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Neither Caustic nor Hollow, But Feeding on Itself

February 24, 2021

I have never seen the film, first released in 1980. I vaguely recall seeing the first 5-10 minutes of it many years ago, likely on rented VHS and possibly with college roommates. I have no recollection of the reason we stopped watching and retain nothing beyond a wide-angle scene of a mountainous tropical landscape and a happy, chatty group of 30-somethings walking into it, although even that might be a misapplied memory from some other picture. I know that at the time I had no prior knowledge of the movie or the controversy surrounding it.

Late last year it appeared as a recommendation on the home screen of the Shudder streaming service account my daughter and I share. We bought the subscription a few years back in support of our tradition of regular daddy-daughter movie nights featuring select horror stories, creature features, and psychological mind-screws, old and new. By now, I had awareness of the film and its notional tagline as the most disturbing film of all time; the two of us agreed that it was not for us. I did subsequently give in to the clickbait one lonely late-night but exited within less than a minute upon realizing where I was headed.  What the hell could I have been thinking?

If I am honest, I must admit that I harbor an uncomfortable fascination with the idea of the film. By ‘idea’ I do not refer to its plot – as much as I have indirectly come to know of it over the years — but rather to its existence and place, at some level, in the public consciousness. I do not believe I hide any morbid curiosity for its apparently quite realistic gore nor would I claim any detached, academic interest in the sociological significance of its misogynist and racist underpinnings. Moreover, per descriptions I have read, the horrific and quite real scenes of animal cruelty staged, filmed, and included in the movie repulse and anger me. Even so, I carry an uneasy fear that I will awake, at some future moment, to find myself counted among the sullied who have viewed Cannibal Holocaust.

The above conceded, might we talk for a bit about just how staggeringly great is the music from this film?

I recently obtained the 2015 release by Death Waltz Recording Co. of the original soundtrack by Italian composer Riz Ortolani. It is a physical thing of foul beauty, pressed on 180-gram olive-brown vinyl with dark blood-red splatter and housed in a gatefold cover with stark silver-on-black stylized front lettering, an indefensible full-color screenshot from the movie splayed across the entirety of the interior panel, and a depiction of Ortolani as conductor in red with black shadows on the back. Also included (as seen above) is unsavory “newly-commissioned artwork” conferred on both a 12×12 print and a foldout movie poster, neither of which have any prospect of display on my walls. Finally, extensive sleeve notes – unread by me as of this writing – by filmmaker Ruggero Deodato, three of the film’s actors, and some other dude provide firsthand accounts of the creator’s “vision” and the dysfunctional, antagonistic working environment he apparently fostered during the filming.

The music inside is so varied in style that, were the songs listened to in discrete episodes, it would be hard to imagine them forming a coherent whole. Taken together, they achieve a narrative flow, albeit an off-kilter one with herky-jerky transitions between erratic rapids and calmer waters. It ranges from sinister to upbeat, full orchestra to funk combo, sometimes all in the same track. The overall effect is a sense of contemplative melancholy, although not a totally unpleasant one.  It brings to mind no anthropophagus.

To present a full picture requires complete dissection:

Main Theme: A mix of strings, acoustic guitar, gliding bass and reassuring synths combine to create a gentle melody. The synthesizer line suggests a muted choir not actually there. This is a song of love, painting a picture for us of a soft-focus Stevie-Nicksian in a long, flowing gown, with spring flowers in her hair as she peacefully twirl-walks through a swaying field of waist-high grasses. Beautiful.

Adulteress’ Punishment: Ominous slow-doom bass punctuated with stabbing synth pulses briefly play us in, violins soon joining to reduce the menace but preserve the tension. This is the sound of an aristocratic mansion in the country barely holding on to the last vestiges of grandeur as vines and decay verge ever closer to their inevitable conquest. Inside, aged occupants obliviously waltz on even as their dance lists toward madness.

Cameramen’s Recreation: Everything seemingly pushed through a wah-wah peddle, funky slapped bass provides the foundation over which a trumpet played by Donald Duck cheerfully lays down the melody. Our feeling is that of a bright summer day on the village green as dapper gentlemen escort loved ones toward picnic blankets and an off-screen carousel. The bass tone slowly evolves from wah-wah to tuba. There’s joy here but we are watching it through lightly fogged glass.

Massacre of the Troupe: Synth pulses are back, accompanied by woodblock claps that suggest disco funk right up until 20 seconds in when dread-filled strings storm in. The pulses now seem increasingly arrhythmic as the strings slowly build toward cacophonic climax. We imagine a red-tinged scene, the speeding car careening up the mountain road toward the inevitable cliff… but wait, what is this? Without segue, we suddenly shift to a few gentle bars of the Main Theme. There is no footing for us here however as the melody quickly dissolves away and the orchestra reasserts itself with sustained notes that never resolve.

Love with Fun: It is the Main Theme, but now it feels as if our record has a slight warp. There is a small warble that makes the eventual, disconcerting segue into woodblock claps and crippled, almost tribal drums all the sourer. We have not yet identified the new musical path when orchestral crescendos enter only to fade out, leaving behind solely synth pulses. When was it exactly that the pulses came in? Were they there before?

Crucified Woman: As we turn to Side B, we wonder if we are thinking too much. Mournful strings and acoustic guitar cast a sad shadow. We think maybe we should just listen, but the mind’s eye refuses to play along, presenting us with a lonely ocean scene. A light, warm breeze blows in with the slowly rolling whitecaps. We watch the sun subsiding toward the evening horizon.

Relaxing in the Savanna: To pull us out of our melancholy comes a jaunty musical concoction somehow successfully combining over its course funky bass, slow-played 70s-porn guitar, Sanford & Son keyboards, and the simple melody of an unremembered but still familiar children’s fairy tale.

Savage Rite: Here we find the sounds of a pivotal Star Wars space battle recorded at 45 rpm but played at 33 rpm. At the moment of what should be the determining climax, we transition via synth pulses to a contrary, sad interpretation of the Main Theme, slowed down and struggling under the weight of a minor chord. The love inherent in the version of the Main Theme with which we began has turned to loss.

Drinking Coco: This is a studio jam, bouncy jazz from joyfully in-sync collaborators pouring out mutual encouragement. The bandleader on electric piano takes flight first, with funky bass, chugging guitar and accommodating drums in support. When the electric guitarist takes a howling turn, it is through an amplifier with a sliced speaker and a build-up of sandy grit in its tubes. Soon, the leader’s piano returns to the fore. The players smile at each other, feeling it, having fun until… it just ends.

End Titles: After introductory pulses and percussion, our Main Theme is once again back, but now it is muffled, seeming to emanate from the room on the other side of an upholstered wall. Looking around, we spy an adjoining door and slowly draw it open until the bright optimism of the gentle melody is restored. We start to believe that the clouds will always part to allow the sun to shine anew. Then we notice that the faux, synthesized chorus seems to now be a tone lower…

Having reached the end, I find the risk of future debasement greatly mitigated. Watching Cannibal Holocaust now would change the listening experience, tainting it. We do not want that.

From → Music

  1. Not a film I wish to watch “with both eyes” I’ve been present at screenings of it but knowing what I know I’ve found a reason to wander off to the kitchen or go do something else rather than taint my soul with it. It’s the animal cruelty that puts me off. I was watching some Netflix picked up 70’s exploitation schlock recently (won’t name the film) and came across a “cat drowning” scene that can’t have been faked. Even though that poor puss was done for 40 years ago it still ruined my day.

    • Yeah man, choosing to undertake the abuse just to up the shock factor of your film – this ain’t no documentary – suggests a sick mind.

  2. I have never seen the movie either. Always found a reason to avoid it when it’s been possible to watch it. It’s not something I imagine ever sitting down to. I’m intrigued by the soundtrack though…

    • Yeah, the more I think about the animal cruelty, the less I want to go anywhere near it. I believe I’ve read that Ortolani the composer wasn’t aware of it when he wrote the score, so I’m ok shilling for the soundtrack if not the film.

  3. An unseen film, liner notes unread, triggering visuals eschewed, and a track-by-track breakdown of pieces with titles that label scenes from the movie.

    Interestingly (or not, of course), as I read the preamble I was considering consulting imdb or similar just to get some context. As someone who walked out of my only cinema horror film experience after 15 minutes (and before the fun actually started) it is not very likely I’d subject myself to something that sounds really quite appalling… but here’s the thing. I found my breathing getting shallower and chest tighter simply reading the track names!

    I’m also reminded of grabbing the chance to watch a multi-dimensional exploitation movie a few years ago because its soundtrack was considered a cult classic. But in the end, I noticed the nudes (and fangs) more than the tunes.

    PS. Death Waltz is an amazing label, though I’m not sure I’d want to holiday with the owners.

    • Somehow sounds and stories of dystopia, doom, depression and dread lift my spirits. That said, I like it theatrical, supernatural, epic, extraterrestrial. I’m not one for realism with my hopelessness.

  4. Lovely review; lovely, not being an adjective often associated with Cannibal Holocaust, I suppose. I don’t know this specific soundtrack but I am really pleased that this whole era of horror soundtracks are getting their dues these days – Death Waltz is a great label.

    I have never sullied myself with this film, more from lack of opportunity I am afraid to say than moral qualms back in my student days. As I’ve got older I am far less tolerant of violence, it upsets me these days – being a dad? some sort of late-developing moral compass? protecting a middle-aged heart? I am not sure why, but my horror marathon days with mates are long over.

    Do you own any of the recent John carpenter LPs? if not, I’d heartily recommend them.

    • Thanks for the adjective, Joe. My Carpenters include Christine, Halloween, Halloween III, all recent reissues. As for recent JC music though, I have only the soundtrack of his 2018 Halloween remake. All of the preceding are winners!

  5. I never caught the flick (never heard of it and I call my self a movie guy) but I am going to search out the soundtrack because of you.

    • Here’s hoping you find it as enjoyable as I do. Just listened again this morning before replying to make sure, and yep, still diggin’ it immensely. If you do ever seek out the movie now that you’ve heard of it, Don’t blame me! 😲

      • I did. I find myself listening to soundtrack music more and more. I have a great set of Ry Cooder’s film work.
        I remember seeing the original ‘Texas Chainsaw’ when it came out, wasn’t long before half the theater left. I’ll take full responsibilities for my actions, Your at least 50/50 with the soundtrack.

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