Ruggero Deodato's 1977 film Last Cannibal World took the basic framework of Umberto Lenzi's Deep River Savages and delivered an intelligent, atmospheric and well acted jungle adventure, but there was little in that film that would prepare the world for Cannibal Holocaust, with it's radical style and structure. Deodato's film, if you were to think in such terms is the Citizen Kane of the cannibal genre, but for all the praise heaped upon the film, Cannibal Holocaust is a problematic work.
The plot of the film is conventional enough - a New York professor journeys into the heart of the Colombian rain forest in search of a 4-strong documentary team gone missing. Only the grisly remains of the film makers are uncovered along with some cans of film footage. Later back in the US the production company who financed the would-be documentary, tentatively titled The Green Inferno, piece together a rough assemblage of the found footage detailing atrocities committed by the film makers on the native people and in turn the retribution visited upon them...
However you feel about the Third World Cannibal film, it would be a mistake to ignore Cannibal Holocaust, the film quite clearly stands apart from the likes of Cannibal Ferox and Slave of the Cannibal God. If nothing else, see the film for Riz Ortolani's soaring score, its bold use of cinematic language and the remarkable way it juggles two distinct styles - the beautiful, lush photography and the carefully composed direction meshing with the rough documentary texture of the Green Inferno section, all shot with erratic hand-held camera, careless zooms, skipped frames and bad splices. Technical accomplishments aside, Cannibal Holocaust remains a reluctant masterpiece. The credibility of the film's central theme, a critique of the obsessive quest for sensationalist imagery, more specifically the tactics of the so-called Mondo school of documentary film making, is demolished by Deodato's onscreen killing of animals, a staple tradition of Mondo Cinema. At best it makes the film look naive and confused, at worst the film quite knowingly smacks of hypocrisy.
Deodata was 40 when he made the film - still a young man, and Cannibal Holocaust looks like a young man's film with it's eagerness to shock and awe. The special effects are orchestrated to look as convincing as possible, especially so in the Green Inferno sequences of the film, the rough veritaé quality performing a remarkable sleight of hand, embellishing the human carnage, much of it sexualized, with an unsettling authenticity. Just look at the famous shot of the young native girl impaled on a stake (a ritualistic punishment for being raped), a scene which still has viewers wondering how such an uncanny effect was realised. Ultimately, Deodato had to pay a hefty toll for making such a provocative film. Legal proceedings against the film took in place in Italy, and for three years Deodato made no further films (his 1980 film House on the Edge of the Park was in the can by the time the fallout of Cannibal Holocaust began), returning to the fold in 1983 with Raiders of Atlantis, an entirely lightweight, post-apocalyptic action film.
Given the film is huge box office where ever it goes, it's not surprising Cannibal Holocaust has been released on DVD in a number of different versions throughout the world. A detailed breakdown of the various cuts can be read here. The film first arrived in video shops in the UK in 1982 courtesy of GO Video and in little over a year, copies of the film were fast disappearing, the film a key player in DPP's roundup. Word has it that UK DVD label Shameless has secured a new version of the film with just 15-seconds worth of cuts by the BBFC (one of the animal killings). Another step towards the rehabilitation of the Video Nasties list in the UK.