Why Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust remains the most controversial film ever made

Gruesome: Ruggero Deodato's film popularised the found footage horror genre - CAP/NFS
Gruesome: Ruggero Deodato's film popularised the found footage horror genre - CAP/NFS

This piece first ran in November 2022, and has been republished following the death of director Ruggero Deodato

In the 1980 exploitation film Cannibal Holocaust, Professor Harold Monroe – a New York University anthropologist (played by prolific adult actor Robert Kerman) – heads into the Amazonian rainforest, on the trail of a missing documentary crew.

In the story, a crew of “four brave young Americans” have disappeared while shooting a film about the rainforests – dubbed “the green inferno” – and their primitive, cannibalistic tribes. Led into rainforests by one such tribe, Professor Monroe has second thoughts. “I don’t know about this,” he says to one companion. “I think they want us for dinner tonight.”

The line suggests something of a funny bone beneath the real meat of Cannibal Holocaust – controversial, unrelenting, and still shocking more than 40 years later.

Cannibal Holocaust is still one of the most notorious horror films ever made and – after the liver, fava beans, and Chianti-gorging Hannibal Lecter – the biggest name in movie cannibalism, a trend that’s chomping its way back into horror. The last decade has seen an revival: We Are What We Are, Raw, Fresh, The Feast, and now the Timothée Chalamet-starring Bones and All.

Cannibal Holocaust remains influential, too. As the story plays out, Professor Monroe finds the missing film crew – or what’s left of them, at least – and their footage. Along with TV executives, who intend to screen it for sensationalist value, Monroe watches back the footage to see the filmmakers’ fate. A title card claims “for the sake of authenticity some sequences have been retained in their entirety”, suggesting that the film is absolutely real. It’s all distinctly Blair Witch-esque.

“Cannibal Holocaust is essentially the granddaddy of found footage films,” says Jed Shepherd, co-writer of the pandemic-era Zoom horror, Host. “It’s one of the first films to use its own infamy to promote itself.”

As for Cannibal Holocaust’s funny bone, Italian director Ruggero Deodato certainly saw the funny side of its most horrific imagery: a young tribeswoman impaled; another tribeswoman subjected to ritualistic rape and murder – a punishment for infidelity; and animals slaughtered for real. “It was a joke to me,” said Deodato in a 2019 documentary. “Really, a joke.”

Deodato had a rough idea going into the jungle, but dreamt up the brutality as they went along. As he recalled across various interviews: “Tomorrow we’ll impale a girl, tomorrow we’ll kill the unfaithful wife… tomorrow we’ll kill a pig, because a crew member is fed up with eating fish!” (He blamed some of the bloodthirsty mania on his divorce, too. “I was a little furious with everything.”)

Cannibal Holocaust may have seemed less amusing after its premiere in February 1980. Italian authorities seized the film, destroyed prints, and accused Deodato of murder. It was just too convincing. Authorities believed that he had killed his actors for real. Cannibal Holocaust was prosecuted in Britain too. It was one of the most notorious films to be banned as part of the Eighties’ “video nasty” hysteria. But Cannibal Holocaust was successful. It made anywhere between $20 million and $200 million (depending on which of Deodato’s claims you believe). “The film has brought me good luck and bad luck,” Deodato said in 1999.

Back in the Seventies, there was an appetite for Italian-flavoured cannibal flicks. Ruggero Deodato himself directed a previous cannibal film – Last Cannibal World in 1976 – a mere appetiser for the main course of Cannibal Holocaust.

At the time, German distributors were buying his films unseen and arrived in Italy with 90,000 marks to finance his next one. He also received money from investors in Japan (where Cannibal Holocaust was eventually a mega hit – second only to E.T. that year at the Japanese box office). Interviewed for a Fab Press-published book on his films, Deodato described how producers pestered him for a Last Cannibal World sequel, which he resisted. “But in the end, I gave in,” he said.

Video nasty: Cannibal Holocaust was inspired by Italian mondo cinema - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo
Video nasty: Cannibal Holocaust was inspired by Italian mondo cinema - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Cannibal Holocaust is not really a sequel, though there are similarities with Last Cannibal World, including – depressingly – animal cruelty. Cannibal Holocaust is more the demented offspring of the Italian mondo films – sensationalist documentaries that depicted wild places and people, using both real and fake footage. “Essentially compilations of horrible stuff from around the world,” says Jed Shepherd. “People dying, animals being chopped up, and what the filmmakers called savages.”

Deodato was inspired by the coverage of terrorism on television news, which included obscenely violent imagery, and the manipulation of images and facts. Cannibal Holocaust, he said, was “a film against journalists”.

Indeed, as the film plays out, we see that the brave young American documentary-makers – director Alan (Carl Gabriel Yorke), writer Faye (Francesca Ciardi), and their cameramen – were abhorrent, sadistic opportunists. They rape a tribeswoman, burn down a village, and manufacture scenes of extreme brutality – all for shocking footage. The crew get their comeuppance: they’re eaten by the locals. “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” Professor Monroe later asks.

The veracity of Deodato’s claims – that he was making a statement against sensationalist journalism – have been rightly questioned. Cannibal Holocaust does exactly what it’s supposedly satirising: it briefly shows stock footage of real political executions, and its cast inflict stomach-churning cruelty on animals – a cynical, though effective, means of making the simulated gore look all the more real. It's a transgressive idea: real death playing a supporting role to simulated death.

“I think there’s an argument that Deodato was trying to say something important about society at the time,” says Shepherd. “But I genuinely think Deodato wanted to make a film that was shocking. And it worked. I don’t think there was a deeper meaning. I think that was applied by film journalists after the fact.”

'I wonder who the real cannibals are?': Cannibal Holocaust is a satire of exploitative journalism - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo
'I wonder who the real cannibals are?': Cannibal Holocaust is a satire of exploitative journalism - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Cannibal Holocaust was shot in the summer of 1979 in Leticia, a Colombian city on the border of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru. Carl Gabriel Yorke, who played missing documentary director Alan Yates, flew to Leticia “on blind faith”. He hadn’t even seen the script. “I had no idea what I was getting into at all,” he said on a DVD extra.

Yorke got the role because he had the right size feet. The original actor had dropped out at the last minute, and the costumes had already been bought. Landing in Leticia and driving up a road that ran alongside the Amazon River, he saw a dead monkey and human leg drift by. “When that human leg went by, it gave me pause to say the least,” Yorke said. Fortunately, it turned out to be a fake leg from the movie. Yorke eventually got a copy of the script and read it over dinner. “Something of a mistake,” he said, “because it's not something you want to read when you’re eating.”

Most of the cast were unknowns or non-actors. The exception was adult film stud Robert Kerman, who went by the porn name Richard Bolla. Kerman, the most measured actor in Cannibal Holocaust, had appeared in Deodato’s previous film, Concorde Affaire '79 (an Italian knockoff of the Airport disaster series), though Deodato later denied knowing that Kerman was in the porn biz. “This is something that made me really angry when I was told about it,” he told Bloody Disgusting. He also doubted Kerman’s abilities. “I saw him naked and he had a tiny thing,” Deodato told interviewer Gian Luca Castoldi.

The film’s tribes – the Yacumo, Yanomamo, and Shamatari – are based on real indigenous people. According to the film legend, Deodato used real tribespeople as extras, who went along with scenes of obscene brutality and worked for nothing. (“I’m not sure what they were getting paid, or if they were getting paid,” said Yorke. “As far as I know they were just getting lunch.”) Deodato even claimed that the tribes he worked with were actually cannibalistic. “Yes, they were cannibals and they devoured their killed enemy often due to hunger,” he said in 1999.

Cannibal Holocaust was a clear inspiration for The Blair Witch Project - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo
Cannibal Holocaust was a clear inspiration for The Blair Witch Project - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Robert Kerman, however, said they were regular locals. “When I first met them, they were wearing jeans and T-shirts,” the actor told Calum Waddell, author of an academic study on the film. “They seemed to be having a good old time,” said Kerman. “They didn’t necessarily know that they were being portrayed as the bad guys, no one told them that. But they were being paid $10 a day, which was a lot of money.” Actress Francesca Ciardi, who played the missing crew’s writer, Faye, said similar: “[The cannibals] worked in offices and they wore well-pressed shirts.”

Whether tribespeople or office staff, they took part in horrifying sequences. In one scene, the doomed documentary crew interfere in a forced abortion ritual, in which a seconds-old baby is snatched from between its mother’s legs and buried in mud; in another scene, they stand in a hut as the documentary crew set it ablaze. Afterwards, Alan and Faye have triumphant sex as the natives watch.

Deodato described how Francesca Ciardi was a friend of his daughter’s; when he told Ciardi the film would involve nudity and rape scenes, she was excited to take the part. Yorke, however, recalled that Ciardi was uncomfortable with nudity during their sex scene. “[Deodato] took her off into the jungle,” said Yorke. “Everything echoes in the jungle, so everybody heard that conversation… He told her in very, very loud and no uncertain terms what she was going to do.”

Most horrifying is the killing of animals. “The level of cruelty on the set was something unknown to me,” said Yorke. For one scene, a native hacks off a monkey’s face and sucks out the brains. “We had people throwing up on the set when he killed that monkey and scooped his brains out and ate them right there,” said Yorke. He added: “That’s when I pretty much knew exactly what I was into. Except, what I didn’t know at that point was whether or not they were going to do that to us… I wasn’t sure if they would stop at monkeys.” Yorke admitted going to the set each day with his passport, money, and plane ticket in his pocket – in case he needed to make a quick getaway. “What was I gonna do?” he laughed. “Run through the jungle and climb on the aeroplane to get away from these people? There were two aeroplanes a week.”

Yorke also refused to shoot a pig. His co-star had to do it instead. The squealing was so disturbing that Yorke forgot his lines, and Deodato shook his fist at Yorke from behind the camera. They couldn’t reshoot the scene; Deodato only had one pig to kill.

Enticing: Cannibal Holocaust was backed by a clever marketing campaign
Enticing: Cannibal Holocaust was backed by a clever marketing campaign

In another scene, two actors kill a large turtle. The animal struggles as they decapitate, dismember, and disembowel it – something that cannot be unseen. Of all the films dubbed “video nasties” in the UK – which featured among them Nazi experiments, power tools to the head, popped eyeballs, and gang rapes – that turtle’s death is arguably the most disturbing image of all. Deodato described how actor Perry Pirkanen, who played the crew’s cameraman – and who fools around with the turtle’s freshly decapitated head – cried after filming the scene.

Deodato has given varying responses to the animal cruelty. It was not the first Deodato film to feature animal killings; it also happens in Last Cannibal World (though he blamed the producer). Deodato has since said that it was one reason that didn’t want to make another cannibal film, and said he would “absolutely not” do it again. He’s also been standoffish, saying all the animals killed were eaten – that it was essentially like filming a butcher at work – and claimed that he had to kill animals to satisfy the demands of East Asian audiences.

The film gained notoriety in the UK because of the extreme artwork on the video packaging and promotional posters. It played a role in the video nasties moral panic and implementation of the Video Recordings Act 1984, which required all videos to have a BBFC certificate. Actually, the version that circulated here in the early Eighties had most of the worst material cut.

Cannibal Holocaust, however, is an example of a video nasty that does have some artistic (though perhaps not moral) credibility. It has enduring horror imagery. See the remains of the long-since-devoured documentary crew, whose bones have been arranged like a totem pole – the kind of thing that the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre might pop in the garden. And, most obviously, the film’s defining image: the impaled tribeswoman (actually the crew’s Colombian dressmaker). The effect was achieved by putting a bicycle seat on a short pole, so the woman could sit. She stuck another clump of wood in her mouth – which jutted upwards – to give the impression of being skewered. In exploitation terms, it’s a work of art.

“[What] Ruggero Deodato does very well is he creates very shocking images,” said Carl Gabriel Yorke. “Unexpected, revolting, and impossible not to look at.”

The brutality is juxtaposed with a serene, stirring theme from Riz Ortolani – more like something that belongs on Sunday afternoon TV. “There are people who get married using this music,” said Deodato.

“There’s something about Cannibal Holocaust as a piece of art that you have to kind of respect,” says Jed Shepherd. “They went out and made a film with no rules. They took on the world and won. If your aim as a storyteller is to get your story and ideas out there, it did that. It’s a shame that it involves animal killings.”

Umberto Lenzi, the star of Cannibal Holocaust
Umberto Lenzi, the star of Cannibal Holocaust

Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone saw the film and warned Deodato “you will get into a lot of trouble.” He was right. When the film was released in Italy in February 1980, newspapers incorrectly listed it as a documentary. The film was quickly seized, according to a report at the time, for “scenes of sadomasochism, cannibalism, and bestiality”. It was banned under an ancient Italian law, originally to stop bullfighting, which prevented cruelty to animals for entertainment.

Deodato was also charged with killing his actors and faced 30 years in prison. “I hired the best lawyers in Italy and I screened the film,” he told Starburst in 2011. “They watched the film and I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m going to jail.’”

“There are devices that Deodato uses to make you think it’s real,” says Shepherd. “They condition you to make you think that these filmmakers know no barriers. They will go past any sense of decency and they will kill. If you’re seeing real animal deaths, who’s to say they’re not killing humans?”

There was an extra complication: to convince viewers that the footage was real, Deodato got his actors to sign a contract, agreeing to disappear for a year. (Which recalls the Blair Witch Project filmmakers setting up a website, filming a fake documentary, and listing its actors as missing). To escape jail, Deodato had to call the actors into his trial. “Look at him, he’s alive!” he pleaded with the court. Deodato received a four-year suspended sentence and a fine of 400,000 lire for obscenity (about £200 at the time, though Deodato later said he was fined “millions of lira”). Cannibal Holocaust remained banned in Italy for three years.

In the UK, Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t submitted to the BBFC properly until 2001. Now, it’s available in the UK with just 15 seconds cut.

Cannibal Holocaust was not technically the first found footage film. Previous films used the structure, including 1972 docudrama The Legend of Boggy Creek. Yet Cannibal Holocaust’s notoriety makes it a more obvious influence on later found footage films. Its similarities to The Blair Witch Project, which started the found footage boom in 1999, are undeniable. Blair Witch co-creator Eduardo Sánchez, however, told Jed Shepherd that he hadn’t even seen Cannibal Holocaust when The Blair Witch Project was made.

It’s easier to look back at horror cycles and see what anxieties and trends inspired them – nuclear paranoia, Vietnam, 9/11 – though it’s harder to sink our teeth into while we’re in the thick of it. The modern serving of cannibal films are what might be snobbishly labelled “elevated horror”: less savage, more cerebral.

But more than 40 years since Cannibal Holocaust, its horror remains primal. “You can frame it as high art,” says Jed Shepherd, “but when it comes down to it, cannibal films just play into our fear of death. What’s scarier than another human being eating you? It’s warped.”