Cannibal Holocaust is a 1980 horror film about an American film crew who venture into the Amazon to make a documentary about an isolated tribe of cannibals. The crew will stop at nothing to ensure they get the newsworthy story, which even means committing atrocious acts themselves.
Cannibalism will always be regarded as a controversial topic. That’s inevitable. For decades it’s cause us to reel in horror at the atrocity, yet listen and watch in bewilderment and curiosity at the tales of cannibalism that have been committed by those who are not spun in fiction. In 1980, audiences were outraged and offended by Ruggero Deodato’s portrayal of cannibalism through a found footage style film that left viewers in fear that what they were witnessing was not a film made for entertainment purposes, but rather real scenes of cannibalism. It’s Cannibal Holocaust, an Italian horror film that has since continued to be a point of contention and discussion, still causing disgust and offence now nearly 40 years later.
Cannibal Holocaust follows an anthropologist who wishes to rescue the potential survivors of a film crew who vanished whilst shooting a documentary in the Amazon. He and his team head into the jungle themselves to make another documentary about the rescue mission and the cannibal tribe that are committing heinous acts away from society. What happens there is worse than they could have expected. As the crew continue, they become dedicated to doing whatever it may take in order to depict horrific scenes of cannibalism.
When thinking about what causes the most uproar when it comes to the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, the act of eating other humans is a secondary case of controversy, as there is something that defeats this inhumane act and makes for this film’s most notorious name: real animal cruelty. Throughout the film we are witness to some of the most brutal animal slaughterings that really do make this film only for those with a toughened stomach and a hardened heart. The animal butchering is one reason that many people avoid putting themselves through this film, and it’s easy to see why when the scenes include a turtle being decapitated, a tarantula being casually hacked in half and a pig being killed with a shotgun. The crew members found these scenes hard to execute during filming, and even some of them refused to participate in the killing of the animals. Most people are not into animal cruelty in any form, however, what makes this so interesting is that many meat eaters (myself included) are conforming to and buying into the slaughtering of innocent animals, yet we do not act in outrage when pigs have their throats slit for our consumption purposes. We simply turn a blind eye and gorge on bacon without considering the implications that come from consuming animals, then we have the audacity to feel shocked by the way animals are treated in Deodato’s film. The obvious difference between these two is one kill is for the purpose of hunger and the other for entertainment, yet it still seems animal cruelty, regardless of your personal endorsements, is one of the most controversial things a human can witness.
Although the animal cruelty is the aspect that most people regard as the reason for Cannibal Holocaust’s controversy, there are some other aspects, as to be expected, that also caused this film to be considered as one of the UK’s video nasties and ensured it was banned in many countries. There is one particular scene which involves a horrific gang-rang of a tribe girl, which is carried out by all of the film crew members except for the female. It’s this scene that really makes the audience wonder why they are subjecting themselves to something so disgusting, and gives an overwhelming feeling of disgust and helplessness. However, we need to be witness to this scene in order to feel empathy for the tribes people instead of the film crew that are hacked to pieces and eaten by the tribe. After the men have finished committing their vile act, they later discover the girl has been impaled by the rest of the tribes people for losing her virginity. It’s this sickening picture that became the controversial poster for Cannibal Holocaust and draws in so much attention from those who haven’t seen it. Even though it’s harrowing to sit through these scenes of sexual torture, what the audience sees ensures that once the murder and cannibalism happens to the crew, it is the least troubling thing to happen on screen. The audience enter the film suspecting to hate the tribe for their cannibalistic tendencies, but as the film progresses we begin to want the film crew to be brutally eaten alive by the tribe for the horrible things they have done against these native people.
Throughout these nasty, banned films such as Cannibal Holocaust it comes as no surprise that many of the reasons the audience need to see such atrocities being committed is to feel a certain emotion before entering the third and final act of the film. Even though the scenes in the third act of Cannibal Holocaust are essentially worse in terms of subject matter than those that have been witnessed before, due to the depiction of previous barbarous acts including animal cruelty and gang-rape of a minor, the cannibalism seems warranted as an act of revenge from the tribes people. This boundary pushing film will continue to be helmed as one of the most controversial horror films ever made; it has garnered a notorious name, and even led to Deodato’s arrest because the Italian officials were convinced that these scenes were in fact real. Deodato had asked all actors to go into hiding for a year to market the film as real, which meant when it came to explaining himself to the court he had to prove that not only the actors had been paid to hide, but also demonstrate exactly how the special effects were made in order to make the gore look real. Cannibal Holocaust was designed to exploit the way real news crews sensationalised everything and would do everything in their powers to make a story as compelling yet horrific as possible to make the news. Through news and fear comes control, which is a tale that Deodato tried to tell through his extreme film. Cannibal Holocaust will forever be considered one of the most controversial and boundary pushing films to exist in the horror film industry.