Monday, 10 January 2011

Cannibal Holocaust: The Grindhouse Edition Review

Being ill, I have fallen behind on my blog writing duties, but am now going to come at it with full force, starting with something a little different: a DVD review. This DVD release I will be looking at is the seminal cult classic, Cannibal Holocaust.

I won't spend too much time looking at the plot of Ruggero Deodato's 1980 cannibal paradigm (I say this, yet I know I will). Instead I will mainly focus on the most definitive release of the obscure piece, the Grindhouse Releasing 2-Disc Deluxe Edition. Before looking at what makes this release so 'deluxe', I'd better give the uninitiated a quick rundown on the film.

Cannibal Holocaust is one of the first found-footage films (examples you may know; Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield; Paranormal Activity). The first half of the film centres around a college professor leading an expedition to try and find a lost documentary crew, who went missing in the Amazon basin while filming a piece on the local cannibal tribes. Establishing the Amazon as a dangerous place and presenting us with some gratuitous animal cruelty, tear-inducing sexual assaults...

You don't want to know what he is about to do with that wooden dildo...

... and just enough story and nudity to get us along, the explorers discover the documentary crews remains and film cans that they had shot. The film then completely changes tone by switching the scene to modern (circa-1979) New York, where the professor is tasked with the duty of overseeing the editing of the found footage into something broadcast-able. While viewing back the footage, we see that the group were not actually documenting savage situations, but staging the situations for the camera, at the expense of anyone who was needed in their shot.

The film is quite a good portrayal of the dangers of sensationalist media in the modern day, with these pure bred all-Americans feeding the media horror machine. It is impossible not to find this film relevant, even 30 plus years later. The film is notoriously controversial, though not for its lambasting of our TV culture, or its disturbingly realistic violence and horror, but for its actually real animal killings...

Even with Google Safe Search off, this is the closest image to animal violence I found. 
There is a God.

It is dependent on the viewer how they take the film, but unlike a lot of satire, it is very easy to dismiss this as pure exploitation owing to the genres reputation. You could watch this and think it is a pure horror film that tries to go over the line, or you can look at it like a film taking pot-shots at modern media and its predisposition to associate violence and scares with ratings. I won't get into this too much here as it is a debate that has gone on for a long time, but to me, the film is a piece of art and must be taken as it is, warts and all. Indeed, director Deodato stated in an interview with short-lived cult film show Shock Movie Massacre that the film was written as a response to the violence his children were watching every night on the news. Even if he came up with this line after the fact, it is still an unabashedly good point. The only thing about the film that distressed me on a level beyond normal cinematic bounds (sexual violence is nothing unusual, even The Green Mile has some in it) was the animal violence. If done nowadays, this violence wouldn't have been committed. The film seems to have been taken out of context and attacked under guise of this, when perhaps it was just another reason people wanted to attack it. The film was made during the Mondo Cane stage of Italian Cinema, which was notorious for such acts. People seem to forget that Apocalypse Now very vividly features a cow being slaughtered. Again, it's all context. I don't agree with it, but it is the film as it was made in the way films were made in that era. Just like Disney can never undo Song Of The South, Cannibal Holocaust can never undo its animal violence.

It's ok, Gizmo. We're moving on from the hard stuff now.

I first heard about the film due to an article by disgraced and discontinued Dark Side magazine (which I always loved and was horribly disappointed to find had gone under just as I moved to the UK and could readily buy it) in an article outlining the cuts to the piece. The film has been outright banned in a lot of countries, but as censorship laws (rightfully) slacken, Cannibal Holocaust began making its comeback to the secondary (DVD) market, in a form other than bootleg videos. Just getting into the more grotesque side of horror films, I took the challenge of trying to find an uncut version of this film. After some trying, I eventually got a hold of some obscure German release that was film only and set me back a good £35, which even at the time was a lot of a DVD.

That's the culprit! Lovely looking cover art though.

To my chagrin, about a year after I spent a lot of time and money getting a hold of the film, Grindhouse Releasing (a company partially owned by Sylvester Stallone's son. No joke) released a definitive edition of the film. Now, after only about 900 words 'quickly' looking at the film itself, I will take a look at the release of all releases of the film. It is worthwhile to take note that the version I am reviewing is out of print (111,111 copies, allegedly), but there appears to be another 2-disc release by the same company, so I'd hazard a guess it is the same but repackaged.

So, the film itself. As with most older films, it is fairly grainy and rough looking, which works perfectly for a film like this, especially since a good third of the film is grainy and deteriorated 16mm footage. The sound also seems in line with what you'd expect from a film this old. For some reason I am still not 100% clear on, most Italian films are completely dubbed, even if the actors were speaking English, so that slight disassociation between the characters and their voices will always exist. All in all, it was fine too. There is an option to watch the film without the animal violence, which I think is a very tactful feature. I personally feel that taking out the violence can lessen the negative impact of the film and may make some people miss the point and take it as another gore flick, but it's a great option.

Nothing to see here, folks.

Now the interesting part of things (for a film geek like me, anyway), the special features!

The commentary with Deodato and star Robert Kerman makes for an interesting listen. Deodato's English is a bit poor at times, but for the most part, he comes across as a sensible, intelligent man, providing insight and explaining a lot of what he was doing with the film. Kerman, on the other hand, who has probably had to deal with years of persecution for his role in the film, uses the commentary as a means to try vindicate himself from the animal violence. It's almost hilarious to watch him try and take down Deodato at every chance he can in attempts to make sure people know he didn't agree with aspects of the film. You can make up your own mind, but Deodato actually comes off the better for this as he remains calm and rational (though I do wonder if he understood what Kerman was saying to him). There is selected on-camera sections of the commentary, which is pointless as we witness two men sitting watching the film, mainly with long pauses between conversation. Don't bother yourself with this if you've already listened to the commentary, as it is the same audio, just with video.

Also found on this disc that is worth mentioning is the full version of the film-within-a-film, The Last Road To Hell. This mini-film is documentary footage and quite startling, though not all that different than the similarly tough one featured in the film itself.

Disc 2 provides the pièce de résistance, The Making Of Cannibal Holocaust. This hour long documentary is subtitled and very interesting. I'll be honest, I fell asleep the first time I watched it, but for the non-narcoleptics out there, it goes behind the scenes with footage and stills of the production crew, finally getting past the stigma of the animals and focusing on the film itself. A treasure and informative.

Also very informative are the interviews, but the stand out of them all is Gabriel Yorke (who plays the filmmaker Alan Yates in the film). It's long, informative and funny. He doesn't dwell on trying to make himself look better as Kerman does, but instead we get the insights of a man who was a young actor swept into an insane grindhouse flick. He tells a fantastic story of his co-star wanting to have sex with him before they filmed an upcoming sex scene, to make it more natural for them both. He declined, as he had a girlfriend at the time, and says the actress never forgave him for the slight for the rest of the shoot.

The last extra I want to note is the Necrophagia 'Cannibal Holocaust' music video. The song: rubbish. The music video: even more rubbish. Jim Van Bebber, director of the Charles Manson film The Manson family directed the video, which isn't that bad a film. It's even a bit crazy and wild. This music video is such toss that you'd swear one of the bands mums taped it on the home camcorder, then put it through Movie Maker, inserting some Cannibal Holocaust clips, and were all chuffed with what they did on their own.

There are some other bits and bobs I am glazing over on the discs (trailers, stills, etc) but I have mentioned what I think are the main things to enjoy. Cannibal Holocaust is not an easy film in any sense of the word. I have watched it a lot of times and find new layers all the time. The animal violence is definitely gratuitous, the scenes in New York date horribly, and the film lets down its side by introducing the ham-fisted voice over 'I wonder who the real cannibals are ' into a film with no other VO but this. With that said, this film, like so many before and so many after it, is important in that it does push our boundaries, test our taboos, poke our own views on right and wrong and get us to reevaluate our morals in an age where beheadings can be readily found online. This film will not sit well with a majority audience, but it is to the individual and what the draw from it that really matters.

Plus there's a porn star in it.

Bet you thought it was going to be a woman. Now stare at the moustache!

If you want to find out more about Cannibal Holocaust, it has a very detailed and insightful Wikipedia entry that has a full history of its legal issues and controversies here: