Cannibal Holocaust
1980

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Why analyse an infamous schlock horror flick nearly as old as myself, especially one with such an unoriginal and heavy-handed moral as Cannibal Holocaust?  Especially when, barely a generation past Auschwitz and Dachau, said schlock horror grabs that shock value for its title?

Because it hurt to watch, and in the sense of pure horror—a thing of the wordless id—Cannibal Holocaust is worth some study and, guardedly here, emulation.

Anyone conscious in the late nineties will recognise the beginning: a team of young, photogenic and vaguely repellent filmmakers venture into the wild to document an eldritch corner of modern (Western) humanity’s fears, and disappear, leaving behind only spooky footage.  In this case, they are seeking the Yanomamo tribe, cannibals in deep jungle that “civilized man has never seen.”  The words “civilized” and “civilization” (and later, “savage” and “primitive”) crop up roughly three time each per minute of footage, making me suspect that Ruggero Deodato wanted his savvy audience to pick up on some subtle theme.

Cue professor Harold Monroe of NYU’s anthropology department publicised decision to penetrate the jungle himself with the rain forest’s answer to Crocodile Dundee as a guide, to rescue the filmmakers or, at the very least, their footage.  The first animal, a spider monkey (or possibly a raccoon-like coatimundi), is killed on screen, ostensibly for food, its front paws gripping the knife.  Several more animals are killed on film, sometimes just inefficiently, but sometimes cruelly.  They meet first one tribe, the “Yacumo,” via an extended rape and murder scene (the director’s go-to move throughout the film), who are wary of more Western visitors but lead them on to the Yanomamo and Shamatari—tribes named after highly studied indigenous people in Brazil who little resemble their portrayal here and, by 1980, had become significantly more modern as a result of continuous contact with outside researchers and miners.

Monroe locates and bargains for the miraculously intact documentary footage—after chowing down on partly cooked human entrails—but discovers upon his return to the land of fresh underwear that the footage shows that the filmmakers herded the Yacumo tribe into a hut and deliberately burned many of them to death, planning to edit the footage into an example of a Yanomamo attack.  Monroe is the only Western character who objects to broadcasting a version of the footage that casts the dead filmmakers as innocent victims, and only convinces the others after showing them further footage of the gang rape and grisly murder of a native woman, as well as the filmmakers’ own well deserved executions by the Yanomamo tribe. 

The vast majority of fake brutalities (aside from the real animal deaths) happen to women, and almost all have a sexual component.  In defence of his gender, the husband postulates that this is standard fare in horror flicks because it is more frightening to the male audience.  Men are culturally encoded as the perpetrators and victims of violence, particularly in coming-of-age scenarios, but physically hurting women is a reinforced taboo.  Watching fictional representations of women being hurt should thus make a socially “normal” man feel more visceral pain than seeing a grown man assaulted, who “should” be able to defend himself.

More cynically, I wonder if it doesn’t fulfil a semi-conscious masturbatory urge, giving the audience more of a visceral response to seeing the gender that has the power to sexually reject the overt or implied sexual advances of insecure, unlucky, or socially repellent males.  In Cannibal Holocaust, however, unlike the quick edits—teases of pain—of  traditional gore flicks and even later meme-droppings like Hostel, the pain and gore is drawn out, too sickening to allow any but the most sadistic to maintain the hazy arousal.

The on-screen killings of animals creates an infamous halo effect over the cinéma vérité style brutalities against humans.  This film was banned in many countries upon its release under the mistaken belief it was a snuff film (accidentally supported by the contracts that held the actors to not appear in any media for a year after filming), although the special effects are often clearly visible.  The viewer, however, has just seen several animals killed in torturous manners, and the more primitive lobes of the brain refuse to believe that the human victims are just actors pretending to rape and dismember.

It’s terrifyingly effective, in a way that most horror films can only pretend to feed the alligators, in Stephen King’s term.

It’s possible the director deliberately conflated rape with sex in some scenes to draw a contrast between the natives and the filmmakers.  The filmmakers don’t directly assault their script girl, perhaps because she is something of an equal, or because she is in a relationship with one of them, but she is the target of visual violation.  Twice when she’s vulnerable, her partners film her nude, and continue to film as she attempts to cover herself and deflect attention to other possible victims.  She can’t stop the filming or get an apology; her only option is to laugh it off.

The indigenous women are fair targets.  The men rape a Yanomamo woman, while their female colleague protests not the act but their filming of it, and joke that they’ll be able to sell it as a porno movie.  Afterward, they film documentary footage of the same woman, impaled on a pike, smirks peeking through solemn expressions as one narrates that she was likely killed by her own people due to an obsession with virginity.

When indigenous characters rape, it’s emphasised to be punitive, as prelude to execution for adultery or murder.  There’s a clear divergence between assault and reproductive or recreational sex. 

The contrasting attitudes to women and sex, however, are only part of the false moral relativism (the savages commit horrible assaults on each other, but it’s their way and we can’t hope to understand) and false liberal enlightenment (the Western, civilised characters are worse, raping for fun and murdering for profit).  The film’s view of indigenous people is purely colonial.  They are both inhumanly violent lunatics and innocent victims of corrupt Westerners, two stereotypical sides of the same outside judgements.   Their own point of view and interior lives remain opaque.

The same year this movie was released, white South African writer JM Coetzee published Waiting for the Barbarians, set in a universal colony surrounded by unspecified barbarians.  Typical of his work, Coetzee implicates his colonial protagonists for their complete incomprehension of the Other they feel free to use, oppress, brutalize, or lionise in turns.  Inside these narrators’ minds, we are shown their preconceptions to be cloaks thrown over real people, who are never completely covered but also never turn to the reader themselves with the truth.  The narrators will never understand them as people, and so the reader is never given the ‘in’ to understand them, either.  The end of his novels is designed to leave us with that loss, the knowledge that there was something fascinating that has been crushed and can never be truly recovered or even remembered—to feel the consequences of a postcolonial society ourselves.  Much like the Holocaust from which this film cribs some spare horror—the tragedy and survival become an indelible part of cultural identity, destroying the original context.

On a purely visceral level, this is a fine, uncompromising horror film that strips the viewer emotionally raw.  It displays the sheer power of film to affect a person’s real emotional experience like few movies I’ve ever seen.  Unfortunately, like the filmmakers portrayed, Deodato presents as savage monsters a remote group of people with no ability to refute his assassination of their culture as the worst fears and id impulses of all humanity—ostensibly to make the liberal point that Westerners are even worse under the nice clothes and tall buildings.  His Yanomamo are barbarians in a barbaric world, who we can never hope to understand or judge, so the finger points only to us…or, with better aim, at those like Deodato who cynically exploits everyone involved, from indigenous actors to every audience member.

A must-read review: 1000 Misspent Hours

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