July 31, 2014


*The following is the second part of a four part review/analysis of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST


“For the sake of authenticity, some sequences have been retained in their entirety”

The film opens with this simple yet confusing statement. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is a mixture of two distinct cinematic representations. The first is your standard movie reality. The other is found footage cinema verite. So what exactly is this statement referring to? Exactly what is it implying? In a medley of equally fake cinematic representations, what does authenticity have to do with anything? It isn’t until after watching the film and experiencing the technique behind its construction that this statement begins to make sense.

The first half of the film, New York University anthropology professor Harold Monroe's journey into the Amazon to uncover the fate of four missing documentary filmmakers, borrows largely from the existing cannibal films of the time. The cannibal film isn’t exactly a sub genre. It consists of less than two dozen films, all carbon copies of one another, all dealing with the same basic story (civilized adventurers meet their demise at the hands of uncivilized cannibals). Taken as a whole, this loose collection of films barely rises to the standard of the slasher film, itself a grouping of films that feel like Xeroxed copies of one another.
*Some history:
The film that originated the trend was not a cannibal film at all. Elliot Silverstein’s A MAN CALLED HORSE features a wealthy English man running afoul of a group of wild Native Americans. He is captured and brutally tortured before gaining the acceptance of the tribe. From this template, Umberto Lenzi, the prolific giallo and horror director, created MAN FROM DEEP RIVER in 1972. The protagonist here is yet another man of privilege. His captors are not Native Americans, however. They’re a tribe of jungle dwelling savages at war with an even more savage group of cannibals. MAN FROM DEEP RIVER shows the influence of the Mondo film with its keen interest in bizarre ritual and inclusion of animal butchery as a way to bolster the sense of realism.
The film was not a runaway success, though it found a home in the grindhouse circuits here in the States where it was re-edited, re-titled as SACRIFICE, and often shown in a double billing alongside other trashy Eurohorrors. The next film in the cannibal craze came five years later. Directed by CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST director Ruggero Deodato, LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (or JUNGLE HOLOCAUST) was much rougher, much more graphic and featured many more scenes of animal butchery, including the painful skinning and dismemberment of an alligator. The films that appeared directly after LAST CANNIBAL WORLD were tamer and less interested in being vomitoriums. EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS and PAPAYA, LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS are softcore pornos dressed up in cannibal clothing, and Sergio Martino’s THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD is little more than a boys only adventure novel set in the Amazon. But then came CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and everything took a dramatic turn to the dark side.
If by the end of the first half of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, you're feeling underwhelmed, I completely understand. But this half of the film is crucial to the success of the film as a whole. It provides us with the two sides of the moral spectrum, the civilized society of New York City with its modern advancements, and the primitive society of jungle dwelling natives who delight in the killing and eating of human beings. We learn of the fate of the four filmmakers who ventured into the jungles of Amazonia, but we do not yet know the particulars. This opening movement is little more than exposition but it provides us with the backbone of the films moral argument.

In these opening scenes, Deodato is insinuating something a bit sinister. The trip to the Amazon is being funded by both the New York University and by the Pan-American Broadcasting System. From the get-go, it is made clear that the representatives of the broadcasting company want Monroe to bring back whatever footage of the missing filmmakers he can find so it can be packaged and broadcast as a piece of sensationalist journalism. The parallel between the civilized cannibals, those who feed off of the misfortunes and unhappy fates of the unfortunate, and the uncivilized cannibals of the Amazon is made abundantly clear. For Deodato, there is no true distinction except running water, skyscrapers and screening rooms. Both are cannibalizing the flesh of their dead. One group is just doing it for the money.

Further similarities are made once we arrive to the Amazon. None of these similarities are particularly difficult to notice. The clash of the two cultures, the soldiers and the cannibal tribes, is the easiest to decipher (darts/guns, animalistic/ordered, primitive/advanced) and their vicious actions are closely matched. Deodato's use of metaphor and analogy is not particularly new to anyone who has seen, for example, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, but the graphic depiction of brutality most certainly is.

This first half of the film contains the first use of actual violence in the film. Miguel, one of Prof. Monroe's guides, captures a small animal. In close-up, with the animal held tightly in the center of the frame, Miguel stabs and then slices open the neck of the terrified creature. A quick reaction shot shows the disgust of Prof. Monroe before returning to a close-up of the slowly dying animal. Once the animal has stopped squealing, the film returns to a medium wide shot, only returning to close-up when their Yacumo captive starts munching on the fresh innards of the animal.

This sequence provides the first glimpse of the Mondo tactics to come. Deodato stops the flow of his narrative dead in his tracks and breaks with his directorial scheme in order to bring us up close and personal to the death of a living animal. This is not only unethical but also unnecessary. If this were any other film (excepting, of course, the Mondo film) the moment of the animal's death would have been kept off screen. Prof. Monroe's pained reaction shot would have been triggered by the off-screen squeals of the animal. The scene would have then continued, cutting to Miguel tossing the animal innards to the captive Yacumo. End of scene. But Deodato films it. Why?

In keeping with the Mondo tradition, the inclusion of this graphic footage lends an air of credibility to the proceedings. It also shows the clear distinction between Prof. Monroe and his Yacumo guide. One will partake of the feast and one will not. But it is still unnecessary and is, in my opinion, a mistake on Deodato's part. Withholding the real carnage until reaching the Green Inferno would have been much better. The following scenes of horror we witness in this early sequence are all patently fake. The murder of the adulterer on the banks of the river, for example, might be disturbing to watch, but it is, by no means, convincing. Neither is the evisceration and cannibalization of several rival tribesmen. When compared to the Green Inferno footage, the footage here looks fake and feels fake. The killing of a single animal doesn't do much to change that.

All around Prof. Monroe is evidence of the four filmmakers and the troubles they have caused. At this point in the film, we have no idea who the filmmakers were beyond their names and reputations. What we will come to learn is that these people are much, much worse than the natives they were seeking. Through a series of encounters and bargains, Prof. Monroe gains entrance to the native village and access to the film canisters left behind by the missing filmmakers. None of it required violence on their part or the unnecessary murder of innocent people. Prof. Monroe and his party are invited to witness a ritual sacrifice and to join in the feast, something Prof. Monroe reluctantly does. One civilization has encountered another without violent conquest. This stands in firm contrast to the near annihilation of a tribe by the lost filmmakers.


Once the footage has been returned to New York, Prof. Monroe is given the chance to view a film shot by the deceased filmmakers. It is a miniature Mondo film consisting mostly of newsreel footage taken in an unspecified country, though most likely an African country.

The film, entitled "The Last Road to Hell", runs for a little over a minute in real time, interrupted only by three cut-away insert shots of Prof. Monroe reacting to the violence on-screen. These three cut-aways are important in their placement. To understand this brief section of the film, you should really watch it play out. I'll provide a simple rundown in the following format:
Please note that the run-time code is taken from the unedited cut of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST on the Grindhouse Releasing DVD edition.
#1 (44.32)  Men being executed by a firing squad (4 edits exists within the scene but none leave the scene)
#2 (44:47) Men laying out coffins.
#3 (44:51) Footage of a General reading a speech. While no subtitles are presented for this segment of the film, it's highly likely that this is meant to be a death sentence being read to the crowd as the speech continues through #8.
#4 (44:54) Two men are tied to poles awaiting the firing squad.
#5 (44:57) First cut-away to Prof. Monroe.
#6 (45:01) Soldiers marching in place.
#7 (45:02) Continued from #4, another shot of the two men tied to the poles.
#8 (45:05) Panning shot of a crowd standing behind a fence with soldiers before them.
#9 (45:07) Second cut-away.

#10 (45:09) Various people walking down a road. A corpse is lying in the middle of the road.
#11 (45:16) More people walking with a truck load of soldiers behind them.
#12 (45:19) A child is shot to death.
#13 (45:22) Third cut-away.
#14 (45:25) Burnt bodies being placed on blankets.
#15 (45:28) Panning shot of a road lined with corpses.
#16 (45:32) Soldiers leading two men away, their hands tied behind their backs.
#17 (45:36) Continued from #16, the two men are shown tied to poles.
#18 (45:37) Continued from #17, the two men are shown talking to the soldiers.
#19 (45:39) Continued from #18, one of the men has a large, black bag placed over his head.
#20 (45:40) Continued from #19, soldiers lining up for the firing line.
#21 (45:43) Continued from #20, shot of the man with the black bag over his head.
#22 (45:45) Continued from #21, soldiers firing their weapons.
#23 (45:47) Continued from #22, shot of one of the men dead.
#24 (45:49) Continued from #23, doctors checking on one of the men and confirming him dead.
#25 (45:52) Continued from #24, men tossing the dead bodies onto a truck.
#26 (45:53) Continued from #25, brief shot of the dead bodies in the back of the truck.
Film ends at 45:54.
There is no doubting the authenticity of most of this footage (though depending on the interview, Deodato staged half of it, all of it, or none of it). Of all the shots contained in this film, only #11 and #12 seem out of place. They are obviously taken from a completely different source. Not only is the film quality different but the people portrayed are not of the same ethnicity. The rest seems genuine.

The cut-away scenes are notable for their placement. The first is innocuous enough. But the second and the third indicate that Deodato is not yet ready to place us directly in harm’s way. The second cut-away conceals an execution. We only hear the gunfire on the soundtrack. We don't actually see the men being riddled with bullets. The third cut away is placed after the brief scene of the child being shot to death. This is the piece of film I am not entirely convinced by. Regardless, the sight of a child being shot to death is not something to be taken lightly and Deodato immediately yanks us out of the "fake reality" of the documentary and places us back within the comfortable "reality" of the screening room set. This is not something we will get much of in the third act of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

This segment of the film puts the Mondo film in its proper perspective. The capitalizing on real life atrocities for personal gain or recognition was the Mondo films stock in trade and the filmmakers who worked in the Mondo film had no qualms about it. "The Last Road to Hell" adequately summarizes the entirety of the Mondo cycle. Notice the way this little film is edited, the way it focuses almost entirely on the act of violence being committed without any empathy or proper context. That is the core of the Mondo film.

Once the film is done, Prof. Monroe is told that the whole thing is a fake, a "put-on" and that the filmmakers had simply paid some soldiers to "do a bit of acting". This is troubling in its implications and returns to my earlier criticisms of Jacopetti and Prosperi. This dismissal of the film we have just seen as a put-on is never really explained.

What exactly was fake? Were the murders faked? If so, then Alan and his fellow filmmakers are total frauds and con men. If the murders were real but the situations they occurred in were fake (that is to say, staged for the camera), then Alan and his crew are not only frauds and con men but much, much worse.

End part 2. To read Part 3, click HERE.

July 13, 2014


*The following is the first part of a four part review/analysis of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. This work originally appeared on Films That Witness Madness a long time back. As the film is now entering the HD world in the form of a new Blu-ray release, I thought it would be a perfect time to revisit this review. Be warned: it's a long one.

Are there any horror fans left who have not heard of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST? There are certainly many who have not seen it. For those people whose tastes in horror reside in the PG-13/soft-R -rated fare, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST represents a line they dare not cross. Decades of whispered rumors about human sacrifices, animal butchery, and unbridled sadism have turned CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST into a film unlike any other, a work of true nihilism, a bloody journey straight into the heart of darkness. It is a film whose reputation is well deserved, that much is true, but it is neither as "dangerous"and/or "intolerable" as some believe. For horror fans resisting seeing CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST because of its graphic content, I can only say this: see it now and do not, under any circumstances, cover your eyes. It most certainly contains very real atrocities, but it also contains moments of sheer exhilaration and genuine beauty. 

It is also one of the most cerebral horror films ever made. It has a message and it has a motive. Numerous film critics and theorists (many, if not most, are much better suited than I am to undertake even the most rudimentary analysis of this film) have managed to produce multiple readings of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. They range from political and Marxist to the more standard Freudian and Jungian readings. All of them are valid in one way or another, but you don’t need to delve too deep to see what is going on beneath the surface, especially if you have a familiarity with Italian genre cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the endless conversation this film has generated over the years, there are still people out there holding the belief that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has nothing to say, that it is little more than a belligerent bully masquerading as a message movie. This essay is my own small attempt to convince them otherwise.


To understand CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, one needs to remember the time in which it was made. This was the era of the Mondo film, a particularly nasty, useless movement in shock documentary that offered up numerous, unconnected scenes of everything from bizarre cultural traditions, explicit sexuality, autopsy footage, animal butchering and political assassinations, all under the guise of credible documentary. While some are of unique interest, the majority are little more than advertisements for the darker side of human nature and the inherent cruelty of the species with nothing to add to the conversations of anthropology, sociology and philosophy. While the Mondo films roots were in nudie-cutie flicks, the real breakthrough for the sub-genre came in the form of MONDO CANE, a National Geographic-esque expose of bizarre rituals in both civilized and uncivilized societies. So far, so harmless, MONDO CANE was a hit in many countries, even earning an Academy Award nomination for best song. Its director, Gualtiero Jacopetti, had apparently stumbled across a formula for success. In the usual way of things, numerous Italian filmmakers followed suit.

It became apparent rather early on to the Mondo filmmakers that nudity, frank sexuality, navel gazing gawking at “uncivilized people” and downright odd culinary habits would not be enough to sustain the Mondo films viability. Only four years after the release of MONDO CANE, Jacopetti, along with his co-director Franco Prosperi, were in Africa shooting footage (undoubtedly for another Mondo film) when they found themselves in the heart of a revolution. This was in 1963, when the Kenyan government was taking over rule from the British. As a result, anarchy spread through many areas. The two filmmakers, recognizing they have stumbled upon something great, used their time and expenses to create AFRICA ADDIO, a film that would alter the course of the Mondo film forever. 

AFRICA ADDIO is the most nauseating of the Jacopetti/Prosperi Mondo films. Almost a third of the film is animal butchery. Elephants, hippos and everything under the sun are mercilessly killed for one reason or another, often in close-up, always in plain view of the cameras. As horrible as this bloodshed is, the films most hideous moments come in the last half hour. We witness, plain as day, two men murdered, the first by a firing squad, the second by a single shot through the chest (with a second round to the head for good measure). For all their hard work, Jacopetti and Prosperi found themselves accused of fomenting violence for the sake of their film. Those charges were ultimately dismissed by the Minister of Justice for lack of evidence but the question still stands. Had they? Were the guilty of that crime? Was the wholesale slaughter in AFRICA ADDIO really staged?

We will never know but if I had to wager a guess, I'd say yes. I won't make the claim that those two men were killed solely for the sake of a miserable documentary. That would be wrong of me. But what of the hundreds of animals that were speared, slashed and shot? It's obvious that the presence of a camera will make ordinary folks do incredibly stupid things, so are we really sure that Jacopetti and Prosperi wouldn't have been able to talk some of the locals into spearing a few dozen animals for the sake of documentary realism? Many of these scenes resemble canned hunts. Some are even heavily edited, suggesting that the hunters stopped their stabbing and prodding long enough for Jacopetti and Prosperi to change positions for better framing. I don't think for a second that they were beyond doing that. Look a little closer at their personal histories, watch a little bit of their previous work and you will find these men to be extreme opportunists and worse.
*I would recommend watching Paolo Cavara’s THE WILD EYE. Cavara was co-director on several Jacopetti Mondo films, including MONDO CANE and WOMEN OF THE WORLD. His association with Jacopetti ended before AFRICA ADDIO was released, but Cavara’s film explicitly references several scenes in AFRICA ADDIO and portrays Paolo, the films stand-in for Jacopetti, in a less than favorable light. My review of THE WILD EYE can be found  HERE.
Now let’s re-frame that question, “was the wholesale slaughter in AFRICA ADDIO really staged?”, to fit the basic principles of documentary filmmaking, that what we are seeing is unaltered, uncoerced truth. As noted, several sequences in AFRICA ADDIO look staged; that is, they appear to be arranged for the sake of the cameras. That would violate the laws of the documentary film. As far back as NANOOK OF THE NORTH, often referred to as the first feature-length documentary ever made, filmmakers were staging scenes for the sake of their films. If Jacopetti and Prosperi staged some (or all) of the hunting scenes in AFRICA ADDIO for their film, are they more or less guilty of fabrication than Robert Flaherty, a director who staged a tame, quaint and rather bloodless hunting scene for NANOOK OF THE NORTH, a film loved by millions?

There can be no difference. Just because one is a film loved by millions and the other is an odious blasphemy of documentary values, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't treat them the same and apply the same laws to both. Both are guilty of breaking the rules of the documentary film, even though Jacopetti and Prosperi have a lot more blood to wash off their hands for it. Both should be disqualified. Neither film serves their audience well in regards to the presentation of the truth. While Flaherty never intended for NANOOK OF THE NORTH to be considered a "documentary" (the genre did not even exist when NANOOK OF THE NORTH went into production; there were only "actualities" like the travelogue and industrial film) it has, nevertheless, been admitted into the genre. It shouldn't have been. It's as bogus as AFRICA ADDIO.

The definition of documentary is as follows:
a film or program portraying an actual event, life of a real person, period of history, or the like, in a factual way, esp. one containing sections photographed of actual incidents as they occurred”
"As they occurred". Not "after they were staged".

Perhaps the most famous piece of documentary film is the Zapruder film, a 26.6 second piece of film showing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While the facts this soundless bit of film presents - namely that John F. Kennedy, his wife, Texas Governor John Connally and Connally's wife were in a motorcade traveling through Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963 at 12:30 p.m. (CST); that both Kennedy and Connally were shot, Kennedy being struck fatally in the head - are indisputable, look what has happened since. By tying the events depicted in the Zapruder film into an elaborate conspiracy theory, the very meaning of the factual evidence present in the Zapruder film changes. In his film JFK, Oliver Stone argues somewhat convincingly for a second gunman in part by using the Zapruder film as evidence for his existence. None of that can be deduced from watching Zapruder's film. 

Not unless you add to the film, break it apart, apply subtext, apply "proof". In other words, change the factual evidence at hand to fit your conclusions.

This is a problem with the documentary film. While a camera can capture truth, it can only do so if left completely alone and hidden from view. Set a camera up and let it run. Do not touch it, do not draw attention to it, do not edit the footage, do not overlay optical effects or overdub a soundtrack. Any human intervention will undo that truth. In documentary film, a narrative is imposed during the editing process. The interviews that were taken, questions that were asked, answers that were given are handed over to an editor who then takes this footage, slices it up and molds it into a narrative structure. The film, as it were, “becomes truth”. 

In documentary filmmaking, “truth” is a malleable thing, only a means to make a message. That is exactly what Jacopetti and Prosperi were doing in AFRICA ADDIO. Watch the film and gaze in shocked awe at the abundance of animals being killed by Africans. Killing and eating animals is a part of human existence. Hunting for food is still a common activity in many parts of our otherwise modernized world. There is little doubt that many people in Africa in the 1960s  hunted, either for food or for sport, but by focusing so much attention on these vicious hunting scenes for the sake of their film, Jacopetti and Prosperi shifted the focus of their story to fit their underlying prejudices. Anyone who has watched any of their films cannot deny the fact that these were very racist men. In fact, their whole point and underlying philosophy can be boiled down to a simple equation:


That idea runs through all of their Mondo films and what better way to emphasize this then by focusing on the tremendous slaughter of every creature they come across. The entirety of the film is like this. Because there is no “on set” audio recording for much of the film, we have to rely on the ever-present narrator to tell us the “truth” of what is going on. We are told by the narrator that these Africans are cannibals and rapists. While a man is awaiting his execution, we are told that he murdered two dozen children. The film never provides evidence for its condemnations. It doesn’t have to. It just needs to show us a pack of hunters spearing, slashing and gutting defenseless animals. Put up the image, make the accusation and allow the audience to connect the dots. 

So what does all of this have to do with CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST? It’s simple. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is the ultimate refutation of the Mondo film. This might seem like kicking a dead horse. Mondo films had, by the time of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUSTs release in 1980, mutated more or less into the shockumentary or death film. They no longer held any pretensions in regards to documentary realism. They no longer offered themselves as exposes or anthropological documents. They were simply strings of atrocities accompanied by a mocking, semi-serious narrator. But CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST doesn't pay these films any mind. It goes back to the Mondo days of yore with its sights set square on the Godfathers of the Mondo film, Jacopetti and Prosperi. 

End part 1. To read Part 2, click HERE.