In the late 1970s/early 80s the cannibal film was a somewhat bizarre phenomenon within the Italian film industry. A variation on the zombie genre in which the monsters were the living, rather than the living-dead, presumably to save on make-up. Cannibals were depicted much like zombies; herd-like and flesh-hungry, while ‘ordinary’ people were pitched as the protagonists.
Deodato’s first horrifying foray into the cannibal genre was Last Cannibal World (1977), or to use its more ominous America title, Jungle Holocaust. Supposedly based on a true story, the film tells of an oil prospector, captured by a cannibal tribe on the island in the Philippines. Striving to escape he discovers his own primitive nature, which leads him to behave in ways that echo his captors.
The financial success of such cannibal films caused a boom in the genre and Deodato’s producers were keen for him to direct another picture but, becoming cynical and inspired by increasingly graphic television journalism, he decided to make a film criticising the contemporary taste for horrifying news footage.
Production on Cannibal Holocaust began in 1979 in Leticia, Columbia. The film tells of a documentary crew who travel to the Amazon to locate and document a cannibal tribe, with the agenda of capturing real evidence of cannibalism for broadcast. When the documentarians disappear, an anthropologist called Dr Harold Monroe sets out to look for them.
Deodato cast relatively unknown actors, Carl Gabriel Yorke to play the immoral director and Italian actress Francesca Ciardi. Robert Kerman who played Dr. Harold Monroe, however, had already made a substantial career for himself in adult films, most famously Debbie Does Dallas. The cannibal extras are claimed to have been real indigenous people of the Amazon.
To this day the story of the production remains as infamous as the film itself. Upon arriving on set, Carl Gabriel Yorke claims to have been rushed straight into a scene involving a leg amputation, before even reading a copy of the script. Deodato himself is often painted much like Yorke’s character Yates, who attempts to capture the most shocking material possible without any regard for safety or morality. In one sickening scene the documentarians slice apart a large river turtle, starting with its limbs. Additionally a pig and two monkeys were killed for the production.
It wasn’t the animal cruelty that caused Deodato the worst of his problems though. So shocking is the climactic violence of Cannibal Holocaust, in which the documentarians film themselves falling victim to the cannibals, that Deodato was taken to court. The director was actually accused of killing his lead actors with acts of genuine cannibalism. It turns out that Deodato had his actors contractually disappear for a year after the production, in an inspired attempt to drum up mystery around the film. Deodato had to contact Yorke, Ciardi and Pirkanen and bring them to court in order to prove that they were still alive. Sergio Leone even wrote to Deodato to praise him for the level of violent realism he achieved, but warned “everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”
Today Cannibal Holocaust still holds a very particular place in the minds of film fans. Perhaps what makes this film truly infamous, however, is the manner in which it forces the audience to question the moral fibre of filmmaking itself. Cannibal Holocaust provokes examination and question in both the on-screen narrative and Deodato himself, making us feel that, in both cases, the director is the true monster.