Essays

In Defense of “Cannibal Holocaust”

Here I am, bringing my metal cred back with discourse about cannibals.

You know about CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. You’ve heard of how it’s the most extreme example of realistic (and real) violence in the name of filmmaking, that the filmmakers slaughtered real animals on set, that every scene is abominable and irredeemable, that the whole film is a piece of garbage that ought to be burned and scattered and never again seen by anyone.

I disagree completely.

I mean, I freely admit that I watch super violent movies voluntarily. I find special effects fascinating and the microcosm of horror in film to be more than worthy of my attention. I, too, rented CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST expecting to see predictable carnage of a more realistic variety.

The most notorious thing about this film is how several live animals were “allotted” to be actually killed during its production. And it’s hard to escape the violence of those scenes, especially when the young troupe of journalists needlessly kill a sea turtle for food and it’s quite clear that the act has nothing whatsoever to do with hunger and everything to do with exacting dominance over their environment. The need to have big balls and conquer the jungle. There is hardly any meat on that turtle. And yet… “Get the camera!” one of them yells upon its slaughter in excitement.

But that’s just a taste of what’s to come.

Think, for a moment, of what you assume the film will be about, going in. “Cannibal Holocaust”… a bunch of dopey innocent white people are tortured and eaten by primitive natives in the Peruvian jungle, right?

Wrong.

I just put the movie on again, and following the “animal cruelty” disclaimer at the beginning, there is a bizarrely psychadelic theme score playing over the opening credits like you’re about to watch an inane college comedy. Then the news broadcasters: “There are people still living in the stone age and practicing cannibalism!” “But there are brave young Americans venturing into the jungle, armed with cameras, microphones, and curiosity.” “Youngsters.” Guiltless.

The first half of the film is a professor trying to find out what happened to these young journalists — three men and a woman —who purportedly were eaten while making a documentary. Their motionless faces are those of innocent victims.

The second half of the film is the footage the professor found. And the footage, in turn, proves that the perception of these people as brilliant youngsters is deluded, at best. That they are not journeying nobly towards their destiny the way they or Columbus or countless other white imperialists may have believed.

These journalists, these college kids… they take advantage of their position. They treat the camera reel as God, as if whatever footage they capture is more valuable than anything happening to the people behind it. “This is gonna win us an Oscar!” they exclaim, upon firing a gun for excitement. There are voyeuristic scenes of intimacy. They set fire to natives’ huts to capture their reactions, calling it “beautiful!”. They find a native woman outside of her village, and instead of attempting to communicate, the three men rape her, in turn, ritualistically.

Almost as if the consumption of human flesh in whatever form is just another ritual.

The fantastic thing about that psychadelic theme music from the opening credits is that it plays, once again, over the most horrifying scenes, like you’re watching a goddamn promotional video put out by the Peruvian tourism board.

A viewer of this film should reel in disgust, yes — but not from the natives. From these pretentious white college kids who think their education excuses them from all behavior. From the so-called “journalists” who would rather get something amazing on film than interfere with anything beyond their art.

Is that is the role of the journalist? Photographer Kevin Carter rather famously killed himself after winning a Pulitzer for his photograph of a dying African child. He couldn’t bear having done nothing for the sake of “the story”.

Is that a happy ending? Can it have a happy ending?

In this case, the journalists defiling everything around them are captured, raped, and eaten, and somehow you feel like they deserve it.

You do not have to condone the inhuman filming methods used in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST to appreciate or be intellectually challenged by their effort.

I don’t respect the method. I respect the dedication to shock and giving an unsuspecting audience something they might not have expected. I respect complete moral degradation as an inevitable human mirror. I respect the result: a film that pins a large portion of the “unwatchable” scenes on a crew of bumbling, pretentious, cock journalists who thought they were looking for a scoop, and I respect that anyone viewing the film will inevitably examine their own actions when being presented by similar circumstances.

Any piece of art that makes people think twice about their own morality can by no means be dismissed as violent garbage.

The use of the term “holocaust” becomes particularly potent upon reflection of the film’s progression. It’s a culturally loaded word that indicates mass slaughter or torture, especially of human beings, and in the most famous example of a Holocaust, completely dependent on prejudice and perceived differences in belief. To that end, the “Cannibal Holocaust” becomes the sequence of indifference, then violence, then rape, then violation of a native tribe by the people sent to study them. For anyone who was expecting sympathy for the victims going in, it was certainly fulfilled — but with a perception of who the victims actually are having changed completely.

So, yes. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is a horrifying film, both visually and thematically. Its unnecessary animal cruelty is a tragic chapter in film history. Its depictions of sexual violence are graphic and unforgettable. I grant no argument against these points.

But the ethical and philosophical quandaries that arise upon its viewing? The total reversal of loyalty and resulting moral panic? The knowledge that potential journalists could watch the film and suddenly reconsider their entire world view?

These are valuable experiences that not every film can provide.

And if you don’t believe them to be valuable, ask yourself why your history teacher subjected you to reel after reel of ragged Holocaust survivors. It was not to torture you, but to show you just what happens when observers are callous, apathetic, and unwittingly violent.

What’s fantastic about the ending of this film is that the television production company pushing to air the footage as part of a reality segment are rendered speechless by its brutality. They leave the screening room in troubled silence, as likely many people have done upon watching CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, changed by what they’ve seen, second guessing every move they’ve ever made.

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One thought on “In Defense of “Cannibal Holocaust”

  1. You are such a compelling writer! You know me – if you can even get me to read a REVIEW of this movie, you have succeeded. I applaud your inquiring and open mind. Just reading your hints at violence description is enough to give me nightmares…so I won’t be watching – duh – but I’m glad I read this.

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