A 666-World Review of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’

Cannibal Holocaust tells the story of an investigative team venturing into the Amazonian rainforest in Peru among two opposing primitive tribes to see what happened to a previous expedition who were ambitious filmmakers thirsty for fame and prestige. This film is an early example of found footage, influential to many films afterwards. It has an interesting blend of genres that include mystery, drama, rape revenge, exploitation, and adventure. The film is surprisingly complex with a refreshing view of both the Americans and the cannibalistic natives, brutal violence both simulated and real, and a meta conversation that calls itself into question as exploitative.  

The cannibals are shown in a surprisingly sympathetic light. I expected a racist portrayal showing how savage they were, considering the exploitation aspects. Much of their culture is alien to us, but they aren’t monsters even with their cannibalistic rituals. The audience sees different sides of the Americans and the natives. The second team befriends the natives and slowly earns their trust, leading to some fun, amusing scenes between the two even when communication is a bit of a barrier. The filmmakers first team decided to terrorize the natives by showing their superior technology and making them helpless. When they go way too far, the natives retaliate brutally. It isn’t comfortable to watch, but it felt like actions that made sense. The actions of both groups show their degree of civility and the result isn’t what you would expect.

Brutal scenes of violence directed at humans and animals are peppered throughout the film. All of them are hard to watch. The human gore is eerily realistic looking and not cheesy at all. Real animals were cruelly killed. I would have had much less of a problem if they were killed humanely for food, but the majority of these deaths were by inexperienced people and done in the most exploitative way. Two monkeys, a pig, a tarantula, a snake, a muskrat and a turtle are all killed by actors. I understand that the animal deaths were meant to contrast with the human deaths, but if you can fake human deaths, you can fake animal deaths as well. Torturing animals for entertainment purposes is abhorrent and the biggest problem I have with the film. Ironically, the huge controversy that took the director to court involved people thinking that the human deaths were real. The actors were contracted to stay out of the public eye for a full year to make the footage seem even more realistic. It worked a little too well and made the film even more notorious even after the allegations were dismissed.

The film tackles meta commentary about its own violent content. The network executives have no problem taking advantage of the real life disappearance of the filmmakers to make money on their documentary. They also don’t care that many of the scenes were staged to “make things more dramatic,” even at the expense of the subjects’ safety. All they care about is selling tickets, which seems to take a hypocritical view since the director is doing the same thing involving animals instead of people. It’s also a commentary of how the media fetishizes violence and manipulates stories to say whatever will gain the most viewers rather than what actually happened. This commentary was relevant in 1980 and it’s relevant today in a time of “fake news” and sensationalist, clickbait articles.  

Cannibal Holocaust is a complex movie that provides a nuanced view of the different groups, brutal violence, and self referential criticism. The layers of “reality” and story are well crafted, especially when some of the found footage looks like it was festering in a hot jungle to add realism. While I found the film hard to watch at some points and it has an undeniably problematic nature, it’s much more layered than I expected it to be. It’s also the precursor to the found footage genre, showing that filmmakers didn’t need tons of money to make a film look and feel real. 

Editor's Rating

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Elizabeth Talbott

Elizabeth Talbott

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