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Cannibal Holocaust - Valid Social Document or Pure Exploitation?

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Posted 20th December 2012 at 04:21 PM by Daemonia

Cannibal Holocaust. The mere mention of the title of Ruggero Deodato's infamous cannibal shocker has horror fans either championing it or attacking it without mercy. But just what is it about this film that so fiercely divides opinions? One thing is for certain though - Cannibal Holocaust leaves absolutely no room for sitting on the fence and that, I believe, is its intent.

So what is it that makes it so controversial? Is it the natives running around in Beatles wigs? Is it the sight of a fully naked Robert Kerman frolicking in the jungle with young native girls? No, it's neither of those two factors. Nor is it the unflinching violence inflicted on human beings. The blame lays squarely at the door of unsimulated animal violence. This is what divides opinion.

In a peculiar twist of fate, the BBFC recently recategorised the animal cruelty in this film (excepting the killing of a muskrat) as 'animal slaughter' and allowed it to pass almost unscathed at 18. Yet, even with this change of view, it makes the animal violence no more palatable than it was before.

So why did Deodato do it? Why include such nauseating scenes of brutal animal slaughter? Deodato claims that it was in reaction to the irresponsible Italian news reporting of the time and he wanted to make a statement about that. I think it may also be a reaction to the Mondo film culture that had been prevalent throughout the 60's and 70's - films that never thought twice about filming atrocities to animals (and humans, for that matter) under the guise of being serious documentaries. Questionable practises, for sure - but did Deodato really need to stoop to their level just to make a point? As I get older and from a recent revisit to the film, I'm not so sure. I used to be a staunch defender of the film, but I find my position changing these days. I think it was unnecssary and Deodato could have made his point in a different way. But, it is what it is - and as hard as it is to defend it, I do believe that for the sake of history, it should be preserved as it is. Let's not try to sweep it under the carpet. There's no denying Deodato and company killed animals for the voracious cameras in order to make a brutal point.

However, there is much else in the film to recommend it. It's very much a treatise on the politics of the voyeurism of violence. Just when is enough, enough? It tackles this subject very competently. For every act of violence and transgression, someone is watching. When the native girl is raped, another young native is hiding in the grass watching. When the turtle's head is removed, it is placed in a position to view its own dismemberment. When Monroe spies the tribal punishment for adultery. Then there's Monroe and the TV station crew who watch the found footage. Everybody is watching and everybody is consuming this visual violence. It seems almost unstoppable right up until the final reel, when the TV execs decide the footage can never be seen by the general public. Outside the TV studios, at the end of the film, Monroe wonders who the real cannibals are. Despite it coming off like a trite soundbite, it's actually food for thought. After all, aren't we all consumers - and some of us consumers of video violence?

The film, as a whole, is incredibly uncomfortable and confrontational viewing. It asks some hard questions of the viewer and constantly asks us 'Are you okay with this?' It's very potent stuff and most certainly what makes it such a powerful work.

So, is it a valid social document or simply pure expolitation? I happen to think it falls somewhere in between. It's definitely a film of its time and not one that could be made today. I still think it's a profoundly unsettling film and brilliantly executed in most regards, but the animal content doesn't sit well with me these days. Maybe I'm going soft in my old age, but I think Deodato could have made his point without resorting to cheap shock tactics. Still, this is what makes it so notorious. And yet I can't help wondering how much of a wider acclaim it could have received if the animal violence hadn't been there - or at least simulated. Because, as it stands, even without the animal deaths, it's a deeply powerful film.

I guess it's up to each individual viewer to make up their own minds.
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