Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust ★★★★★


Cannibal Holocaust was a formative experience for me in the same way that a lot of movies were for 14-year-old me. I'd scavenge lists like "top 50 most DISTURBING films EVER made" and "the WORST of the VIDEO NASTIES", as I thought that a lot of what made cinema 'adult' was gore, sex, and, gasp, explicit content. In hindsight, some of those films I've left behind as adolescent exercises in brutality. Often, movies like A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede have the hallmarks of exploitation classics, but they're all nasty surface - just pushing the envelope further so viewers don't notice how shallow it all is.

But in returning to Cannibal Holocaust, a film that once terrified an impressionable me with its content, is now additionally frightening for its ideas, structure, and visual complexity. It's the real deal - a 'video nasty' that fully lives up to its controversy (and then some) but also is impossible to pin down. Ruggero Deodato's film does provide a highlight reel of depravity, no doubt, but as a director who learned first-hand from Rossellini and Corbucci, this is as visceral as it is excruciatingly measured. For every instance of animal cruelty or other abhorrent horrors, there's a calculated moment that hits like a spider bite when you least expect it. The balance of formats, from the initial travelogue 35mm segments to the 16mm found-footage leading right into the heart of darkness, is brilliant. By the time the film gets to the 'found-reels', you're enveloped in the feverish images and synth soundscape, unable to escape its gravitational pull.

The most telling theme in Cannibal Holocaust is the 'snake eats its own tail" level of complicity. Is the film not just shaming the white man for their colonialist nature, but also the viewers of Cannibal Holocaust itself for wanting to see more? Quite possibly! Not only is this a dissection of 'mondo' documentaries from the 1960s, and the sensationalism that was utilized as a cover for exploitation of ingenious cultures and the filming of atrocities instigated by white people, but it's also a key text in understanding why people watch movies like this. The scene where the director of the documentary has to be told by the cameraman to stop smiling while looking at a girl impaled through the mouth on a pole basically sums up the necessity of exposing sensationalism as what it is; the exploitation of culture by media practices and the thinly-veiled artistic pursuit of 'truth'.

But in spite of all this - it appeals to the lizard-brain of seeking out films like this for a thrill, even if it has a contempt for itself as a filmic object and the viewer for even watching it. As a deconstruction, it works, but let's not act all high and mighty. Cannibal Holocaust is a 'cannibal jungle adventure' film par excellence. Filthy and humid and deplorable from the first frame to the last. Something like Eli Roth's The Green Inferno is child's play in comparison. And as troubling as it is, or maybe *because* it's so troubling, this is the summit of exploitation, not just for it's immediate gnarly impact, but how it's sequenced and constructed. Always aware of itself as it wanders into the Amazon, never to return.

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