“Once you see it…you can’t unsee it…”
I can’t remember the first-time Cannibal Holocaust came across my radar, but I do remember the first time I discussed it with someone who had seen it. I was in my early 20s, and discovering that the wide world of horror was larger than I ever could have imagined. He, like myself, was a hardcore horror fan, and I remember how thrilled I was to find another horror buddy, but I also remember my annoyance at his codling. Female horror fans unite! I know of no lady fan of the genre that has not at one point or another been on the receiving end of the condescending look of utter disbelief from a male when they find our you’re a horror fan. Or the head shake while mentioning a certain movie that they have deemed “too much for you.” To all the people out there who say that, I fondly extend my middle finger in your direction. This brings me back to Cannibal Holocaust, which in my friend’s opinion, was on the list of movies that would be “just too much” for me to handle.
A quick history of the film for those who may be unfamiliar: Cannibal Holocaust is a cannibal exploitation film by Italian director Ruggero Deodato. Made in 1980, it tells the story of a documentary film crew who went into the Amazon searching for cannibal tribes to film; instead, they disappear. When the film canisters are recovered, a shocking and gruesome fate is revealed. Cannibal Holocaust also serves as an early found-footage film.
To give some perspective on the level of explicit violence in this film, Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges and faced accusations that he had made a snuff film. To avoid being charged with murder, Deodato had to convince the court that no one had been killed during the filming. He was required to detail how he achieved the graphic death scenes and produce interviews with some of the actors. Cannibal Holocaust was censored or banned in numerous countries, even to this day.
Rebellious younger me bristled at the thought that any movie could be that bad. Nothing could be that bad…could it? My friend shrugged his shoulders before saying, “Once you see it…you can’t unsee it…”
We didn’t talk of the film again, but I found myself unable to stop thinking about it. The lure of the forbidden drew me in. The more I was told I shouldn’t watch it, the more I HAD to watch it. I became a bit obsessed. This was also before the movie was readily available. The only copies to be found were bootleg VHS tapes from other countries, and I was not yet sophisticated in the ways of procuring such goods. A few more years would pass before the opportunity presented itself for me to view the film. During that time, thoughts of this forbidden film loomed in the back of my mind. When I read that it would be released on DVD, I was euphoric. Finally, finally! I would watch the film that, in my mind, seemed to represent my worthiness as a horror fan. I shared my excitement with my friend who shot me a look full of manly superiority.
“You know they killed animals onscreen, right?”
Cue record scratch. No. No, I did not. I’m sorry, they what? They kill actual animals onscreen? Listen, a few things about Kim. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 14, mostly because the thought of animals dying makes me very, very sad. When the CGI alien dog in Riddick (spoiler alert) is killed, I cried. I’ve always been a bit…oversensitive when it comes to animals. It’s something I think everyone thought that I would outgrow, but here I am, a woman of…a woman over the age of 25, and I can’t watch anything until I’ve checked doesthedogdie.com. Knowing an animal dies in a film won’t stop me from watching it, but it does mean I fast forward The Conjuring (spoiler alert) every time I get to the scene where the dog is about to die.
I had to play it cool though, shooting him an exasperated look with a toss of my hair, “Duh, of course I did.”
Not one of my better comebacks, I’ll admit. I also stopped bringing the movie up. I couldn’t escape its presence though. Now, more readily available, I felt like everyone was viewing it. And talking about it. As more time went by, I met more horror fans. I discovered Crypitcon and the Horror Honeys. It became part of the regular rotation of questions I would ask new people I met, ‘Where’d you go to school? What do you do? Have you seen Cannibal Holocaust?’ I wanted to find out that I wasn’t alone in my reluctance, or maybe be told that it wasn’t so bad. I also desperately wanted to prove my friend wrong. This wasn’t a movie I could handle? What does that even mean?
I put Cannibal Holocaust in my Netflix queue. I put it on my list for ‘100 Days of Horror’ (when I watch 100 horror movies I’ve never seen in the 100 days leading up to Halloween). It’s stayed on that list every year since I started, still unwatched. It’s now readily available. I can’t blame lack of access for not watching it. The film has become my white whale. I both desperately want to watch it, yet dread what will happen when I finally do.
I’m sure I’ll watch Cannibal Holocaust one day. Probably a day with no pomp and circumstance, no lead up, just a moment when I turn the TV on and decide, ‘Sure, why not?’ Or I won’t. My credibility as a horror fan is not defined by whether I see one movie. If my now yearly adventure of ‘100 Days of Horror’ has taught me anything, it’s that there are more horror films out there – good, bad, and otherwise – than I could ever hope to watch.
This article first appeared in Belladonna magazine.