Most of the classic, enduring grindhouse movies lose the residue of latent, sweaty misanthropy through the simple, inevitable obsolescence of their hard-candied centers of shock value. They’re even gentrified and validated by it: They’re Molotov cocktails masquerading as water balloons. Even the most unpalatable of blood-letters from Herschell Gordon Lewis or the notorious Hallmark distribution imprint have yellowed and gotten soft with mold, pressed like funeral corsages onto the safety of DVD. (No need to fret over losing your cash or your dignity at knifepoint when taking a bathroom break.) They’re now just odd little time capsules. The main reason they inspire nostalgia isn’t only because they speak of an era when underground urban cinema demonstrated a dead-accurate prescience for “articulating the popular rage,” as per Faye Dunaway in Network, because the Nixon-era bluntness in the political insight of, for instance, Last House on the Left has always been justly celebrated from cineastes hip to the street trade—even if the straight-up brutality of Roger Watkins’s superior Manson-esque knock-off Last House on Dead End Street has forever consigned it to the darkest alleyways of sleaze connoisseurship.
No, the nostalgia for yesteryear’s 42nd Street fodder instead seems to stem from the way the genre’s playful disregard for sexual propriety and “revolutionary” violence now serves as a premonitory anti-PC manifesto, refreshingly direct given the current era’s ultra-rhetorical, ultra-humorless public handwringing over the two cinematic topics that used to be lotsa larfs: sex and violence. Is there a money shot more tasteless or rewarding than that of The Gore Gore Girls, in which a killer dispatches with a shrieking bimbette via repeated bludgeonings to her bare ass with a meat tenderizer, topping off his handiwork with a dash of salt?
None of this applies to 1979’s mirthless Italio-shocker Cannibal Holocaust (which didn’t play New York until well into the ’80s, long after the grindhouse cannibal craze had come and gone, leaving a river of upchuck in its wake), not in the slightest. Even the most desensitized, ghoulishly amoral gleaners of deviant cinema can’t just stare down the nastiness on display in Cannibal Holocaust and just shrug it off before blowing their dissolute loads over Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. (Ilsa, incidentally, showed up at my screening, prompting one of the more culturally sensitive splatterpunks to holler from the balcony, “Fuck you, Nazi bitch!”) Especially since Italian director-cum-asshole Ruggero Deodato’s follow-up to his own pace-setting The Last Survivor (now more popularly known as Jungle Holocaust) takes only slightly less delight in concocting ever-escalating dioramas of ruthless, demented brutality as Deodato himself seems all too eager to blame his film’s existence on the cult audience’s bloodlust. That the movie is undeniably one of the most seamlessly fucking sick exploitation films ever and, indeed, that it does deliver on its promise doesn’t necessarily validate Deodato’s shameless shift of the blame. But then again, what does it say that the film is now experiencing a rejuvenated distribution on Landmark Theaters’s midnight movie circuit (inconceivably placed alongside innocuous fare as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Army of Darkness), not to mention an impending splashy two-disc DVD release? Is the continued allure of Cannibal Holocaust indicative of more than just the film’s excruciating, pedal-to-the-metal extremism?
In short, why not? Films like Cannibal Holocaust are consumed, even by otherwise jaded gorehounds (you know, the types who make a big show of guffawing throughout Faces of Death so that everyone around them knows that their rotten imaginations outpace even movies famously “Banned in 46 countries!!!”), as endurance tests. This is their decathlon. Cannibal Holocaust is a proto-Blair Witch “fact or fiction?” about four gung-ho documentarians who specialize in graphic depictions of third-world sadism, occasionally bribing and orchestrating locals to debase themselves so that they might ramp up the lurid quotient of their footage (shades of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s Africa Blood and Guts). They go missing during their trek to the heart of the Amazon and are presumed dead. The film opens with a humorously unconvincing expositional title crawl purporting that the footage of their demise at the hands—mouths, har har—of a cannibal tribe was never supposed to reach the public’s eyes, and that its mere circulation is an act of constitution-crusading valor. Well, let’s just print up the certificates of commendation and donate some of those limited edition DVDs to inner-city high school civics classes!
The façade of realism crumbles within a few minutes when Debbie Does Dallas steed Rob Kerman shows up as a pipe-chomping cultural-studies professor, recruited to pierce the jungle and locate their film footage in hope that it might solve the mystery of their disappearance. Or, at least, contain a bunch of gristly sensationalism that the mission’s sponsoring TV network can exploit for big ratings. Again, echoes of Network (no more so than when the films are found and the executives screen the raw footage—some of which, by the way, is reportedly actual atrocity footage from Africa—with stone faces), but the profligacy of the media is not the only germ of forced social insight with which Deodato infects his already ill movie. There’s also a nod to the issue of cultural imperialism, characterized with the juxtapositions between the two separate jungle episodes and the smugness of the civilized world of the city. There’s an ill-advised and radically inadequate moment when the four bastard filmmakers arrive in a cannibal tribe’s village and, without premeditation, round them up under a massive grass hut and light fire to the structure, killing everyone inside a la My Lai.
But nothing comes under attack so frequently and so gothically as does the vagina. One of Kerman’s first privileged sights upon entering the tangle is a tribal punishment for an adulterous woman (suspiciously Caucasian) involving rape, more rape, rape with a giant stone dildo, and finally a death blow delivered with clods of stone-laced clay shoved directly up the genitalia. Men aren’t the only agents of vaginal abuse in Cannibal Holocaust. Perhaps the film’s most unsettling sequence involves a forced abortion performed by fellow tribeswomen, who spike the snatched fetus into the riverbed like a football in the end zone. (Small wonder that 2,000 males have registered their votes for the film over at the IMDb, compared to 98 females.)
What’s really inexcusably evil about Cannibal Holocaust is the callous, systematic on-screen animal slaughter. And I don’t mean that in the PC/PETA sense, to be easily refuted by misguided appeals to “the needs” of “the artist” to be absolved from “the constrictions” of “morality,” usually mounted by hipsters citing Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. I mean it in the sense that the punctuations of animal snuff throughout the film are used solely as a cheap nausea-prime, a means by which to validate the film’s already uncannily realistic human violence and keep the audience’s gastric juices at full boil. Whenever the accumulating fictional feasts of flesh or debasements of female genitalia and/or non-white humanity threaten to topple over into the territory of Grand Guignol and, consequently, allow most sensible viewers to scale back their moral commitment, you can sure bet that lurking somewhere in the periphery is a herbivorous animal about to be shot, kicked around, beheaded, or sliced clean open. In the first half-hour, the Amazon guide nonchalantly lances a muskrat’s neck with a switchblade; the creature dies with a stultified look of terror on his frozen face, and we get a big close up. Later in the film, the same happens to a monkey (the only point at which I averted my eyes; I’m damned if I’m going to watch the cutest of animals get its head lopped off for a shallow anti-human diatribe). But the film’s puke-worthy coup de gross is when the four documentarian punks drag a giant (endangered) turtle out of the river, flip it on its back, hack off its head (you don’t really know it’s still alive until that point, when it’s chubby little legs start flailing wildly), and pry open its shell to reveal the soupy mess inside. In Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s Sleazoid Express (a vivid and exacting critical appraisal of grindhouse’s heyday), the film’s star Kerman confirms that Deodato gladly sanctioned the murders. Kerman says he prayed for God to punish the director by making his film flop. So remember that every dollar you spend at a Landmark box office goes directly to the Church of Satan, tax exempt.
If the animal executions render the film unforgettable for the worse, the more-than-necessary musical score from Italian grindhouse hero Riz “more than the greatest love the world has known” Ortolani elevates the entire shitty enterprise to a legitimately powerful, harrowing state. If anyone is responsible for duping masochistic grindhouse bloodsuckers into believing that Cannibal Holocaust is about anything so much as the filmmakers’ bad faith, it’s Ortolani’s careful compositions, which walk the tightrope between elegance and scuzz with confidence. I’m sure if I were among the film’s deathcore-loving cult demographic, I’d probably snicker at Ortolani’s leitmotifs like nearly everyone did at my screening, what with those incessant electronic Tom Drum effects (at the synthesizer’s most conspicuous, it’s like the backing track for a dour Karen Carpenter cover of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”). But beyond the ’70s trappings is a moving, string-driven requiem for civilization; so far as the grindhouse curve goes, the pathos rivals Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” or Bernstein’s On the Waterfront cue for the discovery of Charlie in the snowy alleyway. Also, at key moments, Ortolani nearly seems to be working against Deodato’s intentions with an anachronistically lush, swooning romanticism. It’s every bit as schizophrenic as the score he wrote for Jacopetti and Prosperi’s Goodbye Uncle Tom. Which, come to think of it, is one of the very few ’70s sleaze-terpieces that rivals Cannibal Holocaust for being artful enough to demand serious critical consideration, yet foul enough to christen you a pervert for even bothering.