To celebrate the upcoming launch of issue 6 , our B-Movie special, Tom Cottey takes a closer look at Ruggero Deodato’s controversial exploitation flick: Cannibal Holocaust.
In the late 1970s and early 80s the cannibal film was a somewhat bizarre phenomenon within the Italian film industry. Part of a wider sub-category of exploitation films, cannibal films were a variation on zombie movies in which the monsters were the living, rather than the living-dead. Furthermore, cannibals were depicted much like zombies; they were herd-like and flesh-hungry while ‘ordinary’ people were pitched as the protagonists.
One director central to the cannibal genre was Ruggero Deodato, a seasoned filmmaker who learned his craft as an assistant for neo-realist master Roberto Rosselini (Rome, Open City, Paisà & Germany, Year Zero) and genre director Sergio Corbucci (Django, Navajo Joe & The Great Silence). Deodato began a directing career shooting commercials, TV shows and features in every genre going. The director’s goal was simply to make a commercially successful picture and he soon learnt that the key to this was shooting anything sensational and exploitative.
Deodato’s first horrifying foray into the cannibal genre was titled Last Cannibal World (1977), but in America it gained the far more ominous title: Jungle Holocaust – conjuring thoughts of extreme prejudice and mass violence. Supposedly based on a true story, the film tells of an oil prospector called Robert Harper, who is captured by a cannibal tribe on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Striving to escape from the grip of the cannibals Harper discovers his own primitive nature, which leads him to behave in ways that echo his captors.
The financial success of such cannibal films caused a boom in the genre, with installments like the sexploitation film Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978), which starred Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress (who found fame as Bond girl Honey Ryder in Dr. No). Due to the success of Last Cannibal World Deodato’s producers were keen for him to direct another cannibal picture, but he felt cynical abount the booming genre. The director moved to work in other genres until, inspired by increasingly graphic television journalism, he decided to make a film criticizing the comtemporary taste for horrifying news footage.
Production on Cannibal Holocaust began in 1979 and Deodato found Leticia in Columbia, which became the primary shooting location. The film tells of a documentary crew who travel to the Amazon to locate and document a cannibal tribe with the agenda of capturing real evidence of cannibalism for broadcast. Deodato’s point is clear: it is the exploitative documentarians who are the monsters, not the cannibals. When the documentarians disappear an anthropologist called Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) sets out to look for them. Deodato juxtaposed conventional cinematic set-ups with Rossellini-inspired documentary shots to represent the sensational footage shot by the documentarians.
Deodato’s cast comprised of relatively unknown actors. American actor Carl Gabriel Yorke played Alan Yates, the immoral director of the documentary crew. Italian actress Francesca Ciardi, herself a relative newcomer to acting, played Yates’s girlfriend and fellow documentarian. American, Perry Pirkanen was the third member of the crew playing a cameraman (he went on to act in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox, both now staples of the exploitation genre). Robert Kerman who played Dr. Harold Monroe had already made a substantial career for himself in adult films, most famously Debbie Does Dallas. The cannibal extras are said to have been real indigenous people of the Amazon.
To this day the story of the production remains as infamous as the film itself, like many on-set stories, however, it is hard to know what is true or false. Upon arriving on set Carl Gabriel Yorke claims to have been rushed straight into makeup and straight into a scene involving a leg amputation, before even reading a copy of the script. Rumour has it that Francesca Ciardi suggested to Carl Gabriel Yorke that the two have sex in the jungle to prepare for their on-screen sex-scene; this is attributed to an interview conducted with Yorke in 2005, but Ciardi has likely never have spoken about this. Deodato himself is often painted much like Yorke’s character Yates, who attempts to capture the most shocking material possible with disregard for safety or morality.
Today Cannibal Holocaust holds a very particular place in the minds of film fans. It is granted a shady cult appeal due to its pioneering juxtaposition of documentary style camera work and its bizarrely romantic score by Riz Ortolani, however it is treated with contempt for its unpleasant treatment of animals. In one sickening (and often heavily cut) scene the documentarians slice and rip apart a large river turtle, starting with its limbs; the scene is most disturbing because the creature is still moving. Additionally a pig was shot and there is still some dispute as to whether the crew killed one or two monkeys for the production.
It wasn’t the animal violence that caused Deodato the worst of his problems though. So shocking is the climactic violence of Cannibal Holocaust, in which the documentarians film themselves falling victim to cannibals, that Deodato was taken to court – the director was accused of killing his lead actors with acts of genuine cannibalism. It did not help that he had his actors contractually disappear for a year after the production, in an attempt to drum up mystery around the film. Deodato had to contact Yorke, Ciardi and Pirkanen and bring them to court to prove that they were still alive. Sergio Leone even wrote to Deodato to praise him for the level of violent realism he achieved, but he warned him “everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”
Perhaps what makes this film truly infamous, however, is the manner in which it forces the audience to question the moral fibre of filmmaking itself. Had Cannibal Holocaust been a structurally conventional affair it is likely that we would overlook the dubious elements, but this meta-film provokes examination and question. It is not that Deodato is necessarily the Alan Yates of B-Movies, but Cannibal Holocaust’s self-reflexivity makes us feel that, in this case, the director is the true monster.