Wednesday, August 31, 2011



     Halloween is my favorite holiday. The iconography, the history, the costumes, the parties, the trick-or-treating; I get giddy with excitement whenever autumn rolls around. Every October, as my own personal celebration, I immerse myself in a month-long horror movie marathon. I seek out scary films which I have never seen and watch at least one a day. Some are mainstream, some are obscure, and some are the stuff of legend. 
     In 2007, I watched one film which surpasses all definition. A film so notorious that it is purported to have been banned in over fifty countries. A film so gruesome that I still have a problem ingesting fish sticks without wincing. This film is 1980's 'Cannibal Holocaust' by director Ruggero Deodato. 'The Exorcist', which I first watched when I was in the fourth grade, is the only other viewing experience that equally rocked me to my core. I am now a different person for having experienced 'Cannibal Holocaust'. It is an anomaly of horror cinema. Let me tell you why.
     I was living in Los Angeles. About halfway through 2007's October movie marathon, I invited my friend and co-worker Ben Talbot to my apartment on a Sunday night. We'd drink some beers and watch a couple of horror movies with my brother. He gladly accepted. Ben and I had similar tastes in entertainment, so I knew he'd be a superb viewing partner through the good, the bad, and the cheesy of scary cinema. 
     Realizing my current Netflix selections wouldn't arrive in time - pre-dating my access to Netflix instant on television - I had to improvise. I decided to open a membership at Rocket Video on La Brea Ave., across from the over-hyped Pink's Hotdogs (Carney's on Sunset is better). Rocket Video is one of the last and best independent video stores in LA. Extensive selections, well-organized shelves, and a helpful staff; how the hell did Blockbuster ever become the model for video rental services? Boggles the mind. 
     I perused the horror aisle and picked out four items from my unseen movies list: 'Black Christmas' (1974), 'My Bloody Valentine' (1981), 'Happy Birthday to Me' (1981), and 'The House on Sorority Row' (1983). I continued looking around the store and came across a 'Cult Movies' section. There, a VHS box caught my eye: 'Cannibal Holocaust'. As a frequent reader of, this title had poked it's head out in their articles for many years. Every time someone mentioned the movie on the site, comments would follow about how notoriously gruesome it was. I picked up the worn box - an old plastic video sleeve - and read the back. The phrase "The most controversial movie ever made..." solidified my decision to rent. 

Cannibal Holocaust

     As the clerk scanned my movies at the register he paused to look over the 'Cannibal Holocaust' box. He let out a puff of knowing laughter.
     "Bad?" I asked. "I heard it's crazy."
     He shook his head and laughed again, finalizing my purchases. I paid. As I exited the store the clerk called out, "Good luck."
     I thought he was just being a dick.
     On my way home I picked up a thirty-pack of beer, a bottle of vodka, tonic water, limes, and three bags of chips. We were now well-stocked for the night.
     Ben arrived around seven pm. My brother, Ben and I cracked open beers and conversed for a bit. What to watch? I showed them the options, all except 'Cannibal Holocaust'. I don't know why I held it back initially. Maybe I needed a few drinks to gain courage? We started with the classic 'Black Christmas' directed by Bob Clark (same director as 'A Christmas Story'). Please, at all costs, avoid the shitty remake and watch this film. Many directors have lifted from it, stolen from it, and brought zero justice in doing so. The tension is palpable, and the infamous twist still holds up as a mind scrambler -- an extremely positive viewing experience. Next up, 'My Bloody Valentine'. This piece of 80s slasher-cheese was ultimately disappointing when viewed after 'Black Christmas'. I thought it was okay, Ben was indifferent, and my brother hated it with a passion; he decided to go to bed, work in the morning.
     With plenty of alcohol still left to drink, and the the clock barely touching midnight, I asked Ben if he wanted to watch one more. Something different. Something notorious. I showed him the VHS box for 'Cannibal Holocaust'. He was in, but expressed the need for something more substantial to eat other than chips. I searched the freezer and found a box of unopened fish sticks. I got a thumbs up from Ben, so I fired up the oven, cracked two more beers, and pressed play on the VCR.
     The first striking element of 'Cannibal Holocaust' is the opening credit theme, composed by Riz Ortolani, set over beautiful aerial views of the Amazon. This theme has become one of my favorites in cinema history, and certainly my favorite in the horror genre. It is beautiful, memorable, atmospheric, and the complete anthesis of the horrors to come. 

     The movie begins with a TV program about four documentarians who have gone missing in the jungles of South America - a director, his fiancé, and two cameramen. An NYU anthropology professor leads a search team to the jungles to find these missing filmmakers. Once there, the team witnesses disturbing and shocking rituals performed by local primitives. After gaining the trust of one tribe, the team discovers that the documentarians have been killed, but their footage has survived, remaining untouched. The team strikes up a deal for the footage and heads back to New York. 
     By this point, the fish sticks were done. I put them on one plate and covered another plate with all kinds of condiments for dipping sauces. Ketchup was the prominent condiment, if memory serves. We began eating and resumed watching.
     The anthropologist returns to NYU and views the footage. What unfolds is a series of atrocities that my brain can never erase. Several animal mutilations peppered throughout the found footage are actually real life mutilations, which were performed by the cast and crew of 'Cannibal Holocaust'. They include a muskrat, a turtle, a large spider, a snake, a squirrel monkey, and a pig. The turtle is the worst one of them all; it's an extended sequence where a live turtle is chopped limb from limb and then it's shell is pried open with a machete, revealing slimy innards. Ben and I suddenly regretted eating the fish sticks with ketchup. Besides these mutilations, there are vivid presentations of people being ripped open and eaten, castrations, forced abortions, impalements, graphic rape, and other abominations I'm surely blocking out. The climax of the found footage, as I recall, can only be described as a 'rape fiesta'.
     The movie ended. We sat in stunned silence. Ben got up after a moment, gathered his things, and mumbled something on the way out. I believe, to this very day, he still hasn't forgiven me.
     Controversy surrounded 'Cannibal Holocaust' upon it's original release. There were rumors going around in Italy - where the filmmakers hail from - that this was a genuine snuff film. The director was arrested ten days after the premiere. The courts not only believed that performers were killed on set to add realism, but that the girl in the infamous impalement scene was actually impaled by the crew.

     To add to the confusion, the actors had signed contracts which stated they would not appear in any media, motion pictures, or commercials until one year after the film's release. Facing life in prison, Deodato and the producers gathered the actors and brought them on an Italian talk show. They had to prove the violence had been staged. 
     From wikipedia: Although Deodato was exonerated for murder, the courts decided to ban Cannibal Holocaust because of the genuine animal slayings, citing animal cruelty laws. Due to this ruling, Deodato, the producers, screenwriter, and the United Artists representative each received a four-month suspended sentence after they were convicted of obscenity and violence. Deodato fought in the courts for three additional years to get his film unbanned. In 1984, the courts ruled in favor of Deodato, and Cannibal Holocaust was granted a rating certificate of VM18 for a cut print. It would later be re-released uncut.
     There is no doubt in my mind that this movie is a masterpiece. Some are appalled by the inclusion of true animal slaughters, but for me, they simply add to the dour atmosphere. Deodato had a message about the reality of violence and the imposition of modern life upon the primitives. He succeeded in making an unforgettable vision of the macabre. The true aim of any horror filmmaker should be to strike a nerve in the human psyche, and then twist that nerve to unbearable dimensions. Well, my nerves were good and twisted. For weeks after viewing, images and sequences would infiltrate my waking mind. These were not daydreams, these were day-terrors. 
     Eventually the terrors subsided. Still though, whenever anything bad or disturbing happens in my life I call it a 'Cannibal Holocaust'. Flat tire? It's a 'Cannibal Holocaust'. Broken leg? It's a 'Cannibal Holocaust'. Cheating spouse? It's a 'Cannibal Holocaust'. And so on.
     Would I recommend watching this film? It's hard to say. Is the potential viewer willing to change their life forever? That's the prerequisite: committal to a life-altering experience. Also, the promise not to hold me accountable. 
     Upon hearing how affected Ben and I were my brother decided to watch the movie for himself. Afterwards he said, "It wasn't that bad. You and Ben are pussies." 
     Maybe so, but every once in a while when looking through the freezer for something to eat I come across an unopened box of fish sticks. I am suddenly transported back to a viewing experience from mid-October 2007. Faint music fills the visibly chilly air.

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