the actors, who are now taking part in Deodato’s expose, are themselves carrying out real atrocities against the jungle wildlife for the sake of making fake documentary footage look authentic. On one of the documentaries accompanying this release, Carl Gabriel Yorke tells how he had no idea that real animals would be killed on camera when he first signed up for the film, and that so fraught became the atmosphere on set that he genuinely started to fear for his life in wondering just how far the producers would go; actress Francesca Ciardi, breaking silence after years of refusing to even include the film on her CV, uses the word ‘betrayed’ to describe how the actors were treated during the course of the shoot.
Deodato clearly commits many of the ‘crimes’ his film is meant to be denigrating, but that is exactly the point of the exercise and it is in no way accidental. As the shaky, 16 mm film footage unfolds (the HD transfer can’t really find any extra definition in this deliberately degraded material, but the contrast between film textures when we switch back and forth between perspectives is all the more effective), Yates becomes increasingly deranged and the footage more and more prurient. The cameraman spends just as much time focusing on Faye vomiting while the team is hacking apart that unfortunate turtle as he does on zooming in for prying close-ups of its innards being spilled, and the voyeurism to which Faye (and also the actress playing her, it seems) is subjected becomes a constant accompaniment to scenes of animal evisceration and the murder or mutilation of indigenous natives; she’s surreptitiously filmed while defecating for a joke at one stage, and when she and Alan make love in front of bewildered natives to ‘show them how we do it’, Jack the cameraman is on hand to secretly film them at it.
Deodato cleverly and ruthlessly puts the real animal killings perpetrated by the actors in close proximity to his staged images of cannibalism, ritual punishment, and foetal abortion, to better lend them all the same air of snuff-like authenticity. The fictional filmmakers turn out to be the ones who massacred the natives in the hut, whose remains we saw earlier during Dr Monroe’s expedition, all for the sake of their ‘award winning’ film; and they even go so far as to gang rape a native girl -- also on film. Deodato’s cynical humour manages to find its way into the most enduring and most misogynistic image of the movie -- the discovery of a young native girl impaled on a stake from anus to mouth. The group’s own footage accidently captures Alan Yates’ complete glee and delight at the discovery, and his cameraman has to warn him ‘watch it Alan, I’m still filming,’ whereupon in an instant Yates recovers and switches, affecting a distraught frown and bemoaning the awfulness of the spectacle instead. The group’s lust for power leads them to a gruesome fate that is both apposite and horrific: torn apart one by one on camera (Faye, of course, is first violently gang-raped and then decapitated in the middle of it!) in revenge for their own many atrocities against the indigenous population. Yates’ can be heard still comically claiming to the very end that they’re ‘gonna get an Oscar for this!’ over the hideous melee, as the vengeful natives finally turn on him and his own head flops in front of the upturned, still-running camera.
Deodato’s deliberate mixing up and blurring of the real and the unreal (even a caption above the closing credits seems to suggest the found footage is ‘real’ by claiming that the projectionist was fined for saving a copy and releasing it on the black market) was just a little too successful, leading to a prosecution and a four-month suspended jail sentence or obscenity and violence’ in his native Italy. The calculatedly shaky footage (surely a professional film crew would have employed a steadier hand?) set a style which would be aped years later by “The Blair Witch Project” and which is now familiar from a million found footage-style horror thrillers; but none of them are quite as effective, problematic or chilling as Deodato’s uncompromising masterpiece of self-abrogating satire with its brutal edge of neorealism-cum-exploitation rawness.
This Blu-ray edition from Shameless Screen Entertainment features the two versions of the film with an excellent 1080p HD transfer that is little short of a revelation, and the 2.0 stereo is as robust as one could wish for as well. Over eighty minutes of extra features are provided in the form of interview sessions with star Carl G. Yorke and director Ruggero Deodato, which appear under the title “Film and be Damned”, and which cover the casting and the shooting of the film as well as the director’s troubles with distribution and the hostile media reaction (including the court case) which came after it. It’s an engrossing and thorough account of what led the director to make the film in the first place and covers his recent re-assessment of the place of animal cruelty in the picture. The second documentary is a great piece, especially commissioned by the team at Cine Excess. You may remember their extras for the UK Blu-ray debut of “Suspiria”, and with the help of contributors Kim Newman, Professor Julian Petley and Professor Mary Wood “The Long Road Back From Hell” seeks to take a similarly academic approach to its analysis of this film. Particularly thought provoking is Woods’ contextualisation of the place of images of extreme misogyny in the work during an era in Italy when women were starting to become more dominant in the workplace for the first time. There are also contributions from Deodato and Yorke again, and the very welcome participation of actress Francesca Ciardi, who seems to have reconciled herself to her role in this controversial cult classic after years of ignoring it completely, which is not to say she finds the film any more palatable.
The disc also includes a grainy looking theatrical trailer, a Shameless Trailer Park reel and an easily found easter egg accessible from the main menu, which reveals a glaring continuity error that has gone unnoticed for thirty years until Deodato pointed it out when assembling the new 2011 edit.
Shameless have done themselves and this dubious grindhouse treasure proud with this exemplary release. I have no trouble in recommending it to the discerning connoisseur of the cinema of the extreme!