Cannibal Holocaust is a well known exploitation film because of the controversy following its release. After premiering in Italy, the film was seized by a local magistrate, and Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges. He was later accused of making a snuff film because rumors claimed some actors were killed on camera. Although Deodato was later cleared, the film was banned in Italy, the UK, Australia, and several other countries due to graphic gore, sexual violence, and because six animals were killed on camera. Many nations have since revoked the ban; however, the film is still barred in several countries. This notoriety notwithstanding, some critics see Cannibal Holocaust as a social commentary about civilized society.
The film begins with a television documentary about a missing film crew and its expedition into the Amazon Rainforest to make a documentary about cannibal tribes. The crew consists of Alan Yates, the director; Faye Daniels, his girlfriend and script girl; and their two friends and cameramen, Jack Anders and Mark Tomaso. Professor Harold Monroe, a New York University anthropologist, volunteers to lead a rescue mission to find the team. He flies to the Amazon and meets Chaco and Miguel, two guides who will assist him in his mission. Due to a local military raid, the group has a hostage from a tribe called the Yacumo to help them negotiate with the natives. After a long trek through the jungle, they happen upon a Yacumo male raping and murdering his wife as a punishment for adultery. The group follows the lone Yacumo to a large clearing, where Miguel negotiates the release of their hostage if the Yacumo let them in their village.
Upon arriving at the village, the rescue team is greeted with hostility. It is soon revealed that the last white men to visit the tribe, the missing film team, caused great unrest. Miguel quells the tribe's fears by giving the chief a switchblade as a sign of good faith. The next day, the Yacumo leads the group to the edge of their territory, where two vicious cannibal tribes, the Yanomamo and Shamatari, are perpetually at war with each other. Monroe’s team follows a group of Shamatari warriors to a riverbank, where they save a smaller group of Yanomamo from certain death. As a token of gratitude, the group is invited to the Yanomamo village but, once there, they are again treated with hostility. In an attempt to gain their trust, Monroe bathes naked in a river, which a small group of Yanomamo women find amusing. They lead Monroe to a shrine made out of the bones of the lost film team, confirming Monroe’s worst fears. Frustrated, Monroe confronts the tribe in their village and plays a tape recorder for them, which he is able to exchange for the footage that the missing film team shot.
Once Monroe is back in New York, the executives of the Pan American Broadcast Company inform him that they want Monroe to host their airing of the film team’s documentary. Monroe asserts that he will only do it if he views the film reels first. The executives agree and to introduce Monroe to the works of Alan Yates, they show him a short segment from one of the team's previous documentaries, The Last Road to Hell. After viewing, a female executive tells him that the documentary was staged by Yates to acquire more exciting footage. Puzzled, Monroe continues on to view the footage recovered from the Amazon.
The first film reel begins with the group embarking on their trek deep into the jungle, eventually making camp and slaughtering a turtle for food. The next day the group’s guide, Felipe, is bitten in the foot by a poisonous snake and, despite Jack cutting off his leg, Felipe dies. After burying him, the film team continues on to locate the Yacumo. They come across a small group of Yacumo in a clearing, where Jack shoots one in the leg so the group can follow him to the village at their leisure. As the projectionist changes reels, Monroe comments on his disapproval of the team's actions, stating they should have found other ways to introduce themselves to the tribe. The second reel then starts, showing the group’s arrival at the village, where they almost immediately round up the entire tribe into a large hut and burn it down in order to stage a scene for their documentary, in which the Yacumo were slaughtered by the Yanomamo. Monroe again expresses his concerns about the staged scenes and the unethical treatment of the natives, but his worries are ignored. He continues to view the reels the next day, in which the group films a pregnant Yacumo woman having her fetus forcibly removed.
At the station, Monroe expresses his disgust toward the executives' decision to still air the documentary. To change their minds, he volunteers to show them the unedited footage. The final two reels begin with the film team locating a young Yanomamo girl, whom the men gang rape as Faye tries to stop them. The projectionist changes to the final reel, which begins with the group arriving at the site where the same girl is impaled on a pole, claiming the natives killed her because of an “obscure sexual rite.” After the group moves on, the Yanomamo attack them in revenge for the girl’s death. Jack is impaled by a spear, but instead of attempting rescue, Alan shoots him so he and Mark can film the natives emasculating, dismembering, cooking, and eating his corpse. Afterwards, while the remaining three attempt escape, Faye is captured by the Yanomamo, and Alan insists that he and Mark try to save her. Mark films as Faye is gang-raped and beheaded, after which the cannibals locate the final two in their hiding spot. The camera drops to the ground, and Alan’s bloody, blank face falls in front of the lens as the reel ends. At first silent, the executives order the footage to be burned as Monroe leaves the station.
Filming began on June 4, 1979, but it was delayed shortly while awaiting the arrival of Yorke. The scenes featuring the film team were shot first with handheld 16mm cameras in a cinéma vérité style, mimicking an observational documentary. After shooting with the film team was completed, Kerman flew down to film his scenes in the rainforest, and then to New York to film exterior shots in the city. The interior shots of New York were later filmed in a studio in Rome. Production on the film was delayed numerous times while filming in the Amazon. After the original actor to play Alan Yates dropped out, filming was halted for two weeks as new casting calls began and the crew awaited the arrival of Yorke from New York City. Also, during principal filming with Kerman, the father of the actor who played Miguel was murdered, and production was again halted as the actor flew back to Bogotá to attend his father's funeral.
Tensions on the set were high, due in part to the location and to the content of the film itself. Yorke describes the set as having "a level of cruelty unknown to me," while Kerman described Deodato as remorseless and uncaring. (He and Deodato got into long, drawn-out arguments every day of shooting, usually because of remarks made by Deodato.) One particular aspect that led to disagreement amongst the crew was the filming of the genuine animal killings. Kerman stormed off the set during the filming of the death of the coatimundi, and Yorke refused to partake in the shooting of the pig (which he was originally scripted to execute), leaving Luca Barbareschi to have to do it. The sound of the pig dying even caused him to botch a long monologue, and retakes were not an option because they had no access to any more pigs. Perry Pirkanen also cried after filming the "Turtle Scene". Other cast members who objected to the film's content include actress Francesca Ciardi, who did not want to bare her breasts during the sex scene between her and Carl Yorke. When she refused to comply with Deodato's direction, he dragged her off the set and screamed at her in Italian. She had earlier suggested that she and Yorke actually have sex in the jungle before filming, in order to relieve the tension of the upcoming scene. When Yorke declined, she grew upset with him, alienating him for the rest of the shoot.
The script was written by long-time Italian horror screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici, who had collaborated with Deodato in his previous film, Ultimo mondo cannibale. There are several changes in the film from Clerici's original screenplay, including characters' names, especially in the film crew. Clerici also had originally written several scenes that are lacking from the film's final cut, the most famous of which involved a group of Yanomamo cutting off the leg of a Shamatari warrior and feeding him to piranha in the river. Due to a malfunctioning underwater camera, however, and because the piranha were difficult to control, the scene was dropped and filming was never finished. Photographs taken during the scene's partial execution are the only known depiction of this scene in existence. As a result, the "Piranha Scene" is a popular topic amongst fans of the film.
Also at the Actors Studio, Deodato hired Perry Pirkanen and another actor who dropped out of the project minutes before leaving for the Amazon (though he appears in the film as an ex-colleague of Yates). To replace him, casting director Bill Williams contacted several other actors, including Carl Gabriel Yorke, who ultimately got the role. Yorke was chosen because all the costumes for the film had already been purchased, including size 10½ boots, the same size Yorke wore.
Robert Kerman had years of experience working in adult films under the pseudonym Richard Bolla before working in Cannibal Holocaust, including the famous Debbie Does Dallas. Deodato contacted Kerman about playing Harold Monroe after he had been recommended to Deodato for his previous film, The Concorde Affair, in which Kerman played an air traffic control man. Kerman also went on to star in the Italian cannibal films Mangiati vivi! and Cannibal ferox, both directed by Umberto Lenzi. Kerman's girlfriend was cast as the female executive when the production needed an actress to be available in both New York City and Rome.
David Carter of cult horror webzine Savage Cinema says that the methods used by Deodato add a first-person quality to the film team’s footage, claiming, “The viewer feels as if they are there with the crew, experiencing the horrors with them.” Kerekes agrees by stating the "...shaky hand-held camerawork commands a certain realism, and "The Green Inferno", the ill-fated team's film-within-a-film here, is no exception," and later continues with, "...this very instability gives the 'Green Inferno' film its authentic quality." Deodato himself is proud of other aspects of the cinematography, namely the numerous moving shots using a standard, shoulder-mounted camera (that is, without the use of a steadicam).
The inclusion of animal slaughter and The Last Road to Hell, which features footage of human executions, also adds a sense of reality to the film. Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment compares the effect to Vsevolod Pudovkin’s theory of montage, stating, "In Cannibal Holocaust, we see the actors kill and rip apart a giant sea turtle and other animals. The brain has been conditioned to accept that which it's now seeing as real. This mixture of real and staged violence, combined with the handheld camerawork and the rough, unedited quality of the second half of the movie, is certainly enough to convince someone that what they are watching is real." Deodato says he included the execution footage in The Last Road to Hell to draw similarities between Cannibal Holocaust and the Mondo filmmaking of Gualtiero Jacopetti.
Detractors, however, counter with the genuine animal slayings, questionable acting, and hypocrisy that the film presents. Nick Schager criticized the brutality of the film, saying, "As clearly elucidated by its shocking gruesomeness – as well as its unabashedly racist portrait of indigenous folks it purports to sympathize with – the actual savages involved with Cannibal Holocaust are the ones behind the camera." Schager's racism argument is supported by the fact that the real indigenous peoples in Brazil whose names were used in the movie – the Yanomamo and Shamatari – are not fierce enemies as portrayed in the movie, nor is either tribe truly cannibalistic (although the Yanomamo do partake in a form of post-mortem ritual cannibalism).
Robert Firsching of Allmovie made similar criticisms of the film's content, saying, "While the film is undoubtedly gruesome enough to satisfy fans, its mixture of nauseating mondo animal slaughter, repulsive sexual violence, and pie-faced attempts at socially conscious moralizing make it rather distasteful morally as well." Slant Magazine's Eric Henderson said it is "...artful enough to demand serious critical consideration, yet foul enough to christen you a pervert for even bothering. Cannibal Holocaust currently has a 57% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 4.7. The film came 8th on IGN's Top 10 Grindhouse films.
Deodato's intentions regarding the Italian media coverage of the Red Brigades have also fallen under critical examination and has been expanded to include all sensationalism. Carter explores this, claiming that "[The lack of journalistic integrity] is shown through the interaction between Professor Monroe and the news agency that had backed the documentary crew. They continually push Monroe to finish editing the footage because blood and guts equal ratings." Director Lloyd Kaufman claims that this form of exploitative journalism can still be seen in the media today and in programming such as reality television.
Despite these interpretations, Deodato has said in interviews that he had no intentions in Cannibal Holocaust but to make a film about cannibals. Actor Luca Barbareschi asserts this as well and believes that Deodato only uses his films to "put on a show". Robert Kerman contradicts these assertions, however, stating that Deodato did tell him of political concerns involving the media in the making of this film.
These interpretations have also been criticized as being hypocritical and poor justification for the film's content, as Cannibal Holocaust itself is highly sensationalized. Firsching claims that, "The fact that the film's sole spokesperson for the anti-exploitation perspective is played by porno star [Robert Kerman] should give an indication of where its sympathies lie," while Schager says Deodato is "pathetically justifying the unrepentant carnage by posthumously damning his eaten filmmaker protagonists with a 'who are the real monsters – the cannibals or us?' anti-imperialism morale."
Eventually, Deodato was able to prove that the violence was staged. He contacted Luca Barbareschi and told him to gather the other three actors. After voiding the contracts in order to avoid life in prison, Deodato brought the foursome onto the set of an Italian television show, which satisfied the courts. He still faced the challenge, however, of proving that the impalement scene was merely special effects. In court, he explained how the effect was achieved: a bicycle seat was attached to the end of an iron pole, upon which the actress sat. She then took a short length of balsa wood and held it in her mouth and looked skyward, thus making it look like she had been impaled. Deodato also provided pictures of the girl interacting with the crew after the scene had been filmed. After being presented with this evidence, the courts dropped all murder charges against Deodato.
Despite Deodato being exonerated for murder, the courts still wished to ban the film because of its extreme nature. The decision was made 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 being convicted of obscenity and violence. Deodato spent three additional years fighting in the courts to get his film unbanned. Finally, 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).
Many condemn this as animal cruelty for the purpose of mere sensationalism and only to attract controversy, and it has also been called "animal torture." Deodato himself has condemned his past actions, saying "it was stupid to introduce animals." While in the movie it appears that only six animals are killed, the scene depicting the monkey's death was shot twice, resulting in the death of two monkeys. Both of the animals were eaten by indigenous cast members (who consider monkey brains a delicacy).
Certain scenes in Cannibal Holocaust have been noted as being similar to scenes in Antonio Climati's Mondo film Savana violenta, specifically the scene involving Monroe bathing naked in the river and the scene of the forced abortion rite. Also, the cinéma vérité style used heavily in Cannibal Holocaust was used before in Climati's first Mondo film, Ultime grida dalla savana, in a scene where a tourist is attacked and killed by a pride of lions. Another scene, in which a native man is captured, tortured, and murdered by mercenaries in South America, uses a similar filming style, and both scenes may have been influential on Deodato's direction. Mark Goodall, author of Sweet & Savage: The World Through the Documentary Film Lens, and David Slater and David Kerekes, authors of Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff, have also suggested that Deodato was attempting to critique the documentary works of Climati with his film.
Cannibal Holocaust was innovative in its plot structure, specifically with the concept of the "found footage" being brought back to civilization and later viewed to determine the fate of the crew that shot it. Later films, such as The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project, use similar plot structures. Each film uses the idea of a lost film team making a documentary in the wilderness, and their footage returned. Also, like Cannibal Holocaust, advertisements for The Blair Witch Project promoted the idea that the footage is genuine. Deodato has acknowledged the similarities between his film and The Blair Witch Project and, though he holds no malice against the producers, he is frustrated at the publicity that The Blair Witch Project received for being an original production. The producers of The Last Broadcast have denied that Cannibal Holocaust was a major influence.
Cannibal Holocaust bears similarities to other cannibal films made during the same time period, notably Cannibal ferox. Though Cannibal ferox director Umberto Lenzi has not acknowledged any influence, star Giovanni Lombardo Radice says Cannibal ferox was made based on the success of Cannibal Holocaust. Cannibal Holocaust also spawned numerous and similar unofficial sequels, some with scenes mirrored from the original.
The soundtrack is entirely composed by Italian Riz Ortolani, who Deodato specifically requested because of Ortolani's work in Mondo Cane. The music itself is a variety of styles, from a gentle melody in the "Main Theme", to a sad and flowing score in "Crucified Woman", and even faster and more upbeat tracks in "Cameraman's Recreation", "Relaxing in the Savannah", and "Drinking Coco". The instrumentals are equally mixed, ranging from full orchestras to electronics and synthesizers. The original soundtrack release was a limited release of 1,000 copies in Germany in 1995, on the Lucertola Media label. In August 2005, the soundtrack was released again, this time in the United States, on the Coffin Records label.
The Australian release is an identical copy of the US release, but has been renamed the "Deluxe Collector's Edition". Both releases include the intact version of The Last Road to Hell as a special feature on the first disc. The EC entertainment Ultrabit Collector's Edition and the Another World Entertainment release are the only two releases that include the intact sequence within the feature. Another common release is the 25th Anniversary Edition released in the UK by Video Instant Picture Company (VIPCO), which is heavily cut to comply with BBFC editing and runs at a PAL format running time of 86 minutes.
Although no official sequel has been released, several films have adopted the moniker Cannibal Holocaust II as to be associated with Cannibal Holocaust's notoriety. These films were originally released under different titles that were then changed for various releases, although none have been directed by or associated with Deodato. The first of said films came in 1985 with Mario Gariazzo's Schiave bianche: violenza en Amazzonia. Known in English as Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story, it has also been released on European DVD as Cannibal Holocaust 2: The Catherine Miles Story. In 1988, Mondo film director Antonio Climati made his film Natura contro, which was released as Cannibal Holocaust II in Thailand and the UK. Italian director Bruno Mattei also made two straight-to-video films back to back in 2003, which have been released as Cannibal Holocaust sequels in Japan.
In 2005, Ruggero Deodato officially announced that he planned to make a companion piece to Cannibal Holocaust. Deodato was hesitant about directing his new film, thinking that he would make it too violent for American audiences. While in Prague filming his cameo appearance in Hostel: Part II, however, Deodato received the chance to view the original Hostel and decided that he would direct after all, citing Hostel as a similarly violent film that made a mainstream release in America. Although the screenplay, written by Christine Conradt, has been completed, a conflict between Deodato and the film's producer has delayed filming, which was scheduled to begin September 2008.