I first learned about Cannibal Holocaust when I was 14 or so. While snooping through my dad's closet, looking for Hanukkah gifts, I found a book they intended to give me, called Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Films. It was a collection of essays and one of the last chapters was by horror journalist Stanley Wiater, and titled "The Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made." Every chance I got, I would sneak in and memorize the titles, impatiently hoping this would be my first Hanukkah gift, and trying to hold back my disappointment when I didn't get it until the third night.
When the book was finally mine, I devoured "The Disturbo 13." I don't even remember any of the other chapters; I couldn't get past these 13 films. It was my mission to see every film on that list. Some were easy: Combat Shock, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, I Spit on Your Grave, and The Last House on the Left were all available on video. Cannibal Holocaust was not, which made it all the more alluring and illicit. Soon after, I started hitting horror conventions, discovered the world of bootlegs, and finally got my very own Cannibal Holocaust. This was back in the days of VHS, videos that were copies of copies of copies. My bootleg was fuzzy and blurry but I took great pride in it.
More than 30 years after director Ruggero Deodato released his opus in his home country of Italy (where it was subsequently banned for years, as well as in England, Australia, and a dozen or so other countries), Cannibal Holocaust is still a startling film. Its impact doesn't lessen with time. But why? It is certainly not the first in the Italian cannibal cycle, nor is it the goriest. But its realism is unparalleled, its structure is unique, and it is considered the first found-footage horror flick.
Cannibal Holocaust was born out of the mondo craze of the 1960s, kicked off by Mondo Cane in 1962. Mondo films acted under the guise of documentaries in order to show salacious footage of bizarre tribal rituals and deaths that were purported to be real. As the genre grew in popularity, suspicious arose around how the footage was obtained - were the documentarians inciting some of the violence in order to boost their box-office draw?
In Cannibal Holocaust, a group of noted documentarians head into "The Green Inferno," the Amazon, to shoot footage of cannibalistic tribes. The filmmakers never return, so an anthropology professor heads out to find them. Instead, what he finds are the filmmakers's remains, and the footage they shot. While the first half of the film is shot and told in a traditional filmic narrative, the second half of the film is comprised almost entirely of that footage retrieved from the jungle, interrupted occasionally by commentary from the professor and the all-too-excited network executives who can't wait to air every salacious frame. And salacious it is. The documentarians filmed themselves gang raping a local girl - and her subsequent punishment when the girl is later impaled through her vagina and out her mouth. Other atrocities include a ritualistic forced abortion; the filmmakers shooting a native to slow him down so he could lead them back to his village - then burning that village and its inhabitants; and the eventual rape, dismemberment, and consumption of the filmmakers.
So why is Cannibal Holocaust still remembered today as one of the most vile films of all time? The 1970s were rife with heinous exploitation. One thing that set Cannibal Holocaust apart was the quality of the film. Deodato wasn't just an exploitation filmmaker; he trained under some of the era's top Italian filmmakers, including Roberto Rossellini and Antonio Margheriti. The acting is surprisingly good and the footage is beautiful. It had a clear plot with a unique twist, the found-footage angle.
Accusations came pouring in that Cannibal Holocaust was an actual snuff film (in which people are killed on-camera purely for entertainment purposes). The Italian government actually charged Deodato with murder, until he produced all his actors, alive and well. What was real were the on-camera murders of more than a half-dozen wild animals, notably a muskrat, a large turtle, and a monkey. This legitimate footage added to the "authenticity" of the overall experience - and certainly upped the nausea-factor. Watching a human get fake-mutilated may make even harden gorehounds cringe, but watching a turtle get cracked open like a peanut is haunting.
Also adding to the authenticity was the "found footage" aspect of the film. Cannibal Holocaust was the first to use this device, one which has been copied countless times over, to varying degrees of success. Remember when The Blair Witch Project (or, more recently, Paranormal Activity) came out, and you walked out of the theater debating whether or not it was real? In a time when this storytelling device had never been used before, it was especially confusing for audiences.
While Paranormal Activity is credited for the reinvigoration of the found-footage film, and certainly for it's wild success, it all started with Cannibal Holocaust. The film's influence can be seen nowhere else as strongly as in ABC's The River: an expedition heads into the Amazon looking for a missing party, with a story told through the footage of the current expedition and the missing one. The River deals more with supernatural scares, while Cannibal Holocaust is focused on the horrible things humanity does to each other. But that is immaterial; in this case, it is form over function. All roads lead back to Cannibal Holocaust.