“I wonder who the real cannibals are” CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Deodato, 1980)

This movie is a big deal, in cannibal studies.

When you hear terms like “video nasties” or “grindhouse”, Cannibal Holocaust tends to be high on the list of titles mentioned. The film’s violence was extreme in 1980, although it has certainly been exceeded since then, with the “benefit” of CGI special effects. The scenes of death and cannibalism were enough to get the director, Ruggero Deodata, arrested for suspected murder, as he had arranged for the actors to go underground to give the impression that, just maybe, he had gone for the ultimate in cinéma vérité: a snuff movie. Where the film remains at the cutting edge (sorry) of extreme cinema even today was in its presentation of authentic animal cruelty, in the midst of fictional human deaths. For this it was widely condemned, even by those who otherwise enjoyed the film, and it was banned in several countries, including Italy and Australia. The best part of the film is probably Riz Ortolani’s stunning soundtrack. But in the end, I must grudgingly say that Cannibal Holocaust is a film more relevant than ever – because it is a direct indictment of “fake news”.

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At a time when news stories were increasingly becoming sensationalist beat-ups, and the American failure in the Vietnam war was still being blamed on the ubiquitous media coverage of the gruesome results of that conflict, Deodato is asking the question: “what can we believe”? Or, as the protagonist of the film, anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) asks in the last few frames

“I wonder who the real cannibals are?”

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This is the question that every cannibal film or TV show asks, in its own way. Hannibal Lecter denies he is a cannibal in season 3 of Hannibal (I’ll get to it in a couple of months) when he tells a victim, whose leg they are both eating:

“This isn’t cannibalism, Abel. It’s only cannibalism if we’re equals”.

Cannibalism is about power and appetite. Those we accuse of cannibalism, in this case the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, were in all probability never cannibals. The imperialists who came in search of gold, like Columbus, or oil or timber or news footage were the real consumers – of humans who had been transformed into commodities and resources. Cannibal Holocaust asks us to think about what, in the panorama of abuse, death and torture that surrounds us, is real?

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This wasn’t the first Italian cannibal film: that was Man From Deep River. It wasn’t even Deodato’s first cannibal film, which was Last Cannibal World (Ultimo Mondo Cannibale). He had gratuitous animal cruelty in that one too. But Cannibal Holocaust asked new questions about the media in which it was made, about the motivations of the documentary, and about what Deodato himself was doing.

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The film is told from the viewpoint of an anthropologist, Monroe, who is asked to go to the Amazon, to the area frequented by cannibal tribes and known as the “Green Inferno” (a name that spawned a tribute movie 33 years later). His mission is to find out what happened to four young American film-makers who disappeared there without a trace. Well, guess who came to dinner?

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The first half of the film is Monroe negotiating with the locals, watching a rape and murder, helping eat an adulterer, shooting several natives, and finding and recovering the cans of film that have survived the whole sordid adventure. And yes, making friends, but not enjoying dinner with the cannibals.

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The second half of the film purports to show that recovered film, which a television network wants to show uncut to the public to sensationalise their deaths. This part is often referred to as the forerunner of the “found footage” movies that became enormously popular later with Blair Witch Project. In fact, Punishment Park (Watkins, 1971) was probably the first found footage film, claiming that its story of anti-war protesters being dumped (and filmed) in the California desert is actual newsreel. But in that period, what was genuine newsreel footage was on television every night, and showed dead American soldiers, burning Vietnamese civilians, and Kent State University students being gunned down by the National Guard. The difference between real and fake news was becoming opaque, years before the time of Trump (in fact, when he was still busy avoiding the draft). Deodato said he believed a lot of the news reports of Red Brigade terrorism in Italy had been staged for the cameras. In any case, even in unvarnished reporting, the framing of the camera and choice of which shots to use make the concept of real, impartial news unattainable.

 

Who were the cannibals? The ones depicted as real savage cannibals in Cannibal Holocaust were described by Francesca Ciardi, who played Faye, one of the lost American filmmakers, as:

…perhaps the sweetest people I have ever met. The cannibals were just local people. They put wigs on them but in real life they were very clean people: they worked in offices and they wore well-pressed shirts”.

The most controversial legacy of this film is the appalling animal cruelty. Deodato juxtaposes brutal violence on humans (rape, murder, cannibalism) through special effects, while filming live and in gory detail the killing of a coatimundi, a giant turtle, a monkey (whose brains are eaten while still alive), a tarantula, a snake and a pig. When their guide gets bitten by that snake, we get “live action” of them chopping up the snake, then chopping off the man’s leg. The team make sure the camera is rolling before wielding the machete.

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What is he trying to achieve through this collision of fake human and actual animal deaths? Is it simply to try to extend the illusion that, just perhaps, these shaky images were indeed real footage, and the actors were dead? Well that didn’t last past his murder trial, where he had to produce them in the court in order to be exonerated.

Critic and media academic Calum Waddell points out that this movie shows vile and debased behaviour on both sides – the ‘savage’ natives and the ‘civilised’ Westerners. But the Americans are punished for it – they are eventually killed and eaten for their troubles. The natives? A few get shot or burned, but there is no judgement. Waddell calls this a “fascist perspective”, because white people shouldn’t act like this, and so get punished, but the “savages” – well, that’s just the way they are. We can’t expect better of them, and in fact the Americans, when they first land, young, strong and white, are the picture of gung-ho adventurers, seemingly invincible. Then they regress into savagery, as they trek deeper into the green inferno.

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They (the savages) are cannibals by nature, and we (the civilised) risk becoming like them. The civilised whites lose their humanity as they enter the inhuman world of the cannibals, just as American troops in Vietnam lost theirs as they became enmeshed in that jungle war and started to massacre villagers. The film crew set fire to the native village so they can film an imaginary war between tribes. They capture a young girl and rape her just for fun, then film her body, impaled on a stake for losing her virginity.

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Cannibal Holocaust documents the loss of belief in the inevitable progress of humanity, usually told through the invincibility of white privilege.

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The Americans film everything, even their own death at the hands of the infuriated natives. The interlopers act as imperialists always have, but now they get eaten for it.

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To complicate the question of truth or simulation, we are shown a series of clips that the Americans are said to have recorded earlier in their careers, which we are told were staged for the cameras. These were clips of actual executions and abuses that Deodata presents here as fake news, created to be sensationalist newsreels.

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So now we have Deodato playing with our heads: real human executions are presented as fake, while fake rape and killing is presented as real. Real animal abuse, insisted upon by the director, is accompanied by gallons of human gore and agony which we know is fake.  Monroe is told: “Today people want sensationalism.”

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The subtitles did not use spell-checking

Yet the roller-coaster of fact and fake does not really work. Did Deodato really expect people to file out of the cinema (when it was finally shown after years of censorship) scratching their heads and saying “those guys really did get eaten! Damn shame.” The scenes of actual vicious killings of animals seem meant to drive home the point that, just maybe, the deaths of the young Americans are real too. But, as Waddell points out, the coatimundi is killed in the first half, which is unequivocally a fictional presentation (or at best re-enactment) of the expedition to find the lost tapes. So that creature’s death is totally gratuitous.

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Or is it? Deodato seems to be saying: don’t swallow anything you see on screen.

Here’s the thing. Real atrocities go on, but usually in the dark, or behind walls, at least not near any cameras. The Americans catch and chop us a giant turtle who continues to move as his head is removed and he is disembowelled.

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We can be squeamish at the death of that beautiful turtle – Faye is filmed throwing up as they chop the animal’s head off, but then we see her biting into the cooked meat soon afterwards.

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The turtle died totally unnecessarily for the sake of a cheap movie shot. We can also be sickened by the scenes of rapes and murders of humans, which are fake, but look pretty real. But every moment, as we reach for the remote and gratefully turn off the movie, real atrocities are continuing everywhere, in wars and domestic abuse and abattoirs and laboratories. Real animals quiver in their death throes, millions of them every second, while we turn our faces away from the dying turtle. We are not filming those abuses, but very often we are paying for them, through our taxes or our shopping. Like Faye, the cruelty repels and nauseates us, but the appetite makes us forget. This film, perhaps, helps us to remember.

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Not easy being green (or lunch): THE GREEN INFERNO (Roth, 2013)

Green Inferno (Eli Roth) is a homage to Italian cannibal films of the late 1970s and early ’80s “cannibal boom”, particularly Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which featured a film-within-a-film called, you guessed it, The Green Inferno. The film follows a group of activists who are forced to fight for survival when they are captured by a cannibal tribe. This is a standard trope of the Italian cannibal films, although Roth tries to inject a few twists to bring it up to the 21st century (they are trying to save the tribe).

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The film was made in 2013 but only released on September 25, 2015.

The protagonist is Justine (Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo, at that time soon to be, and since then divorced, wife of Eli Roth). She plays a college freshman, who is a rebel without a cause. As the film opens, she is involved in a hunger strike to win health insurance for campus janitors. She escalates to outrage over female genital mutilation when she attends a lecture on the practice, and rushes off to lobby her father, who is a UN lawyer.

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The trouble starts when Jonah (Aaron Burns) invites her to a meeting of an activist group led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy). The group plans a trip to the Amazon rainforest to stop a big corporation from illegally logging the forest and exterminating the ancient native tribes who live there; their goal is to film the logging crews with cell phones and stream footage, to raise public awareness.

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The operation is funded by a drug dealer named Carlos, who flies them into Peru in a small plane. They arrive in the Amazon and head to a logging site where they begin their protest, chaining themselves to bulldozers while filming the loggers cutting down trees. A private militia arrives, and the protest receives viral attention on the internet when Justine is nearly shot by one of the militia officers. The group is arrested, but Carlos pays the police to let them go.

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In a scene reminiscent of Alive!, the plane crashes into the forest; OK, they are bouncing through trees instead of snow, but like Alive! wings are falling off, people are falling out of the back of the plane, etc. The survivors search for a GPS phone to call for help, but then the cannibals arrive, painted blood red. The group are shot with tranquiliser darts and taken to a small village where they are imprisoned in a bamboo cage.

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The female elder of the cannibal tribe dismembers and decapitates Jonah, in graphic detail, starting with his eyeballs and tongue.

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Tongues traditionally get a beating in cannibal movies, maybe because they represent the human ability to communicate with language, and so are ideal targets for those whose prime directive is not the survival of civilisation. Man From Deep River had a similar scene. Hannibal serves tongue to his friends in episode six of the first season of the television series, and Cordell promises to do the same to Hannibal in Season 3 episode seven:

I’ll boil it, slice it very thin, marinate it in olive oil, garlic, parsley and vinegar.

And of course, Clarice is warned about the time Hannibal ate a nurse’s tongue in Silence of the Lambs.

Here’s the twist: Alejandro had cynically staged the protest to benefit a rival company, and the eventual deforestation of the area is inevitable. If they can survive until the next lot of bulldozers arrive they might be saved – and because they cooked Jonah first, the village may not need to eat any more of them for a while (he’s a big lad).

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OK, no more spoilers – if you like gratuitous gore, go watch the movie. Suffice it to say that female genital mutilation manages to get back into the plot, and people get eaten – one alive, another by ants. Not sure which is worse.

Green Inferno was filmed on location in Chile, the Peruvian Amazon and New York City.

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But to make it feel really authentic, Roth decided to cast the Callanayacu tribe from Peru as the main “stars”. Nearly every person (except the Americans) in the movie is an actual member of the tribe that Roth discovered in the Amazon. A remote, self-sustaining farming (definitely not cannibal) community with no electricity or running water, the Callanayacu had little contact with the outside world beyond the occasional supply boat.

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While Roth had found the perfect cast, he soon found that most of the tribe had no concept of what a movie was, and had never seen one. So Roth brought a generator and a TV and made them watch the 1980 grindhouse film, Cannibal Holocaust.

“We had to explain to them conceptually what a movie was, and showed them Cannibal Holocaust — and they thought it was the funniest thing that they had ever seen” Roth said in an interview.

Roth says the decision to film in the Peruvian jungle paid off.

“The footage looks so spectacular. It’s something you couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. We went farther than any cameras had ever gone before. They call the river gorge ‘Pongo de Aguirre’ because Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God was the last film to shoot there. But we went deeper, to a point where there was nothing but river and jungle. It was an incredible experience.”

Roth’s movies are all tributes to the great horror classics. Green Inferno does not try to say much new – it puts a bunch of (mostly) white people in a jungle full of primitive irrational cannibals, out of their depth, and makes them face their worst fears – the key trope of cannibal films. Probably the majority of cannibal movies do that, including Road to Zanzibar. The twist here is that the cannibals are not the bad guys – they are doing what Roth imagines primitive people did all the time (he is certainly wrong there).

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The people he is condemning are of course the venal corporations, but also the sanctimonious “social justice warriors” as he calls them:

“the film is really about people getting caught up in causes they don’t know anything about and doing it for vanity reasons more than for the cause itself.”

But Roth is not doing much for the locals either, showing them as brutal and merciless killers, and Survivor International said the group was “disturbed” by the depiction of the tribe, explaining, “These stories have created a racist view of uncontacted and isolated groups.” Amazon Watch and AIDESEP voiced similar concerns.

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The film took a hammering by the critics. Variety said:

“A project that boasts all the appeal (and aroma) of a carcass rotting in the rainforest.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a measly 36%, with the audience rating below even that.

Stephen King, on the other hand, who knows a bit about horror, tweeted that the film is:

“like a glorious throwback to the drive-in movies of my youth: bloody, gripping, hard to watch, but you can’t look away.”

 

Incidentally, this is not the only Green Inferno movie. As well as the film within a film in Cannibal Holocaust, the cannibal film genre was supposed to have died with Antonio Climati’s 1988 film  Natura Contro (English: Against Nature), also known in English as The Green Inferno and Cannibal Holocaust II.

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Climati had no intention of making a sequel to Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, and the title was used by distributors of the film to cash in on the success and notoriety of the earlier film. In 2002, British distributor VIPCO released Natura Contro on VHS and DVD as Cannibal Holocaust II, the film’s best known name. Not much cannibalism in it though.

Next week: more Hannibal episodes!

 

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