Review: Cannibal Holocaust (1980) (The Most Controversial Film of All Time?)

“Man is omnipotent; nothing is impossible for him”

Is Cannibal Holocaust the most controversial film of all time? That’s what it says on the sleeve of the Shameless Edition which I picked up last week. I thought shameless was a reference to the price: 18 pounds! But, I was willing to pay that steep price for something that would shock and disgust me. It takes a lot. Cannibal Holocaust ticks all the boxes for extreme horror: rape, genital mutilation, cannibalism, buckets of blood, disembowelments, real animal slaughters…it’s a film that you couldn’t get away with doing today. Ask Eli Roth: he tried with The Green Inferno, but that lacked any shock value (and was pretty dull as well). As is often the case, nothing could top the original Cannibal Holocaust. Yes, it’s probably the most controversial film of all time. But does that make it any good?

To be honest, I’m not sure. Merely by the halfway point of the film, Cannibal Holocaust had done more to shock me than most films. Every now and again, I like to watch an extreme horror film to wake me up from reality. The last film I remember turning my stomach like Cannibal Holocaust did is A Serbian Film (and that was the edited version of the latter film!). There is no respite from the horror on show with Cannibal Holocaust. When you think it can’t get any more deprived, it puts another gruesome display on show. Rape? There are several rape scenes. There’s genital mutilation, involving both a woman and a man. There’s cannibalism, of course, including a white man eating a liver offered to him by the natives. Heads are smashed in (unconvincingly, I may add), legs are cut off, bodies are ripped apart, and a few animals are slaughtered. Oh, there’s a forced abortion as well.

“You did it, goddamnit! They’ve just invited us to dinner!”

The turtle is the most sympathetic character in the entire film

Now, the animal slaughter deserves a paragraph of its own. Lest you forget that the animal slaughter actually happened. Yes, they hacked apart that turtle. Yes, they sliced the face off that squirrel monkey. Of all the horrific imagery in the film, I am still thinking about the elongated and close up hacking of the turtle. The people slice its limbs off, hack its lower shell off, and pulls its internal organs out. The female journalist steps to one side to throw up. I felt like doing that myself as I was eating my scrambled eggs and turkey bacon. Let’s face it, us meat eaters put animal slaughter to the back of our minds. But if we had to (for example) kill a cow ourselves for a piece of meat? I don’t think the majority of us would be able to do it.

But where was I…oh yeah. The legitimate animal slaughter lends proceedings a veil of reality. The story follows an anthropologist looking for a film crew who disappeared in the Amazon rainforest looking for indigenous cannibal tribes. After going through a horde of his own horrors, he finds out that they were killed. He also finds their film reels, and takes them back to America. Here he sees that they attempted to twist the narrative of the cannibal tribes to one they wanted to portray. If I were watching this without knowing anything about it, I could almost believe that the documentary footage was real. You can tell that the animal slaughter is legitimate, and for its time, the human slaughter looks legitimate most of the time (apart from whenever anyone’s head is bashed in. There’s lots of blood, but heads remain intact!).

The veil of reality is what draws you into Cannibal Holocaust. The director, Ruggero Deodato, was arrested because magistrates believed he had created a snuff film. It’s almost believable that you’re watching people be killed for real. However, it’s hard to be truly drawn in when the acting is horrendous. Yes, part of the appeal of the video nasties is that, on the whole, the acting is horrendous. It seems as if the casting director pulled random people off the street to participate. Sometimes it’s hard to see past the terrible acting, but there’s always some grotesque scenery waiting to distract you.

“I wonder who the real cannibals are”

I’ve seen better acting in a school pantomine than all four of these people combined

And what, exactly, is all the carnage about? There’s an overt message that screams in our face that we are the savages, and not the Native South American tribes. Yes, they indulge in cannibalism, rape and murder, but most of the white people shown are disgusting human beings. The film crew create their own narrative by savaging the native people. Of course, they are punished for it by gruesome deaths. But for supposedly civilised people, they act decidedly uncivilised. When the anthropologist returns home with the film reels, television executives want to broadcast it straight away, unedited. Blood and guts make money, in their opinion. People want to be shocked and disgusted.

Why else did I spend 18 quid on a film? I want to be desensitized, or see something truly shocking. I want something to push me over the edge. Of course, the makers of the film themselves are just as bad as the fictional film crew. They are the true exploiters. But did they have a message to convey, or did they simply want to disgust people? I reckon that the filmmakers did not have a message to convey. They just wanted to make money by grossing out people and pushing the boundaries of the film censors.

It’s hard to decide on a quality rating for Cannibal Holocaust. You can ascribe all the social commentary you want to the film, but it all feels like a flimsy pretext to plunge into people’s nightmares and show them something that will turn their stomach inside out. It’s a marathon of debauchery and depravity that pushes the limit for almost every minute of its duration. If you’re into video nasties, then you’ll have already seen it. If not, watch it right away and see how far you can go. If you’re not into video nasties, then obviously stay far away. For provoking a reaction, Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most viscerally affecting films I’ve seen. But the acting constantly threatened to make me burst out laughing.

VERDICT: 6/10. Yes, in my humble opinion, it ticks all the boxes for most controversial film of all time. You should only watch this film if you want to be heavily grossed out. But the acting is simply atrocious.

BUT: 0/10 if video nasties are not your sort of thing.

What did you think of  Cannibal Holocaust (1980)? Leave your thoughts/comments below!

Click here for my review of The Green Inferno (2013)

Click here for my review of I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

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