First released in 1980, “Cannibal Holocaust” is a cruel picture with an alarming legacy – it often turns up on lists of the most controversial movies ever made. Its reputation has inspired a new DVD reissue from Grindhouse Releasing, as well as rumors of a remake to be released this year. It has various admirers, including Buckethead, who performed the “Cannibal Holocaust” theme song on guitar in at least two concerts, and director Eli Roth, who invited its maker, Ruggero Deodato, to play a role in “Hostel: Part II.” Anybody who’s seen the kind of films Roth makes might understand why.
That was not a compliment.
As an experiment in wafer-thin social commentary (curtain line: “I wonder who the real cannibals are?”), “Cannibal Holocaust” is self-defeating – it employs the use of sickening brutality in order to oppose it. There are all kinds of disgusting scenes in it, like when its characters amusedly observe a woman who’s been impaled, and when they catch an enormous turtle and relieve it of its shell. The impalement scene involves special effects; the turtle scene does not.
The animal cruelty doesn’t stop there, though. Six other deaths are included here, but that doesn’t mean they have any significance to the plot, which makes “Cannibal Holocaust” all the more terrible. Even the director himself regretted these scenes: “I was stupid to introduce animals,” said Deodato in Fangoria.
Some DVD editions offer an “animal cruelty-free version” of the film that omits them all, but then all you’ve got is an average bad movie. As valueless as they are, these are easily the most disturbing and effective scenes in the film. Again, that was not a compliment.
The film is about an unfinished documentary shot in the Amazon: You’d think the native cannibals are to blame for all the ghastly moments in it, but they’re really the actions of a few documentarians who provoke violence and record the results on film. When they don’t come back, a local TV station asks Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman, who also starred in “Debbie Does Dallas”) to rescue them and the film for a fantastic feature story.
Predictably enough, what he finds doesn’t slide past the censors.
A lot of bad movies fail because their makers are clueless about what they’re trying to do. Ed Wood, the most astonishingly untalented filmmaker who ever lived, made movies that deserve special attention: What made “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space” so awful (and hilarious, depending on your point of view) was that they were intended as sincere reaches for greatness.
“Cannibal Holocaust,” on the other hand, is a deplorable film because it does exactly what it wants to do – exploit death and violence for cheap thrills. Another part of what makes it so bad, though, is that it doesn’t earn the right to do so.
And yet, for all the audiences who’ve hated this movie, it’s been praised by some as a cult classic. For some unfortunate souls, this is even considered essential viewing. If you think about it, though, “Cannibal Holocaust” probably deserves the attention it gets – it’s not easy to remember another film that gets away with as many things as this one does.
It’s possible, in fact, that what happens in “Cannibal Holocaust” might never be filmed again.
But then again, that’s true of “2 Girls 1 Cup,” too.