Cannibal Holocaust Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
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 movie machine. The stylishness, camp, and surrealism that made the region’s other horror and exploitation traditions (zombie movies, gialli, and nunsploitation) tolerable – even lovable – was replaced with raw filmmaking, rampant racism, graphic sexual violence, and, most disturbing of all, actual on-screen animal slaughter. The genre began auspiciously enough in reference to Hollywood revisionist adventure movies/westerns, most obviously Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1970, based on a 1950 story by Dorothy M. Johnson), in which an English aristocrat (Richard Harris) is captured and eventually adopted by Sioux Indians. The first couple films in the cycle, Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River (Italian: Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio; aka: Deep River Savages, 1972) and Ruggero Deodato’s Last Cannibal World (Italian: Ultimo Mondo Cannibale; aka: Jungle Holocaust and Cannibal, 1977) follow the plot of Silverstein’s film pretty closely and, despite their grindhouse trappings, also have plenty in common with later revisionist adventures, such as Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning epic Dances with Wolves (1990)*. You know, respectably xenophobic white savior movies.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – the early cannibal movies were more popular for their grueling violence than their swashbuckling antics, 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 (a relative term), they were notable and are remembered for their increasingly revolting on-screen atrocities. Lenzi’s final word on the subject, Cannibal Ferox (aka: Make Them Die Slowly, 1981), pushed grievous bodily harm into the realms of parody. Aristide Massaccesi’s (aka: Joe D’Amato) erotic gut-munching variants, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (Italian: Emanuelle e gli Ultimi Cannibali; aka: Trap Them and Kill Them, 1977) and Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals (Italian: Papaya dei Caraibi, 1978) tend to be tolerable, because the downplayed cruelty is merely window dressing for harmless softcore pornography. At their worst, these movies were 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).
Cannibal Ferox was released at the end of the cycle and considered the final word, but Deodato’s final cannibal opus, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), is the most famous Italian cannibal movie and the one that even exploitation detractors might feel compelled to experience themselves. It’s every bit as brutal, ruthless, racist, and generally abhorrent as its predecessors, perhaps more so, but it transcends its genre’s limitations due to Deodato’s creative conviction. It’s 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), by most reports, Deodato didn’t have much interest in the genre and only returned after finding inspiration in an unexpected source – the local 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 what he saw as a lack of journalistic integrity, he decided to make a statement about tabloid journalism. German and Japanese investors had been bugging him to make a Last Cannibal World follow-up for some time, 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 who would only attack the crew after extensive and sadistic prodding. The depraved documentarians record their atrocities, intending to string together a more sensationalized account of their so-called research. Because they are (deservingly) killed before editing the footage, their evil is only exposed when the television executives that hired them screen their rushes. Armed with concept and intent, Deodato smashed his 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. 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, as well as a scene where Congolese Simba rebels are executed by firing squad. Jacopetti & Prosperi were accused of staging the execution and Jacopetti was even arrested on murder charges. The charges were eventually dismissed, but, in David Kerekes and David Slater’s book, Killing for Culture (Creation Books, 1996; longer version Headpress, 2016), reporter Carlo Gregoretti claims that the directors had, at the very least, talked the Congolese officials into postponing the execution until “the light was right.”
Cannibal Holocaust’s mixed indictment and embodiment of sensationalism are symptomatic of its contradictory nature and a bone of contention for the film’s detractors. Its defenders tend to focus too squarely on Deodato’s intellectual ramblings and self-righteous subtexts in hopes of dissuading such discussion. Acknowledging this, 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 a glut of found footage horror flicks one decade later. Both films feature documentary crews wandering into alien environments and being done in by threats they fail to appreciate before. Both stories are (largely) told via their discovered documentary footage. The found footage and mockumentary horror subgenres are often misattributed to originating with Deodato’s film, but the concept, which was first introduced in horror literature, was used by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast and appeared in a number of pre-Cannibal Holocaust features, including Christopher Miles’ Alternative 3 (made-for-TV, 1977), Albert Brooks’ non-horror comedy Real Life (1979), and Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972). D’Amato/Massaccesi also exploited rumours of the FBI breaking up a ring of black market snuff movie distribution when he made Emanuelle in America (1977). In that film, the title erotic heroine discovers a particularly brutal 8mm torture reel.
The faked documentary angle wasn’t new, but what Deodato did with the format was mostly unprecedented. The advantage wasn’t so much found in his skill as a filmmaker (though he is a skilled filmmaker), but his investment in making a statement and interest in the technical aspects of the found footage gimmick. In contrast, Lenzi, Martino, and Margheriti were simply churning out content for the content machine (for comparison, Deodato directed 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 combine for a credibly immersive sensory experience that went on to be mimicked ad nauseam by modern filmmakers, many of whom probably don’t even know who they’re ripping off. The impact is only dampened by Deodato’s habit of cutting back to the television producers between reels, reminding the audience that it’s only a movie.
Those without the stomach to actually watch Cannibal Holocaust possibly don’t know that the first half of the film is standard-issue cannibal hijinks. Gianfranco Clerici’s script (which was most definitely written in conjunction with Deodato) begins with a group of white Americans (most played by Italians) venturing into a rainforest (in this case, the big one located in the Amazon) in search of a different group of white Americans that have gone missing and are presumed eaten by the indigenous people they wanted to study, exploit, and/or plunder. This is, more or less, also the plot of Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God (Italian: La montagna del dio cannibale; aka: Slave of the Cannibal and Prisoner of the Cannibal God, 1978), Massaccesi’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, and Lenzi’s Eaten Alive! (Italian: Mangiati Vivi!, 1980) and Cannibal Ferox. This extended conventional prologue, complete with tepid scares, likable characters, and Riz Ortolani’s mellow, beautiful score, puts an expectant crowd at ease and unprepared for the relentless realistic terror, evil characters, and mechanical music of the second half. There are plenty of atrocities peppered throughout this “ordinary”’ jungle adventure, but only the stone dildo rape is particularly shocking, while other gags are par for the course. Deodato might not have been making a lofty declaration on the inanity of genre, but he was definitely using the conventions as a means to contrast the safe horrors of an exploitation movie with the real horrors of the 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, in this case – the sea turtle in the river. The inclusion of actual animal slaughter in an otherwise fictional feature film is salacious, even if it’s only images of butchery for the sake of food (i.e. slaughter that serves a purpose outside of the film), but to murder animals for the expressed sake of a film is patently immoral. Some might argue that there are exceptions, where respectable movies have killed animals for the sake of art (Apocalypse Now, El Topo, and Oldboy spring 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, while acknowledging that Deodato has no excuse for filming the murders of unfortunate wildlife, it can be argued that Cannibal Holocaust is the only film in the cycle 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.
Most Italian-made cannibal movies are also defined by their hypocritical treatment of racial content. Like the Mondo movies, they waste energy waxing philosophical about the brutal nature of civilized white people outweighing that of their native counterparts, while also portraying the natives as degenerate and sub-human in their actions. It is especially distressing in cases where real native peoples (rather than Filipino extras or Italians in brownface) are exploited for a film’s mean-spirited purposes. Deodato’s track record is better than most in this regard. In the Last Cannibal World, the white protagonist befriends the natives that capture and torture him and, in the case of Cannibal Holocaust, the natives are generally friendly (with very obvious exceptions) and need to be riled into 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 [FAB Press, 1999], he claims that the concept was based on real tribal divisions the filmmakers witness in Amazonia, but who knows if that’s true). Of course, he was still unethically exploiting human beings, which makes the film’s “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” rationalization even more sanctimonious and empty in the end.
* 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 (Fantasma Books, 1997) blames his legal troubles on the “fascist” (his words) laws against animal cruelty and says 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 (2011), 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. Noteably, the most entertaining cannibal film to come out of Italy during this period, Antonio Margheriti’s First Blood-inspired Cannibal Apocalypse (Italian: Apocalypse Domani; aka: 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.
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 color, 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.
Comparing the two releases directly (which I haven’t bothered to do on the page, because the sliders appear so small) that the DVD was 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 color 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.
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 foley 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 slightest). 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.
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:
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.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.