Ruggero Deodato, who has died aged 83, was an Italian film director who achieved notoriety with Cannibal Holocaust (1980), in which an American anthropologist played by Robert Kerman leads a mission into the Amazon rainforest to rescue a missing team of filmmakers; he succeeds only in locating cans of film next to their corpses, which have been eaten to the bone.
The film’s gruesome content led to it being banned in many countries, while its director was arrested in his homeland. There were even allegations that he had made a “snuff” movie and that indigenous actors had been killed on camera.
More than 40 years later Cannibal Holocaust, which was shot in Leticia, a Colombian city on the border of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, remains one of the most notorious horror films ever made, featuring animals being slaughtered and a young tribeswoman being punished with ritualistic rape and murder for her infidelity. It also remains an influential film, not least for Deodato’s use of “found footage” technique, giving the impression that he has used real film of cannibals consuming their prey.
The film’s defining image is undoubtedly a tribeswoman impaled on a pole. She was in fact the crew’s Colombian dressmaker and the effect was achieved by her sitting on a bicycle seat on a short pole while another clump of wood was stuck into her mouth, jutting upwards, giving the impression that she had been skewered.
Going into the jungle, Deodato had a rough idea for the film, but he dreamt up the brutality as he went along. “Tomorrow we’ll impale a girl, tomorrow we’ll kill the unfaithful wife… tomorrow we’ll kill a pig, because a crew member is fed up with eating fish,” he recalled in various interviews. Later he blamed his divorce for the bloodthirsty mania, adding: “I was a little furious with everything.”
To convince viewers that the cannibalism was real, he made the actors sign a contract agreeing to disappear for a year, a technique that was echoed in The Blair Witch Project (1999). But facing the prospect of 30 years in jail, he called one of them to his murder trial, pleading with the court: “Look at him, he’s alive.” He was convicted of obscenity and received a four-year suspended sentence and a fine of 400,000 lire (£200).
If the human killing was a stunt, the slaughter of animals was not. Over the years Deodato came up with vacuous justifications for the extreme level of animal cruelty: it was what he had grown up with in the Italian countryside; it was essentially like filming a butcher at work because all the animals were eaten; and it was necessary to satisfy East Asian audiences.
The film ends with the anthropologist walking out into the streets of New York, having sat through the horrific footage shot in the jungle by the dead filmmakers. Lighting his pipe and contemplating the white film-makers he has just seen behaving like conquistadors with cameras, he is heard to murmur: “I wonder who the real cannibals are.”
In Britain, Cannibal Holocaust avoided the film censors by being released straight to video for home consumption, which meant it was not required to pass the British Board of Film Censors. In 1983, however, the Director of Public Prosecutions brought a successful case and it was banned until 2001, only then being released with six minutes of cuts. Ten years later all but one of those cuts were restored.
The film still retained its ability to shock, as did Deodato, who appeared to enjoy being regarded as an authority on consuming human flesh. “First you take the liver out, then you open the rib cage and take the innards out,” he explained. “Then you fill it with hot stones and aromatic herbs…”
Ruggero Deodato was born on May 7 1939 in Potenza, southern Italy, but was brought up on a farm outside Rome. At the age of seven he showed musical promise while visiting a relative in Denmark and for three months he toured the country conducting a small orchestra, singing O sole mio and playing the piano. Back in Italy his mother took him to her former piano teacher, but after three days he was dismissed.
One of his childhood friends was Renzo Rossellini, son of the film director Roberto Rossellini, who persuaded him to work on his father’s productions. He made his directing debut replacing Anthony Dawson on the action-fantasy Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964), featuring a killer werewolf, and he came to wider attention as Sergio Corbucci’s assistant on the spaghetti western Django (1966), a film so violent that it was banned in Britain until 1993.
After a brief diversion into comedy and musicals, Deodato turned to television commercials before returning to the big screen with the erotic thriller Waves of Lust (1975), in which a young couple become embroiled in an older couple’s marital problems during a weekend of sailing. Then came Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976), a police-crime movie in which Renato Salvatori’s character has his men gouge out a thug’s eyes before crushing the eyeball beneath his feet.
Deodato’s preoccupation with cannibalism was first seen in Last Cannibal World (1977), starring the Burmese-British actress Me Me Lai, in which a man tries to escape from a jungle island inhabited by a cannibal tribe; it is credited with rebooting the cannibal genre started by the Italian director Umberto Lenzi some years earlier. In Britain, copies of Last Cannibal World were seized under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.
Undeterred by his Cannibal Holocaust murder trial, Deodato continued to make horror films including House on the Edge of the Park (1980), in which two punks infiltrate an upmarket gathering but turn nasty when they are mocked by the partygoers. Cut and Run (1985) returns to the cannibal theme when a reporter and her cameraman investigate drug cartels in the jungles of South America.
There was little, however, to match his previous level of notoriety, though he did have a cameo role in Hostel: Part II (2007) in which three American female art students in Rome are kidnapped, taken to Slovakia and tortured. It was directed by Eli Roth, one of several directors, including Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, who have cited Deodato as an influence on their work. Appropriately, he played a cannibal.
Despite, or perhaps because of, being banned in so many countries, Cannibal Holocaust proved a box-office success, making between $20 million and $200 million, depending on which of Deodato’s many claims were to be believed. In 1999, he concluded: “The film has brought me good luck and bad luck.”
In 1971 Ruggero Deodato married the actress Silvia Dionisio, who appeared in Waves of Lust. The marriage was dissolved in 1979 and he is survived by his partner Micaela Rocco and their daughter, and by a son from his marriage.
Ruggero Deodato, born May 7 1939, died December 29 2022