The year is 1978 and a respected group of American documentary-makers led by Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) have disappeared in the Columbian jungle while attempting to film the cannibal tribesmen reputed to live there. Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman) is dispatched to find out what’s happened to them. He makes arduous progress through the land and its peoples, finally making contact with the feared Yamamomo, or ‘Tree People’, who reveal to him the grisly remains of Yates’s crew, and several cans of undeveloped film, which he manages to take back to New York. The TV executives who financed the documentary are desperate to broadcast it as ‘the green inferno’ but the more Monroe hears about Yates and his methods the less he likes it, and when we finally see the footage our worst suspicions are confirmed. It’s a horrifying catalogue of rape, mutilation and murder in which the film crew burn down a village, kill livestock, and essentially stop at nothing to achieve ever more sensational footage, goading the ‘Tree People’ into brutal vengeance that they remain determined to capture on film even as their friends and lovers are slaughtered in front of them. It can’t be screened. ‘Who are the real cannibals?’ Monroe ponders as he walks out onto the NY streets…
Context is everything. I first saw Ruggero Deodato’s film by chance rather than design one morning around 20 years ago, hung over and feeling none too clever in Alex B’s Lewisham flat. Alex is a musician, writer and inveterate gore-hound. It was a hand-labelled VHS tape of recent acquisition, a bootleg Japanese forbidden artefact, banned by the Video Recordings Act of 1982, which bizarrely left all of the violence and unsimulated animal cruelty (1) intact, but used an optical blurring effect over any shots revealing genitalia. I’d seen a Lucio Fulci film or two and thought I knew what I was in for. I was wrong. The film was, in my fragile state, utterly psychologically toxic; the nihilistic tone, brutal imagery and ugly portrayal of human nature didn’t leave me after the tape had played out and I’d found my way home, and would bother me for a long time after. It was probably my most extreme reaction to a film since the joy I had watching Star Wars at the age of seven.
2011: I encounter Cannibal again, but this time at the Cine-Excess V (‘the politics and aesthetics of excess’) conference. Deodato is one of the guests and will receive an honorary doctorate from Brunel University at the Italian Cultural Institute as part of the event. I’m waiting for a screening of his 1976 film Live Like A Cop, Die Like a Man (2) when one of the directors of the Institute refers to Deodato as ‘Il Maestro’, with evident respect. Over the weekend dozens of academics will present papers on ‘Cine-torrent: Remediating Cult Images in Online Communities’ and ‘Bad Sisters in Prison: Excesses and Gender Politics in 1970s Exploitation’ and the like (3). Cannibal Holocaust itself is shown in a brand new print at the Odeon Covent Garden. I’m sitting next to a nice bloke from Cardiff who has driven here for the film, he thinks of Cannibal as a classic. A much loved trip he is delighted to revisit on the big screen in the presence of its maker. I ask if it’s his Toy Story 2 and he happily agrees. That bootleg VHS nasty has become a revered totem of the golden age of exploitation, no longer forbidden contraband, now name-dropped as the first ‘found footage’ film, made long before The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. Watching it again is a strange and numbing affair. I’m not overwhelmed this time. I’m taking notes.
It’s a film of bone-deep misanthropic anger whose targets are the sensationalist media and the careless exploitation of the Third World. But it undermines and contradicts itself in various ways. I’m sure these contradictions serve to confirm its status as morally repugnant hackwork to many, but I think they also give the film an irksome power it wouldn’t otherwise possess. If it made more sense it would doubtless lose its nightmarish edge.
For instance the moralising tussles between Monroe and the TV execs (4) seem absurd in the context of Cannibal Holocaust‘s excesses, its relish in putting everything on screen. Real animal mutilation and stock footage of actual executions are mixed in with the faked rape, forced tribal abortion, rape, dismemberment, rape, cannibalism, ritual murder and rape. You’re attacking the news media for its excesses and you’re showing us this? And while Deodato’s sympathies are mainly with the tribespeople, they still function as the film’s bogeymen, go uncredited and appear largely as an undifferentiated mass in various shades of mud, their status as victims made questionable as they commit savage ritual after savage ritual, invariably against defenceless women. Monroe is given to us as the moral centre of the film, in that he tries to treat the natives with respect for their customs, and fights with the TV company over funding and screening these atrocities, yet even he doesn’t seem to care much that it took the killing of a few Shamataris to ingratiate his group with the ‘Tree People’.
The film’s biggest dichotomy, though, is one between style and story. ‘Realism’ is emphasised throughout, there is no studio work, it’s all shot on real locations. It begins with a news report about the missing crew; documentary footage and footage from ‘the green inferno’ is wound in and out of the narrative. The found footage that dominates the second half of the film uses fogged, scratched and wrongly exposed film (even a sly shot where a camera is adjusted for the wrong diaphragm), all to achieve a remarkable verisimilitude. But this documentary ‘realism’ has to battle with an increasing sense of unreality about the behaviour of the Americans; they are so uncaring, stupid, disrespectful, and in the end, flat-out evil that they become absurd. The hard-won ‘realism’ scrapes against this over-the-top suicidal obnoxiousness, creating a trippy doublethink that underlies the final slaughter.
The new edit leaves the genitalia unsmudged, but optically fudges over scenes of real animal death, which are now totally unacceptable. As to whether the rest of the film is acceptable, or of worth, well, it’s still extraordinary, made an age before irony conquered all when exploitation films meant it. Its edges have been a little blunted by time; Riz Ortolani’s fine, strange soundtrack of inappropriate syn-drums, doomy chords and syrupy strings, and the style of the ‘TV’ sequences have dated. And the occasional flat performance and line of clunky dialogue now stick out more than I remember in a film straining for ‘realism’. But the smart structure, the skill of the filmmakers, the disturbing idea behind that last reel, where the urge to film takes precedence over self-preservation or humanity, all give the film a power that lifts it above most depravity shows of that era. There are resonances here that reach back to Peeping Tom, forward to Man Bites Dog and Four Lions. Its furious contradictions and lack of control mean that it remains troubling, a magnetic north indicating how far a film can go. It’s a misanthropic, misogynistic, gratuitously offensive piece of crap. It’s a seminal transgressive masterpiece. It is what it is.
1 Deodato probably regrets the scenes of animal abuse he incorporated in Cannibal Holocaust and Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1976), mainly, one feels, because he’s sick of answering questions about it… ‘Everyone asks about animals… If you grow up on a farm, none of this is unusual… If I only showed the Americans killing other humans it would have no impact, they had to kill animals to be killers… We’ve been inured to real death… In the US they give a child a rabbit, ‘aw sweet bunny’, then the kid goes to school, kills 15 other kids, goes back to the bunny, sings ‘aw, sweet bunny’ Etc, etc… It wasn’t a trope he invented, it was there in the Mondo movies of the 60s and Umberto Lenzi’s Deep River Savages (1972), but outside of cult circles, those films have vanished from public sight. Cannibal Holocaust‘s profile means that Deodato’s still dodging flack.
2 If you were looking for a more nuanced insight into the human condition from Deodato outside of his misanthropic masterwork, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man wasn’t it. The film opens with an astonishing, perilous bike chase through Rome that raises hopes for something special, but it is, for the most part, crass, witless, sexist and fatally lacking in any kind of tension or credibility. It details the efforts of two ‘Special Force’ cops (Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock as Fred and Tony) to take down crime boss Pasquini using frankly random methods (burning the cars outside one of his clubs, sleeping with his nympho niece) while fending off his thugs’ assassination attempts. A case was made at Cine Excess that Live Like a Cop was Deodato’s reaction to Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’, a period of violent political and social unrest. If so, it’s unfortunate that it most reminded me of The Bullshitters, TV’s ‘The Comic Strip presents’ parody of The Professionals, right down to the nylon underwear and homoeroticism. Fred and Tony are arseholes, from beginning to end (best encapsulated in the moment when they laugh at the idea that getting their maid’s daughter pregnant might be considered their problem), but they aren’t significantly better or worse than anybody else on screen. The result is a bit of a shrug.
3 It really is an odd event, fans of the word ‘contiguity’ should make a date. Iain Robert Smith’s presentation on International Guerillas (1990), a long-lost ‘masala’ movie from Turkey, wherein three squabbling brothers unite to go and kill Salman Rushdie, was an eye-opener…
4 A female TV executive on audiences: ‘The more you rape their senses the happier they are!’ Well, that’s Bargain Hunt for you…