Dir: Ruggero Deodato
In 1984 the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in the UK drew up a list of movies that would become known as the video nasties. Films so repellent, so brutal, that their release made their publishers liable to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. Ironically, for the most part, the DPP ended up granting a now nearly 30-year long spotlight to these films, films which otherwise would mostly have drifted into deserved obscurity.
However, it has also preserved a handful of good films, and even a couple of classics. Cannibal Holocaust, perhaps the most transgressive of the nasties, falls into that last category. Far from being a simple exploitation film, Deodato's magnum opus is a film of ideas and which plays with form in ways that provoke revulsion, fear, and most importantly thought, in its audience.
Last night I was finally able to see this groundbreaking film at the cinema (the last screening I had wanted to attend was pulled by Police). However, this was still not quite the original film, rather it is Deodato's 2011 edit, cut to get around some of the problems that the British Board of Film Classification have historically had with the film (largely its extensive unsimulated animal cruelty). This is the version which will be released on Blu Ray later this year by the exceptional Grindhouse company Shameless.
Rather than cutting the contentious moments, Deodato has generally chosen to obscure them with what are ostensibly flaws in the film. This is clever; an artful way to make the edits, in keeping with the form of the film (the second half of which purports to consist of documentary footage left in poor conditions in the jungle for months), and it doesn't take much away from the film, only the early killing of a muskrat is entirely deleted.
These considerations aside, Cannibal Holocaust remains a brilliant film. The performances are really only serviceable, but even that's quite high praise for Italian exploitation movies, but Deodato's direction is what really transforms this film from a simple gorefest into something genuinely interesting. The first half of the film is pretty straightforward narrative cinema, following a rescue operation to attempt to recover four missing filmmakers and their footage, and here Deodato reveals a genuinely artistic eye, developing many memorable shots and set pieces. The second half is even more striking; Deodato develops the faux documentary styling brilliantly, using them to draw us in in a much more visceral way than if we had been able to sit at one remove from the film, and manipulating technical 'flaws' to make the verisimilitude ever more convincing, and thus ever more disturbing.
The film's moral questions are simplistically phrased (summed up in a final line of voiceover), but they remain troubling, and can be extended into far less extreme situations with equally troubling implications. Cannibal Holocaust may have begun (as Deodato said before the film) as a reaction against explicit violence in news footage, but today it could easily be seen as being about war reporting, or even the morals of any reporting.
It may not quite be complete, but this is as good a version of Cannibal Holocaust as the UK is ever likely to see, and it was a treat (an odd term I know) to feel the full force of its impact on a big screen. It's an essential film, and a genuinely great and interesting one at that.★★★★★