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In a recent issue of Rue Morgue, director Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER) said that even though he knows better, he swears real people were killed to make CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. This is the impact Ruggero Deodato's film has to this day. Watching this one is a horror fan's rite of passage, a film that roots out the truly brave. Even I sat down to the film, thinking "If I can make it through this, I can make it through anything."
And yet, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is not so much a horror film as it is a mirror. Fifteen years before Oliver Stone lambasted the media in his social satire NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Deodato did the same, without a wink or smirk to be found. To this day, the film has never been released on video in the U.S., although it's sensibilities often credited to America are what are in debate here.
With the deceptively quaint theme music (courtesy of Riz Ortani) out of the way, we learn that it's been a year since a group of young, celebrated documentary filmmakers disappeared in the Amazon jungle. Prof. Harold Monroe (Richard Kerman, a.k.a. porn star and SPIDER-MAN bit player, R. Bolla), had taught the crew's leader. Concerned for their safety, he agrees to go find out what happened. This Ivy League scholar, who opens and closes the film in a tweed suit smoking a pipe, agrees to head down to the Amazon and do whatever it takes to find his missing proteges.
First he gets a guide who takes him through the harsh jungles, warning him that much of the Amazon is unexplored and some of the tribes still practice cannibalism to this day. Although cautious, he treads carefully, listening to what the guide tells him. He integrates himself into their society and in one memorable scene, bathes nude with one of the tribes to gain their trust. It seems he has found peace. For the first time in forever, he is at one with nature, perfectly relaxed and hopeful. It is then, he discovers the crew, dead. The tribes have made their bones into a grotesque statue, the camera equipment decorating the corpses - a harsh reminder of how this world welcomes progress.
Viewing this first part of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, it's easy to wonder what all the fuss is about. The film is fascinating in the sense that the locations weren't really scouted and the process required amazing pains by the cast and crew. Kerman particularly does an outstanding job. But the film itself isn't truly special, at least not to the extent where it should still remembered twenty-five years later. Even the scenes with Kerman and the tribe seem staged when there is no conceivable reason for them to. It plays like NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC without the cinema verite'.
Then things get very, very interesting.
Monroe convinces the natives to let him leave with the footage the crew shot. As the footage is being assembled, friends and family are interviewed and we get a better appreciation for why this group was so tight. One crew member's own father is indifferent to his son's passing and even now refers to him with absolute scorn. Another's sister just laments that she never found a more peaceful existence. The crew had each other and that's it. All they really had was work and each other. It's almost no wonder they lived in this self-contained world and didn't let the outside world in. They didn't arrive in this bubble, they developed it themselves. Everything leading up to the second half of the film is designed to make us feel as Monroe does, that these are four young people were butchered for no reason at all. We are all fooled.
We get some idea in the moments before the film's second half, when a network producer tells Monroe that his prot�g�, Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) was unscrupulous to the point of possibly faking several executions for a war documentary, or possibly encouraging the real thing. "Did he know how to play an audience," Monroe is told, not without admiration. "He pushed his people to the limit, demanding everything, including blood." Shrugging this off, Monroe goes off-camera to look at the restored, re-assembled footage. When he learns what the film contains, he returns urging the network not to run the footage. To illustrate his point he shows them and us what he saw.
It is here that we really meet the group - Alan, Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi - FAREWELL MOSCOW), Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen - CANNIBAL FEROX, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) and Mark Tommaso (Luca Barbareschi - BYE BYE BABY, HANNA K.). They are so closely knit, they act like family. They seem innocent and free, and yet there seems to be an undercurrent of playful cruelty about them. Still, they act much like your average young filmmakers on the go. But as we see, there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance.
When they go into the jungle, things change dramatically. At first, it is the extremely disturbing slaughtering of a tortoise who probably lived well over a hundred years before Alan's crew (and Deodato's if we're being entirely fair) came along. Even Faye is unable to take this as she vomits at the sight of the mutilated animal, betraying her tough exterior. Ciardi truly was disgusted by this and her revulsion is not faked. The rest of the group gleefully tears into the creature. Yet, we are taught to simply place this in the context of documentary objectivity. Just the other day, I saw a random image on one of the nature channels. An elk slips through the ice, kicking and screaming and according to the narrator, taking a long time to finally drown. What is left unsaid is that in all that time, the crew never attempted to intervene in the animal's painful death. After all, they had to retain their objectivity and let nature take its course. I can't help but think that the elk may have disagreed. I would never approve of cruelty to animals, but I merely point out that Deodato practiced the same horrible things documentry filmmakers do to this day.
The crew continues to stumble upon or instigate several grisly happenings. As they record every moment, they remind themselves to feign shock and disgust so the audience will not see them as monsters. Looking at the raw footage we know they are more interested in filming violence and tragedy than preventing it. To be fair, Deodato's motives also remain unclear.
When the crew is left without their guide in the jungle, things look ominous, but they play up their quandary, focusing on the work. They do meet up with the tribe and find that while the images are interesting, they just aren't very good television. Under the guise of a nonexistent war between tribes, the crew themselves comes in with their modern technology and brutalizes the tribe. The tribe, which has it's own barbaric customs (including a disgusting reprimand against adulterous wives) are actually not as savage as the advanced interlopers. Eventually, they even massacre them in a scene that recalls the American devastation of Vietnamese villages like Mei Lai.
Things don't continue to go as well for the crew as they try to make their way out of the jungle. The cannibals hunt them down and their footage details their shocking demise. It's brutal and heartbreaking, yet none of us could honestly say the filmmakers didn't get what was coming for them.
Watching CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST should not bring back memories, but it did. I worked in the television news industry and probably would again. After all, even Horror Express is journalism after a fashion.
One of my previous jobs entailed calling several news stations around the country and finding out what was happening in their neck of the woods. I was given several different regions of the country and talked to dozens of stations nightly. The idea was that I would bring in the best stories. If someone in California wanted to run a story about something that happened in Virginia, this is how they got it. Newsworthiness became another word to justify the time, effort and cost of bringing a story in via satellite. This often entailed calling several different places to courier and uplink the stories depending on how removed from urban technology they were. It didn't do to spend two hours trying to grab a story if other stations around the country weren't going to run it in their newscasts.
So what did I do? Well, it wasn't all blood and guts. There were a lot of "feel good" human interest pieces. I found that people love stories about heroic dogs and whatnot. But otherwise, my job was to find the most horrendous goings on in my half of the country. This led to some instances where I was coached to "use my best judgement." I was then instructed exactly what that judgement should be. "What's that? An apartment fire? How many alarms? Only three? Did anyone die? Have you got pictures of the bodies? Any pictures of the injured then? Oh, most importantly, do you have flame video? You only got there after the fire trucks put it out? Oh sorry, not interested. That wouldn't be good video." There were thousands of news stories that were sacrificed because they did not offer the godlike "good video" - a phrase I heard repeated time and again.
It may sound exaggerated, but this is what I did every day. I remember getting furious with one news producer over the phone. They had some raw footage taken from the dashboard of a police car. The officer had pulled over a teenager who brandished a weapon. Fearing for his own life, the officer fired several times into the teen's chest, snuffing his short life out on camera. The producer was repulsed by the video and would not play it on her station. Bravo for her, but what was worse, she refused to hand the footage over to me. This footage would have been on every other news station in the country. I was assured we could see everything. It would have been played and replayed over and over again for that week, just like the video of that woman who ran over her husband. This was not just good video, this was GREAT VIDEO! And who was this bitch on the other end to lead me on with this tasty morsel only to snatch it away? We pay for footage like that and people want to see it. Who the hell does she think she is? I remember screaming with her and pleading for her help. For the life of me, I couldn't understand where she was coming from. Didn't she see the value in her own material?
No one got the video and today, I'm glad. Let's put aside all the journalistic rhetoric and bullshit for one moment. My behavior was despicable. It was a minor story and a minor event in the greater picture of the news, but it was despicable all the same, and I'm ashamed of myself. In truth, I did bring in and edit lots of raw footage. I saw people shot dead, cars crash with families inside, people weeping at the passing of loved ones and I've seen the burned bodies of children, accompanied of course by good flame video.
I don't want to say that the media as a whole is bad. That?s become a blanket statement of the last ten years. At the end of the day, I loved editing news stories, if not the truly tragic ones. I loved the few celebs I interviewed. I loved working the cameras in national newscasts. I really loved writing news copy. And I am especially thankful to this day of working with several people who are true pillars of the industry. Contrary to popular belief, there are people in the news business who are wonderful people with much more integrity than you would expect.
But the fact is it is a business and too often the quest to give people what they want leads to the dubious decisions that make so much of the industry such a black mark on society. Getting back to CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (and it's about time), the news director tells Prof. Monroe the old adage that people want to see something that will get their attention. "The more you rape their senses, the happier they are," she says. "Typical Western thought," Monroe replies, "That's what Alan thought and that's why he's dead."
Alan and his crew behaved not as journalists, or even as civilized people. They behaved like conquerors and became conquerors in return. But did they pervert the media or did the media pervert them? That's a question that CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST offers no concrete answers to, and it's one of the reasons the film is still hotly debated today.
Deodato's film is amazingly realistic, mostly in it's second half. Like the news reports, the film exposes as sense of hypocrisy in many of us. We want to turn away, but we can't. By seeing everything through the ill-fated crew's eyes, we are brought into their world, but with the disturbing hind-sight of knowing what eventually happened to them. There is a special rough quality knowing that the locations were not scouted. Everything lies in it's own primitive state. The actors in these films are willing to do so much more than your typical Hollywood stars. Many of the tribe members were reportedly real cannibals. Even the shots of animal violence in the jungle aren't so much exploitive cut-aways as they are reminders of the film's theme of predators and prey. The film is constantly blurring fantasy and reality and never really lets us get too comfortable with the old "it's only a movie" mantra.
A truly provocative masterpiece, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is unnervingly timely. Recently, I saw a war treated with disgusting self-congratulatory spin by the government and the media. The images themselves were treated with the same modern thirst for Information. The arrogantly named "shock and awe" campaign might as well have been a video game for all the dignity it contained. Now, we've colonized Iraq (or is that "freed the Iraqui people?") and tied up business interests, all without so far finding the weapons that allegedly led us there. Spin exists on many levels, and the media is not innocent in this.
How much of what the world saw was the truth? Who knows, but don't count on the news being terribly accurate, no matter how much Information they offer. Alan's crew thought they controlled the truth, until they entered the jungle. Prof. Monroe thought he knew the truth until he emerged from the jungle. The media bosses thought they sold the truth until they saw it unfold before their eyes. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST provided me with at least one sleepless night. It's a testament to Ruggero Deodato that he has crafted such a scathing social commentary that is so effective and memorable. It is a detriment to the rest of us, that it is more valid now than ever before.