Wrestling with Cannibal Holocaust

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With all of the vegetarian/AR-themed blogs out there now, sometimes I worry that the ground I cover has already been covered elsewhere or that certain topics are getting boring for regular readers. But I think I can safely assume that the topic of this post is not one that you’ll be seeing elsewhere, unless it somehow manages to spark some weird discussions that I’m not expecting.

A lot of my passions and interests conflict with each other, at least on the surface. For instance, I run a small hip-hop label, but I’m also a tea geek. I’m big fan of classic diners and diner architecture even though there’s rarely anything I can eat at those greasy spoons. But perhaps the biggest conflict comes with my lifelong interest in horror movies and my firm beliefs in animal rights. I kid around and tell people, “I like blood on the screen, but not on my plate,” but this weird juxtaposition of interests and beliefs actually does cause some inner conflict for me.

The first thought that probably pops into your head is, “But horror movies are fake and always say, ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this film.'” In most cases, you’d be correct, but there are a couple of issues that come up.

First is the more common issue of special effects artists using animal leftovers for their effects. You’ll see this frequently in zombie movies where the zombies are munching on someone’s intestines… they’re usually pig intestines. Filmmakers don’t consider this in their “no animals were harmed” statement since the intestines are by-products. Of course, since vegans concern themselves with by-products or anything associated with animal exploitation, this is an issue. Sure, intestines are generally cast-offs from the slaughter process and, actually, are often obtained directly from slaughterhouses, but the fact remains that these things wouldn’t exist without the suffering of an animal. Even Larry Fessenden, whose movies have actually focused on animal rights, used an actual liver in a scene in Habit. It’s really common.

This issue’s a little tricky. If we were to really concern ourselves with that level of detail, we wouldn’t be able to watch any movie with good conscience for fear of supporting the exploitation of animals. Isn’t using slaughterhouse cast-offs less offensive than a meat-centric lunch being served to everyone involved in a nine month movie shoot? Surely the production of a movie like Lord of the Rings involved more use of animals (for food) than a small budget horror film that shoots for a few weeks and uses a bag or two of pig intestines. Right?

Maybe, maybe not. The answer’s not really clear. Ideally, more filmmakers would apply Fessenden’s idea of “low impact filmmaking,” and I think that’s something that we can encourage as moviegoers and is where we should focus our attention. More effects are being done with CGI these days rather than exploiting animals in one way or another, which is good, so I think there’s probably some advancement being made in that respect. And even with the use of digital video versus film, there’s potential for film to eventually be phased out. However, DV has a long way to go before it ever gets the proper film “look” that’s so important for a movie.

The second thing I think about is a much smaller issue in the grand scheme of things, but it’s bothered me much more. My key interest in horror focuses on Italian horror of the 1970s. While the majority of those films don’t have any more or less involvement with animals than any other horror films, there’s one subgenre of that that period that does: the Italian cannibal movie.

You may be surprised at how many cannibal films were shot by Italian filmmakers in the 1970s and early 80s thanks to directors like Ruggero Deodato, Jess Franco, Joe D’Amato, and Umberto Lenzi. The problem with most of the movies in this subgenre is that the animal violence in these films is real. And not just “National Geographic”-leopard-eating-an-antelope real, either. Since these films are based in jungle settings, the directors chose to show exactly how “savage” the cannibals were by also showing truly disturbing scenes involving torturous deaths of animals.

In the most well-known cannibal film, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, a live box turtle is gutted with a carving knife, a squealing pig is shot in the head, a muskrat has its throat slit, a snake is decapitated, and the top of a monkey’s skull is cut off. This brutal, disgusting, and wholly unnecessary footage was used to make up for Deodato’s small budget and lend an air of authenticity. In reality, it’s just abhorrent real life violence that simply cannot be justified.

Of course, Deodato tried. He said, “But we ate the turtle afterwards!” which didn’t satiate anyone. It was still, at its core, the torture of an animal for entertainment. Deodato has also apologized and said it’s the one thing about the movie that haunts him the most. He says he would never do it again.

Whatever the case, the violence is there in a very visual and visceral way. It’s made even the most hardcore meat eaters say, “Now that’s just wrong” and the scenes with the animals are generally considered to be the most disturbing parts of the movie. Of course, as this thoughtful review points out:

One doesn’t have to be Peter Singer to realise that our attitudes towards other animals are inconsistent. How many of those who object to Deodato’s film will happily eat meat, wear leather and place a bet on the Grand National?

I’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust a half-dozen times, including on the big screen. Shoot, I’m even in three of the extras on the recent DVD release. But I can tell you that every time I watched this movie, I’ve turned away during the scenes of animal violence. A lot of people do. While the movie intends to show man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man, it unintentionally shows man’s (specifically, the filmmaker’s) inhumanity towards non-human living beings.

To add an interesting twist, the aforementioned deluxe DVD release includes an “animal cruelty free” version, which skips right past all of the gratuitous animal violence. Needless to say, I’ll be using this option during any future viewings of the movie. While there may be an argument that this ruins the director’s original intent, this is one of the few times where I don’t care. I’m somewhat heartened that the animal violence is seen by enough people as “wrong” to warrant this type of extra treatment on a DVD release. It gives some sort of hope that the animals that were killed didn’t die completely in vain.

I won’t go into the other cannibal movies that use animal violence, but I will note that it goes even deeper in Umberto Lenzi’s atrocious Cannibal Ferox, a movie both so despicable and poorly made it’s entirely unworthy of the film it’s printed on.

I’m having a harder and harder time justifying my enthusiasm for these movies that have exploited animals, but at the very least, they caused enough of a stink over the years that on-screen animal violence is something you just won’t see anymore.

I’d really like to hear what others have to say about this, especially those of you that have a similar love for movies and filmmaking (horror or otherwise).

13 Responses to “Wrestling with Cannibal Holocaust”

  1. Mike

    You ask whether a movie which uses 10 cast and crew and a few pig intestines is, on the whole, “crueler” than a movie which feeds 1000 cast and crew burgers for six months. Several things occur to me. One is that all of the movies are probably still shot on film whose production and development probably incorporate animal by-products. Also, in both cases, the cast and crew were likely to eat (or not eat) meat according to their preference anyway. But no one was going to roll around in pig guts if that horror movie hadn’t been made. And no thousand or million people were going to be exposed to the implicit cultural sanctioning of someone rolling around in pig guts if that horror movie hadn’t been made.

    But I have a more fundamental point. Watching horror movies fills the mind with images of brutal violence. Horror movies make violence seem less abhorrent, more acceptable. Unpleasant, but not *abhorrent* (how can you truly abhor something you routinely pay someone to produce for your pleasure?) I’m not saying that people who watch Psycho are more likely to be murderers, but I am saying that people who ingest a steady diet of movies featuring eviscerated pig intestines, torture of live animals, and general brutality probably aren’t going to be the first to come around to the message of a cruelty-free lifestyle.

    Sometimes we have to make hard choices, in order to be consistent in our ethics. Dropping certain types of horror movies from your library might be one of them. I don’t mean to criticize you, a stranger. I _do_ mean to support you, as a fellow vegan. You’re a good guy. I like your blog. I want you to have as peaceful a mind as possible, which is what I want for people generally.

  2. Ryan

    Thanks for the thoughts, Mike.

    Good points in your first paragraph… the only thing I can think to mention in response is that there’s likely a lot of wasted food that’s thrown away beyond what the inviduals involved with the movie would have eaten on their own. Just the nature of food service, you know?

    With regards to the influence of movies, music, and entertainment as a whole, I see your point. And, yes, some people are particularly affected by these stimuli. Fortuntely, I feel like I’m mature enough and informed enough to be able to separate what I watch from my actions and beliefs. I mean, I grew up watching incredibly violent movies and listening absurdly violent music, but I’m about as docile as one can be and eventually chose a vegan lifestyle despite those things. Perhaps, though, it was because it wasn’t necessarily a “steady diet,” but mixed in with more conventional horror films as well as less aggressive cinema and music. Maybe that balance is necessary.

    That said, there is arguably an ethical inconsistency with owning and financially supporting a movie like Cannibal Holocaust. I think I agree with you on that point. But I’m not sure.

    As a side note, when I attended Exhumed Films showings regularly (they’re a group that shows cult horror films on the big screen for true horror fanatics), I noticed that the ratio of vegans and animal rights people was significantly higher than in the general population. When we had potlucks, the majority of the stuff was vegan. It surprised me as much as anyone! One night — when Larry Fessenden came to show two of his films and do a Q&A session — SHAC members were even invited to come and hand out literature and I distribued Farm Sanctuary brochures. The audience was surprisingly receptive to the message.

  3. Eric

    Holy cow, Batman. I started posting here, then ended up writing a full-blown (epic) post, which I’ve decided to just put up at my site (just click on my name for this comment, as I’ve linked the post, not the main page), since it took nearly two hours to put it all together. Crazy. I hope you get something out of it. I certainly thank you for the inspiration.

  4. Mike

    Ryan,

    I became vegetarian for ethical reasons when I was 12, then spent much of my teens playing gory, violent video games. I was still playing those kinds of games when I converted to veganism. I never bought the line that violence in media necessarily leads to violence in hearts and minds (though it seems logical to me that there would be _some_ connection). However, at some point, after becoming a vegan and a Buddhist, it made sense to me to try the experiment of not consuming gore and horror. It’s been maybe ten years since I saw a scary movie or played a violent game. I can’t say the change has been revolutionary, but I like the results enough to stick with it. Your mileage may vary. It’s possible that shock and horror affect me differently than they do you.

    I also want to highlight the very insightful question Eric asked on his blog: “Is seeing someone’s innards on-screen all that vital?”

  5. Marleigh

    Firstly, I’d like to say that I like your blog and have been enjoying myself while reading it.

    On the topic at hand, I must say I was somewhat surprised to see horror films come up here. Outside my close circle of friends (amongst whom my boyfriend and I are the only vegans), I don’t often run into any other horror fans, especially not people who like giallos. Personally, I am a fan of all things horror—I have a collection of classic supernatural fiction, and my film library tends toward the macabre of all sorts.

    So far as how to handle the graphic and exploitive animal cruelty featured in Cannibal Holocaust, I’m reluctant to offer “advice,” as your choices are yours alone, but I will share some of my thoughts in hopes that they help you.

    Granted, that footage is terrible; how anyone thought that was a good idea is beyond me, but as you pointed out, at least graphic sequences like those paved the way for the animal safeguards now in place. A small consolation, but it is one more small step on the road toward a just world.

    As for how to handle your interest in these films, I think you have to ask yourself a few questions, foremost among them being whether or not watching a horror film that features animal by-products or animal cruelty (simulated or otherwise) is compromising your reasons for being vegan. People who aren’t horror fans often don’t understand why we watch what we watch, which is fine; I don’t understand how people can sit through more than one Merchant Ivory production without falling into a coma. At the end of the day, you are the one who has to decide how it affects you. Things that make you uncomfortable or, worse, make you feel as though you are transgressing the principles by which you choose to live, are things that you can certainly live without.

    There are tons of horror films out there that are (more) animal-friendly, so while you may have to bid your Cannibal Holocaust DVD adieu, there’s more (and better!) where that came from!

  6. angus

    well i am not a vegan however i have been mulling the idea over in my mind to become one but for my own personal and primarily health reasons. i however am of the belief that watching these sort of films is not conducive to real life violence, i am one of the most mellow people you would ever meet and my enjoying watching brutal films and listening to brutal music is just an outlet for the dissatisfaction that i feel at times to the world at large. i have yet to see canniable holocaust, i am actually reading reviews on it to decide if i want to spend my money on it or not and after reading the best part of twenty reviews i have decided that i will buy it. i am against the fact that it does contain actual animal cruelty but you know what, that is a by gone era and we can all rest assured that for the most part it does not occur these days. i will not watch the edited version which is available on the dvd i am buying as i feel that it should be watched in its truest form if it is to be watch at all but i will not take any pleasure in the fact that the violence is real.

  7. Shelly Burnett

    Angus: If you’re considering going vegan for health reasons, do it NOW. If I had followed my childhood instincts and gone veg earlier in life, I would not have had to part company with my gall bladder recently. Too much red meat did it in. (There’s something in beef that is particularly hard on gall bladders, but I forget what it is.)

    Ryan: I do not subscribe to the philosophy that watching violence makes one more prone to commit it. My son is a very sensitive kid, but has played shoot ’em up stlye video games for years. I myself am enamoured of vampire flicks, and will still cry watching news footage of the suffering of real living beings. Both my son and I got started down the veggie road when we accidentally saw the KFC slaughter house video. Although he has not gone entirely veg, he still refuses to eat chicken unless it’s made from soy and only soy. He draws a very firm line between real violence and ‘fake’ violence, and always has. I believe that people who do commit acts of atrocity against humans or animals probably already had that inclination to begin with. However…I see no reason to use animals or animal parts in films that highlight or even espouse animal cruelty. Now that you’ve brought this up, I’ll be watching for it in the future and voting with my dollars.

  8. Tariq

    I watched Cannibal Holocaust last night, and decided the producer probably included the animal slaughter scenes to make an otherwise perfectly boring film memorable. These scenes really put me in a bad mood, and if deodato claimed it was some “show” on the cruelty of human beings, it goes without saying that deodato himself is not worthy of humanity. Thanks to him and his cast for stirring up feelings of hatred in me; but I’m sure he would say something along the lines of “well that’s great art, isn’t it? It made you react.” Deodato should be forced to apolgize in public, if that has not been done already.

  9. ANGIE

    I’m young, only 16 and a friend of my rented this move off of netflix of all places. I have been a vegetarian for a few years and this just was the worst thing I have ever seen. I defiantly don’t preach. When I say this I mean I don’t tell people what they should and shouldn’t eat, as long as I’m not eating the animal. I grew up in a Mexican household and basically everything we ate contained meat. But I took it upon myself to stop. I am the only vegetarian in my entire family, and I have a huge family. I went to a friend’s house yesterday infact, and he asked if my boyfriend and I wanted to see this movie. He told me the animal scenes were all real, which just thinking about it made my squirm. I have never seen a movie that haunted me like this one. The only thing I could not understand was many of the tribal and cast scenes. I seriously could not tell if it was actually happening or not. The scene where the tribe castrates one of the male documentarians looked completely real. I knew it could not be real because then why the hell would netflix offer this movie?

    The issue with using pig intestines is just not necessary. There are other ways to get the same effect without having to harm a living being. But the whole cast issue, should not even be relevant. So they wanted to eat a burger? So what. Even though I believe in animal rights and I myself am a vegetarian, I feel that it’s a personal choice that should not be forced onto anyone. So if the cast wants meat….let there be meat. Because let’s come back to reality here, the whole world is never going to stop eating meat. It’s been this way since the dawn of time and it’s not going to stop for any of us.

  10. altair

    The director should be killed, humanely though. With a fifty cal to the dome. Instant death, it’s a hell of a lot more than what he offered those poor defenseless creatures.

    Death to the pain bringer!

  11. altair

    To Marleigh:

    so are you saying that everything bad that has happened somehow makes us better?

    like the real holocaust?

    well i’m Jewish and an animal lover and i say fuck you.

    we as conscious beings shouldn’t need laws based around animal cruelty because we should have the brains to think “hey, this is wrong.” But we are too damn lazy to actually teach the new generations how they should really act, benevolently.

    and don’t bother responding because i ain’t coming back to this blog, my first time anyway.

  12. Ravenous

    I only recently became aware that this movie existed and really was exited to watch this for the casting of the real native tribes people and didn’t know anything about the animals involved in this movie.

    When I got to the first animal killing part I thought “WTF? Is this the best use of animatronics I have ever seen in a low budget film or is this real?”, so I came online to find out. I certainly do not agree with killing animals for entertainment, but I don’t care too much knowing what happens humans do to animals off camera and other animals do to animals in nature.

    The director must have seen or known about in advance how the tribesmen kill many animals in cold blood during their relatively short stay there and must have thought, why let them kill the animals off camera in a equal cruel manner when I can film it and use it in my movie before they eat it.

    Just for example, have you ever seen a helpless lobster thrash around in boiling water before it dies? They say it tastes “fresher” then killing it before you throw it into the boiling water and it happens all over the world just for someones temporary dining pleasures and on that note, did you know that in Asia they estimate that 13-16 million dogs and 4 million cats are being tortured to death before eating them every single year? Because they say that the more pain they are in before cooking them, the better the taste is… So they prolong and intensify the suffering of the animal as much as they can before it dies in the most horrendous ways you can ever imagine, hogtied, beaten up and thrown in boiling water just as they are about to die from injuries. Just for their temporary dining pleasures… So it tastes just a little bit better…

    When you put everything into perspective the 7 animals killed during the making of this movie (that probably would have been killed one way or another) is perfectly acceptable when you compare it to what happens in the rest of the world on a daily basis. Yes, hundreds of your adorable pets are being TORTURED to death today, tomorrow, the day after that and after that for as long as you have been alive and hundreds of years before that with no end in sight… Even at this very moment many animals that you would have loved and cared for are being tortured in more hideous ways you can imagine… If you have to complain about something, complain about things like these and forget about the few animals that where killed in a relatively quick and painless manner during the making of movies.

    The aptitude from humans towards animals is much too inconsistent…

  13. Gary

    I saw the film years ago and I was mortified at the animal cruelty so much that I have never watched it again. I have now learned of the animal cruelty free version so I have decided to once again revisit this without having to see those vile scenes. At the end of the day animal by products or veg arguments aside it doesn’t excuse the fact that the tortured and killed the poor animals for entertainment. It was totally pointless and I the fact that they ate them afterwards is supposed to excuse everything is it? I actually think once those scenes are removed it’ll actually be a good film. It just hope the cruelty free version bypasses the animals altogether and doesn’t just cut the scene as something is due to happen as the original version is still all too vivid in my mind so I can remember what happens!

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