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).