Forces of Excess and Exploitation in Cannibal Holocaust

Few eras of cinema exhibit the traits and trappings of excessive, exploitative motives and language as the Italian “Mondo Films” and their many imitators. Heralded by the Mondo Cane series of films made by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi in the ‘60s, this subgenre of Italian films is defined by its mix of documentary and narrative practices as the filmmakers show different oddities and fascinations from around the world, usually focusing on underdeveloped continents like Africa and South America, and usually centering around acts of extreme violence and sexuality. In some ways, these films read as the next evolution of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and the circus freakshows that inspired it. The Mondo Cane films and their off-shoots are big, silver screen explorations of foreign violence, completely alien to the viewer, perfect for oohs, aahs, and handfuls of popcorn at a late night showing. The viewing of these films often feels taboo, especially in the case of the fourth “true” Mondo film, Africa Addio (1966), a partially-staged documentary that spends most of its nearly two and a half hour runtime showcasing animal slaughter, mass execution, and the aftermath of rape. This, perhaps, is the purest and most unabashed form of exploitation cinema available at the time, rivaling snuff film in its willingness and glee at showing real human death and suffering, and getting away with it due to its documentary label, the ultimate cinematic get out of jail free card. It makes sense, then, that a series of fully fictional pseudo-documentaries would follow in their wake, aping the style and framing devices of these films, as each of the mondo films excused their exploitative content as being in service of anthropological documentation and exploration, though they clearly existed only as conduits to showcase mass slaughter and violence in foreign lands through white lenses. Of these successors, the most renowned and reviled is surely Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 picture Cannibal Holocaust, the ultimate film to be discussed in hushed tones around the high-school lunch table. Known predominately for its brutal and unforgettable depictions of violence and torment more than its beautiful OST by Riz Ortolani or epochal camerawork by Sergio D’Offizi, the picture stands as a defining document of excess and exploitation in cinema, highlighted by its use of devices such as its combination of gore with sexuality, use of a false moralistic framing device, and its setting in the Amazon jungle which alienates and generalizes indigenous people for the shock and entertainment of European and American audiences.

The most blatant and screaming example of excess and exploitation is the constant barrage of violence that besets the crew of Holocaust’s fake documentary and the other beings they encounter, which are the meat and potatoes of the film. Though interpersonal clashes and relationships take place throughout the crew, Deodato makes it clear through the constant presence and extended duration of shots that show gore that physical trauma is his focus and anything else is of tertiary concern. For example, the sequence showing the dismemberment of a turtle is held as long and shown in as much detail as any segment of Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), albeit without the grace and objectivity of that film as cast members pantomime eating the head of the turtle and are generally shown as apathetic to the death. These actions make the acts feel communal and less damnable, more “I dare you to look” and less “I dare you to care.” This voyeuristic intonation is mimicked by the near constant nudity of both the tribespeople and the iconic impaled women, as Deodato mixes images of breasts and the female figure with ones of gore and blood, creating an environment where all taboo imagery can exist in a shared space and further daring the viewer to partake in the act of consumption. What is shown in Holocaust is a world in which consumption, sex, and physical violence are made synonymous, and are played for shock and excitement, tools to titillate a niche audience who hunger for stimulation that goes outside of the realm of good taste and into the realm of the cult film goer.

Another such demonstration of bad faith and excess in the film comes in the film of the “moral bookending” that can be seen in the anti-drug and sex films from the ‘30s and ‘40s, pictures like Reefer Madness (1936) and Marihuana (1936) that used false messages at the beginning and ends of pictures as an excuse to showcase an hour of sex, drug abuse, and other hedonistic actions. Cannibal Holocaust uses a device very similar to this, when, in its closing moments, a character asks “I wonder who the real cannibals are?”, a final desperate attempt to frame the violence and terror of the film’s runtime as being in service to a greater lesson or moral. Surely, the audience has full evidence of the cultural atrocities committed by the film crew and has been weighing them against the physical actions taken by the indigenous people, but the way the line is delivered is so on the nose as to be parodical. The question feels as insincere as the framing devices of the aforementioned early exploitation films, a quick way to gain audience sympathy or at least make them feel as though they had been watching the film to reach some higher, altruistic understanding of the evil men could do, and not just have been gleefully watching men and women be tortured, torn apart and consumed.. This gambit is completely see-through, especially when recalling the onscreen slaughter of multiple real animals throughout the runtime of the film, a decision presumably made to heighten the shock factor and word of mouth the picture would receive in a post-Mondo Cane (1962), post-Faces of Death (1978) film environment. Just like in those films, Deodato is using smoke and mirrors to hide his true intent and get away with gruesome extremity as being in service to a moralistic purpose.

Especially integral to the film’s ability to showcase this level of excess is that its “antagonists” (the cannibals) are indigenous to the Amazon rainforest, a section of the world in South Africa that the vast majority of European and American filmgoers would be so unfamiliar with as to be able to see its inhabitants as aliens, far enough removed from white, capitalistic metrics to be unrecognizable as human. Therefore, when Deodato shows the Amazonians dismembering and consuming the Italian film crew, the violence registers as closer to an animal or zombie attacking a white man than as human on human violence. This is likely done to provide a layer of dissociation between the acts that make them easier to digest and be entertained by and softens the blow of the camera crew antagonizing the Amazonians earlier in the feature. This is a textbook strategy used by the mondo filmmakers, as images of the slaughter of animals are often followed by or paralled with the death of African or South American peoples, as can be seen especially in the films Africa Addio and Faces of Death. This is a dehumanizing effect that allows for a greater quantity of onscreen man vs man violence while still letting the audience ooh and ahh, as the filmmakers characterize these non-Europeans the same way they do the animals and offer the same level of sympathy of both. This opens the gates for large, excessive levels of death to be put on display, both of man and animal, while the viewer continues to enjoy their experience and the film continues to make money. These filmmakers never show the indigenous peoples as being truly human (which translates to “being truly white”), as it would alter the audience’s reaction to the violence to one of horror and grief as opposed to shock and awe. This is a definitive technique of these Mondo exploitation films.

The tools of exploitation that allow for excessive displays of violence and sex in the films of this time and period are many, and the way filmmakers like Deodato worked death into profitability can be examined and quantified. Though largely damnable from objective lenses, there is no denying the captivating power of these artifacts, even when aware of the mechanisms behind them. Near scientific uses of moral misdirection, alienation, and the equating of sex and violence with shock and excitement allowed these films, especially Cannibal Holocaust, to stand the test of time, and many are now studied and revered by cult audiences and fans of niche cinema.

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