“We really screwed ourselves this time, trying to, trying to stay there for the last shot. I don’t even know where we are now, but I know, they… I know they, uh, followed us, and, and we lost everything trying to escape. We’re screwed! We’re trapped!” says Alan Yates.
The found footage horror film is currently a popular trend, but it took a while for it to become popular. Many people think back to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project as the origin of the trend, but that film was actually inspired by a film made almost two decades prior. In 1980, Ruggero Deodato released a controversial film called Cannibal Holocaust unto the world, and it made quite an impact. It was subsequently banned in many parts of the world and, due to its documentary-like style, Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges (he was later exonerated). This film didn’t even have a theatrical run in the United Kingdom; it went straight-to-video in order to avoid. The “video nasty” scare in the U.K. that started in 1982 would lead to the Video Recordings Act of 1984. The film was subsequently placed on the Department of Public Prosecutions’ list of “video nasties.” I got to attend a midnight showing of Cannibal Holocaust last year at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, and it was as shocking and gruesome as I had heard (its reputation had not been exaggerated at all).
1980’s Cannibal Holocaust follows a documentary film crew as they travel to the Amazon to document an indigenous cannibal tribe. Along the way, they start to lose their humanity humanity and much more. Deodato gathered together a cast that included Robert Kerman (as Professor Harold Monroe), Gabriel Yorke (as Alan Yates), Francesca Giardi (as Faye Daniels), Perry Pirkanen (as Jack Anders), Luca Giorgio Barbareschi (as Mark Tomaso), Salvatore Basile (as Chaco Losojos), Ricardo Fuentes (as Felipe Ocanya), and Paolo Paolini (as the Chief NY executive). The cast turns in decent performances; Deodato’s guerilla style of shooting (the hand-held camerawork makes the film more authentic-looking) adds to the film’s hyperrealism. The influence of past Mondo documentaries influenced Deodato’s direction, including the use of graphic violence and animal slayings (several animals were actually killed on film, including a pig and tortoise).*
The screenplay by Gianfranco Clerici uses the film-within-a-film framing effectively, with the search for the missing film crew and footage as the launching point. The documentary crew in the film symbolized the Italian media, who at the time portrayed violence in the news without regard for journalistic integrity (it was also believed that certain news angles were staged in order for the media to get more sensational footage). Sergio D’Offizi’s cinematography reflects the cinema verité style seen in the Mondo documentaries, adding to the film’s hyperrealism (he shot on 16mm film). Massimo Antonello Geleng’s production design takes advantage of of actual locations (particularly in the Amazon), and Vincenzo Tomassi’s editing moves the film at a good pace, going back and forth between the framing story and the “documentary footage.” The violent special effects are incredibly gruesome, and Riz Ortolani’s score is effectively disorienting in its variety of styles.
Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust has had a lasting legacy. It’s been the target of animal rights activists, accused of being a snuff film, and has been banned in as many as 50 countries. After being labeled as one of the video nasties, it was successfully prosecuted and banned in the UK. In 2001, it was finally approved for release but with almost six minutes of cuts. In 2011, all of the cuts were removed except for one 15-second sequence (the killing of a coatimundi).** Cannibal Holocaust‘s main storytelling device would become popularized by The Blair Witch Project nearly 20 years after it was first released, influencing later films such as the Paranormal Activity and REC franchises, Cloverfield, The Bay, and other found-footage films. No matter how you feel about Cannibal Holocaust, you cannot deny its lasting power over the last 35 years (whether it be a commentary on the media or the evolution of the human being, or just being seen as pure exploitation).
*Just to be clear, I do not condone the real animal killings captured on film.
**The film is available uncut in the United States.