Making a Green Inferno Turn Red: Watching 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.

Welcome to Phase Two of Looking Out to the Horizon of The Last Road to Hell: Cannibal Holocaust: where this Designation truly applies. My first post deals with my preconceptions of Cannibal Holocaust, and some of the information I’ve looked up about it. This writing will focus on my impressions of the film and its structure, and how I reacted to its contents.

So from last time, to reiterate: the short answer?

It’s messy.

I think that sentence sums up Cannibal Holocaust. After several trigger warnings, from the film, from Shudder, from even Joe Bob and Diana Prince themselves, we were introduced — or reintroduced — into this cinematic narrative, into this situation. It didn’t start the way I thought it would. Riz Ortolani’s musical score, which is genius and on point throughout the entirety of the film, is cheery and as bright as the lush green trees we see below us from a bird’s eye point of view.

And I didn’t trust it. Not one bit.

The scene then eventually shifts to the city of New York and the bustle of humans within it. This is where we are introduced to Professor Monroe, who gives an interview, in which he is going to help find a team of young filmmakers that went missing attempting to make a documentary about “indigenous cannibal tribes” in the Amazon rainforest.

What I found the most fascinating was examining how the found footage, the epistolary, was used in framing this story. At one point, we are literally introduced to the filmmakers through a close-up at a television screen. This is where we see, and Joe Bob pointed out, that the footage with the filmmakers is filmed with 16mm in contrast to the rest of the movie’s 35mm film, to give it that grainy, realistic, rough feel. Most of the movie itself is Professor Monroe actually encountering the Yacumo and, eventually, the Ya̧nomamö tribes to get confirmation about what happened to the group.

The first is told almost from the end of it, where we see the remains of the group, the aftermath of the tribes they encountered and affected and, finally, the retrieval of their own unedited documentary film in a canister. I found Munroe’s interactions with the tribespeople fascinating in that he began to understand their sense of reciprocity and that while they are warlike — he and his mercenary accompaniment actually interfering with a war between the Ya̧nomamö and the Shamatari, these supposed two cannibalistic tribes, on the side of the Ya̧nomamö to get their favour — and himself is fairly paternalistic about their culture, they tell their stories. You can see it in how they are choreographed in the film to gesture and reenact certain motions of past violence. This whole film, even at that point, is about storytelling, and that really does it for me.

Deodato apparently created Cannibal Holocaust, once titled The Green Inferno because of these supposed practices in the Amazon, as an artistic rebuke of exploitative journalism focusing around violence, murder, and tragedies: how these journalists would accentuate and over-focus on the worst elements to profit off of the sensationalism of it.

Again, for those people who have seen and love the movie, I’m not telling you anything new. But I think what really affected me the most wasn’t the gore as I knew it was simulated: it was acted out. Part of it was definitely the animal cruelty. I teared up when I saw what happened to that turtle. I felt a profound anger at that moment, even though the full sequence proved to be a foreshadowing of what was going to happen to some of the filmmakers later on. I also know that these animals had been eaten after the fact by actors on set, so their lives weren’t wasted. But the way they were killed just made me emotionally detach from the rest of it.

But it wasn’t until later, on these reels retrieved by Monroe, that I saw why the film was truly called Cannibal Holocaust. I am Jewish. I guess, aside from my own individual empathy towards animals over humans — as they are perceived to be more innocent — there is this idea that the way an animal is killed can affect the meat you get from it: a resonance of it. Perhaps in some way this is why Deodato had them killed, as something of a ritual, to ascribe something bloody and visceral into this film that couldn’t be done with human sacrifice. After all, the word holocaust itself is taken from the chief ancient Greek verb Holokautein: made up of holo (whole) and kaíō (burn) which refers to animal sacrifice, and sharing the parts of the being with the gods, and the community, but over time it has been used as a definition for human genocide.

This is where my own cultural resonance went beyond the depicted cannibalism that was displayed at the beginning and end of the film. It didn’t stop informing me when the filmmakers began to attack and torment the Yacumo, destroying their food, and forcing them into their huts and setting their huts on fire: all in an attempt to stage a “tribal war” to record. And it definitely didn’t stop when the filmmakers took turns raping a Ya̧nomamö woman, and possibly impaling her afterwards to make it look like a “senseless honour killing.” This is where, as one of my teachers put it, the karma is set and they are going to pay it. You know that these filmmakers, whose remains we find earlier in the film, deserve everything coming to them. That is my feeling. But it’s more than that. For me, these were the moments, especially based on finding out what they did with their previous documentaries, it just hit home that they didn’t even see these people as human beings.

They were just toys to “play with,”  in order to gain fame from the stories they forced on others. They dehumanized them, treated them like objects, tormented, killed them whenever they wanted, and recorded it. Even the one woman in the team, Faye Daniels, is more upset that they are wasting film recording the men raping the tribeswoman and her boyfriend and director Alan Yates having his turn, than because a fellow woman and human being is being violated. These colonial and genocidal atrocities make their resonances clear.

By the time the Ya̧nomamö deal with the group themselves, I found myself having little sympathy for them and you begin to realize that the violence inflicted on these “children of the Space Age” is more justified and understandable than the team and their sense of entitlement to the lives of these people.

Dehumanization is the best way to sum up the theme of Cannibal Holocaust. The tribespeople do it to each other, though in their minds they are fulfilling social functions to keep surviving and their reasons and motivations are no less human than anyone else’s, while the team does it for fame and glory, and even the syndication company that has recruited Professor Monroe wants to use the spectacle of the situation to get ratings. It’s an infection or poison more insidious than any tropical disease or blow dart. You see it in the group’s amputation and abandonment of their guide Felipe and the blasé manner they treat his death, in the way they treat the tribespeople, and even in the manner in which they sacrifice other to the Ya̧nomamö to survive, and failing that, to keep recording.

It reminds me of the words, and the obsession behind them, from F.W. Murnau in The Shadow of the Vampire: “If it’s not in frame, it doesn’t exist.” That fictional depiction of that German film director was willing to throw away human and monstrous lives to make his art immortal. And, in the end, the group’s film reels almost doesn’t exist: kept by the tribe they antagonized, and nearly destroyed by the company that hired Monroe to uncover their story … only for the film to be sold for viewing by the projectionist in order to get his, if you will pardon the terrible pun, pound of flesh.

When Monroe asks, in an internal monologue voice-over — which was also done well earlier in the film through his tape recordings, another element of the epistolary — “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” it becomes pretty clear that it isn’t just the tribe that butchered and devoured the filmmakers. I can see just what Deodato could be arguing: that profiting from the suffering of others is a cycle of self-consumption that will devour us all.

And I can just end this off-the-rails article here. I can talk about how the film slowly pieces together the testament of these four young neo-imperialists through depictions of television interviews, tape recordings, testimonies from the people who knew them, the oral tales of the tribespeople that unfortunately encountered them, and the unedited film reels that create this entire frame story: this narrative beginning at the end and going back and forth into the past to when it all lines up again. I can even point out what Joe Bob mentioned about the film being the precursor to the found-footage subgenre which, in turn, is the result of combining the structure of a Mondo film — a pseudo-documentary depicting taboo subjects — which leads well into the sensationalism of the cannibal film, and the seeming of a snuff-film.

It’s strange to say this with regards to something so brutal and rough in content, but it’s elegant. The pacing is excellent even with the shaking of that 16mm camera work working with, in H.P. Lovecraft’s words, “the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” You can feel it building towards something and the payoff is there. Ortolani’s music is summery and light but also at turns tragic, catastrophically climactic, and unsettling: especially when he juxtaposes them with the other towards the very end. There is a sense of justice to that ending, but there is also a tremendous humanity in the worst possible way, and it does illustrate the power and danger of exploitation. The effects are realistic for their time, and the camera doesn’t focus too long or specifically on them, just to let the viewer put the grisly visual pieces together in their mind.

But when you consider that this film is a social commentary on human consumption, there are just some thoughts that won’t go away. Joe Bob mentions that Deodato not only didn’t credit the indigenous people he got to act in this work, but he also didn’t really make the effort to research the people in the area was using for his film: the ones he had acting as the cannibal tribes. Apparently, the Yacumo aren’t portrayed correctly, with their aesthetics not being as they are in the film. And the Ya̧nomamö not only aren’t at war with the Sanumá (the Shamatari) but they rarely practice cannibalism. And when they do, they consume their deceased tribespeople through an elaborate funerary ritual to keep the spirit of that individual alive among them. It has a meaning, and it is not a punishment.

See, one of the things I keep thinking about now is what could have happened if Deodato, or another creator, took the Ya̧nomamö with this information and attempted to make a film like this? Would the Ya̧nomamö simply eat the dead, and the not the half-alive tribespeople depicted in the film, and only attack when some neo-colonizer assaults them? Or could he have just used another group instead and adapted them accordingly? One account I recall is that, for instance, indigenous or First Nations peoples of North America didn’t scalp settlers until European bounty hunters committed those acts first. Imagine a film from the perspective of the Ya̧nomamö, with a bunch of filmmakers, opportunistic missionaries, or mercenaries wanting them to fulfill these cannibalistic “savage” stereotypes and forcing them to do it, maybe even resorting to cannibalism of the people themselves after devouring all of their food and no luck finding their own, only to have these same people use these tactics against their tormentors later. It’d be a different form of film, of course, and even then as I write this I know it’d be extremely difficult to bring out the nuance of the thing.

And it would be exploitative as well, even in attempting to subvert the tools of that exploitation. Would a director show the humanity and three dimensions of the Ya̧nomamö or another tribe and watch it erode because of what happened to them, becoming the thing they hate or are projected upon? Or would there be some kind of vindication in their acts? Perhaps if the prospective filmmakers had someone from a similar group to consult or collaborate with, and deal with some of these themes with sensitivity … You see, I just don’t know if it’s possible. You would still get a stereotype or a caricature. I mean, the Mondo and cannibal subgenres of film and horror are, in and of themselves, problematic. And even if a director makes an entirely fictional tribe, as Deodato could have done, it still draws from those tropes.

I think this is some of what happened to Deodato and his own crew. In their own attempt to show the consequences of exploitation by using its own structures against it, they perpetuated it, or at least the attitudes behind it. But does this responsibility end there? What about the people that view, have interest, are hungry for such stories? In Cannibal Holocaust, people wanted to watch the missing group’s The Last Road to Hell: a fictional documentary that uses actual footage of State and terrorist executions. And the people who watch Cannibal Holocaust will view it, some of them knowing about the deaths of animals, the killing footage, and the indigenous people not credited in the work.

Does watching a film built on all of these elements make someone culpable in them? I’ve been asking myself this question for a few reasons, but mainly because this film fascinates me. I admire its structure and what Deodato attempts to do with it, what he tries to say, and I wonder if there is a degree of self-consciousness that the film has about what it is that even the director might not possess. In mixing together truth and lies, real violence and simulated, it’s a journey I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on, and now that I have — because I am probably the poster child of the protagonist that goes after the thing in the Forbidden Knowledge that “Man” Was Not Meant to Know trope — I find that I can’t look away from it. I don’t feel drained, or depressed by what I saw. It was terrifying and gross, and I had my own emotional reactions to it. But I think it is good art.

I can see why Joe Bob and Shudder decided on including it for viewing, because not only is it important to understand the formation of a horror cinematic subgenre in found footage, but makes you question the assumptions in the film itself, and your observer-participation in it. Aren’t we also consuming human suffering and exploitation in watching this? Would it be right, or disingenuous not to include the animal killing scenes? Would it be morally right not to even look at the film because of all the above elements, or do the messages implicit within the narrative honour what is depicted? What was done?

And I ask myself: does this make me complicit in the forces that made this film, and if it represents the attitude of the consumable media, could just make me aware of how I have already been participating in this cycle? And what can do I do about it?

You can see how timely and timeless these ideas are, especially now. I think the real reason Cannibal Holocaust scares me, now, is that I liked it. I want to know more about how it was made, and who was involved. Part of it, like my rudimentary fact-checking is me just wanting reassurance that it wasn’t real. Another part of me wants to know more about the people and customs that were shallowly depicted as complex human beings, and the creator in me wants to see this tale or something like it from their perspective, even if that’s impossible. Gwendolyn MacEwen, who is not a horror writer, was a Canadian poet from Toronto who penned:

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

And when I think about how this film began, I remember another part of her same poem “Dark Pines Under Water”:

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

Cannibal Holocaust Vinyl Cover
Art Credit: Jock, Mondo

The young film team went out for fame and glory in documenting an obscure cannibalistic tribe, even if they had to make one. Deodato and his crew sought artistic acclaim to create a film to expose the hypocrisy and danger of the mentality in turning trauma into spectacle, even if they had to make one.

And in writing this article, drawing on Deodato, and Joe Bob Briggs, and the whole contents sordid colonial contents of this film, in actually finding something more than cathartic but inspiring and revitalizing in looking at this movie — taking the traits of other humans’ work and consuming it — of wanting to be noticed, of wanting to say something great, of commenting on something that isn’t my background and should feel tremendous discomfort in even considering, but not turning back when I should have done, how am I any different?

Perhaps I got to talk about creatures and monsters after all.

I think making me ask that question of myself again — reminding me that I am not a Doctor of Horror, but merely a student — is the legacy imparted to me by Cannibal Holocaust.

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