The 9th entry for the Horror Movie Marathon Madness essay contest is from Chris Gusta and is entitled 'The Problem with Cannibal Holocaust'. Enjoy!
Once, in college, I was walking around with a female art student who I had a thing for, and we were discussing different movies we had seen and it came around to talking about horror and exploitation films, which I loved and love, and she most apparently did not. The young woman in question went on a tangent to say that she had an ex-boyfriend once who had “this disgusting poster over his bed.” She described it as a woman impaled naked on a large pole. I, of course, offered up the title of the movie, Cannibal Holocaust, and received a disgusted frown at the fact that I knew what she was talking about. She did not go out with me again.
The thing that lingers on from this story is that it is really difficult to defend a movie like Cannibal Holocaust, or really, to a non-gore lover, any patently gory, and exploitative film of this kind. People who do not like gore will argue that it’s disgusting filth, and of course, in almost every way, they are right. That some of us enjoy disgusting filth is a hard thing to use as an excuse for a movie that some would also call culturally insensitive, as in fact many cannibal movies could be called.
Cannibal Holocaust, in particular, has an advantage, at least, of a sort-of meta-reality quality to the usual Western “gawking at tribal custom” that comes with watching a cannibal movie. It still portrays the “natives” as savage and ignorant, but turns their ignorance into a point of victimization. Modern culture, as in reality, invades their home, abuses their people, and desecrates their religion. Unlike in reality, the natives get their revenge in particularly gruesome ways, but here-in, to me, lies one of the central problems with the film.
For a large amount of the movie, the tribal people, whose cannibalism is one of the tantalizing draws of the film due to its horrific and sickening nature, are almost completely helpless. When Yates and crew terrorize them, they huddle about looking scared and confused. This might be a natural reaction to a group of people burning your village and randomly shooting people in the tribe, but why they would not put an immediate stop to this abuse is beyond understanding.
While the disrespect of nature and of human life shown by the Yates film crew is sensationalized and a little over the top, the film itself has a strange relationship to nature that is on an almost similar level. I remember when first watching the film, I was most disturbed by a scene in which Felipe, the group’s guide, randomly grabs a small animal that has run out of the brush, cuts off its head, and throws it back. If the scene is not real, I would think the movie should have received an award for special effects. In terms of the criticism that the movie itself poses towards its own villains, this sort of bizarre real-life violence is more shocking than much of the expected violence in the film. Several of the other animal deaths, while still as grotesque, are at least not as gratuitous. The deaths of the turtle and the monkey, which by modern standards should seemingly never be accepted in a film of any kind outside of the nature channels, have a role in the film. However, the death of this one small creature is more or less completely unnecessary.
While the nature of extreme films is such that horrifying and grotesque imagery is the whole point, as a fan, it is often important to be able to remind myself that these things are not really happening. In this way, Cannibal Holocaust is despicable. I spent years trying to convince the person I first viewed it with that the turtle scene was not real. Upon learning that it was, I was disgusted at my own watching of such a thing. So, it is a somewhat hypocritical movie in a sense, both criticizing and participating in a brutal form of sensationalism that, while fascinating, is ultimately deeply troubling to watch.