I can't imagine a more joyless theatergoing experience than a public screening of Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. It's enough of a bummer to watch alone; sitting in nauseated silence with a room of increasingly ashen-faced strangers would make it even more of a soul-deadening endurance test. In the cult of horror-movie fandom, a film that tries the will of its audience is usually considered a triumph. But one does not walk away from Cannibal Holocaust feeling any sense of accomplishment—or fear, exhilaration or even despair. It induces no emotional reaction at all, only physical sickness, like a video of someone stomping a bag of kittens for 90 minutes—or, to use an example from the picture itself, like watching a group of actors slowly and graphically disembowel, cook and eat an actual giant turtle.
Yeah, this is that movie. In the gory severed-arms race of late-'70s Italian exploitation flicks, in which filmmaking devolved into a game of extremist one-upmanship, Deodato took things up several notches by traveling into the Amazon, exploiting indigenous tribes and shooting scenes of genuine animal cruelty (the one with the turtle is just the most notorious). In and of itself, the film's endless cavalcade of rape, racism and evisceration isn't any more shocking or revolting than the other parades of degradation produced during the heyday of the Eurotrash cannibal subgenre. Even the animal killings, after a while, reach a point of gratuitousness that lapses into the outlandishly silly.
What distinguishes Cannibal Holocaust is its aggressive artlessness. As one of the earliest examples of the "found footage" conceit—an anthropology professor investigating the disappearance of a documentary film crew in the South American rain forest finds canisters lying alongside the corpses and views their contents—Deodato's only real goal is blunt-force realism. (It apparently worked: The Italian government arrested Deodato, accusing him of making a snuff film.) If he'd left it at that, the movie would have simply been boring, but Deodato makes matters more repellent by disingenuously feigning a point—something about decrying man's inhumanity to man and the thin distinction between civilization and savagery. Considering the inhumanity that went into making the film, that "message" reeks of bullshit. In attempting to justify his cinematic ipecac, Deodato just made it more distasteful.
Critic's Grade: F
SEE IT: Cannibal Holocaust plays at the Hollywood Theatre at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, Oct. 23.