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Cannibal Holocaust: Who Are The Real Cannibals?

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Cannibal Holocaust: Who Are The Real Cannibals?

Cannibal Holocaust is an Italian horror film written by Gianfranco Clerici, directed by Ruggero Deodato, popularly known as “Monsieur Cannibal.” The film was banned when it was released in 1977 because people thought it was a snuff film. The director was arrested in Italy for obscenity and Deodato had to prove in court that the murder was staged since many thought it looked too real to be fake.

It has a reputation for being the most controversial film ever made and its reputation has only grown over the years. The film is debauched and I don’t say that lightly: I understand that it’s important for art to reflect reality in order to shed light on the human condition…and yet, fuck this film forever.

In the first 15 minutes of the film, a woman is ritually raped and murdered by her husband for committing adultery. But for all we know she might have just smiled at someone. He rapes her with a sacred stone and then beats her to death with it. We don’t get to look away since the entire event is filmed because the director wants us to see it. See this thing, he seems to be saying? These horrible things happen, don’t look away. Don’t pretend that the world is good. It’s a living hell hole. DON’T LOOK AWAY, YOU COWARD! SEE THE WORLD FOR WHAT IT IS.

Okay, so here it is: A team of anthropologists lead by Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) search for a crew of filmmakers who disappeared in the Amazon: three men and one woman. They discover that they were killed by an indigenous tribe in the rainforest for raping and murdering an innocent Ya̧nomamö girl. They find documentary film that shows what happened. Harold brings back the footage to a network who wants to air it but after he shows them the final reel, they agree to bury the content since it is too horrible for television.

Like many horror and true crime fans, I’ve watched a lot of films with assault and murder, but Cannibal Holocaust is different. Every moment in the film feels real because it’s shot as a found footage genre film. In fact, Cannibal Holocaust INVENTED the found footage genre. It was shot to mimic a mondo, an exploitative documentary film that’s about taboo or transgressive subjects…also known as a shockumentary.

Cannibal Holocaust makes Apocalypse Now feel like a Disney cartoon, it’s an unrelenting racist trek through the Heart of Darkness. The Ya̧nomamö and the Shamatari people are depicted as brutal cannibals, a problematic assumption to make about the rainforest tribes. They are treated without respect or dignity, and there’s no regard for their way of life at all. There’s not a single person depicted as if they are intelligent, rational beings — they’re cannibal caricatures because that’s how the white people in the movie view them. They’re kidnapped, drugged, beaten, killed, and raped.

I tried to watch Cannibal Holocaust years ago but I didn’t make it past the first rape scene. This time I made it through and I wish I hadn’t for a number of reasons, but in particular because of the animal cruelty. After watching it, I discovered that the animals were killed during production; they killed a coatimundi, a turtle, a pig, two squirrel monkeys, and a snake in the film for real.

The actors didn’t know what they had signed up for either since it had never been discussed with them. The actors didn’t want to kill animals either. But the director insisted. The actress, Francesca Ciardi, who played Faye, can be seen vomiting after the slaughter of the turtle on camera. I hate this movie. I hate this movie so much. I truly loathe it. Killing animals in the name of ‘art’ is repulsive. I don’t think it’s shocking or gritty, I think it’s cowardly and disgusting.

But believe it or not, after all the animal cruelty, it gets worse. The filmmakers descend on a woman alone in the rainforest and gang-rape her while laughing. Kaye begs the men to stop, screaming that they are wasting film but the men attack her for objecting. She tries to insert herself between the men and the girl but her boyfriend is one of the rapists, and he ignores her. The rape doesn’t end, it becomes more violent and then they cut to one of the most infamous images in horror: the woman’s dead body impaled on a stick.

It’s heavily implied that the filmmakers murdered the girl after they assaulted her in order to get a good ‘shot’ for their documentary. The image of the woman impaled through the mouth infuriated me in a way that I can not explain or shake. It’s a terrible way to dishonor a person. What could be worse than that? Well, the tribe attacks the filmmakers in revenge and it’s terrifying: Faye, who tried to stop the gang-rape, is gang-raped herself. I’ve never wanted to puke more in my life and I’ve seen Irreversible, Megan Is Missing and I Spit On Your Grave 2.

Transgressive rape and revenge films usually have one unbearable scene but Cannibal Holocaust has so many of those scenes, I lost count. My option was to rewatch it to figure out if Faye’s boyfriend was the one who filmed her being murdered instead of trying to save her. But I was like, no thanks, I’m not going to rewind this travesty of a film to figure out who is filming what, hard pass.

After Faye is humiliated publicly, she is beheaded and her head is thrown away like garbage. The tribe then attacks the men (her co-workers and boyfriend who stood around and watched) and kills them although we don’t see it since the camera falls to the ground. Afterward, their bodies are eaten by the tribe, which was shown (to some degree) at the beginning of the film. Cut to: I don’t want to watch this movie anymore. I’m done with transgressive films. Let me go back to haunted houses and hot vampires, please.

After that, we cut to Harold back at the newsroom with an air of finality. They won’t air the footage. Harold has done his job. He walks outside to light a pipe in the street and says out loud after a beat, “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” That’s the premise of the film summed up in one line: Who is civilized? The wholesome filmmakers, who once they’re away from home, resort to rape and brutality? Who are the real cannibals indeed?

I had a hard time watching Cannibal Holocaust, I tried to look away, I tried to shut it off; but I returned to it, telling myself: you have to watch it so that you can write about it. Don’t be a child and pretend that the world is just: see the world for what it is. Isn’t that the writer’s duty? To see things others aren’t comfortable seeing? Isn’t that why W. Somerset Maugham became a doctor; so that he could see human beings at their most vulnerable? When they were sick and dying? So that he could help, study and understand human nature as it is truly without filters or gauze?

I don’t know. But I know this, I actually liked the ending, much to my surprise. I wonder who the real cannibals are? Has there ever been a more intense line? The director seems to be saying: You are the real cannibalsCannibal Holocaust is an important film about human cruelty and the ethics of journalism and filmmaking, it’s an exploitation film about exploitation, wrap your head around that.

Horror fans always ask me if I’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust as if that is a measure of my horror knowledge. And a number of men have told me, “It’s not that scary!” Well, if it featured men being gang-raped then perhaps you might feel differently. I’ve finally seen Cannibal Holocaust and I wish I hadn’t. Please don’t watch this movie. You won’t like it. But if you must, and I warn you, don’t do it. But if you insist, it’s streaming on Shudder in the transgressive film section. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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