Okay, let’s get this out of the way early just in case you get curious enough to track it down and give it a look. You might not ever want to watch this film. I recommend it to people if they want to see/feel the power of a film to gut punch you and sicken you. Sounds extreme? Think I’m joking? I’m not. I know people who will swear this film damn near traumatized them when they saw it without being warned of the contents, and even a few who said that afterward despite knowing what they were in for.
When this film comes up in these situations, a friend of mine likes to tell people at convention panels he’s on that this is a film most people who love film should see at least once if only to see one extreme of what film is capable of. I tend to throw some qualifiers in on that. This is a film that anyone who loves film and the power that film can hold over the viewer should see providing that person has a strong stomach and has never been prone to having nightmares. This is not a film you should watch if you’re looking for a nice film to enjoy in an evening.
However, my intentions here are not reviewing the film. For that, I’ll send you to Needless Things and a film review entry by Devlin where he digs deep into reviewing the film itself. No, my interest here is looking at the insanity of the filming of the movie; an insanity that easily rivaled or beat what was portrayed on screen. Also, I want to look at what happened after the filming was done.
Cannibal Holocaust was a low budget Italian film by director Ruggero Deodato released in 1980. The plot revolves around a group going into the Amazon rainforest to find a lost filmmaking crew. Upon arriving, they get involved with several tribes and eventually find the remains of the original film crew. They take the footage shot by the film crew back with them to create a documentary of their last days. Upon viewing the footage, they’re exposed to a nightmarish series of events. The concept for the film as envisioned by Deodato was for it to be both a commentary on and condemnation of the Italian news media (and others) over their usage of extreme and violent footage without proper context for shock value and ratings. Deodato may have succeeded too well. Many critics of his film have directed the same charges against him that he directed at the news media.
Cannibal Holocaust was released into theaters alongside a campaign designed to make audiences believe they were queueing up to see the genuine article. Deodato wanted people to think the footage by the lost crew was real and woven into his movie. It was a campaign where the actors involved with one segment of the film were contractually obligated to not appear in any form of publicity for the film. That was something that almost bit director Ruggero Deodato in the backside in the worst possible way. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The story of the filming of Cannibal Holocaust could possibly make a more horrifying film than the actual film. There are aspects of it that make you question the sanity of many involved. You know those stupid corporate retreats businesses spend thousands on to send employees away on for team building exercise weekends? You know those studies where they have an average person pull a lever or press a button where they think they’re causing someone agonizing pain, but they keep doing it because an “authority figure” tells them to keep doing it? The filming of Cannibal Holocaust was like the nightmare bastard child of the two things, only far worse.
Deodato chose as his filming location for the jungle scenes an actual remote jungle location. It would prove extremely difficult to get to, just as hard to get out of, and it would be a tropical hell for those who were there.
The casting of the film involved mostly actors and actresses who were largely unknown to audiences of the time. In some cases, the casting directives weren’t even based on the needs of the story. Carl Gabriel Yorke was reportedly cast in part because he was the right size. The boots and costumes had already been purchased for the original actor cast for the role and the production didn’t want to spend the money to buy new ones. Two actors were cast simply for being native speaking Italians. Under Italian law at that time, you had to have at least two such actors in lead roles or the production could not legally be labeled an Italian film. Robert Kerman was the film’s most experienced actor. He’d had a five-year film career at that point; almost exclusively in porn.
Maybe that played a part in why the cast stayed on through some of what was to come. You had a film from a writer and a director who had almost twenty years each in the film business and who each had some (for their era) strong films on their résumés. Maybe the hope of getting that big break at last pushed them into thinking it was worth it. Still, you look at what happened and think that even that wouldn’t have seemed worth it.
The best moments for the cast when it came to the scenes set in the jungle where probably what most people would consider uncomfortable and hard to take. That was brought about in large part because of the weather. They really were in a tropical jungle. This wasn’t like some of the low budget films of that era where the film’s jungle looked amazingly like the tiny woods down the street from your house. They were in the real deal tropics. The production was constantly delayed by bursts of rain, and the rain would leave the already sweltering jungle more humid than it had been before the rain started. There was no way to escape the heat and insects. This wasn’t a Hollywood set with trailers with air conditioning. The environment they filmed in alone would make anyone irritable and on edge. What they had to film pushed them over the edge on an almost daily basis.
There’s a belief in some schools of filmmaking, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s theory of montage, that you can condition the brain to believe what one is seeing really is what it’s portrayed to be rather than merely just movie fakery. This is something you saw in Mondo filmmaking even before Cannibal Holocaust, but it was Cannibal Holocaust that may well have been the largest release to push those limits.
You would achieve this effect by filming and using in the movie actual acts of violence or death. This would typically be against animals. In Cannibal Holocaust, it was done with several animals. A pig, a native animal similar to a raccoon, a large turtle, a large snake, a monkey, and one or two others were all brutally- some might even say sadistically -killed and ripped apart on film in different scenes. Some members of the cast were reportedly incensed by these acts, leaving the shoot during these moments and almost not returning. Some members of the crew that had to be on hand for these scenes reportedly vomited at what they had to capture on film.
Yorke and Kerman, in particular, began to butt heads with Deodato as the filming continued. Both were sickened by the butchering of animals on the set, Yorke describing it in later years as a set filled with a level of cruelty unknown to him prior to filming this movie. But tensions between the cast and crew and Deodato weren’t limited to just the treatment of animals for Deodato’s “art” film. Deodato was both dishonest and cruel in how he treated the people on the film. More than once he tried to pay his cast using currency they weren’t familiar with in an attempt to pay them less than the salary they were promised and contractually owed. The filming was actually stopped more than once by an actor demanding payment in full and in a currency they knew the value of before they would return to work.
At least they got paid. Deodato reportedly had the local extras working under extreme and dangerous situations and then still found ways to avoid paying any agreed-upon remuneration for their efforts. In later years, Yorke and Kerman would talk about how cruel Deodato was to anyone he thought he could get away with mistreating on set. Kerman, in particular, has in later years referred to Deodato as having been a “sadist” on the set, speaking about the issues they had over Deodato’s mistreatment of the locals and over the Italian cast members he could create difficulties for back home.
One such person was actress Francesca Ciardi. Cardi played one of the story’s original filmmakers believed to be lost and, as such, found herself in a number of scenes she found to be extremely uncomfortable to do once filming started. When she had problems with a scene, Deodato would drag her off the set and scream at her in Italian, berating her until she returned to filming. One tends to wonder how badly the stress of the filming combined with the hardships of the location began to break her. One scene she expressed discomfort with was a sex scene with Yorke’s character. Her issue was how much of her body she would have to bare not only to the camera but also to Yorke. After unsuccessful confrontations with Deodato over the scene, she approached Yorke with the suggestion to go off to a secluded spot and actually have sex in order to remove some of the awkwardness and tension from the scene they were to shoot. When he declined the offer she actually grew annoyed with him, seemingly taking it as an insult, and distanced herself from him for the remainder of their time on the shoot together.
Again, you read or see interviews with the cast or see some of them speak at a horror convention and you wonder how this film was ever made because you can’t wrap your head around why the cast didn’t just up and leave the thing. So many of the stories from the location shoots sound like some horrible psychological experiment gone terribly wrong. But unlike those with their controlled conditions, there was no real control here and the damage it caused was real. Even Deodato in his later years has expressed regret over the things he did to get this film made.
But he did get it made. Interestingly, it was after this point, after the initial release of the film, when Deodato’s troubles really began.
The film premiered in Milan to mixed reviews from critics, audiences, and Deodato’s fellow film professionals alike. Some saw it as an amazing condemnation on aspects of modern society. Some saw it as cheap, vulgar exploitation. Some friends of Deodato’s saw it as a film so realistically done, so successfully pulled off that it would land him in hot water. Those friends were right.
The local authorities ordered copies of the film seized and put Deodato up on charges of obscenity. Deodato suddenly found himself facing even greater legal issues after a magazine article on the film suggested that the human deaths seen in the film were real and that one scene in particular, that of a woman from a local tribe impaled on a stake as a form of punishment, was of a real dead body. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the movie having presented actual deaths recorded on film. The accusations cast Cannibal Holocaust as a genuine snuff film, and the authorities charged Deodato with murder.
A part of the belief in the legitimacy of the charge was due to the actors who played the deceased film crew at the heart of the film’s story not being seen by anyone since they filmed their scenes. Again, as I mentioned before, that was a result of the contracts they signed. Deodato was promoting the film to audiences as having real footage in it during the “documentary” scenes. A part of that gimmick was ensuring that no one saw the actors from those scenes in any form of media or media appearance for a good part of that year. Another thing that led to the viewed legitimacy of the charge of murder was the realistic nature of the scene involving the impaled native girl. It was a gag that was impressively pulled off for what they had to work with, and the technique used in filming it made it harder to analyze it to determine its authenticity. Between her not being an actress that officials could check up on and the belief held by many at that time that such things were common in those parts of the world, some people had absolutely no doubt that Deodato recorded an actual human death for his film.
The case actually went to court. For a moment in time, it seemed like it might not end well for Deodato. Deodato testified in court that all of the actors were alive, but the question was put to him again as to where they were and why they had not been seen if they were in fact still alive.
Eventually, someone got word to one of the missing actors and he got hold of the rest of them. They made an appearance to prove they were alive. Further, photos were provided showing how the impaled woman was “impaled” on screen. A small bicycle seat was placed on the wooden pole. She sat on the seat, held a piece of balsa wood in her mouth, looked up towards the sky, and tried to control her breathing when she knew the camera was focused on her stomach or chest. Other photos showed her with the cast and crew after the scene had been shot, corroborating testimony given by others.
The charges of murder against Deodato were dropped, but that wasn’t the end of his or the film’s troubles. The film would be banned a number of times over the years; particularly over issues of animal cruelty. In some cases, the film would escape being banned. However, it would face numerous cuts by film boards and censors. The interesting thing with this is how many different cuts were created due to different countries having different taboos.
There are versions of the film where all the animal deaths have been removed. There are versions where only some of that was removed and some scenes were only cropped. In some countries, the animal cruelty wasn’t an issue, but the scenes involving nudity were cut out. Then there were all of the various differing trimming done here and there over the years for any number of reasons. It’s gotten to the point where there is no complete negative of the original film in its uncut form still in existence. Many releases of the film in recent years- including one of the most recent US releases –are not the true full cut of the film, but some of these releases do include as bonus features some longer versions of scenes collected from various other surviving cuts.
Cannibal Holocaust is not a film for everyone. Actually, Cannibal Holocaust is not a film for most people. A lot of older films fail to live up to the hype around their legend. As an example, Texas Chainsaw Massacre was word of mouth hyped at the time of its release as the bloodiest film of all time. If you were to see it for the first time these days you would be shocked by how little blood and gore the film actually has. Cannibal Holocaust is one of those films that no amount of hype or warning can prepare you for. Even if you think you know what you’re in for, you quickly discover you had no idea what you were about to see.
Cannibal Holocaust was most recently made available in the US as a Blu-Ray by Grindhouse Releasing. The release contained the most complete cut of the film available as well as a CD of the soundtrack. This edition is also loaded with interviews, looks back, commentaries, and other special features that delve into the making of the film. The bonus features made it a good buy just for the interesting looks back and interviews. The film? Depends on what you can tolerate.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Nerdy Minds Magazine, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.