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Cannibal Holocaust: Is its reputation earned?

Updated on December 27, 2013

(This article features some images that might not be suitable for minors, so proceed with caution.)

Natives cannibal ritual
Natives cannibal ritual | Source

CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. The name itself resonates as violent and grotesque. I first heard of this film shortly after its release in 1980, when I was still a kid. Needless to say, I never got around to watch it, but its title became a catch-all name for everything that was violent between me and my brothers. Even though none of us had seen it, we would use it as a point of reference for all things that were beyond gory. Some 30 years later, I finally managed to see the film and answer the question I’ve had since I was a kid: Is it really that violent? Is its reputation earned or just a myth?


Directed by Italian Ruggero Deodato, Cannibal Holocaust follows the story of the members of a documentary film crew that disappeared in the Amazonian jungle while filming a documentary on cannibal tribes called “Green Inferno”. An anthropologist and professor, Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), sets out to the jungle to lead a rescue team that eventually finds out the tapes left behind by the crew. Upon his return, he realizes the content of the tapes and objects to its showing by an American television station.

Perhaps the main criticism about the film is its unabashed and graphic portrayal of both violence and sex. Although I didn’t find it to be any worse than lots of Hollywood horror films, it is still a graphically violent film. Characters are seen being killed, mutilated, beheaded, beaten, and cut open. Some of those scenes are visually clear, while others are blurred by the shaky handheld camera and the distance. But most notable is the graphic portrayal of the killing of several animals. The scenes were controversial even among the cast and crew itself:

  • Robert Kerman stormed away from the set during the filming of the death of a coatimundi which is sliced open with a large knife.
  • Despite his bold on-screen attitude during the scene, actor Perry Pirkanen says he cried after the filming of the death of a sea turtle, which is decapitated and ripped apart.
  • Actor Gabriel Yorke refused to shoot a pig in a climatic scene, leaving the task to co-star Luca Barbareschi. He even botched a long monologue that was supposed to follow the killing, which Deodato was unable to reshoot because they didn’t have another pig available.

Although all the animals killed were consumed by natives, and one could argue that the killings would’ve occurred anyway, the scenes have been a target for censors and animal activists. Deodato himself has said that he now regrets having filmed the scenes. I can say that the coatimundi and turtle scene were particularly tough to watch.

Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) jokes with the head of a turtle after decapitating it
Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) jokes with the head of a turtle after decapitating it | Source

The film seems to carry two messages or subtexts. First, the comparison between the uncivilized and “savage” nature of the natives versus the supposedly civilized nature of the documentary film crew that ruthlessly terrorizes them. The fact that the latter behave more savages than their cannibal counterparts is one of the main focal point of the film. However, this message is carried in such an unsubtle, tacked-on, and in-your-face way that it affects whatever effectiveness it could’ve had. Most of what one could’ve concluded was already seen, so there was no need to spell it out for the audience or underline it with clunky lines like “I wonder who the real cannibals are”.

The second message the film seems to carry is a criticism of the media exploitation of violence, highlighted by Monroe’s decision not to support the release of the found documentary versus the desire of the American station to broadcast it. However, this message was seen as hypocritical to some since the film engages in the same excesses it seems to criticize. The fact that the film is more known for its violent nature than for its alleged social commentary proves that the message was ineffective.

The documentary film crew finds an impaled native
The documentary film crew finds an impaled native | Source
Cannibal Holocaust
Release date
February 7, 1980
Ruggero Deodato
Gianfranco Clerici
Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi
96 minutes
$100,000 (estimate)

Another interesting fact is that the film antagonizes the character of documentary filmmaker Alan Yates for terrorizing both the natives and his crew, but testimonies from the real-film cast and crew indicate that director Ruggero Deodato was probably as mistreating as Yates. Actress Francesca Ciardi has said that Deodato screamed at her when she refused to bare her breasts for a particular scene, while there are rumors that Deodato didn’t pay the actors on time, or that he didn’t pay the native extras.

Overall, I think that Cannibal Holocaust was neither a masterpiece in social commentary nor inherently bad. I thought it was an average film with some genuinely intriguing elements on its plot (there's a bit of reverse narrative in how the plot unfolds) and some tension in it. On the other hand, the acting leaves a lot to be desired and its content/message isn't that effective for the reasons stated above. I can say I was more or less engaged and don't regret watching it. From a film fan perspective, it was an interesting watch, but the film’s reputation seems to be far stronger and harsher than the film itself. Grade: B-

5.9 /10

Have you seen Cannibal Holocaust? What did you think of it?

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Cannibal Holocaust Trailer


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