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CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980): Retro Review…The ‘Holy Grail’ of Horror Flicks

Cannibal Holocaust – 1980

I was lucky enough to be a kid (and a horror fan) back in the golden age of the local video store.  As some of you will remember, there was nothing quite like that trip to your neighborhood rental place to browse through the shelves of the many varied flicks that were available that you’d never heard of; you know, those dark, twisted (often, but not always foreign) films that you just didn’t hear about in the American media of that time.  I discovered the works of Argento and Bava perusing the racks, as well as films like Burnt OfferingsBeyond The Door,  and old favorites such as Nosferatu.  You gotta remember, these weren’t movies that played on the prehistoric basic cable television channels we got back in those days, so this was like opening Aladdin’s Cave for a young horror fanatic like I was.  During those times, there was one particular  movie whispered about in the middle school halls; a film that was so horrible, so gory, that it was banned all over the world…rumor was, people had actually died  on film!  This was too much to my circle of friends that based a lot of our cred on how many truly bloody films we’d seen; it became my ambition to discover this movie for myself, and although my local video store never had it (the asshole that worked the counter delighted in telling me that he’d s een it, and it was awesome ), in my late teens the wonders of the mega-chain video stores (Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, etc.) finally provided me with a means to lay my hands on this “holy grail” of horror films…

…the infamous 1980 Ruggero Deodato production, Cannibal Holocaust.

Professor Monroe consults with Chaco

A young group of documentary filmmakers, three young men and one woman, who have reputation of fearlessness and determination to get the story at any cost, have disappeared.  They were on a network-funded excursion to make a movie about the alleged cannibal tribes still living along the Amazon River, but nothing has been heard of them for two months.  They were last seen after leaving their hotel and departing on a small bush plane to begin their expedition; after that, they have simply disappeared without a trace.  The local authorities haven’t been able to turn up anything on the group, so noted anthropologist and NYU professor Harold Monroe is asked by the television network that had employed the filmmakers to lead another  expedition to try to find what happened to them.  Monroe travels to the dense jungle (the “green inferno”, as the locals call it), and with the help of his surly hired guides Chaco and Miguel, makes his way to the settlements of two different cannibal tribes, the Yacomo and Yamamomo.  There he finds both evidence of the passing of the film crew, and a disturbing sense of mistrust amongst the natives.

The remains of the “intrepid” film crew…

After finally gaining their trust, he is taken to see a ceremonial effigy of some sort, where his worst suspicions are confirmed:  the decorative hanging contains the skulls and remains of the four young people…but also amongst the gruesome mobile hangs their film canisters.  He persuades the chief of the tribe to let him have the film, and returns to New York to view the footage.  What he finds is grisly, disturbing, and abhorrent…


…but not necessarily in the way he (or we ) suspected.  Let’s just say that the film’s title is accurate, but misdirecting.

I’m not going into any detail about the film; I certainly wouldn’t want to ruin any of it for the uninitiated; suffice to say, what you see is graphic, gory, and unsettling…even by today’s standards, this one is a gorehound’s treat…but only for a certain kind o’ gorehound.  You’re warned.

You want breast or thighs?

The story is pretty damned impressive for its time, and it really went beyond what I was expecting from it.  In the years I looked for it, I really didn’t think of it as more than just a “gore-show”, something that would have a lot of blood ‘n’ guts and not much in the story department; I was wrong.  There is a compelling message in the film, and it actually rises a bit above the standard for horror films of that era, and is head and shoulders above the spate of “Italian Cannibal” films that proliferated in it’s wake; the same could be said of the acting performances, which while not award-winning were appropriate and largely convincing.  Of course, the flick wouldn’t have its reputation if there weren’t some pretty goddamn raw scenes, and here the film does not  disappoint; some of the most grueling and sadistic things you can imagine are seen happening to people.  You’ve got impalement, rape, beheadings, disembowelment, ritual mutilation of a woman with a dildo that looks like a whittled baseball bat, a most unpleasant-to-watch penis removal, and (of course) cannibalism, just to hit the high points.  Contrary to those adolescent rumors, no person actually died*, but to give you an idea of how realistic this all appears, director Ruggero Deodato was brought up on murder charges in Italy after the film was first released, and had to produce the actors to prove that it was all done with movie magic!

Smells GOOD!

Besides the surprising social commentary and in-your-face gore that it offered, Cannibal Holocaust  has another  distinction that is still proving to be a huge influence on modern films; considering that the real  horror is in the film that Monroe brings back, this film is largely considered to be the great-grandpappy of all “found footage” films.  For an English-language Italian production filmed in South America, I was actually quite surprised by the level of filmmaking skill that is present.  The lush, gorgeous, and yet foreboding backdrop of the jungle is beautifully and effectively used in the footage, as well as the realistic depiction of the tribes (actual tribal Amazonians were used in the film), their relationship with their jungle, and their attitudes toward interlopers (and the reasons  for those attitudes).  Even the score is a strange inspiration, coming off like some kind of nature documentary music, yet because of this strangeness and juxtaposition to the carnage, it comes off complementing the film quite well.

I have to say, when I finally got to see it, the film was everything I’d hoped and more.  I can’t say I enjoyed  it; it’s not the kind of film I think people watch to enjoy (and those that do…well, you guys stay in your own neighborhoods, willya?), but I certainly don’t regret it.

An iconic scene…

In no way do I want to give you the impression that it’s a great  film, but with it’s reputation, it’s actually much better than most give it credit for.  It is, of course, an exploitation film, but given it’s moral and social message, it manages to be more that just a mere  exploitation film.

Who are the real  cannibals?  Give it a watch, and you  tell me.

Toss out those two pennies, folks.


*Note:  For you animal lovers out there, I am obliged to mention the several scenes that really drum up the controversy around this film, and those involve actual animal killings.  There are several gruesome scenes of animal killing and butchering, and although it’s said that all of these were consumed as dinner by the tribes that were being filmed, that really doesn’t excuse their exploitative use; Deodato himself says he wishes he’d never filmed those scenes.  Fortunately, on modern DVDs and Blu-Rays there’s an option to watch the film without these scenes, should you be so inclined. 




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Andrew Thompson

Editor-In-Chief at LeglessCorpse
The Mouse...VP/co-owner of LC Films, Editor-In-Chief of your average guy with what is most likely an unhealthy affinity for horror movies, sci-fi, superheroes, bacon, old cartoons and horror movies. Oh, I almost forgot, I really dig horror movies; new ones, old ones, it matters not; I love 'em. Husband, father, veteran and scribbler. I like bacon as well. The Mouse abides 😉