25 May 2019

The Video Nasties: Cannibal Holocaust (1979)


Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust is possibly the most notorious film included on the DPP39 list and over thirty years after it's original theatrical release still causes a huge amount of controversy.

Shortly after it's release in Italy the film was seized and declared obscene by the high court (Deodato was actually arrested forced to prove in court that he had not murdered the lead actors on screen), and in Britain as recently as 1993 a copy of the film was confiscated in Birmingham and reported in The Independent as, "the first known seizure in the city of a snuff video."

However, Cannibal Holocaust is not a snuff movie, and the fact that it is often mistaken as such should be attributed to Deodato's skills as a filmmaker, and the effective ways in which the film itself blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction.

The plot is extremely simple and focuses on the disappearance of a group of documentary filmmakers in the Amazon. The first half of the film details the search for the missing film crew, while the second half of the film consists of their found footage which reveals their fate.

A primary influence on films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the multitude of 'found footage' films that have followed in it's wake, Cannibal Holocaust is undeniably a gruelling viewing experience. But behind the brutality there is clearly a subtextual criticism of the methods used by 'Mondo' filmmakers, and it has been clearly stated that this was the film's intention.

The Italian Mondo tradition of documentary filmmaking, beginning with Gualitiero Jacopetti's Mondo Cane (1962), produced films purporting to show sensational scenes focused on taboo subjects such as sex and death primarily in foreign settings; but the shocking scenes depicted were often staged for the camera (for an excellent overview of the Mondo film see Kerekes and Slater's excellent book Killing For Culture: An Illustrated History of the Death Film from Mondo to Snuff). Deodato's missing filmmakers are revealed to have deliberately provoked and staged a number of atrocities which result in the local tribe they are filming turning on them.

While not an actual snuff movie, the film does contain several scenes of actual documentary atrocity footage in the notorious Last Road To Hell sequence. This sequence is used as an illustration of the missing film crew's previous work, and is critical to the film's blurring of reality and fiction as in the narrative of Cannibal Holocaust it is claimed to have been staged for the camera.

As with many of the Italian Cannibal cycle of films, Cannibal Holocaust also contains inexcusable scenes of real animal cruelty, and it is these scenes which cause the most controversy among modern viewers. The most notorious of these sequences features the film crew catching and dismembering a live turtle, and is truly hard to stomach.

Recently director Ruggero Deodato has claimed that if he made the film today he would not include these sequences, and that they were primarily included at the behest of his producers. It also remains clear that in many ways Cannibal Holocaust has become something of a scapegoat in the whole debate about animal cruelty on film, a debate that largely ignores the sequences of genuine animal cruelty in the films of Francis Ford Coppola and Sam Peckinpah.

A Director's Re-Edit presents Deodato's attempt to address the issue and present a more acceptable but no less disturbing version of Cannibal Holocaust.

What Deodato has done is skilfully re-edit the sequences of animal cruelty incorporating alternative footage or obscuring some frames with scratches, pops and lens flares. This effectively retains the essence of the scenes but removes the offending content in an effort to present the film in a way to appeal to a wider audience.
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