Found Footage Friday: Cannibal Holocaust by Jamie

I recently watched ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ and went on a mini-rampage about how fucking sick I am of found footage films, going so far as to declare that if film makers can’t be bothered to hire professional camera men to make their “professional” films then I’m not going to bother watching them. After the rage subsided, I thought about some found footage films that I’d actually enjoyed and realised I probably shouldn’t tar an entire genre with the same brush.

So I decided that one way to try and come to terms with this style of film making, which is certainly not going to go away, was to watch as many of them as possible. I want to discover the gems hidden among the sea of shit that makes up the entire found footage movement. It’s going to be a long, hard slog but luckily I’m a glutton for punishment and it only seems fair to begin with the great granddaddy of the entire genre, the one that started it all. No, I’m not talking about ‘The Blair Witch Project’. Silly young people. No, to see what many consider the birth of found footage, we have to go all the way back to the year 1980 for a little film called ‘Cannibal Holocaust‘. Spoilers and possibility of drunken ramblings ahead.

Oh boy. I don’t even know where to begin. I guess Cannibal Holocaust is one of those movies which I’d always assumed I’d seen and forgotten most of. If you have any interest in film, particularly horror, then there’s a good chance that you’ll end up hearing and reading a lot about it and I guess that that’s where I’d gotten the idea that perhaps I had viewed it before. I just knew so much about it that I assumed at some point in my life I’d sat down and actually watched it. Trust me when I say that I’ve seen and forgotten more films than a lot of people have actually seen so it was an easy mistake for me to make. But as I was watching the film today, I realised that it was obvious that I’d never seen this film before because I wouldn’t be able to forget it and now I never will. Never.

So the basic story of the film is that a young documentary team from New York has gone to the Amazon rainforest in order to film the local tribes there and have gone missing. New York University anthropology professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) decides to head into the foreboding jungle to try and track them down. He and his guides come across several tribes and evidence of the crew along their travels. The tribes seem particularly wary of the men and the professor comes to the conclusion that the film crew must have done something in order to make them this way. Finally his worst fears are realized. He discovers the remains of the crew and finds that they have been cannibalised. After negotiating with a tribal chief he manages to procure the crew’s film and heads back to New York.

In New York, the Pan American Broadcast Company decides they want to air the footage but Monroe insists he take a look at the raw footage first. Ok, this is one major part of the plot that I had a problem with. Really? The TV company were just gonna broadcast the footage without reviewing it first? Footage of an expedition that they knew ended with the crew being killed and eaten? They didn’t think that there might be anything on there that they might wanna get a look at first? Really? Anyway, that’s kind of beside the point because it turns out that, surprise surprise, Monroe was right to review the footage as he uncovers that the so-called documentarians were actually staging scenarios in order to get footage for their film and they did it in pretty horrific ways. Such as rounding a tribe into a straw hut and setting said hut on fire. They also gleefully engage in a bit of the old enforced the old in-out, real savage. Oh and then they impale their rape victim on a big wooden stake and film it as if the tribe had done it to her in some kind of punishment ritual. So yes, through all the extreme violence and sexual assault there is a subtext, that subtext being who are the real savages? The tribal peoples or the fucked up Westerners? The film unfortunately decides to try and hammer this message home at the end with Monroe asking himself “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” Well professor, the word cannibal has a pretty strict definition.:

  1. A person who eats the flesh of other human beings: “cannibal tribes”.
  2. An animal that feeds on flesh of its own species.

So, yeah, given that I’m going to say that the real cannibals were the people who ate people. If you’d said savages instead of cannibals I’d have been completely on board with your point but you didn’t. Now you look like a fool. A fool professor! Anyway the last of the footage ends with the crew being killed and eaten (and in the case of the female member of the crew raped as well) which, whilst horrific, I suppose is kind of supposed to be justified by the actions of the crew earlier. Whilst I’m sure the film makers meant the film to suggest that it truly was the fucked up Westerners that were the real savages, I just came away from it thinking ‘Fuck. I guess everyone is a savage.’

Now this film is massively controversial for a number of reasons. The director, Ruggero Deodato, was even arrested and accused of murder as the courts believed that several people had actually been killed on camera for the film. Now whilst some of the staged acts of graphic violence is certainly a bit much, though incredibly realistic for the time it was filmed, that’s not exactly the stuff I have a problem with. No, it’s the actual acts of horrific violence that were done just for the camera. One of the reasons that this film remains controversial to this day is the fact that actual and unnecessarily brutal acts of animal cruelty were filmed, ostensibly for entertainment purposes. These scenes are some of the most difficult I’ve ever seen. Seven animals in total were killed during the making of the movie, six of which were included in the film. There’s a coati which is stabbed though the neck and butchered, a tarantula and a snake that are both hacked up with machetes, a pig that gets kicked around a few times before being shot in the head at close range with a shotgun. Then a squirrel monkey, squirming and screaming is held down whilst the top of its head is removed with a machete.

Please don’t chop my head off and eat my brains…
Image courtesy of Luc Viatour /

Despite how horrific that is, it’s actually one of the least egregious killings because it was eaten by the tribal cast members who consider monkey brains a delicacy and it would be pretty hypocritical of me as a meat eater to criticise a different cultures methods of killing and eating their food. Still, it’s a difficult watch.

The most difficult scene, however, is the killing and butchering of a large turtle which is dragged out of the amazon. It’s quite a long piece of the film and it’s pretty fucking sickening. The joy with which the film crew decapitate the animal, hack off its still twitching limbs and remove it’s shell is truly, truly shocking. I actually yelled at the screen in disgust a number of times and found myself wishing it would just end. At times, it felt like it never would. It’s weird because I’d always wondered what a turtle looked like without it’s shell. Now I wish I didn’t know because it turns out it’s just a mess of organs.

So… yeah. That’s film one in this ongoing series about found footage films. I honestly don’t feel that I can covey the feelings that this film brought up in me. Despite all that and as much as it pains me to say it… The film is kinda good. Completely unenjoyable and deserving of having every remaining copy of it shot into the sun forever and ever but still worth at least one watch. I honestly can’t explain why. Maybe it’s because everything that this film spawned. Maybe it’s a morbid curiosity to find out what others think of it. Maybe it’s simply because despite everything that I should hate about this film, there’s something weirdly fascinating about it. It’s a film that I can neither recommend nor fully condemn. I’ll just say that if you have any interest in the history of cinema, horror particularly, it’s a film you should watch at least once. But be warned. It is not an easy or enjoyable experience.

And now, to lighten the mood, here’s Space Unicorn.

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