Facing My Fear:
The Movie I Was Afraid To Watch
Have you ever been afraid to watch a certain film, even long into adulthood? Paul Childs has and investigates why, before facing his ultimate fear with 1980's Cannibal Holocaust...
What scares me?
Aside from all the boring adult stuff like getting old, debt, rejection and so on, the thing I am most afraid of is probably being eaten alive. The very thought really freaks me out. I cringe while watching films like Creepshow 2 when a person gets gobbled up by a large, slavering beast. Little Shop of Horrors (especially the superb alternate-ending cut) positively gives me the willies. And the Jurassic Park films are, as you can imagine, a most uncomfortable watch for me, especially Jurassic World where poor Katie McGrath’s character suffers a ghastly and ignominious end at the hands (or flippers) of the aquatic dino, the mosasaur. The thought of her, still alive and panicking as she slithers down the beast’s throat… I don’t think I can even finish that sentence. Shudder.
And don’t even mention 2013 found footage movie [SPOILERS] The Borderlands with that ending [/END SPOILERS].
Obviously, being devoured is a fate that as a species we’ve actively tried to avoid since prehistoric times and that fear, although no longer relevant, is now part of our genetic memory. However, these days some people just aren’t phased by it if their film habits are anything to go by. Kids LOVE seeing which character gets chomped by the dinosaur next. They always have, since the early days of cinema. Films like King Kong, Valley of the Gwangi and The Land That Time Forgot all feature it and they’re classed as family-friendly adventures.
So why am I so freaked out by it? Well, I think I can pin that fear down to a specific event in my childhood…
It was around spring 1983. I was eight-years-old and I was off sick from junior school. We had recently got our first video recorder – a Betamax (which I still maintain was the better quality format of tape and I was astounded to find out Sony only stopped manufacturing at the end of 2015). I’d spent the day at my grandparents’ house and my mum came to pick me up after work. To cheer me up she took me to Rockingham Road Videos. Getting a film out was always a treat, especially in those early days of home video.
After what felt like hours choosing, I settled on Battlestar Galactica: The Movie, which was actually just the first three episodes of the TV show edited together with a few reshot scenes, but I didn’t know that; It had robots and spaceships so I was sold.
As I waited at the desk for the man to fetch my tape (and to put one of those little “Out” labels on the box) I started to look around at the other films near the counter. There was some really chilling box-art which genuinely frightened me: Driller Killer, Orca, Shriek of the Mutilated, The Evil Dead, The Bogey Man. You’ll recognise many of those from the notorious DPP Video Nasty list but this was 1982 and that scandal had yet to occur.
A couple of particular pieces of artwork struck terror into my heart far more than the rest of those. Two large posters were proudly displayed above the counter, where I had no choice but to look at them while I waited for my mum to collect and pay for my films. Zombie Flesh Eaters was the first. Not the Italian poster for Zombi 2, the one with the putrefying, maggot-riddled face; no – it was the far subtler but in my opinion much more terrifying one-sheet by Tom Beauvais – you probably know it, the one with the hand reaching out of the ground.
In an interview with Film On Paper, Beauvais recalled how he was commissioned for the job:
This fellow from the distribution company came in and he was a well-spoken, Army officer type who strode into our office and said ‘Right chaps, here’s what I’m looking for…’ and he proceeded to tell us that he wanted to see ‘bodies coming out of the earth’ and New York in the background. He then said ‘I don’t want to see any blood at all but you can paint plenty of worms and slime!’
There was little in the way of press material and no stills to work from so I did what I thought he’d respond well to, with a large putrefied hand bursting out of the ground. I actually painted it by holding my own hand up to a mirror and making sure I captured the right anatomical details before making it more ghastly. Most of the figures I just drew from my imagination.
Beauvais was responsible for many memorable movie posters, including Mad Max, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Fantastic Voyage and unused promos for Star Wars and Blade Runner, but Zombie Flesh Eaters, for me, remains his most memorable and effective work.
Back then I was pretty used to werewolves and vampires from shows like Drak Pack and The Groovie Goolies and the board game I Vant To Bite Your Finger. As a result, they didn’t really scare me. However, zombies hadn’t reached the pop-culture over-saturation we see today. They were still the domain of indie and grindhouse shockers like The Beyond and Messiah of Evil and as such, weren’t the heroes of romantic films, cartoons or comedies. In the schoolyard, zombies were pretty much the scariest movie monsters around. Everyone knew they were dead already so couldn’t be reasoned with, that if they bit you on the arm, you became one and they would never stop. The only way to kill one was a shot to the forehead. But where was an eight-year-old in East Anglia going to acquire a firearm? Terrifying. And here was one right in front of my eyes, climbing out of the grave, no, climbing out of the poster to come and get me.
As terrifying as zombies were though, it was the poster I saw next which really got under my skin, so to speak. I’d heard of cannibals before – I’d seen humorous depictions of them in newspapers and comics, blanching pith-helmet-clad explorers or bible-waving missionaries in a large cauldron, often chucking in a couple of onions or carrots and sprinkling them with salt and pepper for comedic effect. I didn’t know they were real. I soon found out that they were:
I couldn’t take my eyes off this fellow.
I would love to credit whoever created this beautifully painted horror, and I put a call out to movie poster historians and academics on Twitter, but nobody has been able to trace the original artist. Their name just seems to have been lost amongst all the controversy – which is a great shame. Originally commissioned for the UK home video release by London-based distributor Go Video this image became the face of a hugely aggressive marketing campaign, featuring on full-page ads in movie magazines, on one-sheets in video stores and, most surprisingly of all, on beer mats in pubs. Imagine seeing that glaring back up at you as you wash down your pork scratchings with a mouthful of Hofmeister!
Although synonymous with pulp horror, Go Video did actually release all kinds of films, including cartoons, porn, comedies – anything they could get hold of really. Much of it was public domain and fair game. But low budget European exploitation action and horror was where they made their name. They cut corners wherever they could to save money, but Go were well known for their effective covers. Initially starting out as cut-and-paste jobs (before the days of Windows – the literally did just cut and paste stills from the movie) it was SS Experiment Camp and later Cannibal Holocaust that prompted the designers to put a lot more thought and work into their art.
However, this extra effort to give their movies an air of sophistication would actually backfire on the exploitation industry as films like SS Experiment Camp, Cannibal Holocaust and VIPCO’s The Driller Killer alerted authorities to the possibility that potentially salacious productions, which had never seen in the inside of the BBFC’s offices, lurked on every High Street. GO’s lurid cover for Lamberto Bava’s psychological thriller Macabre added to the moral panic. VHS stores were raided and copies of Macabre seized due to the cover art alone, even though the supposed extreme content of the film is actually relatively understated.
Coupled with a cunning plan to generate publicity for Cannibal Holocaust by anonymously reporting their own release to Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewer’s and Listener’s Association, GO were victims of their own successful marketing. After GO’s letter, Whitehouse coined the infamous phrase Video Nasty. Tory MP Graham Bright was approached by the NVLA and this prompted him to begin what would eventually become the Video Recordings Act of 1984 and led to the formation of the BBFC’s film certificate ratings as we still recognise them today.
So, very scary artwork then. And eight year old me stood watching one of the genre’s most notorious examples as the intestine-chomping native glared back at me.
Then my mum patted me on the shoulder, saying it was time to go. I’ve never been so glad to get out of somewhere since (with the exception maybe of the time I walked out of 1990’s Ski Patrol). Because I was sick, it was a rare occasion when I was allowed to sit up front on the drive to pick up my brother from school. We parked up in the spaces outside the school, which was on the edge of a large wooded area in the centre of the town. My mum got out and went up to the gate to wait for my brother to come out. She said she’d only be a few minutes so left the engine running and the radio on… and left me sitting there facing into the trees with so many thoughts and images circling around my head.
It was probably just the wind, but in my overactive imagination, the movement of the branches and undergrowth was something far more sinister. Those two posters still haunting me, I conjured up images of zombies and cannibals in the thicket just a handful of feet ahead of me making a nefarious pact to get me and share the juicy bits between their temporarily peaceful peoples.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, a song came on the radio. A popular hit single from the year before. A harmless piece of pop fluff which nonetheless still strikes fear into my very heart. Every time I hear it as those memories of trembling with fear, waiting for the cannibalistic onslaught to begin, come flooding back. The song was Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s allegorical anti-racism ballad, Ebony & Ivory.
After that day I vowed never to watch a film with zombies or cannibals. Ever. Period.
That is until around 1990-91 when my neighbour Jim lent me his VHS copy of 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, which I actually found myself enjoying, albeit nervously. Even teenage me could recognise that the comedic aspects of that film made it a good entry-level choice for my introduction to zombie movies. Over the next few years, I dipped in and out of zombie cinema, sampling delights like Dawn of the Dead, The Omega Man (are they zombies? I suppose they kind-of are), and naturally, Return of the Living Dead Parts 2 and 3.
As we entered the new century I tried 28 Days Later, Zack Snyder’s excellent Dawn of the Dead remake and Resident Evil among others. It was when I saw Shaun of the Dead that I realised I had not only made my peace with zombies but had actually become a fan. It was time to watch Zombie Flesh Eaters.
I don’t know what I was so afraid of. It was everything I loved about those other films I had watched, and nothing to be afraid of. It has a zombie versus a shark for goodness sake! What’s not to like?
So cannibals then? Maybe not. Perhaps it was that visceral poster still fresh in my mind decades later, perhaps it was the fact that zombies were clearly fantastical while cannibals conformed to that most unsettling of horror topes – Man Is The Real Monster – and perhaps it was that the subject of human cannibalism is still very much taboo, maybe even more so these days, but the very idea still made me feel uneasy. I couldn’t do it.
It wasn’t until this summer while working from home and looking for something to provide a bit of background noise, that I noticed Cannibal Holocaust was available on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure what I was thinking, maybe because I thought I’d mostly be concentrating on my work, but something inside me said: “Why the hell not.” Before I could change my mind I had pressed play and was locked into it.
The first thing that struck me, and this may be because Prime’s version appears to be taken from Shameless Films’ HD restoration for their Blu-Ray, was that it looked crisp and clear. In fact, this was a beautiful looking film with luscious cinematography. Perhaps due to the reputation of 70s and 80s pulp films, I thought I’d get a grungy, shot-on-cheap-film, homemade-looking affair. The story going around the playground at school from the handful of kids who claimed to have seen it was that it was real footage from cans of film retrieved after months rotting in the sweltering heat of the Amazon rainforest.
Hyperbole like that played right into the hands of the filmmakers who hoped to peddle that “true story” narrative to the public. So convinced were the authorities in director Ruggero Deodato’s native Italy that he faced prosecution not only for fictional obscenities presented on the screen but also for the murder of his cast. During the court case, Deodato had to find and produce his actors, who, to add weight to the pretence, had been paid to stay out of the public spotlight for a year. On top of that, he had to demonstrate for the court how the impalement effect had been achieved. It’s a testament to the ingenuity of the director and his effects team that this wasn’t thrown out of court as a frivolous case from the get-go.
The second thing that struck me from the start was the musical score. I expected it to be the doom-laden synths popularised by John Carpenter’s Halloween which are synonymous with early 1980s horror films. While there is an element of that, Riz Ortolani’s score also includes a number of beautifully orchestrated pieces, none more so than his Main Theme, the leitmotif of which forms the basis of many of the tracks.
The cinematography and music made me sit up and pay attention. Therefore I put my laptop to one side (while keeping half-an-eye on my emails, just in case) and gave the film my (almost) undivided attention. I was surprised to find myself intrigued by this film’s unfolding mystery as anthropology professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) attempts to find out what happened to, and potentially rescue a missing film crew. The first half of the film, as Kerman and guides delve deeper into the “Green Inferno” and begin to befriend the tentative Yacumo and Ya̧nomamö people, is actually quite cerebral and gentle in tone. There are, however, small flashes of what’s to come with one scene in particular, where an adulteress is punished, being a particularly hard watch.
It’s not until Monroe returns home with the successfully retrieved film reels that the film takes a much nastier turn but even then, these more controversial moments seem mostly appropriate to the story Deodato was trying to tell. Even during the movie’s denouement where we find out what really happened to the ill-fated documentary crew, I was never worried that Cannibal Holocaust would become the film I had always feared watching. While the gore and violence can be difficult to stomach (and some of the effects are exceptionally good), I felt that there was a duality in this movie.
Deodato, in making a very controversial film also delivers a scathing criticism of filmmakers whose output is deliberately provocative just to sell cinema tickets. Was he aware of this dichotomy? I’m not certain. I would say “Yes”, but that would be through my modern, cynical viewpoint which has become accustomed to Deepfake videos, fact-checking social media claims, Fake News, polarised biased media and even the BBC fraudulent phone-in scandal. The way Deodato and Go Video implemented their marketing strategy, I’m more inclined to say that Cannibal Holocaust was more about forcing a polemic from the likes of Whitehouse to generate word of mouth. That it actually presents a very serious commentary on media ethics appears to be a happy accident.
There are a couple of reasons I think this. Firstly, the representation of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples, the Ya̧nomamö in particular, is extremely unsympathetic, especially given that they are the victims of the piece. The title, and that poster, are misleading. I had always believed that it was the cannibals who perpetrated the so-called holocaust, but it’s those poor folk who actually suffer it.
One scene in particular, in which the film crew, led by the downright nasty piece-of-work Alan Yates (Gabriel York), perpetrate some truly horrific crimes upon the Yacumo, just for the sake of generating reactions for their documentary was far more gut-wrenching than any of the far more violent acts which followed.
The Ya̧nomamö are presented in a manner popular in many cannibal films of the time – that is to say, a heavily stereotypical, racist depiction. While they really do practice endocannibalism, in which the cremated bones of recently deceased members of their close community are consumed as a spiritual act of commemoration, here they are portrayed as barely sentient savages who eat raw flesh straight from the corpse of their recently defeated enemies (this is a much rarer form of cannibalism known as exocannibalism which is known to be practised in very few places around the world).
Secondly, and far more controversially, is the still contentious issue of animal cruelty. As gut-churning as the gory effects are, you can always tell yourself that it’s only a film and it’s not real. Not so with the many wildlife deaths captured on film. Spiders, snakes, pigs and – perhaps most controversially of all – the capture, evisceration and consumption of (and subsequent food poisoning from) a large river turtle. This was one of the more difficult scenes to watch and it was these moments which had me turning away in disgust, not just at the gore, but the fact that this had been perpetrated in the name of entertainment. When the Video Nasty scandal had died down by the early 2000s and the banned films started to finally see the shelves of video shops again, it’s scenes like this that still remain cut by the BBFC to this day.
How it became a popular part of the cannibal film boom, I will never understand, but a quick scan of Wikipedia tells you that similar scenes in similar films, like Cannibal Ferox, Mountain of the Cannibal God, Cannibal Apocalypse, Eaten Alive! and Man From Deep River (regarded as the film that kickstarted the genre) have all been excised to make them fit for legal distribution.
It’s these final few issues which taint my opinion of Cannibal Holocaust. Is it a well-made film with a serious social and anthropological commentary? Yes, it is, whether intentional or not. Will I think about it long after last seeing it? Undoubtedly. Did I enjoy it? I can’t in good conscience say that I did, but I did appreciate the story I was being told.
One thing I do know is that having finally faced up to my fears, cannibals do not scare me anymore. Perhaps Cannibal Holocaust’s lasting legacy, and what will keep its message current and seal its importance in the history of cinema, is that it instilled in me a new fear – other people.