Movies We Love: Cannibal Holocaust

Movies We Love

You did it, godammit. They just invited us to dinner.


A small band of American filmmakers departs for the Amazon to document the lives of warring cannibal tribes. Two months after they’ve vanished into the so-called Green Inferno, a rescue team led by anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) discovers the documentary crew died at the hands of the Yanomamo tribe. Monroe retrieves the crew’s footage and brings it back to New York. The found footage depicts an orgy of shocking sadism – perpetrated by both the cannibals and the “civilized” Americans.

Why We Love It

Let’s be brutally honest. It’s rather problematic to admit that I love a film like Cannibal Holocaust. Ruggero Deodato’s film depicts utterly reprehensible behavior, and not all of it is simulated.

Cannibal Holocaust’s first film-within-a-film, a documentary called The Last Road to Hell, consists of actual newsreel footage of executions in war-torn parts of Africa and Asia. The main narrative portion depicts actual killing of animals, as does the purported “found footage” that mostly makes up the film’s second half.

It’s the presence of that stomach churning real violence that makes the act of watching and appreciating this film a morally questionable act for me. And yet, I can’t pretend that this is merely an exploitative piece of trash with no artistic merit. Despite its flaws, Deodato’s masterpiece towers above lesser grindhouse fare as an innovative, game-changing piece of outlaw cinema.

Its central conceit – that we are watching actual footage shot by the film’s doomed victims – has been copied plenty of times since. Cannibal Holocaust is not only the first, but the best example of this type of film to date.

The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity all suffered because they unfolded their entire narratives in real-time. Cannibal Holocaust is faster and more uniformly paced because it’s a hybrid between the conventional movie narrative and the found-footage collage.

The aforementioned knockoffs also strain credulity in a way Cannibal Holocaust doesn’t. Inevitably in lesser psuedo-vérité works, the story reaches a point where I ask, “Who in their right mind would still be filming this shit? Why not just drop the camera and get the hell outta Dodge?” The answer in Cannibal Holocaust’s case is that, conveniently, the camera operators aren’t really in their right minds.

Rather than merely documenting the Yanomamo tribe in their natural state, they decide to spice things up by simulating an enemy attack on the village, burning and raping their way toward an appalling yet richly deserved comeuppance.

In a sinister twist, the film’s purported victims are shown to be the most diabolical of villains. They’re like droogs turned auteurs, grinning lasciviously as they hack people and critters to pieces; quite literally aroused by the sights and sounds of ultraviolence.

Moment We Fell In Love

The first time I watched Cannibal Holocaust was at a friend’s house, on an Nth-generation VHS tape originally dubbed from a twice-pirated laserdisc, or something like that. The first hint at what I was in for was the moment – about 20 minutes in – when one of the rescue team’s guides slices open a live muskrat’s jugular veins.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say this is a moment I fell in love with, because I’m not that much of a sick bastard. (While I’m not a card-carrying member of PETA or anything, I love animals. As I type this, I’m literally giving myself carpal tunnel syndrome rather than disturb the kitty that’s sprawled across my forearms.) But I recall that scene as the defining moment when I knew I was entering unchartered waters. Here be monsters? Damn straight.

Final Thoughts

Writing this appreciation of Cannibal Holocaust has been pretty challenging for me. I feel that in praising the film based on its artistic merit, I am somehow trying to justify the more-than-questionable content it contains.

I feel like I’m trying to walk the same fine line that the film itself treads, with arguably less success. While I find myself fumbling for the right words to capture my simultaneous sense of repulsion and admiration, Cannibal Holocaust cleverly has its cake and eats it, too.

During the sickening screenings of the gruesome found footage, the anthropologist Monroe acts as the film’s moral center. He repeatedly argues that the footage shouldn’t see the light of day because it’s offensive and immoral.

His foil is a television executive who cynically shares the truth that Deodato and other shock filmmakers have long understood: “Today, people want sensationalism. The more you rape their senses, the happier they are.”

We’ve now managed to write about A League of Their Own and Cannibal Holocaust in the same feature. Check out more Movies We Love