Cannibal Holocaust has a reputation. In an era when this week’s men-in-tights super-spectacular is routinely christened the greatest event in human history since some canny cave-dweller concocted the wheel, it’s almost refreshing to report that Cannibal Holocaust actually lives up to its rep—if the term “refreshing” can be applied to a film that will likely leave you wanting some quality time in a piping hot shower. When you come out on the other side of Ruggero Deodato’s pioneering tropical torture porn, you probably won’t be all that surprised to discover that Deodato was hauled into court to prove he hadn’t in fact butchered the four leads. Touted, and not without some justification, on its Blu-ray packaging as “the most controversial movie ever made,” Deodato’s film remains an authentic endurance test for even the most determinedly desensitized genre enthusiast.
For all that, Cannibal Holocaust boasts a surprisingly sophisticated formal sensibility—one that’s yoked to a vitriolic, and still vitally resonant, critique not only of crass media manipulation, but also the public’s demand for sensationalistic “infotainment” of the lowest denominator. “The more you rape their senses,” as one female TV executive frames it, “the happier they are.” Deodato sets his sights here on documentaries like Mondo Cane, wherein tawdry exoticism competes with the depiction of dramatically embellished atrocities both natural and manmade. Rather than chiding Cannibal Holocaust for wanting to have its moralistic cake and devour it like a half-starved caiman too, we can see the film as a reduction to gory absurdity of “mondo”-style moviemaking.
The film’s most striking structural stratagem lies in contrasting two very different expeditions into the Amazonian “green inferno.” It’s a conceit that Cannibal Holocaust embodies visually by alternating between 35mm film stock for its frame narrative, in which NYU anthropologist Dr. Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) heads into Ya̧nomamö country to track down a missing crew of documentary filmmakers, and the grainy 16mm footage of their exploits (read: rampage) that Monroe successfully recovers. Neither expedition, however, is entirely free from implication in the brutality, let alone the instances of genuine animal slaughter that, more than anything, have contributed to Cannibal Holocaust’s parlous pedigree.
Nevertheless, the preponderance of both real and ersatz destruction resides with the crew led by Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke). For his part, Monroe inaugurates an exchange economy with the indigenes by trading his tape recorder for the surviving film reels, and participates, however half-heartedly, in some of their rituals. The documentarians, on the other hand, descend on them like conquistadors out for booty. And Yates’s penchant for wholesale fabrication is exhibited in footage culled from an earlier production entitled The Last Road to Hell, which we sample long before we witness his film crew stage-managing the incineration of a native village (with its unmistakable shades of Vietnam and My Lai) and indulging in a little lighthearted rapine and pillage along the way.
At first sight, scenes involving actual animal killings seem to be absolutely indefensible. Certainly, there’s precious little to excuse them from either an aesthetic or ethical standpoint. Altogether, six or seven animals are done away with over the course of the film. While most of these executions are mercifully brief, the decapitation, dismemberment, and subsequent shell-shucking of a large turtle is a nauseating ordeal by any sensible person’s standards. The only conceivable defense possible for these events—aside from addressing similar incidents that occur in more critically palatable films like Renoir’s rabbit-blasting The Rules of the Game—would be to point out the terrible, and terribly calculated, efficacy these scenes possess in confounding the lines between reality and its technological reproduction. And that is, after all, the ostensible “point” of Cannibal Holocaust in the first place.
The upgrade to Blu-ray leaves Cannibal Holocaust looking and sounding better than ever, a fact that will no doubt appall the film’s many detractors. Compared to earlier editions, color saturation is denser, which is particularly noticeable amid those verdant Amazonian forests, and fine details like clothing textures and facial features receive substantial improvement. And the deliberately...well, mutilated 16mm stock used in the found footage segments is much less of a sepia-tinted eyesore. The Blu-ray disc offers two sound mixes: original mono and a "digital stereo re-mix" that puts across dialogue and ambient sounds with more dynamic range than the unsurprisingly flat mono and amps up Riz Ortolani’s incongruously gorgeous score.
Grindhouse serves up a supplement smorgasbord spread out across two Blu-ray discs, carrying over most of the contents from their 2005 two-disc DVD set (noticeably absent is the hour-long making-of documentary) as well as ladling out helpings of new extras. Along with two different cuts of Cannibal Holocaust (viewable with or without the animal-cruelty scenes), the first Blu-ray includes two audio commentaries: the previously available track with director Ruggero Deodato and actor Robert Kerman, and a recently recorded alternate track with actors Gabriel Yorke and Francesca Ciardi. The latter is an engaging listen that alternates between nostalgic reminiscences about the production and expressions of unalloyed disgust with the unsimulated animal slaughter; their reactions will more than likely mirror most viewers’.
The second disc contains the bulk of the extras. Most substantive are new interviews with Deodato and Ciardi. The director ranges over his jungle trilogy, disavows blame for the critter killings by laying it at the doorstep of "the Asian market," notes that everything killed on the set was eaten, and reflects on subsequent court cases wherein he had to prove that he had not in fact murdered his four lead actors on film. Ciardi discusses difficult shooting conditions, laments the "excessive" and unnecessary nudity required for her role, and sketches out the differences between American and Italian actors. Elsewhere, camera operator Robert Forges Davanzati sits down at Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso store to talk about the film’s legal woes, and actor and AD Salvatore Basile delves into the special effects and makeup work. Basile actually defends the rampant carnage with some specious circle-of-life rigmarole, summing up Cannibal Holocaust along the way as "wholesome cinema."
Rounding out the second disc are a handful of horror-con panels, cast and crew reunions, and plentiful stills galleries. Grindhouse’s deluxe edition also includes reversible cover art and a lavishly, not to mention disturbingly, illustrated booklet, complete with a foldout centerspread that’s sure to leave gorehounds everywhere slavering. The booklet contains appreciations of the film from Eli Roth (whose Cannibal Holocaust-inspired The Green Inferno is currently residing in distribution limbo) and Chas Balun, a career retrospective of composer Riz Ortolani from Gergely Hubai, and Martin Beine’s gruesomely detailed outline of the differences between original screenplay and finished film. Last and certainly not least, you’ll find a cardboard-sleeved soundtrack CD tucked inside the slipcase packaging.
A cut above most Italian cannibal cinema, Cannibal Holocaust provides viewers with sufficient pluck some thematic meat to sink their teeth into. Grindhouse’s deluxe Blu-ray edition serves up a supplement-laden smorgasbord.