The film begins with an aerial shot of the Amazon, or Green Inferno as it is referred as, that would be more at home in a nature documentary with David Attenborough’s whispering tones over the top than the gore fest that follows. We then return to the US where a news reporter fills in the backstory of a team comprising of Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi), Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi). These four twenty-something year old film maker’s dangerous journey into the Amazon to make a documentary about a cannibalistic tribe. This scene to not only serves to fill in the viewer with the films story but also highlights the social context of the film with the space race and the lack of knowledge of our planet.
Cannibal Holocaust follows Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) an anthropologist professor searching for the missing documentary makers. Alongside the professor are his guide Chaco (Salvatore Basile), a younger guide and a Yacumo prisoner, through which they are taken to his tribe. The film features many different Amazonian tribes, alongside the Yacumo there are the Yamamomo or Tree People (the cannibals of the title) and the Shamatari or Swamp People. After ingratiating himself with the Tree People, Monroe gains the film reels from the deceased film crew and returns to New York.
Cannibalism is not the only tribal ritual mentioned in the Cannibal Holocaust which also includes a ritualistic killing of a woman due to adultery and a spirit quest. Throughout the film there are plenty of wonderful shots of the Amazon rainforest and its animal inhabitants including a jaguar, parrots and a sloth. Whilst it is clear that these bits of footage have been spliced in, it never the less highlights the wildness of the rainforest. Director Ruggero Deodato (House of the Edge of the Park, Last Cannibal World) continually builds the tension, with seemingly innocent scenes suddenly interrupted with morbid and gruesome reminders of the main subject of the film. For example, Monroe is frolicking naked in the river with several tribal women when suddenly he sees the skeleton and belongings of the documentary makers strung from a nearby branch.
It is easy to see why this film has earned the debatable title of ‘most controversial film ever’ as it (unsurprisingly) features long unadulterated footage of cannibalism but also scenes of genocide, rape and castration and it is certainly one of the more controversial films I’ve ever seen. This claim was probably heightened by the fact that the four main stars were told to ‘disappear’ for a year after the movie was released to give the impression that the film was non-fiction, leading to a (serious) murder charge for Deodato when returning to Italy, which was subsequently dropped when all four actors arrived to testify safe and sound.
This film is not one to be watched lightly but in light of the documentary teams behaviour leads both Monroe and the viewer to question who the real heathen is here, the cannibals who have been living in the same way for centuries, the callow film makers who herd the Yacumo into a hut before setting fire to it for the sake of making an ‘interesting’ documentary that will earn them a small fortune or the New York TV executives who think the film is sensational and makes money off the suffering of the tribespeople?
Fun Fact: Ruggero Deodato based the Cannibal Holocaust on the real life disappearance of a crew filming cannibals in Africa.