Cannibal Holocaust (US - BD)
Gabe revisits the mother of all found footage horror movies on Blu-ray...
The cannibal movies released throughout 1970s and early ’80s sit high on the list of the most tasteless, mean-spirited, and controversial feature films to have ever oozed from Italy’s exploitation underbelly. The stylistic camp and surrealism that made other horror and exploitation traditions (zombie movies, gialli, and nunsploitation) from the era more popular are banished and replaced by rampant racism, graphic sexual violence, and, most disturbing of all, staged animal slaughter. The genre began in reference to Hollywood adventure movies, most specifically Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse, where an English aristocrat (Richard Harris) is captured and eventually ‘adopted’ by Sioux Indians. The first couple films that are saddled with the label, Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River (aka: Deep River Savages and Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio, 1972) and Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World (aka: Jungle Holocaust, Cannibal, and Ultimo Mondo Cannibale, 1977) follow the plot of Silverstein’s film pretty closely and, despite their grindhouse trappings, also have plenty in common with the likes of Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning epic Dances with Wolves (1990)*. Those were respectably xenophobic exploitation films.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – the early cannibal movies were more popular for their grueling violence than their swashbuckling, so, like the pseudo-documentary Mondo travelogues they followed (perhaps the only more tasteless and controversial Italian exploitation genre), filmmakers took it upon themselves to one-up each other with harrowing gore and callous sexual content. At their best (another relative term), they were only notable for their increasingly revolting atrocities. Lenzi’s final word on the subject, Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981), is reasonably entertaining, because it pushes grievous bodily harm to silly levels and it is awash with thematic tropes stolen from the director’s more enjoyable poliziotteschi (or Eurocrime) movies. Aristide Massaccesi’s (aka: Joe D’Amato) erotic gut-munching epic, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (aka: Trap Them and Kill Them, 1977) and Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals (1978) are tolerable, because the downplayed cruelty is merely window dressing for harmless softcore pornography. At their worst, these films were a series of grimy, boring smears that were so cheap and interchangeable that some of them literally stole and spliced scenes from one another (the most extreme case was Cannibal Terror, a movie with so much appropriated footage from other films that no fewer than four directors are credited – Alain Deruelle, Olivier Mathot, Julio Pérez Tabernero, and Jess Franco).
Deodato’s ultimate cannibal opus, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), is the most famous film in the series and the one that even exploitation detractors might feel compelled to experience. It’s every bit as brutal, ruthless, racist, and generally abhorrent as its predecessors – perhaps more so – but it transcends its genre’s limitations with creative conviction. It’s also a hopelessly ambitious film that is cursed/blessed with contradiction and hypocrisy – a brilliant work of nihilistic art and a revolting pile of obscenity all rolled into one. Unlike Lenzi, who willingly and readily made three cannibal films and, for some time, claimed ownership of the genre as its originator (he has subsequently both disowned and accepted them on several occasions, depending on what media outlet he is talking to), Deodato reportedly didn’t have much interest in revisiting the genre, despite offers from international outlets. He only returned after finding inspiration in an unexpected source – the local Italian news.
According to legend, Deodato was disturbed by the violence his young son saw during television coverage of the Brigate Rosse terrorist attacks. Disgusted by the vulgarity of the broadcasts and the lack of journalistic integrity, he decided to make a statement against the tabloid mentality. Apparently, German and Japanese investors were bugging him to make a Last Cannibal World follow-up, so he just put two and two together and conceived a plot that would pit an unethical, New York-based documentary film crew against indigenous natives in the Amazon – natives that only attack after extensive and sadistic prodding. The depraved filmmakers record their atrocities, intending to string together a more sensationalized account of their ‘research.’ Because they are (deservingly) killed before editing the content, their evil is exposed to the television executives that intended on airing their footage. Armed with his concept, Deodato smashes the analogy into submission with all the ham-fisted hyperbole inherent in a movie about people that eat other people**.
The faux-documentary angle garners comparisons to the Mondo movies and their unethical, often artificially designed scenes of carnage. The point is really hammered home when Deodato shows us footage from the crew’s previous documentary, The Last Road to Hell -– a fictional film within a fictional film that includes images from authentic firing squad murders. Indeed, most critics have drawn the parallels between the Mondo and cannibal traditions. As far as I know, Deodato has never gone on record citing the Mondo films as anything more than a stylistic inspiration and has even claimed to be a fan of the work of Mondo genre godfathers Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi. But the Last Road to Hell sequence and its real executions still appear to be a direct reference to Jacopetti & Prosperi’s most notorious shockumentary, Africa Addio (aka: Africa Blood and Guts, 1966). Africa Addio included footage from the aftermaths of the 1964 Zanzibar revolution and Kenya’s 1965 Mau Mau Uprising, but, more important to the comparison, also featured a scene where Congolese Simba rebels are executed by firing squad. The directors were accused of staging the execution and Jacopetti was even arrested on murder charges. These charges were eventually dismissed, but David Kerekes and David Slater’s book, Killing for Culture, includes claims from reporter Carlo Gregoretti that the directors had, at the very least, talked the Congolese officials into postponing the execution until ‘the light was right.’
Cannibal Holocaust’s dueling indictments and embodiment of sensationalism are the defining symptom of the film’s contradictory nature and are a consistent bone of contention for the film’s detractors. It’s entirely possible, even probable, that defenders have focused too much on Deodato’s intellectual ramblings and self-righteous subtexts. If this is true (and I don’t believe it is), then Cannibal Holocaust is still worthy of attention for being so well-made. It is most recognized outside of exploitation devotee circles for its influence on Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez’s groundbreaking, multi-million dollar hit, The Blair Witch Project, which itself became a delayed watershed for the glut of ‘found footage’ horror flicks we find ourselves drowning in lately. Both films feature documentary crews wandering into alien environments and being done in by threats they fail to appreciate before it’s too late and both stories are (largely) told via their ‘discovered’ documentary footage. The found footage and mockumentary genres are often misattributed to originating with Deodato’s film, but the concept, which was first introduced in literature, was used by Orson Welles when he made his War of the Worlds broadcast and in a number of pre- Cannibal Holocaust features, including Christopher Miles’ Alternative 3 (made-for-TV, 1977), Albert Brooks’ Real Life (1979), and Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek. Massaccesi also exploited rumours of the FBI breaking up a ring of black market snuff movie distribution when he made Emanuelle in America (1977). The 8mm death reel his erotic heroine discovers and views is really the only worthwhile moment in the movie. Unless you’re into women masturbating horses, in which case it comes highly recommended.
So, the faked documentary angle was nothing new, but what Deodato did with the format was technically unprecedented. I would say that Deodato’s inherent skill as a filmmaker gave Cannibal Holocaust major advantages over its brethren, but the fact of the matter is that his contemporaries, specifically Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Antonio Margheriti, are also very talented directors, given the correct content. The advantage are instead found in the fact that Deodato seems invested in making his statement and is clearly enamored with the technical aspects of the found footage gimmick. In contrast, Lenzi, Martino, and Margheriti were simply churning out product (for comparison, Deodato directed ‘only’ 33 movies throughout his career, while Margheriti made 57, Lenzi made 65, and Martino made 67). Deodato had worked under a number of Italy’s finest filmmakers, including Margheriti, Giorgio Ferroni, and Sergio Corbucci (he was second unit director on many of Corbucci’s best spaghetti westerns), but it was his work with neorealist Roberto Rossellini that informed his cinéma vérité work on Cannibal Holocaust. The handheld camera work (by camera operator Roberto Forges Davanzati and the actors themselves) and jagged editing create a credibly immersive sensory experience that has been mimicked ad nauseum by modern filmmakers, many of which probably have no idea who they’re ripping off. Deodato only dampens the impact by cutting back to the television producers between reels, reminding us that it’s only a movie (…only a movie…only a movie).
Those without the stomach to take on the task of watching Cannibal Holocaust likely don’t know that the first half of the film is a standard-issue cannibal movie. Gianfranco Clerici’s script (which was most definitely written in conjunction with Deodato) opens with a group of white folks venturing into a rainforest (in this case, one located in the Amazon) in search of a different group of white folks that went missing and are presumed eaten by brown folks they wanted to study/exploit/plunder. This is, more or less, also the plot of Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God (aka: Slave of the Cannibal and Prisoner of the Cannibal God, 1978), Massaccesi’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, and Lenzi’s Eaten Alive! ( Mangiati Vivi!, 1980) and Cannibal Ferox. This first act feels like a wash once the film within a film starts playing and the audience is fully immersed in the throes of Deodato’s cinéma vérité terror, but subsequent viewings prove the value of the conventional extended prologue. The more tepid scares, likeable characters, and Riz Ortolani’s surprisingly beautiful score put an expectant crowd at ease and are starkly replaced by relentless terror, evil characters, and more mechanical music. There are plenty of atrocities peppered throughout the more ‘successful’ jungle journey, but only the stone dildo rape is particularly shocking, while the other gags par for the course and are kind of silly. I don’t believe Deodato is making some kind of grand statement on the inanity of the genre, but he is definitely using the conventions as a means to contrast the ‘safe’ horrors of an exploitation movie with the ‘real’ horrors of a bleak and convincingly made mockumentary.
Of course, we can’t talk about any Italian cannibal movie without discussing the elephant in the room – or rather – the sea turtle in the river. The inclusion of real animal slaughter in a feature film is salacious, even if it’s merely images of butchery for food (i.e. slaughter that serves a purpose outside of the film), but to murder animals for the expressed sake of a film, not for food or euthanasia, is immoral. There are exceptions where respectable films have killed animals for the sake of art ( Apocalypse Now, El Topo, and Oldboy sping to mind), but it’s usually a cheap stunt (literally, since slaughtering a defenseless critter costs less than making an expensive prosthetic gore effect), as in the case of most Mondo and Italian cannibal movies. When confronted with the practice, both Lenzi and Deodato claimed that the natives ate what they killed after the cameras stopped rolling***. These claims are often contradicted by interviews with various actors. However, despite acknowledging that Deodato has no excuse for filming the murders of unfortunate wildlife, I would also argue that Cannibal Holocaust is the only genre film to use animal slaughter to its advantage. The unsimulated animal deaths blur the lines between fantasy and reality, making the human-on-human atrocities all the more convincing. Note also that the animal deaths that occur before the mockumentary footage begins to roll are wasted – unless you’re cynical enough to count them as part of the first act’s semi-satire of the genre.
Most Italian-made cannibal movies are also hypocritical in terms of their racial content. Like the Mondo movies, they waste energy waxing philosophical about the brutal nature of the civilized white people outweighing that of their savage counterparts, while otherwise presenting the natives as degenerate, sub-human animals. It is especially distressing in cases where real native peoples are exploited for a film’s cruel purposes. Deodato’s track record is better than most in this regard. In the Last Cannibal World, the white protagonist befriends the natives that have captured him and, in the case of Cannibal Holocaust, the natives are generally friendly and riled into defensive and vengeful attacks by the white villains (a device reused by Lenzi in Cannibal Ferox). He also divides the natives into peaceful and violent tribes, giving humanity to one and treating the other as a force of nature (in an interview for Julian Grainger’s Cannibal Holocaust: The Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato, he claims that the concept was based on real tribal divisions the filmmakers witness in Amazonia). He’s still unethically exploiting human beings, which may make him and his ‘I wonder who the real cannibals are?’ rationalization even more sanctimonious and empty in the end. I honestly can’t decide.
* Interesting side note: Burmese/English actress Me Me Lai appears in both The Man From Deep River and Last Cannibal World as basically the same character and then reappeared in Lenzi’s Eaten Alive!, where her Deodato-directed death scene from Last Cannibal World was reused.
** During the 2011 interview that graces the second disc of this Blu-ray set, Deodato doesn’t downplay his achievements (as he sees them), but does seem to set the record straight in saying that it was the money, not the social commentary, that was the deciding factor in putting Cannibal Holocaust into production.
*** In an interview for Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta’s book, Spaghetti Nightmares, Deodato blames his legal troubles on ‘fascist’ (his words) laws against animal cruelty and said of animal rights objectors, ‘I think these people are very inflexible; they make such a fuss about films when so many animals are killed to make food for us all.’ Later, in an interview for Jake West’s Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, he says that he was hesitant to make another cannibal movie in part because he loves animals too much – implying that it was impossible to make such a film without killing animals. The most entertaining cannibal film to ever come out of Italy, Antonio Margheriti’s First Blood-inspired Cannibal Apocalypse (aka: Apocalypse Domani and Invasion of the Flesh Hunters, 1980), features only human-on-human violence. The 2011 interview also includes further anecdotes of the animals being fed to the natives after they were killed. However, camera operator Roberto Forges Davanzati claims in a new interview included with this very collection that only the monkeys were killed and eaten by the natives, while the other animals were brought in for the sake of on-screen slaughter. The plot thickens…
Unlike Cannibal Ferox, which enjoyed a big box release via Thriller Video, Cannibal Holocaust never had a legitimate VHS release in the US. In the UK, it was originally released by Go Video, but quickly snapped up by BBFC censors as one of the poster boys for the Video Nasties debacle. Both issues expanded the film’s cult reputation and increased demand for shoddy bootleg copies of a Dutch VHS and a Japanese Laserdisc, which were traded via the back pages of horror fanzines. I personally first saw the film for the first time on one of these bootlegs and was treated to a stretched-out (to 1.33:1 from 1.85:1), third or fourth generation dupe with forced Japanese subtitles. I initially feared that the clarity of a digital release would lessen the impact of such a seedy, illegal, and therefore naughty viewing experience, but encountered an even more disturbing film when I watched Grindhouse Releasing’s anamorphic DVD. Cannibal Holocaust’s grit cannot be undone by an increase in detail and purity, which is why I, like many fans, welcomed the release of Grindhouse’s high definition digital restoration.
The upgrade from SD to 1080p (1.85:1) is not exactly breathtaking in most cases, because the footage itself is so inherently raw. The movie proper was shot in 35mm and presented in Eastmancolor, while the film within the film was shot using 16mm cameras. The 35mm footage is consistent in terms of clarity, while the 16mm footage is purposefully spotty, partially to maintain the in-film plot point of the documentary crew using two separate cameras (previously, it was difficult to differentiate the two cameras, because they are both colour, unlike The Blair Witch Project, where one rig is black & white). This new transfer was clearly scanned at a higher resolution than the previous one (the specs don’t list if it was 2K or 4K), but Grindhouse hasn’t aggressively pushed the sharpness levels. Some of the images were meant to look a bit foggy – and do – yet there’s still a significant uptake in clarity, creating a softer look that reminds me of Fox/MGM restoration of Rocky, which is similarly diffused (see the sixth Blu-ray image, where the chief is handing the protagonists a handful of guts). The lack of over-sharpening also keeps the specter of edge haloes at bay. This is another upgrade over the DVD’s occasionally haloed 35mm imagery. Happily, Grindhouse didn’t see the 16mm footage’s imperfections as a problem and has left the bulk of the artefacts intact. The lack of DNR also helps maintain grain levels, which are notably different between the 35 and 16mm reels.
Looking at my screencaps as they appear on the page, you might not notice the difference, so I strongly advise that readers click on the images and zoom to full size to see the DVD’s compression artefacts and mushy details (especially in backgrounds). What is more clear on the page than the detail upgrade is that the DVD was a generally darker, yet the Blu-ray features stronger, more natural blacks. The new transfer’s brightness tweak is slight and, to my eyes, looks more natural and certainly helps the richness of the overall colour quality. The 35mm scenes appear a twinge cooler, leading to lusher greens and more vivid blues. Skin tones and blood are a bit redder as well, but nothing is oversaturated, which would’ve been out of place with the material. Some of the 16mm footage is considerably more vibrant and warm, which helps further differentiates between the two cast cameras (notice the colour and detail change between the Blu-ray and DVD in the ninth screencap comparison down).
Grindhouse has fitted Cannibal Holocaust with two audio options – the original mono, presented in 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, and a newly remix stereo version, presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The differences between the tracks in terms of dialogue and effects are negligible for the most part. The new track features an effective ghost center channel for the performances while using the right and left channels to spread environmental ambience (street sounds, chirping Amazonian critters, et cetera) and a few key folley and vocal effects (surprisingly, most of the louder effects, like gunshots, are still centered). None of the resituated effects sound as if they’ve been added from catalogue effect banks and tend to match their mono counterparts. Neither track is perfect, of course – like most Italian genre movies of the era, Cannibal Holocaust was shot without sound, so every word spoken was added in the studio and the material probably wasn’t in the best condition when Grindhouse started their restoration processes – but it’s interesting to note that the distortion effects don’t entirely match between the two tracks. The stereo track is a bit cleaner (less vocal hiss, too), probably because it has more room to stretch the sound, but features some high-end distortion not heard on the mono track.
The new track’s real value is in the way it expands Riz Ortolani’s wonderfully mournful, at times genuinely moving musical score. However, I’m also guessing that the restructured music will be controversial among some of the hardcore fans, because the volume levels have also been adjusted. In the case of the major melodies (especially those shocking moments where the score overwhelms the track) sound quality is similar, just rounder and crisper, but some of the rhythmic cues sound completely different – to the point that drums seem to have been added in spots they were previously absent. Perhaps there’s a good explanation for these occasional changes (for all I know, this is the first time we’re hearing the film as it was originally presented), but it doesn’t really matter, since the original mono has been so well preserved and uncompressed to boot.
Disc one begins with an option to watch the uncut film or to watch a branching ‘animal cruelty-free’ version that skips all the most objectionable content (not surprisingly, the deletions don’t effect the narrative structure in the least). This was also available on the Deluxe DVD. The more concrete disc one extras include:
- Audio commentary with Deodato and actor Robert Kerman – This rather low-energy track (which is limited by Deodato’s discomfort with English) was also featured on Grindhouse’s Deluxe Edition DVD. That disc had a branching, picture-in-picture option that included some footage of the commentators that is not included here. I don’t miss the footage myself, but suppose completists should probably hang on to their DVDs for this reason.
- Audio commentary with actors Carl (Gabriel) Yorke and Francesca Ciardi (moderated by genre writer/documentary producer Calum Waddell and some gentleman whose name I couldn’t understand, nor could I find listed anywhere) – This new commentary is more full-bodied and includes plenty of as yet untold stories from the set (plenty that aren’t mentioned in the following interviews) without delving as deeply into the production process as the older track. Yorke had supplied a solid interview for the previous release (included below), but Ciardi’s impressions of the film are even-headed and quite valuable. They have been missing from the film’s informational lexicon for some time.
- Alternate Scene: The Last Road to Hell (1:50, SD) – This is a longer version of the faux documentary directed by the film’s characters. It includes two additional shots were no longer available as original negative elements. This SD version is the best available.
- Five trailers
- A Necrophagia music video (Easter egg)
- Salvatore Basile interview outtake (Easter egg)
Disc two features interviews, Q&As, and roundtable discussions with cast and crew members, including:
- Ruggero Deodato: Cleveland, April 1, 2011 (58:10, HD) – The director discusses his ‘Jungle Trilogy’ of Last Cannibal World, Cannibal Holocaust, and the non-cannibal-themed Cut and Run (aka: Inferno in Diretta, 1985).
- Robert Kerman: New York, November 13, 2000 (35:40, SD) – An incredibly laid-back face-to-face that appeared on the previous DVD release.
- Carl (Gabriel) Yorke: Palo Alto, May 16, 2005 (56:20, SD) – A more conventional discussion with the actor that also appeared on the DVD.
- Francesca Ciardi: London, April 29, 2010 (38:20, HD) – A brand-new chat with the actress who, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have the fondest memories of the film (she ‘outs’ most of the key ‘natives’ as average, modern-world folks).
- Salvatore Basile: Cartagena, Columbia, January 8, 2014 (30:30, HD) – Another new interview. This one is conducted with the actor in his home as he wears a matching shirt/short combo covered in banana designs.
- Riz Ortolani: Rome, April 15, 2003 (5:00, SD) – Another ‘classic’ interview on the set, featuring the late composer briefly discussing his score.
- Roberto Forges Davanzati: Rome April 28, 2010 (12:30, HD) – A third new interview with the film’s camera operator, conducted inside Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso store. He claims it was a surprisingly normal set and complains about the vegetarian patty burgers he was fed.
- Ruggero Deodato Cinema Wasteland Panel (28:20, HD) – Footage from the Chicago (edit: Cleveland)-based horror convention in 2011. One of the moderators tries to stir the pot concerning the animal violence and the panel gangs up on Ciardi for taking a stand against it. She looks miserable the rest of the panel, while Michael Berryman and David Hess look on, uncomfortably.
- Francesca Ciardi Q&A: Glasgow, October 13, 2010 (11:10, HD) -– The actress fields further questions from a UK audience.
- Yorke and Deodato Reunion: Los Angeles, April 18, 2009 (10:30, HD) – Roughly recorded footage from a convention floor where the actor surprised Deodato.
- Lerman and Deodato Reunion: Tarrytown, November 11, 2000 (8:50, HD) – This panel discussion was originally offered as an Easter egg on the DVD collection.
Disc two also features:
- Production stills
- Behind-the-scenes stills
- Multi-country promotional stills
- Video box cover art examples
- Stills from re-release promos, books, and fanzines
- Trailers for other Grindhouse Releasing movies
This release also includes a third disc – a CD version of Riz Ortolani’s complete Cannibal Holocaust soundtrack. The only thing not included here (besides an Easter egg or two) is the In the Jungle: The Making-Of Cannibal Holocaust documentary. I assume there was a rights issue and suppose this is another reason for fans to hang on to that old DVD.
To paraphrase a completely unrelated cult classic – you can say what you will about the tenets of Cannibal Holocaust, at least it has an ethos. I can’t say I enjoy watching this movie (I even find certain aspects of it reprehensible), but I can’t deny its value, nor can I deny the fact that it is one of the only movies that still scares me. I believe Grindhouse Releasing has created the definitive home video version of the film in this new Blu-ray, including a respectfully remastered picture and two soundtrack options – a remixed stereo track and the original mono, both in DTS-HD MA. My only complaint is that the previous DVD’s behind-the-scenes documentary has been replaced by new interviews.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray Deluxe Edition DVD and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Apologies for the skull logo on the sixth DVD cap – I couldn't figure out how to get the screencap without the pop-up.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 1st July 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo English and Original 1.0 Mono
Extras: Director and Actor Commentary, Actor Commentary, Alternate Scene: The Last Road to Hell, Trailers, Ruggero Deodato Interview, Robert Kerman Interview, Carl (Gabriel) Yorke Interview, Francesca Ciardi Interview, Salvatore Basile Interview, Riz Ortolani Interview, Roberto Forges Davanzati Interview, Ruggero Deodato Cinema Wasteland Panel, Francesca Ciardi Q&A, Yorke and Deodato Reunion, Lerman and Deodato Reunion, Production/Behind-the-Scenes/Box Art/Mondo Cannibal Still Galleries, More Trailers, CD Soundtrack
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Cast: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi
Genre: Adventure and Horror
Length: 92 minutes
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