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Cannibal Holocaust   A

Grindhouse Releasing

Year Released: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Writer: Gianfranco Clerici
Cast: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes.

Review by Mike Bracken

Powerful. Visceral. Disturbing. In a perfect world, all horror movies would be accurately described by these three important adjectives. But it's not a perfect world, and as genre fans, we often find ourselves settling for movies that are maybe only one of the above -- if we're lucky. And that, my friends, is why Cannibal Holocaust is one of the greatest horror/exploitation movies ever filmed.

Made in 1979 (released in 1980), Cannibal Holocaust was one of the last titles of the popular Italian cannibal cycle, yet it's regarded by many critics as the finest film in the entire subgenre. Director Ruggero Deodato (Jungle Holocaust, House on the Edge of the Park) manages to create a classic "chunkblower" in terms of on-screen gore, yet he also infuses the work with a sense of morality that seems strangely out of place in an Italian exploitation flick.

The film utilizes the mock-documentary setup nearly 20 years prior to The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, focusing on several young mondo-style filmmakers who enter the South American jungle (referred to as the "green hell") to find a lost tribe of cannibals. The filmmakers never return, leading a professor (Robert Kerman: Cannibal Ferox, Eaten Alive, and a ton of pornos under the name R. Bolla) to go in search of them roughly a year later. Kerman finds the tribe, barters for the footage, and returns to NYC -- where we see what happened to the film crew.

As is to be expected in an exploitation flick, the acting is pretty bad (although not as bad as the NYC scenes in Cannibal Ferox). Each thespian plays their character with a completely over-the-top sense of glee, especially the members of the film crew, who are the antagonists for the first half of the film. Kerman turns in a decent performance as the professor, but everyone else around him who isn't a cannibal is overacting... badly.

But no one watches a film like Cannibal Holocaust for the performances, right? No, we watch a movie like this mainly for the gore. So, does it deliver the goods? You bet. This is one of those films that separates the men from the boys. The FX work of Aldo Gasparri (White Slave, Django 2) is impressive, especially considering that this movie was made in the '70s with a limited budget and little of today's FX technology. Scenes like the woman impaled on a pole -- through her vagina and out her mouth -- are incredibly realistic and much more powerful than any of today's big-budget CGI horror FX. Other atrocities caught on camera include: a castration, some beatings with large hammers, gut munching, some real-life cruelty to animals (sadly, several real animals are killed on tape), and a few rapes... you're not gonna want to have a screening of this one for grandma and the kids.

Needless to say, Cannibal Holocaust has been banned just about everywhere. It was one the first of the "video nasties" to receive an outright banning in Britain, and it was even banned in Deodato's homeland, Italy. In fact, in an unprecedented move, Deodato had to endure an obscenity trial after being unable to convince Italian authorities that the footage was indeed staged. Deodato lost the original trial, and all prints were to be destroyed. He managed to have the ruling overturned in the early '80s.

The film is well shot, with the second-half documentary footage looking extremely real. Unlike The Blair Witch Project, the footage is relatively steady and shouldn't cause anyone to clutch for the Dramamine. Also worth noting is Riz Ortolani's (Revenge of the Dead, House on the Edge of the Park) score, which is strangely mellow, yet contrasts the on-screen carnage quite nicely.

Gianfranco Clerici's (Jungle Holocaust, New York Ripper) script is better than would be required in a film of this kind, managing to balance the exploitation and depravity with some moral themes. One character wonders who the real savages are in the film, and the story certainly points out that it is us. Whether it be the mondo-journalists willing to go to any extreme to get what they want on tape or the audiences who watch their efforts, it's clear that in Cannibal Holocaust's universe we are indeed the monsters. Sure, it's all dealt with in a heavy-handed way, but let's face it, nothing in this film was geared toward subtlety.

Ultimately, Cannibal Holocaust is a study in contrasts. Both praised and vilified, it's a powerful film that demands more than a casual viewing. It's a film so filled with images of depravity that after seeing it, you'll never be able to forget it. Fans looking for gore and nothing else would be advised to go elsewhere. Viewers looking for a film that's powerful, visceral, and disturbing have a new title to add to their must-see list. There's something here guaranteed to affect even the most jaded viewer.

Review published 07.28.2000.

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