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August 4, 2014

Movie Review: Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Grindhouse Releasing)

...ah, yes!! It was a sweltering mid-80's summer sizzle, when this viewer, per chance, received an updated mail-order flyer from one of this ardent collector's numerous bootleg 'connections' (...my favorite, at the time, was the exclusive and 'rare' bootleg offerings from published & respected horror auteur and spokesperson, Chas. Balun); it was a time, genre-wise, on the final gasp of gutsy theatrical releases...those films, daring not to adorn themselves with one of those pish-posh MPAA ratings...wearing instead, the seductive banner, sternly reading, "...there is no explicit sex in this picture; however there are scenes of extreme violence, which may be considered shocking. No one under 17 will be admitted". And an eye-rolling 'ya-dada, ya-dada, ya-dada...'. George Romero called it out, inaugurally, with his zombie masterpiece from 1978, "Dawn of the Dead", and of course, anything produced by Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci, post-"Psychic", was domestically labeled as such (..."Zombie", "City of the Living Dead/The Gates of Hell", "The Beyond", "House by the Cemetery", et al.). The quirky 1982 Spanish slasher, "Pieces" wore that badge of proudly shameless honor, as did the gory 1985 domestic splatter classic, "The Mutilator". And of course, later, in what was considered the 'year of the living dead', so did 1985's "Re-Animator", and the George Romero classic, "Day of the Dead"...with some of these aforementioned 'unrated' titles, wimping out, by quickly being pulled from theaters, and later re-released by 'hard R' versions...

...and yet, despite regular engagement of such deliciously visceral, higher-profile theatrical genre fare...for this ardent devotee of the crimson-drenched macabre, as probably was the case for most people of similar ilk, there was always that underlining desire to push that visceral threshold even further, and at the same time, a veiled and hesitant-to-admit apprehension to do so. Now, admittedly around this time, this viewer had indeed been 'hovering' over an at-the-time-only-available-underground title...intriguingly, albeit graphically entitled, "Cannibal Holocaust"; it compellingly and daringly claimed that this one was the 'one that goes all the way!!' Oh, really?? Considering the exploitative breakdown of the title...we're talking 'cannibals', and a 'holocaust', right...as well as the suggestive banner, describing how far the film supposedly goes...well, that's an impressive boast...oh hell, I'm game!!...



...but then, it's cinematic naivete like that, which over the years, had often taken this insatiably curious traveler to forbidden, no-turning-back places, which bore the clearly marked sign of 'enter at your own risk' (...uh, don't even get me started, with '87's "Nekromantik", '94's "Aftermath", or the "Traces of Death" shockumentary series), and in further researching the specific nuances and idiosyncrasies of this...this "Cannibal Holocaust"...the informative crust of which hardly prepares any viewer for the actual viewing of the film...the ever-growing curiosity became...well, rather insatiable. And so, with eager anticipation, albeit with cautious, big-toe-testing-the-waters apprehension...tightly grabbing the roll bar of this self-claimant heart-in-the-throat thrill ride, yet at the same time, thinking "...whoa!! What the @#$% am I getting myself into??"...I popped in the recently purchased, just barely watchable, 5th generation VHS tape into the machine's carriage, slapped the carriage down, hesitantly pressed 'play', and...
...for the uninitiated, let this seasoned (...or shall I say 'marked for life') viewer, spin the tale quick. An on-the-spot New York City reporter waxrapsonics about modern-day civilization, versus the primitive savagery of supposed existing cannibalism, 'just a few short hours away, by plane'. The coverage specifically focuses upon a jaunty and intrepid team of young filmmakers, seasoned and enthusiastic in their craft (...perhaps a bit too seasoned & enthusiastic), and enthusiastically bound for the Amazonian rain forests, to document reportedly still-existing cannibal tribes. Their departure, well-publicized in the media, is soon-after re-examined, when it becomes apparent that they have not returned from their arduous exhibition, having long broken contact with the outside world, and disappeared under mysterious circumstances...
...a renowned archaeologist, Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), is tapped to lead another exhibition into the danger-riddled Amazonian rain forests, with the exclusive purpose of finding out what happened to the hapless film crew, and with hopes of finding them alive. Already considering the dangers of dealing with these primitive tribes, the local militia, in advance of Professor Monroe's arrival, captures a young Indio native, with the intent of using him as a bargaining chip, during their trip. The ploy indeed works as the Indio native is exchanged, in trade for being led to a primitive Yacumo village, where the 'white men' of the group are met with great apprehension and suspicion; further investigation reveals that the instability of despise and disdain by the primitives, seems to have been interred, as the result of possible mistreatment by the sought after film crew...
...gaining the natives' trust doesn't prove to be easy, as Professor Monroe and his associates venture further into the deadly jungle quagmire; however, in providing defensive aid to a group of local Shamatari warriors, who have been engaging a vicious dispute with a neighboring opposing Yanomamo tribe...as well as the doctor himself, throwing caution to the wind, in willingly presenting himself in a very passive and vulnerable, ritualistic manner...the Shamatari, though still harboring a measure of suspicion, lead the expedition to a juxstapositioned shrine, adorned with the equipment, as well as the remains of the lost filmmakers. Proceeding with great reluctance, as well as a mote of anger in the resigningly ghastly discovery, Professor Monroe...for the purpose of securing greater trust with the natives, as well as acquiring and securing the still-sealed film cans, which adorn the macabre and gruesome shrine...engages in a ritualistic act of cannibalism...
...upon his return to New York, the professor is approached and welcomed back by a major broadcast company, whom the now-confirmed-dead film crew had often contributed with; the company's hopes are that Professor Monroe would thoroughly examine the reclaimed footage of the lost crew, discern what is usable, and consider hosting a documentary on the whole affair. To illicit their intent, the production company shows the professor a rather graphic film, produced by the deceased crew, and emphasizing that sometimes, out of exploitation and sensationalism, the crew would stage certain events, and use very unconventional methods, in getting the striking footage, which they wanted. Considering what he had seen in the Amazon, as well as the overall distrust and dislike, express by the natives, which he had encountered, Professor Monroe cannot help but raise a suspicious brow of his own, in seeing this exploitative and graphic documentary footage, previously released by the lost film crew. And with that in mind, the professor gives his word, as far as filtering through the recovered footage, and reporting back on what he sees...what can be used...what possible horrors, which the lost film crew encountered, before their deaths.....
...and on the whole, if what this viewer has described and encapsulated in the last four paragraphs, was indeed all that there was, as far as the overall content of the film, those uninitiated with "Cannibal Holocaust" might just shrug their shoulders in an '...uh, so what?' salute, and an aback-taken 'that's it??' on their lips. And that would be understandable, of course...a simple mystery/adventure story, right?? Uh no, my friends, that's hardly the case...by a long shot. For what happens in the interim journey of "Cannibal Holocaust", both in the Professor Monroe's arduous trek through the Amazon rainforests, in search of the hapless film crew, who originally went in...as well as the tragic and gruesome fate of the film crew itself, the events of which as scrutinized by the professor, in examining the recovered footage...is a jarring, mind-numbing shock to the senses, which has to been seen to be believed, and which loses little power, even after repeat viewings...rest assured, that is an understatement.....
...acting-wise...gritty, pulpish, sometimes quite exaggerated & over-the-top performances all around...typical of Italian horror productions, at the time; however, it is the alternately horrific and incorrigible acts in the film, itself...both observed by, as well as perpetrated by the varied characters in "Cannibal Holocaust"...most of which is presented in the now-since-coined 'found footage' manner...which is called to the viewer's attention, over and above the level of camp, as far as the acting. Graphic dismemberment and disembowelment. Unflinchingly savage and visually unnerving rituals of punishment and death. Heinous and disturbing enactment of abuse, destruction and social disruption, including rape and acts of terrorism. Wayward and rampant violence towards animals...one of the film's more controversial aspects, considering that the majority of the animal violence was...as often emphasized...unbearable real, and performed specifically for the film. And of course, as the title so succinctly and exploitatively suggests...graphic and in-your-face acts of cannibalism...the ritualistic consumption of human flesh...it is the way that all of this unfolds, and is presented, which sets 'Cannibal Holocaust" apart from other 'mondo cannibal' films that were produced, in and around that time, such as Umberto Lenzi's much more linear and comic-bookish sort of 'greatest hits' of cannibal acts, 1981's "Cannibal Ferox"...or even Ruggero Deodato's previous excursion into this primitive and savage world, 1977's "Jungle Holocaust"...and makes "Cannibal Holocaust", the ultimate, grand Pooh-Bah, big daddy entry, in this particular film genre. Never mind the campy acting, or the low-budget production values; let's face it: there's an undeniable level of insanity, in the overall approach towards how this film was rendered and produced...an uncomfortable and disturbingly frenetic insanity, which gives the film a genuine sense of realism, which viewers...in getting caught up in the madness of the film (...and let's face it: this is the type of film which excels in it's ability to repel and disgust...but damn it to all, it's so freaking hard to look away from it)...might find themselves considering (...can anyone say, "...to avoid fainting, keep repeating...it's only a movie, it's only a movie...only a movie...only a movie...).

A sense of realism which definitely fooled a lot of people...even some higher hierarchy, who condemned, arrested and imprisoned Deodato, for having produced what they essentially thought was a snuff film...and as many an infomercial barker would say, "...that's not all, folks!" To supplement the ensuing madness of the film...the mood, the attitude, the overall uncomfortable-ness of the proceedings, as they unfold...the type of 'uncomfortable-ness', which would chill to the bone, even in a stale and sweltering theater, with broken air conditioning...the brain screaming, "...let's get the @#$% outta here!!", but the body, frozen in the seat...is the film's haunting soundtrack. As deftly and manipulatively rendered by composer Rick Ortolani...one of the more underappreciated, yet quite prevalent music maestros of Italian cinema...the music of "Cannibal Holocaust" plays out very much like a hellish journey...the opening, a calm, albeit unnerving requiem of the tragic things to come, and the closing, with sights coupled with sounds that invoke a level of madness. powerful enough to make the mind, quite literally scream...a skewed and twisted melodic journey, where the tension and uneasiness mounts and builds...the viewer/listener, in the final minutes of the film, seemingly 'escaping' the terrifying proceedings, as the final credits roll...but finding one's self still not quite safe and secure, once back in the so-called comfort of reality...and hardly the same person, as the one who haplessly went into this horrific excursion (...religious naysayers have often been quoted in suggesting that horror movies are bad, as exposure to such extreme horror imagery, taints the soul; I might agree that certain horror movies could have that effect. In all honesty, considering how shaken most people are, after seeing the film, "Cannibal Holocaust" might well be one of them..)...
...and when everything is said & done, and the rippling waves of horror have finally subsided, after having 'survived' a viewing of "Cannibal Holocaust", the remaining question is called to attention: as much as a deliciously gritty and visceral grindhouse fervor at this film most assuredly carries...why, oh why does it deserve to be filtered through the high definition throes of the Blu-Ray format, as presented here by the fine folks over at Grindhouse Releasing?? Really, part of the overall charm in partaking of a film, such as "Cannibal Holocaust", is the embrace of a 'grit 'n' scratchy' print...the hallmark of well-worn string of film strip; too many times in the past, in the midst of the laid-out inception of the HD format, has films of this ilk, been cleaned up...well, too much. Time and time again, in seeing through the filtered lens of high definition, unconsciously acceptable flaws are made to stand out, in an almost distracting manner. Fortunately, in the case of "CH", the overall clean-up appears to be quite disciplined, in the sense that we're basically talking about a 'grindhouse' film, and as such, there are certain expectations, as far as presentation. The crust of any major film strip damage, and the associated scratches are still evident here, though admittedly, for the purpose of the 'found footage' segments, some of this 'damage' was purposefully 'manufactured'. Great care appears to have been taken to enhance the detail, and clarify the barrage of color, throughout the film; as such, the sense of uncomfortability is not merely relegated to the depicted horrors of the film, but also the atmospheric detail...the characters, clearly sweltering in the humidity of the jungle, with enough detail, that viewers might actually catch themselves wiping the sweat from their brow. The colors...especially in that of the jungle tundra, as well as the moments of gore and bloodshed...are so rich, that a sense of texture can almost be discerned, in the two-dimensional projection...
...but don't think that the coolness of Grindhouse Releasing's multiple-disc blu of "Cannibal Holocaust", ends with the striking, high-definition restoration of the film...no siree, bob!!! New extras are interspliced with the classic extras, originally featured in G/R's previous DVD special edition of "CH", including alternate commentary tracks, featuring director Ruggero Deodato, and actors Carl Yorke, Francesca Ciardi and Robert Kerman...a new, informative and enlightening interview with Ruggero, where he not only talks about the making of "Cannibal Holocaust", but also, his other cannibal themed films, "Last Cannibal World" and "Cut & Run"; he also goes into great depth, as far as the infamous controversies, associated with "CH", including the criminal allegations that "CH" was considered a snuff film, as well as the notorious animal violence, featured in the film...up-to-date interviews with actors Carl Yorke and Robert Kerman, and the film's soundtrack composer, Riz Ortolani...the choice between a well-reconstructed digital stereo presentation of the film, or the film's original mono presentation...heck, even a choice between viewing alternate versions of "Cannibal Holocaust", the unflinchingly uncut version, or a version which is shorn of the infamous animal violence...prerequisite galleries of still photos, as well as multiple versions of the film's trailers, domestic and foreign...an extensive booklet of linear notes, deftly and amorously scribed by director Eli Roth (...whose own 'mondo cannibal' opus, "The Green Inferno", opens theatrically, later this year), and the late, quite respected horror film auteur, Chas. Balun...a CD extra, containing the original soundtrack score of the film...and almost countless hidden surprises, well worth looking for (...now, now!! We can't give away everything here, can we??)...

...and so, thinking back, what actually did happen to this now-privy viewer, when he engaged that fuzzy, barely watchable VHS of "Cannibal Holocaust", for the very first time?? Numb, speechless, visibly shaken...don't even remember the final credits rolling, the screen fading to black, then static fuzz, before the tape shifted to rewind, and the machine spit out the tape...I just sat there, invariably stunned. After some minutes, much like the film's equally shaken professor, I got up, stepped outside, and took in a deep breath of fresh air...back to reality, in the safety and comfort of modern civilization, yet still not quite comfortable with what I had just seen. And despite the no-holds-barred, no-punches-pulled, horrific and gruesome 'journey', which I had just undertaken...you know something?? I got it...back then, I really got it...the poignant and underlining social commentary, offering the irony of query about who is truly civilized, and who are truly the savages...the invasion, exploitation, domination and decimation of primitives, and the so-called lesser civilized, by those claimant to be so much more advanced and civilized (...looking back at history, considering what has happened in the past...is this really any different??)...the overall idea of voyeurism, in the sense that no matter how much we might refuse to admit the allure, and even vocally express disdain and disgust, in truth, we just can't resist the urge to look, no matter how extreme...

...just short of some thirty years later, in eagerly, and at the same time, reluctantly relishing Grindhouse Releasing's gorgeous, pristine, high tech, high definition edition of the film...uh, nope... the impact of the film is hardly diminished, even after all these years, and once again, this claimant jaded and seasoned viewer found himself stepping outside, into the 'clean' world. As strikingly beautiful and irresistibly intriguing, albeit shockingly visual as "Cannibal Holocaust" is, as rendering in the Blu-Ray format, it is still not a movie which most folks will readily admit that they genuinely enjoy watching...especially alone...that is, without feeling a measure of perversity; it's difficult to pin down a specific word, as to how one might actually feel about the film, but to dare say that one 'likes' the film?? Nonetheless, it is still a very important film, within the realm of horror and dark fantasy films/...compelling, intriguing & irresistible...and most assuredly deserves a look and/or re-examination. Just be sure that you are fully aware of what you are getting yourself into, 'kay??...

...veteran actor Edward Van Sloane said it best, at the end of his opening monologue, in the classic 1931 Universal horror film, "Frankenstein"..."...and so, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to, uh...well, we've warned you!!".....

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