What's for Dessert?

I am jabbing my fingernails into the soft skin of a tangerine while the woman in front of me shrieks in pain. Through the cracks in my bangs, it looks like she is either being raped, disemboweled or both. I hide behind my hair and make sure not to take a closer look. I am at the New Beverly Cinema watching cult-classic Cannibal Holocaust, the self-proclaimed “most controversial film ever made.”

“Sit back and enjoy the show,” the Amazonian guide tells the inquisitive Professor Monroe as the naked woman struggles in the mud. It’s one of many scenes in Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s film that send the packed house veering between laughter and groans.

The screening commemorates Cannibal Holocaust’s ongoing 25th-anniversary celebration and the theater is packed with a mostly male crowd, a large percentage of whom decided on leather jackets, black-rimmed glasses and unbrushed hair for the occasion. With its graphic depictions of rape, torture and, well, flesh eating, Holocaust has been a notorious exploitation film since its release in 1980. And as if that weren’t enough, real animals are gruesomely murdered onscreen. Perhaps as a coping mechanism, there are at least three different types of alcoholic beverages being passed in Coke cups between the gentlemen in front of me, including a Polish vodka apple-juice cocktail. 

A young couple behind me seemed to think this would be a good date flick. I ask the girl with bleached-blond hair and a shabby-chic Gap beanie why she came. “I love seeing animals get slaughtered,” she says sarcastically. But still, she did purchase a ticket. Didn’t we all?

In one scene, a TV executive reviewing the “documentary” footage says, “Today people want sensationalism. The more you rape their senses the happier they are.” At the end of the film, Monroe asks, “Who are the real cannibals?” The audience laughs, but it’s as much nervous laughter as it is ironic because even though the film’s campy stabs at social commentary are clearly a ruse, the question still hangs. After all, doesn’t CannibalHolocaust simply make explicit the promise of humiliation that keeps us glued to reality TV?

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