Italian horror is without a doubt, one of my favorite, if not, my favorite subgenre within the realm of horror’s history. It was ingenuity and extremism that drove the country’s film movement for a seemingly short period of time. Nonetheless, the imprint was so strong that the legacy has endured for nearly 4 decades (yeah, it’s been that long). But of all the vile subjects our Italian friends sunk their teeth into (no pun intended), none was so powerful as the mighty cannibal film and more to the point, no film was quite as notorious/exemplary of this subgenre as Cannibal Holocaust. Whether it’s making a “most controversial films of all time” list in a shit magazine like Entertainment Weekly, or it’s being adored by it’s rabid fanbase throughout the world, Cannibal Holocaust set out to go all the way…and did. It exceeds the expectation of the first time watcher’s and still pushes the threshold by which horror films can be measured.
Cannibal Holocaust has this amazing ability to be it’s own urban legend come to life. It’s name and plot would be tossed around by horror journalists like Chas. Balun the same way your uncle told you about seeing Black Sabbath during the Masters of Reality tour. If you had a conversation with someone about fucked up movies, it was a matter of time before the phrase “Dude, have you ever seen Cannibal Holocaust?” was uttered by one of the participants in the conversation. If there ever was a movie that was too graphic and too exploitative for typical midnight movie fodder, this would be it. It’s bold, mean-spirited, socially aware yet contradicting, filthy, unnerving, oddly sexual, and entertaining for all the wrong reasons. When I say a film isn’t for everyone, it usually applies to films like this but, Cannibal Holocaust is a rare instance where a movie that isn’t for everyone should be seen by the masses. If for no other reason, it’s a great example of what the Italians were channeling into during this era.
My first encounters with the film were as described earlier: Reading of it, seeing stills in magazines, but unfortunately, I was hit with a road block in seeing the film. When I was younger, the video store where I got my smut education had the box, but the film was “stolen”. So, it wasn’t until I was much older that I got my hands on a copy of it. I’d seen Cannibal Ferox, Slave of the Cannibal God, the Mondo Cane films, and a few others. Still, I knew that a totally different experience was out there waiting to shock me-and it did. Finally getting my hands on it was like seeing porn for the first time. It felt the same I felt the first time I heard Slayer or N.W.A. It felt like the first non-masturbatory sexual experience. Seeing this film was a dirty, pulse-pounding event. This wasn’t something you did in the presence of responsible adults. NO! You watched this film behind their back then snickered because you got away with murder. Equate it to the first time you fucked your high school girlfriend or boyfriend at your parents house while they were there.
What makes this film so damn despicable? Depends on who you’re asking. For horror fans, the film’s strength lies in it’s fearless presentation. To the ones who didn’t know what they’d gotten into, that fearless presentation is nothing more than disgusting exploitation. Whatever you call it, a film of this nature becomes a dividing line amongst it’s audience. On one hand, you have the people who love the excessive nature in which the story is presented. On the other hand, you have the folks who abore the very idea of what the film put out into the world. It’s understandable. Actual animals were killed on camera, the violence is cringe-inducing, primitive abortions, adultery punishment involving sharpened rocks and genitals-it’s honestly not a surprise that people are so often polarized by this film. But for all the griminess, I still see a very intelligent, edgy horror film with balls to spare.
For me, Cannibal Holocaust works both sides of my brain. The horror side of my brain adores the 1000 mph crassness of it all. The gore scenes are supremely realistic and carry through the ages. There’s enough naked people running around to tide you over forever. Riz Ortolani’s score is beautiful and creepy all in one fell swoop. You’re undoubtedly going to leave a viewing of this film and immediately need a shower. The snobbish film fan side of my brain appreciates the boundaries it crossed. Despite what its detractors may want you to believe, there’s a certain level of brilliance to such bravery in films. We will never see another film of this magnitude made ever again. The social ramifications to putting something like this out to the public is a risk most filmmakers aren’t willing to take. Ruggero Deodato was not one of those types of filmmakers. He was like an insane dictator who’d stop at nothing until he made his point, visually. Ironically, when he discusses the film nowadays, he down plays it’s relevance and almost mocks the reaction to it. Truer sentiments have never been spoken by lesser maniacs. It’s impact can be felt these 30+ years later, as we see our once-a-decade “grassroots” horror films that make their mark by being reality-based: They’re something we weren’t “supposed to see” i.e., Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity. These films are lesser, more forgettable versions of the almighty Cannibal Holocaust. So, all you post-modern so and so’s who think you’re waxing philosophical when you discuss flicks like this need know only one thing: Were it not for this group of mercenaries filming out in the jungle all those years back, you wouldn’t have your precious witches and sheet-stealing ghosts.
I’ve made a long, laborious journey in my obsession with this film. I’ve viewed it so many times, I know when the beats are going to happen by heart. The soundtrack is one that permanently stays on my iPod to creep out my passengers with. If you’re my friend who claims you “like” horror movies, well, then I insist you watch this one. Then, you decide you don’t like “that” type of horror-yep, I’ve been there. It’s one of the few films I’ve owned in more than one format and will update each release that surfaces with it, even if it gets that Anchor Bay-styled, wallet raping, multiple releases. My wife and I got the opportunity to spend a nice amount of time with Gabriel Yorke, one of the film’s stars. He was one of the few people I was actually star struck in meeting ( if you must know the others were Marilyn Chambers, Glenn Danzig, and Rudy Ray Moore.) and he lived up to every one of my geek fantasies. He was proof that the folks that made the film love the enduring legacy it has preserved. I’ll be one of those geeks who will watch it with you and point out certain tricks that the filmmakers used to make things more life-like. I’ll also be the pervert who can tell you that Robert Kerman, one of the film’s stars, was better known as R. Bola; 70’s Porn Legend. So, yes, I’ve seen him in action (so to speak). Cannibal Holocaust can be considered one of the films at the heart of Italian Horror’s imprint on cinema’s varied history. For all the fanfare and hype movies so often get that involve extreme material, it fully lives up to the reputation. From horror’s elite down to it’s newest of fans, there are polarizing opinions but one thing remains true: Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most notorious film’s ever made…long may it live.
Tags: Blair Witch Project, Cannibal Ferox, Cannibal Holocaust, exploitation, Gabriel Yorke, Horror, Italian Horror, Italian Horror Week, Mondo Cane, Paranormal Activity, Riz Ortolani, Robert Kerman, Ruggero Deodato, Slave of the Cannibal God