Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most infamous movies ever made--so infamous even my pre-movie-geekery stage of my life knew about it. Why the infamy? Well, when it was released in 1980 and screened in Italy, the director was arrested and charged with making a snuff film because of its graphic and realistic violence. In fact, it wasn't until the charges were brought to court and they brought out the actors on TV to say "we're still alive" that things were dropped. They also had to explain how the "skewered woman" was just a practical effect and not actually real. Also adding to the infamy was the fact that, while most movies have the "no animals were harmed in the making of this movie" bit... this one couldn't. That's right--7 animals were killed during the making of this movie, 6 of them on screen (I'll get to that a bit later). Of course, there were much more graphic films even before the time of this movie, so why did most people find it so realistic? Because that was the intent--this was the first "found footage" film, a style of which has become so popular today. If you remember the craze behind The Blair Witch Project, just imagine it in 1980 but with hardcore violence, rape (seriously, what's with rape this month?), and animal cruelty.
The story is basically that 4 documentary filmmakers go out into the Amazon to find a cannibal tribe, and then they never come back. Later, an anthropologist is hired to go find them or find out what happened to them. He discovers these native tribes, as well as what happened to the lost crew, bringing back their footage to the States. The last half of the film shows us, through the found footage, what happened on their journey.
The first half of the film is, honestly, a bit boring and confusing. It sets up a frame story where the main guy is already back from the Amazon and talking to executives, but then goes into some footage of the documentary crew, but then back to the frame story, but then to his search for the crew, then back to the frame story, then bounces back and forth between the frame story and the found footage. It's a bit disorienting with all the focus shifts. And then the majority of it just has nothing happening. Some of it is interesting, once they find the native tribes, but that's about it.
The second half of the film--the "found footage" stuff--is where the disturbing stuff really kicks in. The foursome of the crew are a bunch of a-holes... to each other and just in general. A lot of it, especially later on, seems a bit forced, though, even for them. And the most disturbing part for me (and also the part that makes the least sense) is when their friends are being raped and slaughtered, there's always at least one who is staying behind with a camera to film it. I mean, I suppose it does make sense for them considering some of the things they filmed with each other before this point, but still--that's messed up. To be honest, though, the violence (for the most part) isn't all that realistic. Maybe it's because I've seen things like it and worse in more modern films, even in found footage films. There are a couple parts that are pretty WTF, but that's about it.
By far, however, the most upsetting and unsettling thing in the whole movie is the infamous "turtle" scene. Like I said before, all the animals killed on camera were actually real, which is the controversy shrouding the movie even today (the movie is banned, apparently, in over 50 countries). There's a muskrat, a spider, a snake, a monkey, a pig, and--yes--a giant turtle. The crew basically pulls this giant turtle from the water so they can kill it for food... and you see everything. I'll spare you the details, but it's very graphic. I knew I was going to have trouble with this scene going in, and that was before I realized how graphic it was. This scene made me nauseous. It's rough.
Outside of all that stuff, though, it's not even a great movie on a technical level. The visual style is very dated. The audio is off and appears dubbed through most of the movie (and sometimes I think it is, but others it just feels like the audio is a second off). The acting is atrocious, and not just in line delivery. The facial reactions are bizarre sometimes, primarily from the woman who played Faye (the main female documentarian).
All that aside, it's not an awful movie. The main message is a good one. The film is out to explore and juxtapose the modern world versus this savage lifestyle and discover who the real savages are, and that message is explored and shown very well. I don't know that I'd ever watch the movie again, though. It's one of those that's "OK, I've seen it once... that's good enough." Outside of the turtle scene, nothing really shocked me, as I'd seen it all before in other films (sometimes worse, and some of those even this month). But I can understand that, for its time, this would be an incredibly shocking film, and I can understand why it was so controversial. If you're just plain (or morbidly) curious or if you're interested in the history of film and seeing "milestone" movies (I use this term loosely), this is one you'll want to check out (at least for its genre). Otherwise, there's no real reason to see it.