Ruggero Deodato will forever be known as the director of Cannibal Holocaust (1979), the most notorious exploitation film in the history of the medium so far, maybe even, ever. It stands aloft over other titles in all its demented glory. UK horror fans seem to discover it almost illicitly, especially, since until very recently it existed in a severely butchered cut. Knowledge of an uncensored version bordered on urban myth. Videotaped copies of the laser disc edition from Europe did the rounds throughout the 1990s to this very present day, possibly.
As po-faced and problematic as Cannibal Holocaust can appear Deodato captured something unique on screen in applying neo-realist techniques to pulp fiction material. Indeed, it is the film’s mastery of the medium which has the most impact. The raw power of Deodato’s opus has ensured its brutal legacy continues. Over the past thirty years the film has been labelled everything under the sun and more. It was cut to ribbons by film censors and banned outright around the globe.On 26th May, 2011, Deodato travelled to London to deliver the world premiere of his brand new ‘Director’s Cut’ to audiences at Cine Excess V. Starburst caught up with the director the next day for a chat about the movie’s enduring appeal and the endless controversy. The great irony is Deodato has never been exclusively a horror filmmaker and worked extensively in other genres and visual mediums such as television and advertising. Yet given Cannibal Holocaust’s reputation one would expect to be confronted with a mad, bad and dangerous to know sort, but Deodato is approachable, funny and pleasant. He even admits to feeling nervous before the interview.
Deodato speaks English well but preferred to answer questions in his native language as to better express himself. It is clear the director has been touched by the reception his movie and career have had at Cine Excess V and it was a pleasure to speak with him.
Starburst: If we go right back to the beginning, how did Cannibal Holocaust come to you as a project?
RD: I used to watch the about the Red Brigade and my son would say ‘turn off the television, Dad, I can’t watch this.’ So I thought when I make a movie why do they say it is unsuitable for people under eighteen years of age and yet there are all these violent images on the news?
There were, at the time, rumours flying around it was a snuff film. That must have bemused you?
I hired the actors in New York because I wanted young actors who hadn’t been in films and were unknown. I had them sign a contract that said they must disappear for a year after the film was finished. ‘To me you’re dead’. When the court case happened they genuinely accused me of having killed the actors! I hired the best lawyers in Italy and I screened the film. They watched the film and I thought, ‘that’s it, I’m going to jail’. To confiscate the film the authorities applied a public health law banning the importing of Spanish bullfighting in Italy and on the basis of this law they seized the film. I was fined millions of lira and given a four months suspended sentence.
Yet with all the controversy the film was a big hit, especially, in Japan.
Yes it was second at the box office that year behind E.T. That made $30 million dollars and Cannibal Holocaust made $21 million dollars.
Your new cut is to be released in September on Blu-ray by Shameless Films. When did you get involved in re-editing the picture?
It was a pleasure to come to the UK after so many years with the ban and re-cut – which are minor cuts, but the scene with the turtle in it deserves cuts. Anyway, I revised it from a conceptual point.
It isn’t much different, is it? You say there were a few minor cuts here and there. You used no extra footage at all?
The new cut hasn’t got extra footage because I didn’t have extra footage. This new edition contains extra contexts. The new cut is really good compared to the one in Switzerland where I went to a screening recently. I saw so many cuts it made it another film!
There’s been lots of discussion over the years about a lost scene involving piranha fish. Can you shed any light on this matter and did you actually film it?
I remembered this scene when a friend showed me a photograph still. I chose to cut the scene because the piranhas weren’t behaving in a realistic way. We’d hunt piranhas and we’d put them in water, but when we shot the scene on camera the water just made them look flat and not cinematic enough.
So you never completed it?
You made two cannibal films: The Last Cannibal World and Cannibal Holocaust. What is it about this subgenre that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
The appeal is about contact with nature which was more in The Last Cannibal World. It was about the relationship between humans and the jungle. In the second one, I was much more concerned with style and the message. In some ways, I appreciate the first because it was harder for me to film. Cannibal Holocaust had the same motive but for me it was on another level.
During filming of Cannibal Holocaust, were you aware of the complicated nature of its message and how it could be misinterpreted?
I was aware of the message I wanted to put on the screen. Because it didn’t come from an intellectual context, some critics didn’t get it. I blame myself, in some ways, because maybe I was concerned about my ability to be understood. I put out so many messages about the media but critics – because I came from another background – blamed me.
The film is over thirty years old now and you made it before the advent of 24-hour news and infotainment. Can you say the media has gotten worse and even more sensationalist?
Yes. I put a film on screen which was against the media but they are worse. It’s a good point because my movie is now considered a cult movie all over the world but it’s peculiar because in Italy it doesn’t have the same cult quality.
The natives in the film: where did you find them?
When I shot Cannibal Holocaust I tried to shoot from an anthropological point of view, the Colombia and Brazil natives . I filmed at the boundaries of Brazil, Colombia and Peru in a town called Leticia.
How much set design and construction was there or did you find natural structures and places to use?
Some were natural and in some parts we built. The villages and the people living in the trees came from an idea we designed for the film.
I know it’s a very old and well-asked question, but what are your feelings now about the killing of animals in the movie?
The idea of the new cut was in some way to reconcile the old controversies. I’m quite surprised because the scene which caused most concern was the muskrat, which because whilst dying it made such a terrible noise.
Does it amaze you Cannibal Holocaust is still being discussed and seen to this day?
It’s very amazing! So many things have happened in the world and yet my film is still a figure of controversy. But I like that.
It’s one of the great horror films…
For me it is not a horror film because when I was shooting it I did so in the realist way, so, a few years go by and with conferences and debates, I can see it was seen as special but it’s not a horror film.
Over the years there have been rumours of a sequel. Is it wish-fulfilment on the part of fans or did you ever really have an idea?
Yes, I know about these rumours but the idea was superficial. I wrote a script but never thought about it seriously.
Do you think it has obscured your career as you’re not an exclusive horror director?
I’ve done all sorts of films: love films, comedies, fantasy films, entertaining films like The Barbarians. They all share my technique.
Cannibal Holocaust is your most famous picture, but what is your own personal favourite?
Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man, The Barbarians, The Last Cannibal World but people talk about Cannibal Holocaust so much, I’m convinced it is now the best.
Ruggero, thanks for chatting.