Why is Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Ruggero Deodato, so controversial?

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulDec 30, 2022 | 14:09

Why is Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Ruggero Deodato, so controversial?

The Italian filmmaker was best known for his hyper-realistic elements of gore and violence in his filmography. We take a quick look at the infamous Cannibal Holocaust and the circumstances surrounding its notoriety.

Deodato was raised on a farm in the Italian countryside and later pursued his career in the Roman film industry. He was introduced to Sergio Corbucci for whom he worked as an assistant director on Corbucci's The Slave and Django. Before quitting the film industry to work in TV advertising, he directed a few comedies, musicals, and thrillers in the 1960s, following which he made a comeback to the big screen in 1976 with the brutal police drama Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man.


He "rebooted" the cannibal cinema mondo genre with his 1977 jungle adventure, Last Cannibal World (also known as Jungle Holocaust) - a genre which the Italian director, Umberto Lenzi, had pioneered years earlier. Late in 1979 he returned to the cannibal subgenre with the incredibly controversial Cannibal Holocaust.


Hailed as the precursor to the ‘found-footage’ genre of cinema, Cannibal Holocaust is considered one of the most controversial and brutal in the history of cinema, having been seized, banned and heavily censored in many countries.

The film was created as a part of the cannibal trend in Italian exploitation film at the time, which was supposedly influenced by the Italian media coverage of Red Brigades terrorism. Deodato claimed most of the news was manufactured, which became a central theme of the movie's plot.

Starring Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, and Carl Gabriel Yorke, the film was shot in the Amazon Rainforest for a budget of about $100,000, and served as a mockumentary about a group of filmmakers who go into the Amazon Rainforest and subsequently stage scenes of extreme brutality for a Mondo-style documentary.

Deodato on the Cannibal Holocaust set. Photo: IMDB

One of the most controversial elements of Cannibal Holocaust is its depiction of animal cruelty. The film features several scenes in which real animals, including a large turtle and a small monkey, are killed or injured on camera. These scenes caused outrage among animal rights activists and led to Deodato being charged. Though eventually acquitted, his film remains banned in several countries due to its depiction of animal abuse.


The film also features several scenes of gratuitous violence, including murder, dismemberment and cannibalism. Some of these scenes were achieved through the use of special effects, while others involved the use of real animal carcasses. 

In addition to its violence and gore, Cannibal Holocaust also received criticism for its depiction of sexual violence. The film features several scenes of rape and sexual assault, which some viewers found disturbing and offensive. The film's graphic content led to it being banned in several countries and sparked debates about the role of violence in media.

The film is presented as a series of documentary-style recordings made by a group of journalists who disappeared while filming a story about a tribe of cannibals in the Amazon rainforest. The found footage style was intended to add a sense of realism to the film, but was received as overwhelmingly disconcerting and voyeuristic.

Following the premiere of Cannibal Holocaust, which some claimed was a snuff film due to the over-the-top gore effects, Deodato caused enormous controversy in Italy and throughout the world. During production, many cast and crew members also protested the use of real animal killing in the film, including Kerman, who walked off the set.


Deodato was arrested on suspicion of murder, and was subsequently forced to reveal the secrets behind the film's special effects and to parade the lead actors before an Italian court in order to prove that they were still alive. The courts believed that the actors who portrayed the missing film crew and the native actress featured in the impalement scene were killed for the camera.

A still from the film. Photo: IMDB

Deodato also explained in court how the special effect in the impalement scene was achieved: a bicycle seat was attached to the end of an iron pole, upon which the actress sat. She then held a short length of balsa wood in her mouth and looked skyward, thus giving the appearance of impalement. Deodato also provided the court with pictures of the girl interacting with the crew after the scene had been filmed. After they were presented with this evidence, the courts dropped all murder charges against Deodato.

Despite the numerous criticisms, Cannibal Holocaust is considered a horror classic, gaining a cult following among horror fans and influencing numerous filmmakers. The film inspired other found-footage horror movies like The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast, and Bone Tomahawk.

The film strengthened Deodato's fame as an "extreme” director and earned him the nickname "Monsieur Cannibal" in France. He proved to be an influence on directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth.

Ruggero Deodato with Eli Roth on the set of Hostel: Part II (2007)

In 2019, the filmmaker was honored with a documentary about his life and career called Deodato Holocaust which consists of a series of interviews with the Italian director, edited with images from Deodato's movies and personal photos.

As per reports by the Italian newspaper Messaggero, Deodato died in his house in Rome yesterday.

Last updated: December 30, 2022 | 15:47
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