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.

Why is the Horror Doctor?

It seemed like a good idea the time.

Horror is pulp. I’m not talking about the old magazines made from cheap and often recyclable paper that are not known for their physical durability. I am definitely not referring to so-called mass-produced or “low quality storytelling.” It’s the closest to the dark building-blocks of the imagination: where fear, death, blood, comedy, tragedy, bodily realities, and the monsters that are archetypes that are both cautionary tales and ourselves, meld together or viciously separate from one another.

It’s a mess. Horror is messy. Weirdness is confusing, and playful. Terror tells you that something is wrong, and dread informs you that there is nothing you can about the inevitable.

Words are misleading when you really think about it. Naming something and defining it is hard when you are taking it apart, and trying to put it back together in some other kind of form. That’s why I thought it was a good idea at the time before I actually sat down, finally, in front of his computer screen, and began to type it all out.

Pulp, as has been used in different places, can mean something visceral and gross — a mashed and distilled version of what could have been a solid state before the blender or the force exerted to crush it — while, in a literary sense, it can mean something ephemeral and transitory, ideas and feelings that have poignancy until they eventually pass on with the people or things that carry them. I’m mixing metaphors here. If you follow me long enough, you’ll realize that I do that a lot. I mean, I might as well be taking about gore and ghost stories by this point, and you wouldn’t be wrong in including these thoughts.

I guess, for me, horror is a liminal thing. It is transitional. It is always in a state of change like the innards of the human body, or the feelings of a person under stress, or someone’s concrete thoughts before they are lost to the misinterpretation of outside influences, or the oblivion of forgetfulness.

This is my focus here, for this Blog, where I may or may not be playing a role half of the time. My problem has always been that when I review a piece of literature, cinema, or interactive narrative my brain does more than just take it apart. It’s easy to do that. Obviously, some people are better or more expert at dissecting matter such as doctors and butchers, but you will just have to settle for me. I am no H.P. Lovecraft, or Joe Bob Briggs. I’m definitely not a Carl Jung.

I’m more like, as the description of my Blog states, a Victor Frankenstein: with hopefully a little more sense of responsibility and just … well, sense in general. I don’t have a Doctorate in any sense. A Master’s Degree in Humanities and my own eclectic knowledge will have to do. I’m not a Cinema Student, or even a cinephile, though I do like some films and I appreciate the effort and the imagination that goes into them.

It all began, one day, when finally sitting down and watching an episode of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder, after watching several other horror classics and obscurities that I never got around to doing before the Pandemic. I was watching a movie that was going to be removed by Shudder, along with Briggs’ commentaries, and something just … clicked in me.

It wasn’t an immediate reaction, you understand. I’ve been grieving the loss of one of my partners, who was a major horror fan, and was instrumental in getting me to write again outside of an academic setting, and to watch weird and odd films that my very serious and formerly straight-laced self had no place for, even though I had a whole lot of thoughts. Horror is pulp, she lived with how messy her illness made her life physically and emotionally. Weirdness is confusing, as we didn’t always know how to feel about us or life. Terror tells you that something is wrong, and I felt a sense of falling, waiting for that other shoe to drop. And dread informs you that there is nothing you can do about the inevitable, like a slow, stupid, swarm of encroaching zombie sickness taking away all of your functions, or watching someone you love slowly disappear or worse — not seeing it happen at all, with just hints of it, and knowing that it is still occurring, and you are still helpless.

They say that there are three modes of fear: flight, fight, or freeze. I tend to call the last one fright. An absolute, paralyzing terror where you, again, know that something’s wrong though freeze is appropriate too given how you stay in place — not wanting to move, hoping you’ll survive if you just don’t change, just don’t breathe. It’s where the term “blood-chilling” comes from, I’m sure.

Our time together was messy, and also ephemeral. I recall details but even now a lot of them are fading from my mind, from my memory, over a relatively short period of time. I started Horror Doctor in my partner’s memory, on Blogger where we were going to collaborate on a project together, and because of my own lack of confidence and her own changing life, we never did. I had shared access to it, and I saw her own works, and an unfinished draft: something that will never be started, or completed.

But Blogger didn’t work for my purposes, and I came back to WordPress. Unfortunately, it too has suffered from change, and I may have to go elsewhere or go to another hosting site as figuring out Block Editor feels like putting a tombstone on my writing process before it even begins.

So what is Horror Doctor? Well, think about Victor Frankenstein. He was never a PhD or even an MD by the standards of fictional Geneva in the late 1700s. Victor is a student of old texts and, for his time, new discoveries. Somehow, he manages to combine ancient alchemy and what seems to be cutting edge science to make something new: to create life in a clumsy, artificial manner by taking something apart and putting it together in strange arrangements, and wondering why it isn’t beautiful when he pumps it with chemicals and possibly galvanizes it with lightning, and disowns the poor bastard when he’s done.

I’m not rich like Victor, a Baron’s heir. And while I attempt to edit my work, and I’m biased towards it, I know I’m not making any Adonises out of my parts. This Blog is evidence of that already. I’m not a web designer, blog creator, nor a graphic artist. What you see here, in terms of layout, is what you’re going to get for a while unless I can make some collaborative arrangements with my friends.

But I don’t think it’s ugly. I don’t think it will be. Certainly, my idea isn’t. Perhaps neither was Victor’s, when you really think about it. You see, my issue has always been like that I like taking things apart and putting them back together in different patterns. I have, what you could call, a synthetic brain: and no, that doesn’t mean I am an artificial intelligence, or a cyborg. It means that while I use analysis to look at different pieces of a thing, I primarily do it as an ends to the means of making something else. I’ve done it in my academics, my other articles, and here will be no exception.

You see, that day when I saw that movie Joe Bob had been examining on Shudder, I looked at all the ways it didn’t work … and then I thought to myself — a very dangerous thing to do in general for me — what would happen if this, or that, had been done instead? What would the narrative be like, the flow of the events become, if I changed elements around, if I grafted parts of it into different places? If I took some of the ideas in them and conflated them with similar mythological material? What if I took the bullshit, and bullshat it in a different direction?

You might say it would be fanfiction at that point. I began to think, then, about all those obscure horror movies that didn’t work, or were weird for some reason — that most people, not necessarily all — forgot about, and I started to ask myself: how could I get them to work for me?

That is the twisted, infernal heart of what this Blog is, my friends. Primarily, I want to focus on this film I saw, this weird, messed up thing that barely makes sense, that could make sense, and make it into a story that does. And if it works, I want to see if I can do it with others, on this Blog.

Obviously, I am not doing it for the money. There is no money for something that doesn’t belong to me. This is obsession, pure and simple. Perhaps some Pandemic boredom and ennui and existential dread with which to deal. And perhaps more than a little bit of grief to process.

And maybe, it will lead to an original work, to help me sift through the muck and the grime, and the filth and the guts of this thing. I’m not an augur, being able to tell the future of what I can make by searching through something’s insides but maybe it might trigger something, or become like some sort of weird Jack-o-Lantern that I can hollow out and eventually provide the basis of something entirely new.

I might, in addition to rewriting obscure horror films, write up some reviews on the genre here, some homages or fanfiction, and maybe even more thoughts. The thing is, for me — personally — horror is that archetypal place that I can draw on in between supposed “high-brow” and “low-brow” art, journeying through the guts to find the gem that I’m looking for. I guess, through doing this, through just watching these films and reading these stories, and not being rigid about my expectations, I want to be more fluid. I want to be more alive.

Victor Frankenstein abandoned his creature. And maybe my impetus will run, and I might do the same with this one. But I want to give it a good start first. And even this doesn’t work out, I can use it to learn how to make the next thing better, perhaps, or make it at all.

You get to see the creature get made, my friends. Or creatures. I’ll try not to take apart something I only began to put together. I always thought that the creature’s companion deserved better, whether in Shelley’s novel, or James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Victor was never a Doctor, but popular consciousness ascribed him that title. Let’s see if I can, similarly and creatively, earn the designation of becoming a mad creator.

Come, let’s study a scary story with the Horror Doctor.

Frankenstein 1910
Image from Edison Studios’ Frankenstein, 1910.