A still from 'Cannibal Holocaust'
Warning: This article contains (COMPLETELY STAGED) images that some readers may find disturbing.
In today's culture, peddling in knee-jerk outrage has become a viable career option for thousands of struggling freelancers. You can't open a website without being crushed by a wave of think pieces on the shock revelation that American soldiers weren't big fans of Iraqi insurgents, or on how Fifty Shades of Grey is creating a generation of incipient Ike Turners.
That said, if the freelance journalists in search of a quick buck today were around in the 70s, they would have been shooting fish in a barrel. There were some genuinely outrageous things being spat out of a strange underworld of the film industry far from the black ties of Cannes and the Oscars. Of these, the films that went the furthest were the Italian cannibal movies, which this year are receiving their obligatory American homage with the release of Eli Roth's The Green Inferno.
The films I'm talking about aren't like those quaint 70s slasher flicks defanged by time. Awash with sexual violence, graphic gore, real cruelty to animals, and imperialistic racism toward indigenous peoples—not to mention terrible dubbing and a parade of Italian character actors sweating their way through the jungle—these films are the end of the line.
Every time somebody talks about how shocked they are by something that's emerged out of the mainstream, it's instantly clear they haven't seen Mountain of the Cannibal God, Eaten Alive!, The Last Cannibal World, or the undisputed sleazy masterpiece of the form, Cannibal Holocaust. Bracingly misanthropic, ethically unsound, and offensive beyond belief in terms of racism and sexism, they are the true pits of how far exploitation films of the 70s would go—but for all their crudity, there are moments of sophistication, and yes, real beauty. Nothing like them could ever be made again.
Cannibalism had been in movies for years—there's even a cannibal tribe in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But it wasn't until the looser censorship environment of the 60s and 70s that films this explicit were even possible. Long before "accident" clips on Youtube or Bestgore.com, the Mondo series of exploitation documentaries were playing on audiences' prurient desires to see animals hacked up or glimpse novel tribal practices in South America.
Despite their makers claiming they were merely documenting a tough world kept off TV, they played up to the folklorish horrors of the "savage" places Europeans had only recently decolonized, depicting a world of brutality where life was cheap and the white man an emissary from civilization.
This was the time when indigenous peoples in South America were arguably entering into public consciousness in the West more than ever before—the expansion of logging in the Amazon and the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway led to a spate of remote tribes being forced to integrate with societies they'd dodged for years. The very occasional incidences of ritual cannibalism led to caricatures of these peoples as Stone Age savages shockingly still around in the era of Studio 54—and a sequence of books by anthropologists eager to shift units with sensationalism didn't help.
David Attenborough even made a film called A Blank on the Map in 1971, where he encounters some tribesmen in New Guinea, who promptly tell him to fuck off. The explosion of awareness toward these peoples led to a huge amount of interest, and in turn they were rewarded with epidemics, abuse, and being painted as villains in some of the grimmest films ever made.
The first cannibal movie to really blend all this was the 1972 release Man from the Deep River, a knock-off of A Man Called Horse, where a photographer is first tortured, then accepted by a tribe in Thailand. Compared with what would come later, it's fairly innocent, but two mainstays of the genre were introduced—Me Me Lai, a Burmese-British game-show hostess who would consistently play tribal girls with access to boob jobs but not clothes; and real, Mondo-inspired animal killing (in this case a monkey having the top of its head cut off).
There's really no defending this. Sadly, in a world of ISIS videos, it's not too shocking, but it's still infuriating to think of the asshole with a cigar standing behind the camera directing somebody to end this little critter's life for a film. Sure, it was a different time, but if PETA ever gets its own Yewtree up and running the Italian office is going to need double shifts.
Five years later came Last Cannibal World, conceived as a sequel to Man from the Deep River. It ended up as a straight retread of the same turf. The grub factor is raised considerably—a real alligator is killed and skinned, and more monkeys get it. Me Me Lai returns as another native girl who helps the hero escape her tribe, only for him to rape her when she refuses to obey him. The next scene is her serving him breakfast—which is, as they now say, problematic. And that's before we get to the climax of the film, where she meekly submits to being beheaded, eviscerated, cooked, and eaten while our hero and his pal hoof it without a second thought.
I'm not sure anybody ever lost money flogging sensation to the grindhouse circuit: Last Cannibal World was a hit, sparking a wave of imitators. Some of these were essentially softcore smut with a little gore thrown in for good measure; exploitation legend Joe D'Amato turned out Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals and Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals within a year (if you find 70s threesomes juxtaposed with women being stabbed in the vagina sexy, the latter is a must-see!).
The bigger-budget Mountain of the Cannibal God is an even stranger beast, somehow roping in Stacy Keach and convincing Ursula Andress (a long way from her Bond appearance) to be worshipped as a goddess by a tribe while butt naked.
There's also a scene where a man fucks a pig, for some reason, and the usual parade of animal guttings is present and correct, as they are in 1980's Eaten Alive!, a weird Italian cannibal-rape film that, plot-wise, loosely cashes in on the Jonestown massacre, only with a few extra cannibals.
Also in 1980 came the big one: Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust.
The plot centers around a team of documentary-makers and unremitting bastards who have gone missing in a part of the Amazon known as the Green Inferno (Eli Roth knows his stuff). An NYU professor is dispatched to investigate. His journey takes up the first half of the film, and you know pretty fast you're in for some disturbing stuff—a man rapes a woman with a rock and then beats her to death with it as punishment for adultery, and soon we see a forced abortion performed on a crucified woman.
It gets even harder in the second half, when the documentary team's footage is taken back to New York. As well as some real execution footage from Nigeria—because why not?—we see the crew engineering tribal conflict by burning villagers alive, gang-raping a young girl who's later found impaled through her vagina, and the gang eventually being murdered and cannibalized by the tribe they're trying to provoke for the sake of their film. And, of course, a series of animals are killed in graphic detail, with a turtle's death probably the most disgusting thing ever put on film.
Not one for a Sunday night with your folks, then, but Deodato brings real skill to the barbarity. The second half's fake-doc footage, executed long before Blair Witch, is convincing to a fault (Sergio Leone loved it); the feeling of escalating chaos and panic is superbly executed; and Riz Ortolani's weirdly sweet music is great (other work of his would later show up in Drive).
Deodato takes some broad swings at an exploitative media culture—the last line is, "Sometimes I wonder who the real cannibals are," which is admittedly pretty rich coming from a guy who's just made a film containing four rape scenes.
Also, as if to disprove his point, the genre soon petered out; the constant trouble with censors was more hassle than it was worth. There have been occasional flare-ups since, with a strange slew of low-budget crap in 2003, and now Eli Roth's revival, which—given what's come before—surely has to be neutered in some way if it ever wants a chance of reaching cinemas.
So why watch these films? As is probably clear, this is grim stuff, wallowing in the worst things the makers could think of, caricaturing Italians whose worst crime was not to be born in Rome, and displaying a cavalier and hardly sensitive attitude to sexual violence. That said, considering the lame back projections that were typical of studio films of the time, at least their makers were prepared to get out there and get dirty making these things.
To our CGI-attuned eyes, the sight of real people in what looks like a fairly extreme environment can be startlingly authentic—there's a rough-and-tumble realism that stands out next to today's more antiseptic shooting. They're unpleasant, but there's no denying there's an energy to them. They may often be updates of 30s adventure-in-the-Congo flicks, but an adventure film is an adventure film, even with awkwardly spliced-in footage of an anaconda eating a lizard.
Also, like all exploitation films, they're a great time capsule to a different world. These were angry films at an angry time. The late 1970s saw a wave of Red Brigade terrorism in Italy, with major politician Aldo Moro being kidnapped and murdered. It would be weird if some of that extremity didn't find it onto the screen, and however distasteful they were, you won't find a better cinematic expression of a national "bad vibe." The unremitting ugliness and pessimism of these films is very 70s, and just because Deodato couldn't get Jack Nicholson on the line doesn't mean they should be discounted.
What's more, they have a weirdly admirable status as the most full-on that movies can be—the end of the line, a farthest point by which we can orient everything else. These are horror films, and in dwelling on our capacity for horror they make you feel bad about humanity—but which horror films don't? Sure, there are better films about people's primal nature being revealed in the jungle, but for all their cruelty there's occasionally a crude profundity.
Herzog and Coppola went into the jungle and saw it as the crucible that would reveal the animal under the suit. And, in their own way, so do cannibal movies. Or, at the very least, they reveal something about the people going to fleapit cinemas in the late 1970s. Nothing like them could ever be made again and even hope to get widespread distribution; however extreme horror films have become since then, there's been nothing to compare, especially thanks to laws on animal cruelty.
Sure, some gore hounds online are palpably getting off on watching Me Me Lai being cooked by the hot rocks placed in her torso, and no one's saying those guys aren't sick bastards, but these films nevertheless have their place in history. It's oddly heartening to know that, in their rage and hate, we have some kind of end-point—the nastiest films ever made.
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