One of the earliest found footage films, Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t just a revolutionary horror film but a groundbreaking film of realism and terror. That said, Cannibal Holocaust was a complete f*cking mess from start to finish, with the director being arrested and charged with obscenity almost immediately after the theatrical debut of the film.
The film came out in 1980, far before any other found footage films stalwarts like Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity. Being 1980 though, and people not being near as desensitized or skeptical (mostly) as they are today, were shocked by the film as they saw horrific cruelty and killing. Director Ruggero Deodato went to even more ridiculous lengths to make the film seem real.
The film starts with a documentary crew going missing in the Amazon, with a rescue mission soon going in after them and meeting the cannibalistic tribe they were researching. The native people are obviously apprehensive of these people coming in at first, but the rescue crew is surprised to find them relatively helpful and friendly.
Then they find the remains and footage of the documentary crew and things make a lot more sense. The rescue team takes the film back to the studio that was producing it, and the terrible truth is revealed about the events that transpired.
The film shows the film crew cruelly assaulting members of the tribe both physically and sexually, along with multiple murders of tribe members by the crew to make a more “dramatic effect” for the movie they were making. Needless to say, the native people didn’t take too kindly to some assholes terrorizing their village.
Don’t Mess With Locals
Karma catches up and the documentary crew is tortuared and slaughtered in kind before being cannibalized by the village in the ultimate revenge. Obviously, for the time, it was a pretty transgressive film and had a lot of theatergoers concerned that they were watching actual murders on film.
Can’t blame them either, as the gore and practical effects were pretty well done, all things considered. Deodato went above and beyond with dedication to the bit though, making the documentary crew actors sign an agreement saying they couldn’t make any kind of appearances for a year after the movie was released. That would somewhat backfire on Deodato when his charges were upped from just obscenity to murder by the Italian authorities.
So, what did he do to convince the authorities these people weren’t actually dead? Have the dead people appear on a daytime talk show, of course. As opposed to just bringing them to court with you or something like that. Nevertheless, the appearances were enough to get Deodato’s murder charges dropped, though not the obscenity.
Still Not A Great Set
Although no people were killed or murdered during filming, the set was a hive of animal cruelty. The production killed a turtle, pig, monkey, and various other animals throughout production, filming the deaths for the film. It seems Deodato’s message about atrocities for the sake of film only went so far as humans, though he had his share of those violations too.
The scene of the crew burning villagers in a hut was all practical, with Deodato threatening the local villagers to stay inside the burning hut to film the scene, posing a very real threat not just to them but to the rainforest itself.
Actor Gabriel York suffered massive PTSD due to the film, being made to take part in the animal cruelty on set and frequently speaking up against it, but falling on deaf ears. He was affected by this role for years after, along with other cast and crew of the film.
Despite this, Deodato managed to squeeze out without much criticism at the time. He would go on to work consistently until his death at the very end of 2022. Cannibal Holocaust is lauded as a landmark horror film to this day, with directors like Eli Roth even doing his version with the film Green Inferno.
Unfortunately, these practices were (and still can be) prevalent in the film industry, with animal cruelty not being a big deal in a lot of international filming unfortunately (looking at you, Milo and Otis). Even with animal cruelty laws in the United States, film set safety was so lax for years it resulted in on-set deaths like Vic Morrow.
A conversation for another time though, and just a larger problem of which Cannibal Holocaust is just one of many footnotes. Even in the wild times of 1980, filled with cocaine and John Travolta, the film was considered cruel but by today’s standards it becomes a question of “Why did so many people just let this happen?”
Which brings another question of course, with such realistic gore effects achievable at the time and the obvious pride Deodato took in the gore effects they used for their human characters, why not put some of that initiative toward the animals so you didn’t have to senselessly kill them?
Just don’t be an asshole to nature, it’s not hard.