CONTAINS SPOILERS, MEDIUM RARE
The first time I was even slightly aware of Ruggero Deodato's notorious film was during the equally infamous Video Nasty era, when the (substantially edited) Go Video release was successfully prosecuted as an obscenity. I certainly recall that a local video shop still had the film on the shelves after the Video Recordings Act came into force but for whatever reason I never rented it. Indeed it wasn't until 1998 that I actually saw the film, projected uncut in a German dub without subtitles at the Cine Lumiere in London. It was certainly powerful, but a distressing and uncomfortable experience: several people walked out in disgust at the film's Ace Of Trumps: its unsimulated animal killings. Watching it again a few nights ago (again uncut) I found it was still powerful, but still a distressing and uncomfortable experience, perhaps even more than thirteen years ago.
The basic story of Cannibal Holocaust concerns the Yates documentary film crew, last seen venturing into the furthest reaches of Amazon to capture footage of the native tribes - tribes reputed to practise cannibalism. Some time later a second expedition is formed to find out what happened to them: the crew themselves are never found, but their cans of exposed film are discovered, brought back to New York and screened with a view to broadcasting them. But what was captured by those cameras - which we see along with the TV executives - is too shocking, graphic and revolting for primetime. Not only do we see what ultimately happened to the original film crew, we see what they did to provoke the tribe to such a hideous vengeance, purely to capture the most sensational imagery and raise their "documentarian" profiles.
There is no getting around the fact that for all the human violence and savagery on display, the film's most notorious aspect is the genuine on-camera killing of several animals including the lopping off of the top of a monkey's skull, the gutting of a muskrat, the shooting of a pig and the butchering and disembowelling of a river turtle. None of this footage was in the original video version banned in the 1980s and yet - quite wrongly in my opinion - the BBFC have this year passed the film almost entirely uncut (15 seconds are still missing from the killing of the muskrat) on the grounds that the kills are quick and clean. Personally I feel that's no excuse and none of the animal killings are essential to the film's narrative or to its mood. Apparently Ruggero Deodato is providing a new cut of the film which will excise these scenes, something which I'm frankly much happier about.
Despite the revulsion of these sequences, some sharp, pointed satire still makes itself felt: not least the idea that respected documentarians would happily fake extreme footage for sensationalism. However, this does have the effect of turning them into callous and sadistic douchebags and it's hard to feel much sympathy when the natives they've been so casually abusing turn on them in front of their own cameras. Not to sound too po-faced about it, they had it coming and they got what they deserved. Obviously this filmed retribution is "genuine" (within the confines both of their footage and of Cannibal Holocaust itself) and their "genuine" distress, particularly the girl's, is genuinely effective.
It is truly shocking, truly distressing, truly nasty, and truly unforgivable, and I truly don't ever want to see it again: I'm not averse to being confronted once in a while, but this film does go too far for me. Yet perversely, while it's nastier than any of the other video nasties, I'd have had a far easier time acquitting it if I'd been on its jury than the supremely repugnant triple whammy of I Spit On Your Grave, Last House On The Left or The House On The Edge Of The Park (the last of which was Ruggero Deodato's next film after Cannibal Holocaust and is also distinctly uncomfortable viewing, though for different reasons). However, it's also historically important as one of the earliest "found footage" features, a device that lends the film a true sense of reality as it's shot by the "characters" themselves. Obviously The Blair Witch Project and more recently the Paranormal Activity films have popularised the technique but in doing so have ushered in a slew of other found footage films, some of which have worked better than others.
Is it worth seeing? Yes, but have something to hide behind for those animal cruelty scenes, and be prepared for absolutely no entertainment whatsoever. It's an angry, confrontational piece of work, and it's superbly made in that the real/fake illusion never slips. The film stock is scratched and bleached years before Quentin Tarantino did it in Death Proof, the credits on the Yates documentary are even in the same typeface as those on Cannibal Holocaust itself, and the performances are pitched so well that you never suspect they're actors. It's a phenomenal achievement. Were it not for the muskrat, the monkey, the turtle and so forth, and were we left with well-simulated human barbarism, this film would be a gold-plated classic. But.....