From roughly 1977 until 1981, a sub-genre of exploitation film known as “cannibal films” were released by Italian filmmakers like Ruggero Deodato, Joe D’Amato, Jesus Franco, and Umberto Lenzi. The movies, with salacious titles like Make Them Die Slowly, Savage Terror, and Eaten Alive!, were famous for featuring the wholesale murder and, of course, consumption of a group of hapless victims. The filmmakers pulled no punches with the violence, including horrific acts like vertical impalement, castration, decapitation, and disembowelment, all played out with either very convincing special effects or shot in a cinÃ©ma vÃ©ritÃ© style that disguised any corn syrup shortcomings. Along with the fictional violence, the films often featured real animals being killed, usually by natives that were preparing the creature to be eaten. This type of extreme violence has led many to dismiss the movies as pure exploitation, with no redeeming value other than to satiate a certain type of audience’s thirst for blood. However, there is more to these films if you look beyond the shock factor. These more subtle aspects are perhaps best illustrated in Deodato’s 1980 film, Cannibal Holocaust, arguably the “finest” and the most notorious of the cannibal films.
Cannibal Holocaust begins in New York City — the urban jungle, if you will. There, Professor Monroe, a respected anthropologist, has been asked by a television network to travel to the Amazon basin to locate a group of hotshot young documentary filmmakers that were on assignment and are now overdue for their return. Once in the jungle, he hires a guide to help, but all he initially finds are examples of brutal native customs that shock the professor’s Western ethics. After a few days, Monroe finally discovers the remains of the crew, as well as their unopened film canisters, in the possession of a local tribe known for their cannibalistic ways. He’s able to barter for the release of the film, and then heads back to civilization where the network executives hope to air the footage on national TV, advertised with the morbid hook that it was the crew’s last film.
As the found footage is edited together, Monroe begins to learn some disturbing facts about the four filmmakers. The crew was well-known for their unflinching look at violence in war-torn countries. However, rumors abound that they orchestrated some of their most famous footage by paying soldiers to commit violent acts, or even committing a few of their own. Upon seeing their last film, it appears the crew was still up to their old tricks.
In the beginning, the documentary is fairly boring; the only interesting thing they record is the butchering of a turtle. However, they soon take a native man captive and demand he lead them to his village. Once there, they decide to create a fictional conflict between two warring tribes to spice up the film. To help sell their story, they force everyone — man, woman, and child – into a large, central hut, and then burn it to the ground, shooting anyone who tries to escape the inferno. As the flames blaze in the background, they blame the executions on an enemy tribe.
Of course this is only one side of the story, so they need to find the other tribe and film more of this supposed war. The crew soon captures a young woman and plan to have her lead them to her village as well. Instead, she escapes, and soon the tables are turned, as her tribe tears the film crew apart in some pretty gruesome ways.
In the end, even the ratings-hungry network executives decide that the footage is best left unseen.
Cannibal Holocaust is a cinematic experience you won’t soon forget. The violence is incredibly disturbing, especially if you consider yourself an animal lover, to the point that getting through it is seen as a badge of honor to many cinephiles. The film’s violence is famous for being so convincing that Deodato was brought up on murder charges when an Italian judge thought there was no way they could be special effects. To get the charges dropped, Deodato had his actors appear on a talk show to prove they were still alive.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Cannibal Holocaust is that this low-budget, incredibly gory, exploitation film has become so influential to mainstream Hollywood. Many people believe that The Blair Witch Project introduced the “found footage” narrative structure seen in films like [REC], Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity, but Cannibal Holocaust did it 25 years earlier. Holocaust could also be mentioned in the same breath as Network when looking for films that are eerily prescient of the Reality TV movement. Not bad for a film that so few people can even get through.
While the violence in Cannibal Holocaust is disturbing, the real horror is the film’s tone, which is particularly dark and sadistic. For example, the fictional filmmakers see nothing wrong with shooting a village’s only pig for no reason other than to show they can. After the hut with the tribe inside has burned to the ground, two members of the crew have sex on top of the ashen remains. The men in the crew take turns sexually assaulting the woman they capture in the jungle, and then, when they later come upon her impaled body — presumably her culture’s punishment for her lost purity – they have to remind themselves to be disgusted instead of giddy. The film’s protagonists are vile people, who see the natives as only a commodity to be used for their own base needs. By the time they get their comeuppance, you’re rooting for the “savages”.
The dark tone of Cannibal Holocaust is just one of the many tropes it shares with most cannibal films, which, admittedly, follow a pretty standard formula. The protagonists are invariably Americans, and often come to the jungle with noble intentions, like to find a missing person, or as part of a research expedition. These characters are obviously meant to be a proxy for the audience, so that when they are introduced to the native culture and the brutal laws of nature, we are taught the same lessons alongside them. Monroe is the audience’s proxy in Holocaust, though he is able to avoid the descent into savagery that befalls the proxy in most other cannibal films. This breaking point usually occurs when the characters find the cannibalized remains of the person they’re looking for, or maybe after witnessing a bizarre, violent ritual carried out by a native tribe. Using their Western morals as a guide, the characters come to see the tribe as mindless animals, rather than any type of civilized society. This helps them feel righteous when they carry out their own act of violence — usually vengence for their murdered friend – against the natives that were otherwise leaving them alone. Because the Americans inevitably draw first blood, the natives can be seen as simply defending themselves, leaving us with the question of which culture is really the more civilized of the two.
If you only look at the cannibal films on the surface, you’ll see that these tropes make for an easily-digestible story (no pun intended), with one fairly heavy-handed theme – “Are we the true savages?” However, if you look at these films in their historical context, there appears to be much more going on beneath the surface.
As you may recall, the heyday of the cannibal films stretched from about 1977 until 198, only a few short years after the war in Vietnam ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Europe was generally against America’s involvement in the conflict as they didn’t see Communism in Southeast Asia as a major threat to the Democratic way of life. Italy in particular had become fiercely anti-imperialistic after World War II, and the people there were very vocal about their feelings on the war in the late-1960s. Perhaps this is why Italian filmmakers felt the need to comment on the war, even after it ended. Whereas others filmmakers from the time period dealt directly with the war or its aftermath by name (i.e., Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter), Italian cannibal filmmakers approached it a bit more subtly, using metaphors to present their viewpoint.
The American military went into Vietnam in the early-1960s, ready to fight a traditional war. With their helicopters, artillery, Agent Orange, and specially-trained military personnel, against an untrained militia armed with little more than cheap machine guns, they believed that victory was a given. But their superior firepower gave them a false sense of security and they soon learned that warfare in the jungle was going to be anything but traditional. Instead, American soldiers faced a Viet Cong Army that used the environment to their advantage by digging tunnels for hit-and-run attacks, setting up ambushes in heavily forested areas, and using landmines in areas commonly patrolled by American forces. The U.S. military found themselves stuck in foreign environment, struggling in a war they didn’t know how to fight, and hoped that throwing more men and more guns at the problem would eventually solve it by sheer force alone. History proved that they did not have the upper hand after all.
Our American intruders in the cannibal films are also lulled into this false sense of security because they have rifles and the natives “only” have spears and machetes. Like so many characters in zombie films, they believe that they’ll always be able to just shoot the enemy in order to stay alive. But inevitably, their reliance on their technological superiority proves to be their downfall as the ammo runs out, they’re shot by an arrow, they fall into a booby-trap, or are simply overrun by the sheer number of cannibals that come for them carrying little more than sharpened wooden sticks.
At best, the cannibal films can be viewed as a parable against meddling in other countries’ affairs. At worst, they could be Italian filmmakers rubbing the United States’ nose in the fact that its first military loss came at the hands of what they arrogantly thought was an inferior fighting force. Whichever way you lean, the lesson is clear: Don’t do that again.
While the cannibal films of the 1970s were produced as a reflection on the conflict in Vietnam, the same lessons taught then are just as relevant now nearly 40 years later. Our young soldiers in the Middle East are up against an enemy that is eerily similar to the one their fathers and grandfathers faced in Vietnam. Islamic rebels are under-trained and under-equipped, but they have knowledge of the landscape and a determination to succeed, whatever the costs. And we must ask ourselves if tanks, unmanned drones, and Blackhawk helicopters are enough to tamp out the desire of a soldier that is willing to strap a bomb to his chest and die for the cause.
Perhaps now, more than ever, it’s time for us to return to the jungles of the cannibal films to be reminded of the savage heart that resides inside us all. Maybe this time we’ll come away with a better understanding of what it truly means to be civilized.
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Written by Rob Lammle (@spacemonkeyx)
Rob became a geek at a very young age. Growing up on a farm, with the nearest kid his age living five miles away, Rob had a lot of time to watch movies, read comic books, and play with his Star Wars action figures. He now finds time to write for a few… More »
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