*The following is the second part of a four part review/analysis of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.
“For the sake of authenticity, some sequences have been retained in their entirety”
The film opens with this simple yet confusing statement. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is a mixture of two distinct cinematic representations. The first is your standard movie reality. The other is found footage cinema verite. So what exactly is this statement referring to? Exactly what is it implying? In a medley of equally fake cinematic representations, what does authenticity have to do with anything? It isn’t until after watching the film and experiencing the technique behind its construction that this statement begins to make sense.
The first half of the film, New York University anthropology professor Harold Monroe's journey into the Amazon to uncover the fate of four missing documentary filmmakers, borrows largely from the existing cannibal films of the time. The cannibal film isn’t exactly a sub genre. It consists of less than two dozen films, all carbon copies of one another, all dealing with the same basic story (civilized adventurers meet their demise at the hands of uncivilized cannibals). Taken as a whole, this loose collection of films barely rises to the standard of the slasher film, itself a grouping of films that feel like Xeroxed copies of one another.
The film that originated the trend was not a cannibal film at all. Elliot Silverstein’s A MAN CALLED HORSE features a wealthy English man running afoul of a group of wild Native Americans. He is captured and brutally tortured before gaining the acceptance of the tribe. From this template, Umberto Lenzi, the prolific giallo and horror director, created MAN FROM DEEP RIVER in 1972. The protagonist here is yet another man of privilege. His captors are not Native Americans, however. They’re a tribe of jungle dwelling savages at war with an even more savage group of cannibals. MAN FROM DEEP RIVER shows the influence of the Mondo film with its keen interest in bizarre ritual and inclusion of animal butchery as a way to bolster the sense of realism.
The film was not a runaway success, though it found a home in the grindhouse circuits here in the States where it was re-edited, re-titled as SACRIFICE, and often shown in a double billing alongside other trashy Eurohorrors. The next film in the cannibal craze came five years later. Directed by CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST director Ruggero Deodato, LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (or JUNGLE HOLOCAUST) was much rougher, much more graphic and featured many more scenes of animal butchery, including the painful skinning and dismemberment of an alligator. The films that appeared directly after LAST CANNIBAL WORLD were tamer and less interested in being vomitoriums. EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS and PAPAYA, LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS are softcore pornos dressed up in cannibal clothing, and Sergio Martino’s THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD is little more than a boys only adventure novel set in the Amazon. But then came CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and everything took a dramatic turn to the dark side.
If by the end of the first half of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, you're feeling underwhelmed, I completely understand. But this half of the film is crucial to the success of the film as a whole. It provides us with the two sides of the moral spectrum, the civilized society of New York City with its modern advancements, and the primitive society of jungle dwelling natives who delight in the killing and eating of human beings. We learn of the fate of the four filmmakers who ventured into the jungles of Amazonia, but we do not yet know the particulars. This opening movement is little more than exposition but it provides us with the backbone of the films moral argument.
In these opening scenes, Deodato is insinuating something a bit sinister. The trip to the Amazon is being funded by both the New York University and by the Pan-American Broadcasting System. From the get-go, it is made clear that the representatives of the broadcasting company want Monroe to bring back whatever footage of the missing filmmakers he can find so it can be packaged and broadcast as a piece of sensationalist journalism. The parallel between the civilized cannibals, those who feed off of the misfortunes and unhappy fates of the unfortunate, and the uncivilized cannibals of the Amazon is made abundantly clear. For Deodato, there is no true distinction except running water, skyscrapers and screening rooms. Both are cannibalizing the flesh of their dead. One group is just doing it for the money.
Further similarities are made once we arrive to the Amazon. None of these similarities are particularly difficult to notice. The clash of the two cultures, the soldiers and the cannibal tribes, is the easiest to decipher (darts/guns, animalistic/ordered, primitive/advanced) and their vicious actions are closely matched. Deodato's use of metaphor and analogy is not particularly new to anyone who has seen, for example, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, but the graphic depiction of brutality most certainly is.
This first half of the film contains the first use of actual violence in the film. Miguel, one of Prof. Monroe's guides, captures a small animal. In close-up, with the animal held tightly in the center of the frame, Miguel stabs and then slices open the neck of the terrified creature. A quick reaction shot shows the disgust of Prof. Monroe before returning to a close-up of the slowly dying animal. Once the animal has stopped squealing, the film returns to a medium wide shot, only returning to close-up when their Yacumo captive starts munching on the fresh innards of the animal.
This sequence provides the first glimpse of the Mondo tactics to come. Deodato stops the flow of his narrative dead in his tracks and breaks with his directorial scheme in order to bring us up close and personal to the death of a living animal. This is not only unethical but also unnecessary. If this were any other film (excepting, of course, the Mondo film) the moment of the animal's death would have been kept off screen. Prof. Monroe's pained reaction shot would have been triggered by the off-screen squeals of the animal. The scene would have then continued, cutting to Miguel tossing the animal innards to the captive Yacumo. End of scene. But Deodato films it. Why?
In keeping with the Mondo tradition, the inclusion of this graphic footage lends an air of credibility to the proceedings. It also shows the clear distinction between Prof. Monroe and his Yacumo guide. One will partake of the feast and one will not. But it is still unnecessary and is, in my opinion, a mistake on Deodato's part. Withholding the real carnage until reaching the Green Inferno would have been much better. The following scenes of horror we witness in this early sequence are all patently fake. The murder of the adulterer on the banks of the river, for example, might be disturbing to watch, but it is, by no means, convincing. Neither is the evisceration and cannibalization of several rival tribesmen. When compared to the Green Inferno footage, the footage here looks fake and feels fake. The killing of a single animal doesn't do much to change that.
All around Prof. Monroe is evidence of the four filmmakers and the troubles they have caused. At this point in the film, we have no idea who the filmmakers were beyond their names and reputations. What we will come to learn is that these people are much, much worse than the natives they were seeking. Through a series of encounters and bargains, Prof. Monroe gains entrance to the native village and access to the film canisters left behind by the missing filmmakers. None of it required violence on their part or the unnecessary murder of innocent people. Prof. Monroe and his party are invited to witness a ritual sacrifice and to join in the feast, something Prof. Monroe reluctantly does. One civilization has encountered another without violent conquest. This stands in firm contrast to the near annihilation of a tribe by the lost filmmakers.
THE LAST ROAD TO HELL
Once the footage has been returned to New York, Prof. Monroe is given the chance to view a film shot by the deceased filmmakers. It is a miniature Mondo film consisting mostly of newsreel footage taken in an unspecified country, though most likely an African country.
The film, entitled "The Last Road to Hell", runs for a little over a minute in real time, interrupted only by three cut-away insert shots of Prof. Monroe reacting to the violence on-screen. These three cut-aways are important in their placement. To understand this brief section of the film, you should really watch it play out. I'll provide a simple rundown in the following format:
SHOT #, RUN-TIME CODE, DESCRIPTION
Please note that the run-time code is taken from the unedited cut of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST on the Grindhouse Releasing DVD edition.
#1 (44.32) Men being executed by a firing squad (4 edits exists within the scene but none leave the scene)
#2 (44:47) Men laying out coffins.
#3 (44:51) Footage of a General reading a speech. While no subtitles are presented for this segment of the film, it's highly likely that this is meant to be a death sentence being read to the crowd as the speech continues through #8.
#4 (44:54) Two men are tied to poles awaiting the firing squad.
#5 (44:57) First cut-away to Prof. Monroe.
#6 (45:01) Soldiers marching in place.
#7 (45:02) Continued from #4, another shot of the two men tied to the poles.
#8 (45:05) Panning shot of a crowd standing behind a fence with soldiers before them.
#9 (45:07) Second cut-away.
#10 (45:09) Various people walking down a road. A corpse is lying in the middle of the road.
#11 (45:16) More people walking with a truck load of soldiers behind them.
#12 (45:19) A child is shot to death.
#13 (45:22) Third cut-away.
#14 (45:25) Burnt bodies being placed on blankets.
#15 (45:28) Panning shot of a road lined with corpses.
#16 (45:32) Soldiers leading two men away, their hands tied behind their backs.
#17 (45:36) Continued from #16, the two men are shown tied to poles.
#18 (45:37) Continued from #17, the two men are shown talking to the soldiers.
#19 (45:39) Continued from #18, one of the men has a large, black bag placed over his head.
#20 (45:40) Continued from #19, soldiers lining up for the firing line.
#21 (45:43) Continued from #20, shot of the man with the black bag over his head.
#22 (45:45) Continued from #21, soldiers firing their weapons.
#23 (45:47) Continued from #22, shot of one of the men dead.
#24 (45:49) Continued from #23, doctors checking on one of the men and confirming him dead.
#25 (45:52) Continued from #24, men tossing the dead bodies onto a truck.
#26 (45:53) Continued from #25, brief shot of the dead bodies in the back of the truck.
Film ends at 45:54.
There is no doubting the authenticity of most of this footage (though depending on the interview, Deodato staged half of it, all of it, or none of it). Of all the shots contained in this film, only #11 and #12 seem out of place. They are obviously taken from a completely different source. Not only is the film quality different but the people portrayed are not of the same ethnicity. The rest seems genuine.
The cut-away scenes are notable for their placement. The first is innocuous enough. But the second and the third indicate that Deodato is not yet ready to place us directly in harm’s way. The second cut-away conceals an execution. We only hear the gunfire on the soundtrack. We don't actually see the men being riddled with bullets. The third cut away is placed after the brief scene of the child being shot to death. This is the piece of film I am not entirely convinced by. Regardless, the sight of a child being shot to death is not something to be taken lightly and Deodato immediately yanks us out of the "fake reality" of the documentary and places us back within the comfortable "reality" of the screening room set. This is not something we will get much of in the third act of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.
This segment of the film puts the Mondo film in its proper perspective. The capitalizing on real life atrocities for personal gain or recognition was the Mondo films stock in trade and the filmmakers who worked in the Mondo film had no qualms about it. "The Last Road to Hell" adequately summarizes the entirety of the Mondo cycle. Notice the way this little film is edited, the way it focuses almost entirely on the act of violence being committed without any empathy or proper context. That is the core of the Mondo film.
Once the film is done, Prof. Monroe is told that the whole thing is a fake, a "put-on" and that the filmmakers had simply paid some soldiers to "do a bit of acting". This is troubling in its implications and returns to my earlier criticisms of Jacopetti and Prosperi. This dismissal of the film we have just seen as a put-on is never really explained.
What exactly was fake? Were the murders faked? If so, then Alan and his fellow filmmakers are total frauds and con men. If the murders were real but the situations they occurred in were fake (that is to say, staged for the camera), then Alan and his crew are not only frauds and con men but much, much worse.
End part 2. To read Part 3, click HERE.