Looking Out to the Horizon of The Last Road to Hell: Cannibal Holocaust

Designation: Trigger Warning. Reader’s discretion is advised. I will attempt to not become too graphic, but I will refer to things that some people might not like, or feel comfortable reading about, even on a Horror Blog.

I was expecting to talk about monsters, or creatures.

Instead, as another kind of segue from my last post, I’m going to write about my first impressions of a film I never considered watching.

Yes, this past weekend I watched Ruggero Deodato and Gianfranco Clerici’s Cannibal Holocaust.

Of course, I start off my Blog writing about one of the heaviest, most controversial horror films in the genre, and possibly cinema. Before that night at Joe Bob Briggs’ Last Drive-In, this Horror Doctor such as I call myself had very different ideas about what this movie actually was.

Years ago, I just thought it was a mindless grindhouse story where an army of masked killers and mutants attack and torture a group of hapless adolescents, or their families with chainsaws. I think it was my expectations of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre conflate with a title that sounds like one great over-exaggeration, one blatant and gory spectacle. I mean, seriously: Cannibal Holocaust. It sounds like a child trying to show how dreadful, menacing, and important they are by combining two grandiose and horrible words together: human flesh-eating, and mass destruction. You know, like an overgrown man-child that calls himself Kilgrave.

Aside from going there, I learned more about it and realized it was part of the cannibal subgenre of horror: the kind that exploits stereotypes of “the savage,” of isolated tribes of people in developing countries supposedly being barbarians and xenophobic murderers. The stereotype has existed ever since pretty much colonialism. Again, I thought it would just be about supposedly well meaning white missionaries or journalists getting brutally tortured and murdered by caricatures of non-white indigenous people. Like, these cannibals were going to mass-murder a whole lot of supposedly civilized people.

I didn’t think about the film much, even when I heard about The Green Inferno that I may have only vaguely knew had some creative link to it. I just wasn’t into watching castration happen, or gratuitous violence for its own sake in some, in my mind, sloppy attempt to show how terrible human beings are. I don’t need a film about human flesh eaters, and slaughter to know that fact about humans. I can just watch, or read, the news.

But I did know, even though I wasn’t aware of the full details, that Cannibal Holocaust had a legendary, fearsome reputation among horror fans.

Then, Joe Bob announced on Twitter that it would be the second course of the sixth week of The Last Drive-In.

I expected the worst. I’m not going to lie. I was waiting to see the racism, the colonial themes, the mutilations all well up, the gruesomeness and the gore, just all blur together and bring me completely down. I felt a little bit of that when I was watching Blood-Sucking Freaks that very first night of the second course of the first episode of the second season of The Last Drive-In: when I was first acclimating myself to watching with the rest of the Mutant Family live for the first time.

So many firsts. I thought it’d be Blood-Sucking Freaks with its ridiculous, banal grossness, but magnified and with more prejudice in there.

We were given the option not to watch it. To skip it. To just, for the first time as far as I knew, watch all the Joe Bob segments as their own independent self. But I also knew there was a reason why Joe Bob and Shudder were showing, and curating, Cannibal Holocaust, and I didn’t think it would be something as simple as shock value, or pandering.

And so, I did what I do when I don’t understand something and I don’t want to face it head-on right away. I looked into it.

It wasn’t research, but I wanted to ground myself. To remind myself that it is just a film. Just a piece of art and production. And what I found was something that caught my eye: that Cannibal Holocaust is the first known example of the found-footage subgenre of horror. Now, anyone who knows me understands that I love epistolary fiction. Epistolary fiction, a word I use a lot and find myself defining quite a bit, is a narrative put together through different written accounts: such as letters, journal entries, transcripts, and the like. It’s a simulated multimedia affair, and found-footage has that quality in it: of a film within a film, or a piece of cinematic narrative that is supposed to be real. And both epistolary fiction, and found-footage have something of a confessional bent at times, or they portray testimony of particular characters.

Cannibal Holocaust Found Skull

It got me hooked, even as I began to feel a kind of inevitability. After I discovered this, I looked into the controversy without spoiling too much of the plot because I knew, at this point, that I was going to see it. And well, between the indigenous people that were featured as actors in the work and not credited by Deodato, the inclusion of rape scenes, and the very real animal cruelty as well as the fact that the filmmakers were put on trial for murder — as the hoax they were attempting to portray through the realism of the film felt very real at the time — I really got a better idea of what kind of monster I would be facing.

None of these things are surprising to those of you who have seen, or heard of the reputation of, this movie. But that wasn’t enough for me. I was operating under the idea that once I saw this film, it would change my life forever, that I would not be the same person as I was before I watched it. I needed a foundation from which to work from; a perspective to ground myself from, to understand the extent of it.

And then, Diana Prince posted an article on her Twitter account. This is an article written by Joe Bob, under his real name John Bloom in 1981, titled And Jesus Said, “Mai Eeñeno” (“Weep Not”). A lot of the terminology in it, such as “primitive,” “third world,” “the white man,” “Indians” and the like are dated, even there are attempts to rectify some of the cultural misconceptions such as the Waorani (now the Huaorani) people no longer being called the Aucas (a Spanish word for “savages”) but the gist of it is Joe Bob — in his usual tangential, winding way — explaining the implications of a Western missionary program’s effects and interactions on isolated tribal cultures in South America, and who some of these indigenous people actually are, and what they have to contend with as their world changes.

I was looking for a human take, a human or individual face, or at least a nuanced look at a whole other world, and the implications I took away from the article — from what both well-meaning and selfish influence from Western elements on other human ways of life — were complex to say the least. In fact, it brought to mind the story from two years ago where the American missionary John Allen Chau had been killed by Sentinelese tribespeople off India after being warned away from their island at least once.

When you try to imprint a narrative on someone else’s story, especially one that has been developing on its own for ages, there will be consequences. Of course, according to Joe Bob’s article the world is becoming smaller — had been even in the 1980s — and having a presence that can help you adapt to these changes can make all the difference. But then, wouldn’t that same force also have a moral responsibility to seeing those changes through, and bearing the consequences of them? Joe Bob’s article is interesting in and of itself, especially in how the translation of a religious text can mean the recording and preservation of an oral language into a written one … while also changing the paradigm from which that language comes. And the missionaries that are in that article are, despite not getting monetary gain, or scholarly notoriety, still pushing an agenda and a narrative onto peoples that didn’t have it, displacing their own instead of attempting to integrate them in a healthy manner: or help preserve the cultures they have.

But I am veering off of my own tangent. So what did I think about this film?

The short answer?

It’s messy.

As for the long answer, well, you will have to be found in my next post. Think of this post as Phase One, the preliminary, of my preconceptions and rudimentary investigations on and around the construct of the film and its contents. Phase Two will be how I processed the experience of Cannibal Holocaust, and saw what was to come as a student of horror.

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