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Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) Blu-ray

on Fri, 23/09/2011 - 11:00

When Shameless Screen Entertainment announced they were planning to release the most infamous of all the so-called video nasties, working with Ruggero Deodato on a new edit to go with the original version, I figured the BBFC would take another look at Cannibal Holocaust and basically reaffirm their earlier ruling, which had quite swingeing cuts. I wasn't alone in this opinion and Shameless wisely put it before a BBFC advisory committee first so, when the committee report came back recommending only 14 seconds of cuts, I was gobsmacked, but wondered whether the full BBFC classification committee would affirm the advisory committee's report or demand even more cuts. They didn't and the Web was stunned.

Previously, the BBFC had taken exception to the scenes of animal killing and 'sexualised violence' but, this time, they saw the animal killings in a different light ruling that, with the exception of the scene in which a live muskrat is gutted, they were 'quick kills' and, in an opinion shared with everyone who had seen the uncut film, the violence against women was far from sexualised, but repugnant, barbaric and extremely unlikely to give anyone a degree of pleasure.

For a 30 year old film, Cannibal Holocaust is a film which people know of by reputation, particularly the more extreme elements, but not so much about the plot, structure and characters. It begins with a TV documentary reporting about a team of documentary filmmakers who went deep into the Amazon basin to report on cannibal tribes and haven't been seen since. The studio is keen to find them in their footage, so dispatch an anthropology professor from NYU, Harold Monroe, to Colombia to team up with some local experts and venture into the jungle, known as The Green Inferno, on a rescue mission.

With a prisoner from the Yanomamö tribe at their base who was captured with a watch around his neck, something which belonged to one of the members of the documentary crew, Prof Monroe, his guide Chaco and Miguel use the native, who can easily follow the trail left by the filmmakers, as their guide, they venture into the jungle hoping to find Faye, Jack, Mark and Alan alive. However, when they find the remains of their guide, Felipe, it becomes clear those chances are slim to none, it's imperative they recover the film stock left behind so Prof Monroe can return to the studio executives in New York City with evidence of what they filmed as their last documentary.

Finding the native Indians surprisingly hostile, huts burned down and skeletons with watches, camera equipment and other things which only the documentary crew would have had, Monroe and Chaco realise they need to placate both the immensely powerful Yanomamö and Shamatari tribes in order to find the film stock. The first step is to get back to nature, offering the prisoner as a gesture of good faith, but in a ritualistic fashion with Miguel walking out on to a mud flat with his prisoner on a length of rope and, like the natives, naked. After handing over the native, they are invited back to the Yanomamö camp, but the chief is angry and upset, showing them burned huts, sobbing, pounding on the ground and trying to tell them something.

Gaining the trust of the Shamatari tribe will be much harder as they are tree dwellers who are even less approachable than the Yanomamö and they also have no leverage this time. When Monroe comes up with an ingenious plan and is able to persuade them to hand over the film canisters, the group leave the Green Inferno and Monroe gets a flight back to New York so the studio executives can see what the footage is like before they decide to broadcast. Having been shown what Alan, Faye, Jack and Mark have shot previously with their The Long Road to Hell documentary, which includes some faked footage of executions, Monroe wonders and much of this material has been manipulated or staged.

Shocking him and the studio executives, the material they are shown in the screening room begins with the four preparing to leave and Alan explaining why they must take some things but leave others (such as an electric razor) behind, surreptitiously filming Faye as she dries herself following a shower and looks for her clothes. From there, it's into the jungle where they are able to locate the Yanomamö base because Jack grabs a rifle and shoots one of them in the leg, hampering his movement.

This section includes the four catching a turtle, beheading it and cutting it up before eating it, filming some 'social surgery' in the form of a forced abortion and then, to show how savage the Yanomamö are, shooting a tethered piglet which was going to be their food and herding numerous villagers into a hut before burning it to the ground with them inside.

Deciding against presenting the footage as evidence of the way people in the Amazon basin live and talking to the executives about his misgivings, Monroe describes how the 'savages' aren't the cannibals in the jungle, but the filmmakers, whose outrageous behaviour – including gang rape –and complete disregard for human life brings about their demise and undermines the whole point of the documentary.

As Ruggero Deodato had made several of the cast members sign a contract in which it was stated that they could not appear in any publicity, commercials or other films for a year after Cannibal Holocaust’s release, the initial reaction amongst the authorities in Italy was not purely one of moral outrage at the animal cruelty, but of serious legal repercussions as some people believed that the content of the film was real in a 'snuff movie'. Although they wanted the film to be confiscated and ordered Deodato and 123 to hand over all negatives, some were smuggled out of the country and, as it became a worldwide sensation, the concern over the cast members resulted in Deodato and other members of the crew being summoned to an Italian court. There, they had to persuade the judges that the people shown being killed on screen were actors and were still very much alive, even going so far as nullifying their contracts and bringing them to court to demonstrate that the events on screen were not real – this goes to show how convincing the footage was (and still is) and the conceit that the events were real really worked.

One of the main reasons that the film is still so contentious and controversial (and is still banned in numerous countries) is due to the animal cruelty because Cannibal Holocaust shows several animals being killed and eaten, including a muskrat, a pig, a monkey and a giant turtle. Such scenes are not uncommon as other 'cannibal' and 'Mondo' films have scenes in which animals are killed either for fun, because they presented a risk or for food. Interestingly, Ruggero Deodato did a complete volte-face several years after the film was released, saying that he regrets the way in which the animals were killed and presented, wishing they had never been performed or filmed in a different way. In addition, 'The Last Road to Hell' sequence contains real footage of executions from South America as well as some material that Deodato staged for ultimate effect. If that weren't enough, there is one sequence to which the BBFC objected strongly in which a pregnant woman who has been found guilty of adultery is raped with a large wooden dildo and then has a huge mud ball, with sticks pushed through it, forcibly inserted into her vagina as a punishment.

In order to review this, I watched the film twice: the (almost) complete cut and then Ruggero Deodato's new edit. The only forced omission from the original theatrical cut off a few seconds in which the muskrat is gutted and, instead of watching the animal squirm, you hear it 'screaming' when footage of monkeys running up trees and Monroe's shocked face place before the innards are thrown to the native who gratefully eats them. Deodato's new edit is preceded by an introduction in which he talks about why he felt he needed to revisit the footage and change several things. These aren't major changes to the narrative or the savagery by the natives and filmmakers, but a few instances where an old violence has been replaced by blue 'scene missing' images so the monkey doesn't have its skull opened with two machete blows, but one and the close-ups of the turtle's fins twitching aren't there to the same extent.

These aren't major changes and don't really lessen the impact, with Cannibal Holocaust remaining an incredibly powerful piece of work which is technically brilliant and remains one of the toughest horror films to watch. It's amazing just how far things have progressed that a film which was banned 30 years ago and then was released with several minutes of cuts is now available on DVD and BD with only 14 seconds of BBFC mandated cuts, all from the same scene.

Extra Features

The disc begins with the usual copyright warning and then skippable trailers for upcoming or currently available Shameless releases: House on the Edge of the Park (HD), Don't Torture a Duckling (SD) and The New York Ripper (HD), followed by a brief introduction to the disc by Ruggero Deodato (the same one plays before the film itself, but only lasts nine seconds) which can't be skipped have to watch it twice in order to watch the film.

When you select the new Ruggero Deodato edit, there is an introduction (1:49, HD) during which he explains his position on the animal violence, something he accepts is important to the film, but the extent of the footage bothers him. There is a major subtitling error as turtle is spelt 'turle', but this is a minor quibble from an uber pedant and the rest of the subtitling is fine.

Theatrical Trailer (2:58, HD) is the international trailer, with the dialogue in English, clips from the film and Riz Ortolani's superb score in the background.

Film & Be Damned: Interview with Carl G. Yorke & Ruggero Deodato (40:28, HD) begins with an interview with Deodato in which he explains how the project came about, how it came to be cast and how he took the visual inspiration from Mondo Cane. You can hear from Carl Gabriel Yorke (they are both filmed in the same location, sitting next to a table with a pile of Shameless DVDs in front of the lamp) who basically explains that he was cast because he has size 10 1/2 feet! It then continues with interviews with the two men switching from one to the other covering most aspects of the shoot such as the crew, cast and (predictably) the animal killings, plus the aftermath and is a fairly revealing and interesting documentary and, even with clips from the film and some behind the scenes photos, it isn't the most visually impressive!

It does jar occasionally when flicking from Yorke to Deodato as you need to mentally adjust from listening to someone speaking English to someone speaking Italian and having to read subtitles, but you quickly become accustomed to the language differences. Although this is in high definition, some of the interview footage has quite a low bit rate so, when Yorke moves his hands quickly, they blur and there is some minor picture distortion.

The Long Road Back from Hell (40:20, HD) is a documentary by Cine Excess, narrated by Xavier Mendik and contains interviews with Kim Newman, Prof Julian Petley, Prof Mary Wood, Carlo Yorke, Ruggero Deodato and Francesca Ciardi. It begins with footage from the film with Mendik's narration setting the scene, before moving on to interview footage with Carl Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Prof Mary Wood, Kim Newman, Ruggero Deodato and Prof Julian Petley, who all talk about different aspects of the film. Newman and Prof Wood are fairly dismissive of the film and the other cannibal movies, with Wood (approaching the film from a feminist viewpoint) concerned about the portrayal of women, so please offer a welcome counterpoint to other interviews, particularly Deodato's.

This is a very well edited and composed documentary which is more academic than other such documentaries, concentrating on the technical aspects, theory and where it stands amongst the other cannibal and Mondo movies, particularly Mondo Cane. It is an in-depth documentary with plenty of facts and one which will stand up to at least two viewings.

Finally, there is the Shameless Trailer Park, containing trailers for every film which has been released or announced by Shameless.

The Picture

Although I was too involved in the film to notice this when I first saw the film quite a few years ago, I did find it strange that the documentary material is displayed in 1.85:1 when, in all likelihood, it would have been shot in 1.33:1 (just as The Blair Witch Project was) and is even projected in that ratio in the screening room. However, the power of Cannibal Holocaust is such that you overlook technical matters as you are far too involved in on-screen events. The difference between the two sections is the first was shot on 35mm and the other on 16mm in order to separate the two and give them different looks and this works extremely well from an aesthetic standpoint.

The picture quality itself, presented in AVC 1080p high definition, is extremely good with appropriate levels of grain and print damage for the footage which has been recovered from a tree in the Amazon Basin. Generally, colours are strong and vibrant and contrast levels are very deep so no detail is lost in the darker scenes. With the benefit of a high definition restoration, the colours look so much brighter than they did on DVD, but not in an artificial way, but accurately reflecting the lush foliage of the Amazon basin. Predictably enough, the image quality is best in the scenes inside the screening and conference rooms when the camera doesn't move a great deal and the characters and background remain static.

There aren't many scenes with SFX make-up and the few that are enhanced by make-up artists haven't dated particularly well and look a little fake by today's standards. However, the sequences involving 'tribal' behaviour including the notorious dildo rape and forced abortion look extremely realistic and it's hard to see how they were in any way staged.

The same goes for the animal killings which didn't need any special effects as they were all completely real, something which (perhaps intentionally) makes them all the more difficult to watch. With the exception of the muskrat, they do appear to be (to use the BBFC terminology) quick kills even though there is some post mortem motor reflex movement which, especially with the turtle, makes for some extremely uncomfortable viewing.

The Sound

You have the choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo or DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, both English and both extremely good. Needless to say, the lossless DTS-HD MA track is the best with much crisper sound and a clearer soundstage in which the sounds of birds, monkeys and other noises from the jungle are much better defined and emphasise the setting far better than the Dolby Digital track.

I'm somewhat relieved there isn't a 5.1 option as it means I don't need to explain why I don't like surround tracks on films like this and always choose the stereo or mono option, which is how the sound would have been recorded in the first place.

Deodato must have been tempted not to use a score and simply let the images speak for themselves so, when you have a film like this, you expect a slightly intense and heavy hitting piece of music, which makes it all the more surprising that Riz Ortolani’s score is a gentle and almost dreamlike piece of music. This works in juxtaposition to the images, serving to emphasise the cruelty, barbarism and horrific events on screen. It was an inspired decision to go with this piece of music which has been referenced several times, most notably by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill: Volume 2 and Inglorious Basterds. Ortolani also provided the music for the similarly hard-hitting and heavily censored House by the Edge of the Park, which was released the same year.

There aren't any subtitles on this release, which is understandable as some of the overlapping dialogue is delivered so quickly the subtitles would move at a rate that would be impossible to follow.

Final Thoughts

Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most notorious and controversial horror films ever made, perhaps the 1970s equivalent of Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) or The Human Centipede (2010). With real animal killings, realistic human-on-human violence (particularly with the adultery punishment and forced abortion) and subject material which was always likely to shock, disturb and incur the wrath of censors and classification boards.

In the latter case, it proved to be extremely controversial the world over was banned in over 40 countries and was heavily cut in many more. Although some of these restrictions have now been lifted, with a completely uncut version available in the US and one missing only 10 seconds in Australia, Britain can now join the list of those countries with practically complete versions of the film as this is missing only 14 seconds of footage, which has been very well edited so you wouldn't know it isn't there if you didn't know about it in the first place.

The AV quality is superb, with quite brilliant picture quality and a crystal clear DTS-HD Master Audio stereo soundtrack. It is a shame there aren't more extra features, particularly a commentary with Ruggero Deodato on his new edit, but the bonus material which is on the disc is well worth watching and has been well assembled.

All in all, this is a release which can almost be classified 'must own' for fans of the film and those who haven't yet seen Cannibal Holocaust and want to see what all the fuss is about, so comes highly recommended.

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