Cannibal Holocaust

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Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust movie.jpg
Theatrical poster
Starring Robert Kerman
Carl Gabriel Yorke
Francesca Ciardi
Perry Pirkanen
Luca Barbareschi
Directed by Ruggero Deodato
Produced by Franco Di Nunzio
Franco Palaggi
Written by Gianfranco Clerici
Giorgio Stegani
Music by Riz Ortolani
Cinematography Sergio D'Offizi
Distributed by Grindhouse Releasing (USA)
Released February 7, 1980
Spain October 19, 1980
France April 22, 1981
USA June 19, 1984
Runtime 95 min
Country Italy
language English / Spanish
Budget US$ 200,000 (estimated)
AMG Info All Movie Guide
IMDB Info 0078935 on IMDb

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is a controversial exploitation film directed by Ruggero Deodato and is based on a screenplay written by Gianfranco Clerici and Giorgio Stegani. Filmed in the actual Amazon Rainforest, it focuses on a team of four documentarians who head deep into the jungle to make a documentary film on the primitive native tribes that live there. After two months and no word from the team, a famous anthropologist is sent on a rescue mission in hopes of finding the team alive. The film stars Robert Kerman as the anthropologist Harold Monroe, Carl Gabriel Yorke as director Alan Yates, Francesca Ciardi as Alan's girlfriend Faye, Perry Pirkanen as the cameraman Jack Anders, and Luca Barbareschi as fellow cameraman Mark Tomaso.

Cannibal Holocaust is one of the best known exploitation films due to the controversy it caused during its release. After premiering in Italy, the film was seized by the local Magistrate and Deodato was arrested for obscenity. He was later accused of making a snuff film based on circulating rumors that the film's actors were slain for the camera. Though Deodato would be cleared of these charges, the film was banned in Italy, the UK, Australia, and several other countries for graphic gore, sexual violence, and for the genuine slayings of six animals featured in the film. While many nations have revoked the ban, it is still banned to this day in other countries around the world. Despite this notoriety, Cannibal Holocaust is seen by some critics as a social commentary on civilized society.


There are two chronological timelines in the film: one timeline depicts Monroe's trip into the jungle to determine the fate of the young American explorers, and the other involves Monroe's subsequent viewing of the recovered films made by the missing explorers. Much of the film is the depiction of the recovered film's contents, which grow increasingly disturbing as they are revealed.

The film begins with a TV documentary about a missing film crew and its expedition into the Amazon Rainforest to make a documentary about primitive cannibal tribes: Alan Yates, the director; Faye Daniels, his girlfriend and script girl; and their two friends and cameramen, Jack Anders and Mark Tomaso. Professor Harold Monroe, a New York University (NYU) anthropologist, volunteers to lead a rescue mission to find the team. He flies down to the Amazon and meets two guides who will help him in his mission: Chaco, a hardened jungle expert, and his capable assistant, Miguel. Thanks to the military, the group has a hostage from a tribe called the Yacumo to help them negotiate with the natives. After a long trek through the jungle, the group happens upon a Yacumo male raping and murdering his wife as a punishment for adultery. After he is finished, the group follows the lone Yacumo to a large clearing, where Miguel negotiates the release of their hostage if the Yacumo let them in their village.

Upon arriving to the village, the rescue team is greeted with hostility. It is soon revealed that the last white men to visit the tribe, the missing film team, caused great unrest; Miguel quells their fears by giving them a gift of good faith: a switchblade. The next day, the Yacumo leads the group to the edge of their territory, where two vicious cannibal tribes, the Yanomamo and Shamatari, are perpetually at war with each other. The group witnesses the death of a Yanomamo woman by hands of a group of Shamatari warriors, and then follows the warriors to a riverbank. Once there, Monroe's team rescues a small group of Yanomamo warriors from certain death threatened by the larger group of Shamatari. As a token of gratitude, the group is invited to the Yanomamo village, but, once there, the team is again treated with hostility. In an attempt to gain their trust, Monroe bathes naked in a river, which a small group of Yanomamo women find amusing. They lead Monroe to a shrine made out of the bones of the lost film team, confirming Monroe’s worst fears. Frustrated, Monroe confronts the tribe in their village, and, after playing a tape recorder for them, the tribe agrees to exchange the tape recorder for the footage that the missing film team shot.

Once Monroe is back in New York City, the executives of the Pan American Broadcast Company inform him that they want Monroe to host their airings of the film team’s documentary. Monroe asserts that he will only do it if he views the film reels first. The executives agree, and, to introduce Monroe to the works of Alan Yates, they show him a short segment from one of the team’s previous documentaries, The Last Road to Hell. After viewing, a female executive tells him that the footage was staged by Yates to acquire more exciting footage. Puzzled, Monroe continues on to view the recovered footage.

The first film reel begins by showing the group’s trek deep into the jungle, where they make camp and slaughter a turtle and cook its innards (this is the infamous turtle scene). The next day, the group’s guide, Felipe, is bitten in the foot by a poisonous snake. Despite Jack cutting off his leg, Felipe dies. After burying him, the film team continues on to locate the Yacumo. They come across a small group of Yacumo in a clearing, where Jack shoots one in the leg so the group can follow him to the village at their leisure. As the projectionist changes reels, Monroe comments on his disapproval of the team's actions, stating they should have found other ways to introduce themselves to the tribe. The second reel then starts, showing the group’s arrival at the village, where they almost immediately round up the entire tribe into a large hut and burn it down to stage a scene for their documentary, in which the Yacumo were slaughtered by the Yanomamo. Monroe expresses his concerns about the film's quality, as most of it has been staged, but his worries are ignored. He continues to view the reels the next day, in which the group films a pregnant Yacumo woman having her fetus forcibly removed.

At the station, Monroe expresses his disgust toward the station's decision to still air the footage. To change the executives’ minds, he volunteers to show them the unedited footage that only he has seen. The final two reels begin with the film team locating a young Yanomamo girl, whom the men gang-rape as Faye tries to stop them (to no avail). The projectionist changes to the final reel, which begins with the group arriving at the site where the same girl is impaled on a pole. The team films the impalement while claiming the natives killed her because of a “bizarre sexual rite.” After the group moves on, the Yanomamo attack them in revenge for the girl’s death. Jack is impaled by a spear, but instead of attempting rescue, Alan shoots him so he can film what the natives do to him. They film as Jack’s corpse is emasculated and is then dismembered, cooked, and eaten. While the remaining three attempt escape after filming Jack’s demise, Faye is captured by the Yanomamo, and Alan insists that he and Mark try to save her. Mark films as Faye is gang-raped and beheaded, afterwhich the cannibals locate the two in their hiding spot. The camera drops to the ground as Alan’s bloody, blank face falls in front of the lens; the reels then end. At first silent, the executives order the footage to be burned as a successful Monroe leaves the station.


Production began in 1979, when Deodato was contacted by German film producers about making a film "like Cannibal Holocaust." Deodato accepted and immediately went in search of a producer; he chose his friend Francesco Palaggi. The two men embarked to Colombia to scout for filming locations. Palaggi already had several locations in mind, specifically the locations where the film Queimada by Gillo Pontecorvo was shot. Deodato, however, did not agree, because there was not enough rainforest at the locations. After scouring much of the country, the frustrated men were ready to give up and went to the airport in Bogota to fly back to Rome. While there, Deodato met a Colombian documentary maker, who suggested the city of Leticia, Colombia as a filming location. Deodato proposed Leticia as a filming location to Palaggi, who grew upset since the two were already scheduled to arrive at Rome. He eventually agreed, and the project went ahead as planned.

To appeal to a wider audience and to lend the film "credibility," Deodato chose to make the film in English. At the time, however, it was necessary for a European film to have an official nationality, as to assure free circulation among European countries. Under Italian law, in order for Cannibal Holocaust to be recognized as an Italian film, Deodato needed at least two actors who spoke Italian as a native language to star in the movie. At the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York, he found Luca Barbareschi and Francesca Ciardi, two Italian actors who also spoke English. Also at Strasberg, he hired Perry Pirkanen and another actor who would drop out of the project at the last minute. To replace him, a casting director contacted several other actors, including Carl Gabriel Yorke, who ultimately got the role. Yorke recalls that all of the costumes were already purchased for the film, including size 10½ boots. Although other actors were considered for the part, he was given the role because he wore size 10½ shoes. Robert Kerman was cast as Professor Harold Monroe because he and Deodato were previously acquainted; Kerman had played a role as an air traffic control man in Deodato's previous film, The Concorde Affair.

The script was written by long-time Italian horror screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici, who had collaborated with Deodato in his previous film, Ultimo Mondo Cannibale. There are several changes in the film from Clerici's original screenplay, including characters' names, especially in the film crew. Clerici also had originally written several scenes that are lacking from the film's final cut, the most famous of which involved a group of Yanomamo cutting off the leg of a Shamatari warrior and feeding him to piranha in the river. However, due to a malfunctioning underwater camera and because the piranha were difficult to control, the scene was dropped and filming was never finished. Photographs of the scene's partial execution were taken, which are the only known depiction of this scene in existence, despite several claims of the scene appearing in obscure VHS copies. Because of this, the "Piranha Scene" is a popular topic amongst fans of the film.

Filming began on June 4, 1979, but it was delayed for two weeks awaiting the arrival of Yorke. The scenes featuring the film team were shot first; afterwhich, Kerman flew down to film his scenes in the rainforest, and then to New York City to film exterior shots in the city. The interior shots of New York were later filmed in a studio in Rome.

Tensions on the set were high, due in part to the location and to the content of the film itself. Yorke describes it as having "a level of cruelty unknown to me," while Kerman described Deodato as unremorseful and uncaring (he and Deodato got into long, drawn out arguments every day of shooting, usually because of remarks from Deodato). One particular aspect that led to disagreement amongst the crew was the filming of the genuine animal killings. Kerman stormed off the set during the filming of the death of the coatimundi, and Yorke refused to partake in the shooting of the pig (which he was originally scripted to execute), leaving Luca Barbareschi to have to do it. The sound of the pig dying even caused him to err while filming a long monologue, and retakes were not an option because they had no access to any more pigs. Several other crew members also objected to the animal killings (some also walked off the set), including Perry Pirkanen, who cried after filming the "Turtle Scene."

Actress Francesca Ciardi also had disagreements concerning the film's content. During the sex scene between her and Carl Yorke, she refused to comply with Deodato's instructions, leading to him dragging her off the set and screaming at her in Italian. She had earlier suggested that the two actually have sexual intercourse in the jungle before filming, in order relieve tension of the upcoming scene. When Yorke declined, she grew upset with him, alienating him for the rest of the shoot. Ciardi was also the butt of several jokes, including one involving several crew members leaving a real human skull half-buried in the mud for her to find, which resulted in a panic.


Cannibal Holocaust was released on February ], 1980, in the Italian city of Milan. Though the courts and censorship board were outraged and later confiscated the film, the initial audience reaction was positive. After seeing the film, director Sergio Leone wrote a letter to Deodato, which stated, "Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world" (which was ultimately the case). In the ten days before it was seized, the film had grossed approximately $2 million.

Critical response

Critics remain split on their stances of Cannibal Holocaust. Supporters of the film cite it as serious and well-made social commentary on the modern world. Mike Bracken called it one of the greatest horror movies ever filmed, and also stated, "Viewers looking for a film that's powerful, visceral, and disturbing have a new title to add to their must-see list." Sean Axmaker praised the structure and set up of the film, saying, "It's a weird movie with an awkward narrative, which Deodato makes all the more effective with his grimy sheen of documentary realism, while Riz Ortolani's unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score provides a weird undercurrent." Jason Buchanan of All Movie Guide said, "...while it's hard to defend the director for some of the truly repugnant images with which he has chosen to convey his message, there is indeed an underlying point to the film, if one is able to look beyond the sometimes unwatchable images that assault the viewer."

Detractors, however, counter with the genuine animal slayings, questionable acting, and hypocrisy that the film presents. Nick Schager criticized the brutality of the film, saying, "As clearly elucidated by its shocking gruesomeness — as well as its unabashedly racist portrait of indigenous folks it purports to sympathize with — the actual savages involved with Cannibal Holocaust are the ones behind the camera." Schager's racism argument is supported by the fact that the real indigenous peoples in Brazil whose names were used in the movie — the Yanomamo and Shamatari — are not fierce enemies as portrayed in the movie, nor is either tribe truly cannibalistic (although the Yanomamo do partake in a form of post-mortem ritual cannibalism).

Robert Firsching of All Movie Guide made similar criticisms of the film's content and claimed that the "...pie-faced attempts at socially conscious moralizing make it rather distasteful morally as well. The fact that the film's sole spokesperson for the anti-exploitation perspective is played by porno star Richard Bolla should give an indication of where its sympathies lie." Slant Magazine's Eric Henderson said it is "...artful enough to demand serious critical consideration, yet foul enough to christen you a pervert for even bothering."

Cannibal Holocaust currently has a 60% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of a 6.8

Since its original release, Cannibal Holocaust has been the target of censorship by moral and animal activists. Other than graphic gore, the film contains several scenes of sexual violence and genuine cruelty to animals, issues which find Cannibal Holocaust in the midst of controversy even to this day; in 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Cannibal Holocaust as the 20th most controversial film of all-time. It has also been claimed that Cannibal Holocaust is banned in over 50 countries, though this has never been verified.

Original Italian controversy

The original controversy surrounding the film's release was the belief that Cannibal Holocaust was an actual snuff film, or that the actors were murdered in order to film their deaths for the movie. The film was confiscated ten days after premiering in Milan and Deodato was arrested. The courts believed not only that the four actors portraying the missing film crew were killed for the camera, but that the actress in the iconic impalement scene was actually skewered in such a manner. To make matters worse for Deodato, the actors had signed contracts with him and the producers ensuring that they would not appear in any type of media, motion pictures, commercials, etc., for one year after the film's release, as to promote the idea that the film was truly the recovered footage of missing documentarians. Thus, when Deodato claimed that he had not killed the group, he was unable to produce them for the hearings.

Eventually, Deodato was able to prove that the violence was staged. He contacted Luca Barbareschi and told him to gather the other three actors. After declaring the contracts void in order to avoid life in prison, Deodato brought the foursome onto the set of an Italian television show, which satisfied the courts. He still faced the challenge, however, of proving that the impalement scene was merely special effects. In court, he explained how the effect was achieved: a bicycle seat was attached to the end of an iron pole, on which the actress sat. She then took a short length of balsa wood and held it in her mouth and looked skyward, thus making it look like she had been impaled. When demonstrated, however, there was no one who was able to stay as motionless as the actress in the movie. Since she was merely a local girl in Colombia, she was unable to be located. Though the suspicion remained, the courts dropped all murder charges against Deodato. That was because we could see the bicycle seat at 1:19:32 in this movie.

Despite Deodato being exonerated for murder, the courts still wished to ban the film because of its extreme nature. The decision was made to ban Cannibal Holocaust because of the genuine animal slayings, citing an obscure law that was originally created to protect guinea pigs. Because of this, Deodato, the producers, screenwriter, and the United Artists representative each received a four month suspended sentence after being convicted of obscenity and violence. Deodato had to spend three additional years fighting in the courts to get his film unbanned. Finally, in 1984, the courts ruled in favor of Deodato, and Cannibal Holocaust was granted a rating certificate of VM18 for the uncut print.

International censorship

Despite success in Italy, censorship issues would still plague Cannibal Holocaust in countries around the world. In 1981, Cannibal Holocaust was released straight to video in the UK, thus circumventing the possible banning of the film by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Two years later, in 1983, the list of video nasties was compiled, which banned films with video releases that were not brought before the BBFC for certification; Cannibal Holocaust made its way onto the list. It would also be banned in Australia, Norway, Finland, and several other countries in 1984, although most of these countries have since lifted the ban. In 2001, the BBFC passed Cannibal Holocaust with an 18 certificate after extensive cuts to remove all animal cruelty and erotised sexual violence, thus putting an end to the 18 year ban (if unedited, however, Cannibal Holocaust is still banned in the UK). Australia would also pass Cannibal Holocaust with an R18+ rating in 2005 for the uncut print. In 2006, however, the film was banned in its entirety by the Office of Film and Literature Classification sification in New Zealand. Though a cut version had been passed with an 18 certificate earlier, both it and the uncut versions were brought before the censorship board and banned in July.

Animal cruelty

Much of the censorship issues with Cannibal Holocaust involve the on screen killings of animals, which remains a major issue today. A total of six animals are killed in the film, but seven are killed in the film's production:

  • A large, screaming coatimundi (mistaken as a muskrat in the film) is stabbed multiple times in the neck by an actor.
  • A large turtle (about three feet long) is captured in the water and dragged to shore, where it is then decapitated and its limbs and shell removed. The actors proceed to cook and eat the turtle.
  • A large spider is killed with a machete.
  • A snake is killed with a machete.
  • A Common Squirrel Monkey is captured by a native actor portraying a tribesman, who cuts the monkey's face off with a machete while it is struggling and then eats the brains. While in the movie it appears that only one monkey is killed, the scene was shot twice, resulting in the death of two monkeys, both of which were eaten by indigenous cast members (who consider monkey brains a delicacy).
  • A pig is kicked and then shot with a rifle.

Many condemn this as animal cruelty for the purpose of mere sensationalism and only to attract controversy; it has also been called "animal torture." Deodato himself has condemned his past actions, saying "it was stupid to introduce animals."


Cannibal Holocaust is seen by some as social commentary on various aspects of modern civilization, with similar satire elements seen in other films by Deodato, such as Last Cannibal World and Cut and Run. Despite these interpretations, Deodato has stated in interviews that he had no intentions in Cannibal Holocaust but to make a film about cannibals. Also, actor Luca Barbareschi believes that Deodato has no intentions but to "put on a show." Robert Kerman contradicts these assertions, however, stating that Deodato told him of political concerns involving the media in the making of this film.

Modern society and sensationalism

A common interpretation of Cannibal Holocaust is that the film was made to critique modern society, comparing "civilized" Western society to that of the cannibals'. David Carter of Savage cinema said, "Cannibal Holocaust is not merely focused on the societal taboo of cannibalism or flesh eating. The greater theme of the film is the difference between the civilized and the uncivilized. Though the graphic violence can be hard for most to stomach, the most disturbing aspect of the film is what Deodato is saying about modern society. The film asks the questions: 'What is it to be 'civilized'?' and 'Is it a good thing?'" Sam Sheldon and Nick Nordlinger of The Paly Voice also add, "...the film succeeds in depicting modern 'civilized' society to be as inherently savage and brutal as undeveloped tribal cultures." This is all summarized at the end of the film with Harold Monroe's narrative commentary, "I wonder who the real cannibals are."

More specifically, Deodato came up with the idea for the film after witnessing his son watching news programs concerning the terrorism of the Red Brigades. Deodato noticed that the media would focus on depicting the violent acts with disregard to journalistic integrity, so he attempted to expose this by setting the example used in the film. Carter supports this by saying, "[The lack of journalistic integrity] is shown through the interaction between Professor Monroe and the news agency that had backed the documentary crew. They continually push Monroe to finish editing the footage because blood and guts equal ratings." Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment claims that this form of exploitatious journalism can still be seen today in programming such as reality television. Utilizing the "cinema verite" he learnt from his mentor, Roberto Rossellini, Deodato created Cannibal Holocaust incorporating a hyperrealistic filming method.

Film influence

Deodato drew influence from the works of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, documentary film makers whom Deodato was a fan of. Prosperi and Jacopetti produced several Mondo films, which are documentaries similar to the one made in Cannibal Holocaust. These documentaries focused on sensationalistic and graphic content from around the world, including bizarre local customs, death, and general cruelty. Deodato followed suit in ways of similar content, such as graphic violence and animal slayings. Though fictional, Deodato would create a similar exposé of worldly violence, such as Prosperi's and Jacopetti's Mondo Cane.

Cannibal Holocaust was innovative in its plot structure, specifically with the concept of the "found footage" being brought back to civilization and later viewed to determine the fate of the crew that shot it. Later films, such as The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, would use similar plot structures. Each film uses the idea of a lost film team making a documentary in the wilderness, and their footage returned. Also, like Cannibal Holocaust, advertisements for The Blair Witch Project promoted the idea that the footage is genuine. Deodato has acknowledged the similarities between his film and The Blair Witch Project, and though he holds no malice against the producers, he is frustrated at the publicity that The Blair Witch Project received for being an original production. The producers of The Last Broadcast have denied that Cannibal Holocaust was a major influence.

Cannibal Holocaust bears similarities to other cannibal films made during the same time period, notably Cannibal Ferox. Though Cannibal Ferox director Umberto Lenzi has not acknowledged any influence, star Giovanni Lombardo Radice says Cannibal Ferox was made based on the success of Cannibal Holocaust. Cannibal Holocaust also spawned numerous and similar unofficial sequels, some with scenes mirrored from the original.


The soundtrack is entirely composed by Italian Riz Ortolani, who was specifically requested by director Ruggero Deodato. The music itself is a variety of styles, from a gentle melody in the "Main Theme", to a sad and flowing score in "Crucified Woman", and even faster and more upbeat tracks in "Cameraman's Recreation", "Relaxing in the Savannah", and "Drinking Coco". The instrumentals are equally mixed, ranging from full orchestras to electronics and synthesizers. The original soundtrack release was in Germany in 1995, on the Lucertola Media label. This was a limited release of 1,000 copies and is a highly sought item by fans of the movie. In August 2005, the soundtrack was released again, this time in the United States, on the Coffin Records label.

Releases and sequels

With such extensive controversy, there are many different versions of Cannibal Holocaust in circulation, some unedited, and others substantially edited. Most "uncut" releases are actually missing around five to ten seconds of film material from the "Last Road to Hell" segment of the film, which includes real documentary execution footage. These few seconds are missing as a result of the original film negatives being damaged during the film-to-DVD transfer. It is estimated that there are only five legitimate uncut releases of Cannibal Holocaust, including the missing footage of the "Last Road to Hell" sequence as a supplement. These releases are:

  • The 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition (Limited Edition out of 11,111 copies. US release by Grindhouse Releasing).
  • The Grindhouse Releasing Deluxe Edition (Non-limited US release by Grindhouse Releasing)
  • The Deluxe Collector's Edition (Australian release by Siren Visual Entertainment)
  • The Ultrabit Collector's Edition (Limited Edition out of 4,000 copies. Dutch release by EC Entertainment)
  • Another World Entertainment Special Edition (Norwegian release)

The Australian release is an identical copy of the US release, but is instead called the "Deluxe Collector's Edition". Both releases include the intact version of the "Last Road to Hell" sequence as an extra. The EC entertainment Ultrabit Collector's Edition and the Another World Entertainment release are the only two releases that include the intact sequence within the feature. Another common release is the 25th Anniversary Edition released in the UK by Video Instant Picture Company)|Video Instant Picture Company (VIPCO), which is heavily cut to comply with BBFC editing and runs at a PAL format running time of 86 minutes.

Though no official sequel has been released, several films have adopted the moniker Cannibal Holocaust II as to be associated with Cannibal Holocaust's notoriety. These films were originally released under different titles which were then changed for various releases; none have been directed by or associated with Deodato. The first of said films came in 1986 with Mario Gariazzo's Schiave Bianche: Violenza en Amazzonia. Known in English as Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story, it has also been released on European DVD as Cannibal Holocaust 2: The Catherine Miles Story. In 1988, Mondo film director Antonio Climati made his film Natura Contro, which was released as Cannibal Holocaust II in Thailand and the UK. Italian director Bruno Mattei also made two straight-to-video films back to back in 2003, which have been released as Cannibal Holocaust sequels in Japan.

In 2005, Ruggero Deodato officially announced that he planned to make a Cannibal Holocaust 2, a sequel to Cannibal Holocaust. Though he has written two screenplays, filming has yet to begin. Deodato was later hesitant about directing his new film, thinking that he would make it too violent for American audiences. However, while in Prague filming his cameo appearance in Hostel: Part II, Deodato received the chance to view the original Hostel and decided that he would direct after all, citing Hostel as a similarly violent film that made a mainstream release in America. The film is scheduled for release in 2009.


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