Certainly among the most gruesome, savagely unrelenting and uncompromising films of all time. And they should’ve compromised, at least with respect to the animal abuse, which is absolutely inexcusable.
Since much of this non nutrient-rich jungle topsoil has already been covered, it’s worth comparing Cannibal Holocaust to another Italian jungle cannibal film about which similar criticisms were justifiably levied. And that’s Cannibal Ferox.
Think of this as a Cannibal VS Cannibal Tale of the Tape (or maybe tape worm, given their locales).
Both films are directed by Italians. Both feature indescribably repellent westerners traipsing about the Amazon like they own the place and abusing the natives. Both films start in New York City. Both feature aerial footage thereof and of the real, not urban jungle. Both ease into the nastiness with bugs, feature awful animal abuse, anthropologist protagonists, appendages being lopped off, entrails eaten…
The key difference is how the source material, however base, is handled. Ruggero Deodato’s genius involved introducing the world of horror to the found footage conceit in 1980, which here works exceedingly well. (It’s since been beaten like a dead horse…or rather, like a dead horse whose dying moments were captured for posterity on video.) Many were actually fooled into thinking this was real at the time and Deodato was famously brought up in his native Italy on obscenity charges.
The mission here is much more serious than the ersatz academic one in Cannibal Ferox, with its PhD student and two “assistants,” who’d fare well in a road trip to The Big Easy but whose propensity to pack whiskey rather than foodstuffs were not the proper stuff of research expeditions. Cannibal Ferox is an inherently silly film, with leering guides and inane dialogue that compromise its most gruesome set-piece – the hanging scene.
By contrast, Deodado lures the viewer into the Amazonian jungle via a seemingly legit anthropologist; and his rescue mission is led by rough-and-tumble guides who know how to handle weaponry and in whom an audience invests.
When they find video footage of the ill-fated expedition, we visit the jungle’s heart of darkness a second time. We really do get a sense, from beyond the grave of what the videographers had to deal with (and how they were mostly to blame for their fate, surrogates for manipulative Italian media conduct if we’re to believe Deodato’s inspiration).
Umberto Lenzi, on the other hand, introduces us to an evil force in Cannibal Ferox through noted genre kingpin John Morghen as unhinged Mike. He’d already been characterized (or caricatured) as a New York City dope fiend, so when he decides to take his drug-fueled frustrations out on the jungle dwellers upon meeting up with the researchers, it comes as no surprise.
Deodato makes his protagonists sympathetic and takes you into their world first through Dr Monroe, the anthropologist leading a rescue mission, then via an initially credible (if solipsistic) team of filmmakers.
Also upping the interest ante, was having not one but two warring tribes in this part of Amazonia, and Western interlopers picking sides to add more fuel to the fire. This story was part of the founding of Canada and carries on to the geopolitics of the present day (and no, we’re not comparing the conduct of the Huron or the Iroquois to the tribes depicted here).
It’s certainly a more interesting idea than Gloria, the PhD candidate’s inane null hypothesis regarding conquistador-generated rumors of cannibalism that she later won’t even admit to being actually true.
The notion that the Western Left has a blind spot regarding other culture’s transgressions is the very interesting idea behind Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, an idea that by all accounts was mishandled (we admit, we haven’t seen it). That film got its title from Cannibal Holocaust.
To sum up though. Cannibal Holocaust by a nose, so to speak.
But really, these films defy critique. It’s a bygone era and there’s no way to recapture the amoral (OK twisted), devil-may-care guerrilla ethos that went into them. Nor should anybody try.
**** (out of 5)
[Explore the jungle in our Cannibal Ferox podcast]