I've always had a suspicious aversion towards "classics," especially in Horror Cinema. Too many times I've found what is considered essential viewing is basically a catchy premise with shock over substance. Very rarely are shock and substance woven together so powerfully as in 1980's Cannibal Holocaust, which is why I've decided to focus on this film this week.
The film starts with an excursion into the Amazon to find some missing American documentary filmmakers - heading this excursion is pipe-smoking, tweed jacketed NYU Professor Monroe who soon ventures into the realm of the local natives and gets his perceptions of civilization all predictably jacked. He and his guides soon gain the natives' trust and eventually find the mutilated remains of the missing filmmakers - what's more, they find their canisters of film that holds the secret to the end of their lives.
What captivated me is how, this early in the film, there are already numerous sources of tension building; we fear mostly for Monroe's safety as he tries to investigate his mission without offending the local natives. His guides are knowledgeable enough and play by the natives' rules, but hey man this is the jungle there are NO RULES. Should Monroe make one ill move, or grunt, or eye gesture, there's the possibility that he'll be - like we see happen to others - beaten, torn apart, and eaten without a second thought. Even more, the mystery of just why the American filmmakers were punished so severely looms over his quest. What did they do to deserve such treatment, indeed?
I'll just go ahead and spoil it for you right now - they were dickheads. They used the natives as unwilling victims for their eventual documentary of inter-tribal conflict in the Amazon, operating under no pretext of friendship as they came into the jungle and burned it down for the sake of winning an Oscar. Not the best filmmakers, these guys.
The fine line between the reality of what they're doing and their perception comes into play during a moment of dark comedy - when witnessing an impaled native, the director beams and gloats about how awesomely brutal it is. Then his cameraman reminds him that they're shooting, so his smile immediately turns upside down and he spouts his bullshit about man's inhumanity to man. I know filmmakers are usually eccentric people, but these guys are sociopaths. Only near the end (of their lives) does one (the only woman) start to try and rein in their violence, but really she seems more concerned with conserving expensive film than being a better person.
Awesomely enough, Cannibal Holocaust was so realistic in theatres that Deodato had to bring his actors before a judge to prove that they were in fact alive. Who does that these days? The power of CGI and make-up FX have numbed today's audiences to the feeling of seeing real live bodily harm, and any "missing actors" rumors today would be automatically considered viral marketing. Cannibal Holocaust was so badass it freaked out the entire damn (Italian, I think) Justice System.
Oh yeah, speaking of material too graphic by today's standards, Cannibal Holocaust features seven real-life goddamn animal killings. Deodato insists that doing so was acceptable due to the fact that all of them were cooked and eaten - if that excuse held any water I'd have already started a franchise about a Wandering Butcher who vows to prepare and serve one of every animal on the planet. Also, he's probably a monk.
Back on track - as shitty as animal slaughter is, doing so grants the film another layer of authenticity. When the viewer sees the human-on-human violence alongside the animal gore, they're more acceptable of the staged stuff as real. Not only does this tactic place the viewer's mind into a very receptive state, but it uses this susceptibility to then utilize the shock elements as substance.
Cannibal Holocaust is well-goddamn-deserved as a horror classic; it maintains an authentic state of terror throughout, comments on man's inhumanity to man in a nega-meta-context, contains a terrifying real-life behind-the-scenes history, and is just plain gory as hell.