Cannibal Holocaust (1980): Why this shocking film is considered important

ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 25: Ruggero Deodato and Enzo Castellari attend the Award Ceremony Red Carpet during the 9th Rome Film Festival on October 25, 2014 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 25: Ruggero Deodato and Enzo Castellari attend the Award Ceremony Red Carpet during the 9th Rome Film Festival on October 25, 2014 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images) /

Currently available on Shudder and Fandor, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is not an easy film to discuss, and not just because it’s considered among the most shocking horror films out there. It’s also simply a movie that must be seen in order to be properly analyzed and understood. Maybe a writer could convey some of the ideas and images in the film, but you really must watch it at least once to fully experience the film, for better or worse. Many will say it’s for worse and will swear off taking a subsequent trip into the jungle with this (practically) one-of-a-kind horror tale.

However, I personally found some value in Cannibal Holocaust, and mostly because, to this day, it no doubt defies certain viewer’s conventions about what’s terrifying about a jungle and, yes, possibly hostile tribes. For example, when I think of an expedition into the Amazon rainforest, I assume a primary danger could be the guide’s canoe overturning, or maybe some massive anaconda swoops in to devour some human prey item. Or people could drown or otherwise be stranded.

There is another horror potential regarding night-time and the lack of light in the jungle, or, for a supernatural angle, maybe there are ghostly entities approaching that just shouldn’t be there. Cannibal Holocaust doesn’t really do that and reveals a different kind of threat altogether.

Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust – Courtesy Shudder /

What is the threat in Cannibal Holocaust?

Cannibal Holocaust initially makes us think a tribe native to the region is a danger to the documentary crew. However, it is not only the cannibal tribe that kills and the documentary filmmakers are revealed as liars, never intending to leave the natives unharmed. There is, of course, another simpler point: If any earlier expedition to the region did prove genuinely dangerous, how wise is it for someone to return just to get bonus footage? It seems some would go to the Amazon just for some cheap thrills, rather than some high-minded purpose.

At the same time, to my memory, Cannibal Holocaust never implies that the native tribes are not themselves potentially dangerous. We sense that a group could easily be attacked by a tribe, captured by them, or killed. In other words, quite importantly, this movie does not only strictly pursue a narrative wherein “the only danger is the filmmakers who symbolize imperialism.”

While I don’t wish to call Cannibal Holocaust a genius film or anything quite like that, I will say it does explore the horrors of cultures clashing with each other and of an exploitative, rigged exploration of the world.

The legacy of Cannibal Holocaust

I have no expectations that everyone will agree with my points here. In fact, any time I write on a controversial topic like this, I ask myself “Should I really be addressing this? Might I say something that gets me in trouble here?” However, that this happens only exemplifies the power of this particular movie. Also, semi-ironically, by addressing such topics, one might accuse me of being a pathetic thrill-seeker of sorts, and maybe I’m just looking for clicks in my article by choosing a sensational topic.

Cannibal Holocaust was an innovative film in that it has us pondering the dimensions of exploitation, which is a theme explored by critics still whenever serial killer biopics come out (does Dahmer ring a bell?). Then again, there is also the question of whether all documentaries are as exploitative as the film crew here. To a large degree, there’s a built-in assumption that, if you go to such a place, you are seeking adventure and really living quite a life.

However, over the course of time, one may learn that our cultural system is actually putting people in cages, forcing labels on them, and possibly forcing their dependence so we can pat ourselves on the back for deciding to let them survive. This movie brings a lot of these images into my mind, even if not yours, which may be part of its legacy (or just my overthinking).

Horror in the daytime

Finally, Cannibal Holocaust is another movie where not all the horror occurs at night. Just like in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where Sally tries to signal for help toward the end, and only narrowly escapes, there can be something special about horror not obscured by darkness. In this case, we see the main villain, Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), mostly allowed to continue his crimes because other members of the team go along. There are a few key protests from the group, but they prove to be too little, too late, and the horror is allowed to accumulate for good footage.

Of course, this could also be a slight commentary on the movie’s audience itself, us, who become semi-complicit by allowing ourselves to be subjected to these scenes and ideas. And yes, I know this “selling point” of the movie could also be regarded as a weak point or a trick to make the movie seem deeper, but it does give food for thought. At one point, the character Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) says, “Keep rolling, we’re gonna get an Oscar for this!”

Tomaso compares the scenes he’s creating to Cambodia, being quite happy about it. And yes, unfortunately, some animals were harmed (and killed) during the film’s production, which is itself reason enough for many to steer clear from seeing this deliberate on-screen atrocity unfold. Of course, the director was also arrested under suspicion that the movie’s human deaths were real, too.

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