‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980) revisited

This controversial ‘video nasty’ is the progenitor of every found footage film which followed and the seeds for all of them can be seen here.

The idea of telling a story through found footage is nothing new – horror literature has embraced it for decades (the majority of HP Lovecraft’s stories are recovered from the diaries and journals of the characters involved, a conceit Lovecraft most likely borrowed from MR James whose ghost stories he so admired. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a collection of correspondence and diaries, whilst Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is mostly the journals of poor Victor), which is hardly surprising – when presenting a tale of the fantastic and other-worldly, something which can ground the story in reality and therefore appeal to the reader is vital.

So too in film. Whilst the audience is used to seeing the story unfold as though through the eyes of God (for what else is a director if not God?), there really was no other choice – the search for microfilm may often be presented as a McGuffin, but there was no alternative. It wasn’t until toward the middle of the twentieth century that cine-cameras became anything other than lavish extravagances, but even then the stock was prohibitively expensive. With the advent of affordable video cameras, the concept of the found footage film was almost inevitable, although it would be with 15mm film that the genre was born…

In 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, four documentary film-makers go missing in the “Green Inferno” of the dense Amazon rainforest. An anthropologist tracks their remains down and finds their film cans. What they show isn’t pretty…

The importance of Cannibal Holocaust cannot be underestimated: This is the progenitor of every found footage film which followed and the seeds for all of them can be seen here. Before this we had seen fake documentaries and spies looking for lost microfilms. For the first time, this is a film in which the reels of film are the film. Without those reels this would make no sense, and the footage that they contain is what shocks.

Strictly speaking this isn’t a found footage film: only 41 minutes of a 92 minute running time (in a PAL copy) are recorded by characters within the film, which means Cannibal Holocaust falls short of the found footage “50% rule”, but its influence on the genre is undeniable, and the film itself is more than just an unpleasant shocker: There’s a strong political subtext about the nature of journalism in the ‘70s, in scenes which parallel the jungle life of the tribal people. (One could also make a reading of a strong criticism of American foreign policy of the era too.) It doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, but it’s a better film that its reputation would suggest.

Cannibal Holocaust was one of the official video nasties which fell foul of the Department of Public Prosecutions in the UK in the early 1980s, whilst the producers in Italy were suspected of producing a snuff film and had to produce evidence – including the cast! – which showed that the human deaths were, in fact, special effects. The film is even today regarded as controversial, mainly thanks to the graphic animal deaths shown on screen (a musk rat, turtle, tarantula, snake, monkey and wild boar are all dispatched in various ways), which is what will sit uneasily for the modern viewer. Seriously, there is real animal cruelty on display here.

Original Italian theatrical poster for Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust.

The uncut version of the film is banned in many countries around the world, entirely because of the real killings of animals shown on screen (there’s also real-life footage of executions in Africa, which probably doesn’t help). To further complicate matters, the real-life footage of executions (shown in the infamous The Last Road to Hell section – a documentary made by the team within the film) exists in differing versions in various prints. For those who prefer to see the film with the worst of the animal deaths excised, the Region 2 Dutch release is the one you want.

The director himself has said that he regrets these scenes, but as reprehensible as they are, they do serve a purpose within the narrative and are not entirely gratuitous – although special effects would be preferable. We see the natives kill one animal, which they then eat (which is what one would expect of a tribe of hunter/gatherers), whilst the bulk of the deaths are caused quite needlessly by the American documentary team.

Almost uniquely for a found footage film, the enemy is the very people shooting the footage. The cannibal holocaust of the title isn’t what the cannibals do, but what is done to them (who in all respects are actually innocent tribespeople). Just in case the audience misses this, Professor Monroe (played by Robert Kernan, aka prolific porn star R. Bolla) helpfully points it out as often as possible. His closing line: “I wonder who the real cannibals are?”

At one point the documentary crew rape a young woman. “Do you want me to keep shooting, or not?” asks Mike, the cameraman. “That’s a stupid question,” Alan, the obnoxious leader replies.

He’s right: These people film everything; even when a rightly furious tribe are about to eat them.

The film goes to some length to show the damage the team are causing (throughout the film it’s made clear that they are the savages, whilst the locals are anything but and are living quite peacefully until the Americans arrive), which further escalates once they start raping local women and setting fire to huts while trapping the villagers inside. It transpires that the documentary makers are anything but – they are causing events to happen, then filming them (we learn from an executive in New York that their footage of a civil war in Africa was also equally falsified: “Just to explain how Alan and his team worked – that was a put-up job. Alan paid the soldiers to stage the executions for him.”).

Given the role of the media in covering events like as the Vietnam War, such a revelation is both topical for 1979 (when this was made) and also condemnatory. The idea that the media are manipulating events for their own ends is not one which would really catch on until well into the 1980s, so the satirical aspect here cannot be ignored. It’s also possible, given the nationality of the documentarians, to see this as an explicit criticism of American foreign policy. (The US government would quite often offer support to one side in a foreign civil conflict while secretly offering financial aid and weaponry to the opposing side.)

Found footage films are often regarded as frightening because the footage we are shown seems more real than that in a conventional horror film. That this is the first time such footage is used within a feature film gives this film an historical resonance but watched on its own terms it works equally well.

The footage seems real because it is made by a documentary crew, and their actions are shocking because we think of them as civilised (as opposed to the locals, who are presumed to be uncivilised – something the film turns on its head). Their eventual comeuppance is grisly, yes, but (in narrative terms) not remotely undeserved; by this stage we’re thoroughly on the side of the natives. Even so, the experience as a whole is shocking throughout, and time hasn’t softened the impact. This is a neglected film in major need of critical re-appraisal.

❉ ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is available on Blu-ray in the UK from Shameless Films, remastered in HD from original sources and with the Director’s New Edit. 

❉ Alun Harris is a founding contributor of We Are Cult. Editor’s note: This is a remix of a previously published article, Found Footage 101: Cannibal Holocaust (23 September 2016)

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