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.

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