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Welcome of the Jungle: The Enduring Power and Controversy of Cannibal Holocaust

An addendum to Episode 311.

On October 18, 2010, I sponsored a screening of the film Cannibal Holocaust on the Winona State campus. Banned and censored all over the world, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most notorious and most fiercely debated films of all time. In the next few paragraphs I’ll explain why I showed this film and why I believe it deserves serious consideration by audiences.

Cannibal Holocaust tells the (fictional) story of a group of filmmakers who have disappeared in the Amazon while making a documentary about the indigenous population. An anthropologist travels into the jungle to rescue them but the trail ends with the discovery of the filmmakers’ remains, including canisters of film documenting their journey. When the footage is developed and assembled, it is revealed that the documentarians attacked the natives, trying to manipulate their behavior to conform to a preconceived storyline of tribal warfare. While hiking through the jungle, the documentary crew amused themselves by killing animals and raping indigenous women. Eventually, the natives struck back, killing the filmmaking crew in gory deaths captured by their own cameras.

Released in 1980, Cannibal Holocaust opened to instant controversy. A few weeks after its premiere in Italy, the film was seized by authorities on the belief that it was a snuff film and director Ruggero Deodato was accused of murdering the actors. The murder charges were dropped when the actors appeared publicly with Deodato, but other scenes in the film, namely scenes of the actors killing real animals, resulted in Cannibal Holocaust being labeled obscene. The film was tangled in legal battles for years before it eventually circulated, mostly in censored versions. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in underground or grindhouse cinema and Cannibal Holocaust has been restored to its original form.

Despite the thirty years that have passed since its premiere, Cannibal Holocaust remains a lightning rod of controversy for its animal killings, the portrayal of indigenous people, and the extreme anti-personal violence. Yet, this film is distinct and important among horror films.

The most vocal objection to Cannibal Holocaust is its animal killings. While this footage is unsettling and ethically questionable, animal killings are nothing new in cinema nor are they strictly bound to the province of exploitation filmmaking. According to the Canadian news program The Fifth Estate, the 1918 version of Tarzan features an actor killing a drugged lion, the silent 1925 version of Ben Hur killed one hundred horses in its production, and Disney’s White Wilderness (which won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1959) includes a scene of lemmings jumping to their deaths that was staged by production staff pushing the animals into the water. According to Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log, the tiger shark captured by the townspeople in Jawswas a real shark that was killed specifically for the film. And the climax of Apocalypse Now features natives killing an ox by hacking it to death. While intentional animal deaths have been eliminated from more recent films, what was done on the set of Cannibal Holocaust isn’t far departed from films that preceded it. Does that excuse the violence? Perhaps not. But it does question the veracity of moral objections to this footage.

Criticisms of the portrayal of indigenous people require similar reevaluation. Cannibal Holocaust identifies its native tribes as the Yanomamo and the Shamatari, which are actual tribes of the Amazon. The tribal people, as presented in the film, bear no resemblance to the natives as they actually exist. However, at several points in the film it is acknowledged that certain displayed behaviors are uncharacteristic for the indigenous people. It’s clear that the documentary crew has upset the “balance of nature” through their thoughtlessness and barbarity and the violence and chaos is a direct result of their actions. Admittedly, the film is unclear as to what the “balance of nature” actually is and the film never really gives the natives a voice of their own. But this is not a film about innocent civilized westerners corrupted by the call of the wild; the westerners bring the corruption with them.

The human-to-human violence of Cannibal Holocaust, especially against women, is pervasive and extreme and there are several sequences of sexual violence. These constitute some of the most gut wrenching moments of the film. But like the animal killings or the portrayal of the natives, there is a thematic function to these scenes, and their grotesque explicitness makes them essential. The animal killings parallel the intra-human violence, creating moral equivalency from one direction (humans are afforded the same lack of respect as animals, reducing each to the same level) and verisimilitude from the other (the reality of the actual animal deaths informs our belief in and reaction to the simulated human deaths).

The cruelty is also connected with Cannibal Holocaust’s portrayal of indigenous people and the parallels and contrasts the film draws between the documentary crew and the natives. The film’s structure deliberately gives audiences the expectation that the poor Western filmmakers were victims at the hands of uncivilized savages. This expectation is reversed when it is shown that the violence of the natives was unleashed by the filmmaker’s provocation. What portion of the natives’ violent conduct is part of their Thomas Hobbes-like state of nature and what portion is a reaction to the filmmakers’ actions is unclear but it is clear that the film’s consistent use of parallels in the way humans mistreat each other is intended to extinguish any distinction between the civilized and the savage, suggesting that both exist together simultaneously in the human species.

And this brings me to why I think Cannibal Holocaust is so troubling for so many viewers, why it stirs such outrage, why it has suffered such censorship, and why it remains potent viewing. Cannibal Holocaust is not troubling to the audience for any one charge made against it, but for its cumulative effect. The barbarity of the animal killings, the display of economic and sexual exploitation, and the parallel acts of violence craft a vision of humanity darker than the stories of Joseph Conrad or William Golding. There is a totality to its nihilistic presentation of humanity that stamps out hope.

When a viewer watches a horror film, he or she intentionally submits him or herself to trauma. Most mainstream horror films like Jaws or Psycho scare us and thrill us but in the end leave viewers knowing that good has triumphed over evil and all is right with the world. More challenging horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes do not offer quite the same solace of a closed resolution but generally there is a survivor who we can empathize with and whose self preservation is a source of relief. These films have a cathartic effect on the viewer, allowing him or her to experience terror and fear from the safety of the theater seat or the living room sofa and then walk away to carry on with his or her life.

Cannibal Holocaust refuses to engage in this kind of pattern. It piles on the awfulness and as the rapes and murders accumulate, the film abandons all unwritten agreements of propriety between the filmmaker and the audience. For those who expect to see a liberal humanist notion of human decency emerge from the darkness, the film offers a moral black hole. For those who demand a meaningful resolution where death is not in vain, the film offers none. And for those who want to preserve hope in humanity, Ruggero Deodato cinematically gives his audience the finger and tells them to fuck off. In short, Cannibal Holocaust tells the truth.

We spend much of our time avoiding the truth. Psychologists tell us that we create fantasies and dreamscapes to escape them. We subterfuge desire and convince ourselves that we are civilized by building libraries and court houses and creating laws and philosophy. And we reject those things that do not coalesce with our collective assumptions.

Cannibal Holocaust is most awful and unendurable at the moments that it shows us things we are aware of subconsciously but would never want to see and are loath to admit about ourselves and our species. But these things exist. Genital mutilation and honor killings occur. Sexual and economic exploitation are real (and sometimes connected, as they are in the film). We live at a time when religious fundamentalists videotape themselves cutting off the heads of their enemies and broadcast the footage on the internet for all to see. Unscrupulous media hacks cherry pick video clips to distort our view of reality. Such things are not defeated by illusions of hope.

From time to time, an artist, either by accident, madness, or intent, creates a work that violates our collective assumptions. From Marquis de Sade to Bret Easton Ellis, there are those who create pieces of art that aren’t merely incendiary, but attack the most cherished and sacred illusion of all: the spiritual and moral development of humanity. Ruggero Deodato accomplished this in Cannibal Holocaust and his film is simultaneously profound and obscene. And that tension is exactly why I think it merits a place at the table, even if—or because—its appetite is exclusively for flesh and blood.

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