Away from the Hype: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST

Sometimes, a movie is released and the hype/controversy surrounding it is too much for the movie to get out from underneath. Sometimes this means we sit down in the cinema with expectations and preconceived notions that we can’t escape.

Away from the Hype is an ongoing series looking at some of these movies years away from their initial release to see if, without all of the window dressing of hype, expectation, and controversy, the movies are actually any good or not.

The Ur-Witch

Long before The Blair Witch Project (previously featured on Away From the Hype, check it out) convinced us that we could be watching a movie in which three people actually disappeared there was Cannibal Holocaust.

Away from the Hype: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST
source: United Artists Europa

Ruggero Dedato’s 1980 movie was deemed so realistic that after its release the director was arrested for murdering his actors. In order to maintain realism, the actors had signed contracts promising to disappear for a year after release, but in order to prove Dedato’s innocence, they appeared in court to prove that they were in fact not dead.

This movie has been on my watch list for a long, long time but I’ve always been too cowardly to dive in. It has a reputation for being particularly violent, cruel, and horrific, featuring all kinds of real acts of violence to the actors and to animals. I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge and, after all, this movie is 40 years old now, and it’s time to see how much of its reputation is earned and how it stands, away from the hype.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

I have a strong constitution when it comes to gore and blood on film and in real life. I’m usually the one who tells others when they can look again when a film is finished being gross. Growing up I watched all the Faces of Death movies and, I’ll confess, I do watch a lot of documentaries in the hopes that something messed up might happen.

Imagine my shock then to find myself nearly puking during Cannibal Holocaust and having to stop watching the movie for two whole days before I could go back to it. I had managed to grit my teeth and get through the multiple rape scenes, the human mutilation, the monkey brains bit, and the clumsy stabbing to death of a coati.

And be warned, any scenes in which an animal dies, they kill a real animal. The most horrific of all, and the one that sent me outside to get some fresh air, was the killing of a turtle. They drag a huge turtle out of the water. Then they kill and eat it in a scene that lasts five minutes and feels like forever.

Away from the Hype: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST
source: United Artists Europa

That was the one where I needed a break and a glass of water. It is definitely a series of images I won’t be able to unsee in a hurry.

Bearing in mind all of the above, I actually enjoyed this movie. It goes from 60 to 1000 very quickly from scene to scene, but when it’s not trying to disgust or shock, it’s a very interesting piece of found footage horror that I feel manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of that genre.

I am one of those found footage pedants who will usually find, after a certain amount of time, that I can’t stop thinking about why they would keep filming. Suspension of belief can only take me so far before I’m taken out of the movie and can’t get back in. This is not the case with every found footage movie and some are worse than others e.g. Chronicle that introduces a second character who films everything so that they can keep the conceit alive (and yes, I did make this same complaint in my Blair Witch article.)

With Cannibal Holocaust, the movie deals with this by not making the entire thing found footage. It is composed of three film styles: documentary, plain narrative, and found footage. The documentary parts are expositional scenes setting up the premise that four filmmakers have vanished in the Amazon and a professor is going to try and find out what happened to them.

The narrative, filmed conventionally, follows the professor as he treks into the jungle and finds the aftermath of the filmmakers’ journey as well as their corpses and their film. The final part of the movie deals with this footage.

Away from the Hype: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST
source: United Artists Europa

Even then, the movie doesn’t just present the found footage. It makes it part of the plot as the professor is asked to check out the footage and help edit it before it is shown on TV. This means that when the found footage is shown, the narrative has given us a reason why it has background music and is cut in a way that creates a story.

It is something I personally would like to see more of with found footage movies. The conceit of found footage is great, but a lot of filmmakers struggle to make it work in a believable way as Cannibal Holocaust does.

This movie manages to have its cake and eat it too by giving us something that feels like we’re watching a snuff movie but with the editing and score, etc. of a normal movie. It doesn’t have long, boring interludes of realism as with other found footage that needs to sell their conceit.

Final Thoughts: Cannibal Holocaust

This movie is forty years old and has always been a hyped-up horror film for its brutality and gruesomeness, both of which hold up and still shock today.

What is lost in this hype is the fact that this movie is cleverer than expected. When I started watching it I did not expect a scathing takedown of capitalism and colonialism, but hidden in plain sight is an interesting take on how news media glorifies violence over substance, and how white people have for centuries invaded lands and raped and pillaged with impunity.

It’s not often that you watch a horror movie and you realise you’re rooting for the cannibals, but the filmmakers gradually show us exactly why they ended up falling to the fate they do when they reach a tribal village and act like the villagers are playthings to be toyed with and destroyed.

If you haven’t seen this movie and you love horror then give it a watch but be warned, there are at least four rape scenes in it and a lot of real-life animals being killed on screen. However, outside of that, this is an interesting and thought-provoking movie wrapped up in a bloody and gory packaging.

What are your thoughts on Cannibal Holocaust? Let us know in the comments below!

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