The Legendary Cannibal Holocaust Controversy Explained

The 1980 Italian cannibal exploitation movie "Cannibal Holocaust" has become the stuff of legend. It's a gruesome fake documentary that features some very real on-screen animal death and very convincing human kills. It was so convincing, in fact, that director Ruggero Deodato was arrested and charged with murder. 

Found Footage and Grindhouse Gore

When "Cannibal Holocaust" came out in 1980, found footage horror wasn't really a thing yet. Cannibal films, a subgenre under the exploitation umbrella, were popular with many filmmakers because they allowed for lots of gore and cheap shooting locations in tropical locales. 

Enter Deodato and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici. 

Both had previously worked on the cannibal flick "Jungle Holocaust/Last Cannibal World," and they decided to take a new approach to cannibal horror. They created a framing device that explained that the footage in their movie was real, and had been found after the events depicted. Think "The Blair Witch Project," but about two decades earlier. Unknown actors were hired, along with lots of Indigenous extras from the depths of the Amazon. It was pure gonzo filmmaking.

Deodato also wanted to test out a theory that viewing real violence or death cut together with fake violence would make the fake violence feel more grotesque. There are multiple scenes of animals being killed onscreen. These, unfortunately, are real, and they are extremely graphic. A pig, a spider, a monkey, and a turtle are all killed in brutal ways, though at least the Indigenous people hired as extras ate the animals afterward. 

The scenes of real violence against animals are juxtaposed with the fake scenes of cannibals killing and eating their victims. Some of these look nearly ridiculous in stills or on their own, but combined with the real footage, they feel real. Your brain is still processing viewing real suffering when the fake stuff happens, and it's hard to shake. So hard to shake, in fact, that Italian law enforcement arrested Deodato on murder charges because of the film. A little marketing scheme the director had come up with definitely didn't help matters.

From Marketing to Murder Charges

While there's plenty to be concerned about with "Cannibal Holocaust" regarding both its treatment of animals and how Indigenous people are represented, Deodato definitely wasn't guilty of murder. 

"Cannibal Holocaust" is a commentary on shock value and emotional manipulation, as well as a harsh critique of colonialism. The white filmmakers who descend upon the cannibal tribes are revealed to be the "real savages," treating the locals as less than human. In the end, they all pay for their actions by dying in horrible ways. To sell the appearance that this was a true story, Deodato had the actors sign contracts to not go out in public for a year after the film's release. He ended up on trial for murder and had to bring one of the actors to court to prove his innocence. In the end, he was fined for animal cruelty and the movie was banned for three years. 

That wasn't the end of it, though. "Cannibal Holocaust" was banned in about 40 other countries and was one of the UK's "video nasties" that was banned until 2001. It has been repeatedly imitated, most recently by Eli Roth in his 2012 movie "The Green Inferno," but nothing has ever come close to capturing the horror of this cannibal cult classic. While it's not a movie for everyone, it is certainly deserving of its status as one of the most extreme movies of all time.