Firsts: Cannibal Holocaust, the first found footage horror film, is still terrifying

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Jan 25, 2018, 1:15 PM EST

If you ask casual filmgoers to name the first found-footage horror film, most would say The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 faux documentary, directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, was certainly a sensation and made a ton of money at the box office. The Blair Witch Project also kicked off the popularity of the subgenre, leading to films like Paranormal Activity, V/H/S, and [REC], as well as countless porn parodies -- the sign of every successful film.

But it wasn't the first found-footage film. That honor belongs to Cannibal Holocaust, an infamous Italian exploitation film released in 1980. The setup: A quartet of American documentarians head into the Amazon to document the lives of native cannibal tribes. After two months without word from the film crew, an anthropologist leads a group into the Amazon to look for them. After taking part in a cannibalistic ceremony, the anthropologist is given the film crew's reels ... or all that is left of them.

A network wants desperately to air the unedited footage, but the anthropologist insists on screening it for them, as it is disturbing. The rest of the film is made up almost entirely of the footage shot by the doomed film crew. It turns out the crew (and not for the first time) staged many horrifically violent encounters in order to make their film more interesting and exciting. When the executives finally see the footage, they decide it cannot be aired and should, in fact, be destroyed.

Cannibal Holocaust - feast scene

Cannibal Holocaust was inspired by the mondo films of the 1960s, especially Mondo Cane, which was one of the first. Mondo films were documentaries that culled together the salacious, violent footage of tribal rituals and wars that purported to be educational while just appealing to the public's prurient interests. There was speculation that many mondo films were actually staged, much in the same way that the filmmakers in Cannibal Holocaust staged their atrocities.

The 1970s and 1980s were rife with heinous and appalling exploitation films. But Cannibal Holocaust went above and beyond. Many people believed that the film-within-a-film was genuine. The disturbing scenes in the film — including a woman impaled from her vagina to her mouth, ritualized abortion, and gang rape — were incredibly graphic, leading some people to believe that Cannibal Holocaust was a snuff film (in which people are killed on camera purely for profit and entertainment purposes).

Murder charges were brought against director Ruggero Deodato. Deodato had hired unknown actors for most of the roles, and part of their contracts stated they could not do publicity for the film, in order to keep up pretenses that the film was real. Deodato had to produce his actors in court to get the murder charges dropped.

The found-footage element was one of the main reasons the film was considered to be genuine. Think about it: When you saw The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity for the first time, didn't you think, even for a minute, that it might have been a genuine documentary? Imagine if it was the first time that technique had ever been used. Of course people would believe it to be genuine. But that wasn't the only reason.

Deodato wasn't just another hackneyed exploitation filmmaker. He trained under some of the era’s top Italian filmmakers, including Roberto Rossellini and Antonio Margheriti. The film was shot almost entirely on location in the real rainforests of Colombia, using local tribes of indigenous people. Many of the tribes Deodato worked with did practice cannibalism, though not in the ritualized way portrayed in the movie.

Then there are the animal killings. Yes, all the animals killings in the film are genuine. The film is often maligned for these scenes, and they are very difficult to watch. The British Board of Film Censors decided that this footage was no worse than, say, the animal deaths in Apocalypse Now. All the meat from these killed animals was given to the locals, who ate it appreciatively. This legitimate footage added to the overall "authenticity" of the film.

Despite all these controversies, some critics maintain that Cannibal Holocaust has a social commentary. The film does effectively show that the so-called "civilized" people of modern Western society aren't any better than the "uncivilized" natives. It could also be argued that the film is a statement on journalistic ethics -- or the lack thereof.

Cannibal Holocaust's brutal and controversial legacy often overshadows the fact that it was the first found-footage film. Hundreds of films and TV shows using that conceit have followed, but few have the realism or skill to be memorable.

We couldn't show you the more gruesome stills from this film, like this one, the most iconic shot of Cannibal Holocaust. Do a Google search -- if you have the stomach for it.