Ruggero Deodato, Whose ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ Enraged, Dies at 83

Ruggero Deodato, Whose ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ Enraged, Dies at 83

When you make the most infamous movie ever to come out of a genre sometimes called the cannibal vomitorium, you’ve achieved true cinematic notoriety.

That distinction belongs to the Italian director Ruggero Deodato, whose “Cannibal Holocaust” is said to have gotten him briefly accused of murder because of death scenes that seemed a little too real, as well as generating complaints for obscenity and animal cruelty.

The film, released in 1980 in Italy and later (sometimes after overcoming bans) in other countries, drew scalding comments from critics and some film scholars. In 1985 the “Phantom of the Movies” column in The Daily News of New York called it “the kind of brain-damaged, stomach-churning cinematic offal that gives junk movies a bad name.”

And yet the movie also developed a cult following and is widely credited with influencing later films, especially “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), which, like “Cannibal Holocaust,” used a found-footage conceit intended to leave viewers asking, “Was it real?”

Mr. Deodato died on Dec. 29 in Rome. He was 83.

Eugenio Ercolani, a filmmaker and film historian who had interviewed Mr. Deodato extensively, confirmed the death. He said Mr. Deodato had pneumonia and had been experiencing kidney and liver failure.

Mr. Deodato made a variety of movies in a career that began in the 1960s, as well as directing commercials and episodes of Italian television series. There was, for instance, “Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man” (1976), a crime thriller that Mr. Deodato said was one of his personal favorites. “Last Feelings” (1978), a romantic drama about a competitive swimmer who learns he has a terminal illness, drew comparisons (usually unfavorable) to “Love Story,” the 1970 American blockbuster.

But his horror films of the late 1970s and ’80s overshadowed everything else. He directed in a subgenre that, generally speaking, featured encounters between modern Westerners and jungle dwellers, with the Westerners not faring well. Before “Cannibal Holocaust,” he worked the territory with “The Last Survivor” (1977, also released under assorted other titles), in which oil prospectors whose plane is damaged in a rough landing in the Philippines are greeted by cannibals.

“Director Ruggero Deodato’s unselective barrage of torture and bloodletting includes termites eating human flesh, a python eating an iguana and a girl giving birth and tossing her infant to a hungry crocodile,” Linda Gross wrote in a 1978 review in The Los Angeles Times.

“Promotion material claims ‘The Last Survivor’ was made among authentic tribes and that one crew member who disappeared during filmmaking is presumed to be a victim of cannibalistic rites,” she added. “Pity the cannibals didn’t eat the film instead.”

And then came “Cannibal Holocaust.” Filmed in Leticia, in the rain forest of southern Colombia near the country’s borders with Peru and Brazil, it tells the story of an American professor who travels to the Amazon to investigate the disappearance of four journalists who had gone there to make a documentary on cannibal tribes. He finds their film, which recorded atrocities the journalists themselves committed as well as their brutal deaths.

Though Mr. Deodato used local villagers for much of the cast, he brought in some young actors to play the Westerners and, he said, had them sign agreements to not appear in anything else for a year, to keep up the illusion that parts of the movie were real.

That came back to haunt him. He said he was accused of actually murdering the actors — of, essentially, making a snuff film — and had to seek them out and produce them in public to get those charges dropped. Other charges, though, stuck, including ones stemming from the real deaths of several animals during the filming.

“To confiscate the film the authorities applied a public health law banning the importing of Spanish bullfighting in Italy, and on the basis of this law they seized the film,” he told Starburst magazine years later. “I was fined millions of lira and given a four months suspended sentence.”

Mr. Ercolani, who included an interview with Mr. Deodato in his book “Darkening the Italian Screen: Interviews With Genre and Exploitation Directors Who Debuted in the 1950s and 1960s” (2019) and produced the special features included in a recent rerelease of “Cannibal Holocaust,” said that Mr. Deodato “in many ways composed, rather than directed, ‘Cannibal Holocaust,’ as if in a long improvisational jazz session.”

“Ruggero Deodato was a director who put himself at the service of the market’s needs,” Mr. Ercolani said by email. “He wasn’t an intellectual, but he was an acutely instinctive man and director. He loved the process of storytelling, may it be in films, TV series or commercials. He had a great sense of rhythm and could recognize a good story.”

“This is not to say he wouldn’t put any thought into what he did,” he added, “but he was a man who gave priority to what he felt rather than what he thought. In many ways you could say he followed his gut right into film history with ‘Cannibal Holocaust.’”

Mr. Deodato was born on May 7, 1939, in Potenza, in southern Italy. His family moved to the Parioli neighborhood of Rome when he was a child, and he got a taste of acting.

“I participated in the early to mid-’50s in a handful of films,” he said in his interview for Mr. Ercolani’s book, “and I was even called by Federico Fellini to audition for a role — I don’t remember for which film — but in the meantime I had gone through puberty and I had lost my boyish charm. I wore glasses, had bad skin, and was discarded immediately.”

As a teenager he befriended Renzo Rossellini, son of the director Roberto Rossellini, which provided him with more connections in the film world. In the 1960s he worked with a number of Italian directors on a variety of movies, including Antonio Margheriti’s horror and fantasy titles (“Horror Castle,” “Anthar l’Invincibile”) and Sergio Corbucci’s westerns (“Django”).

“I was lucky enough to have been exposed to many different directors,” he said, “and each one of them has been essential to my growth. Margheriti taught me a lot about special effects, while from Sergio Corbucci I inherited a certain taste for violence and brutality.”

Mr. Deodato was married to the actress Silvia Dionisio in the 1970s and since the 1990s had been in a relationship with the actress Valentina Lainati. He is also survived by a son, Saverio, and a daughter, Beatrice.

Mr. Deodato’s movies after “Cannibal Holocaust” included “Cut and Run” (1985), which involved a cable news crew, drug smuggling and lots of corpses. “You can wait years for a movie as bad as ‘Cut and Run,’” Bill Cosford wrote in a review in The Miami Herald. He also acted occasionally, in his own movies and those of others; his credits included an appearance in “Hostel: Part II” (2007) by the director Eli Roth, a fan of “Cannibal Holocaust.”

Mr. Deodato was still racking up minor directing credits until a few years ago. Throughout his career, he was constantly asked about his most famous creation.

“He would at times embellish and build upon the numerous legends and myths that surround the complicated making of the film, often contradicting himself in the process,” Mr. Ercolani said. “What is evident is that ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ ended up being a gilded cage for its director.

“I feel a large portion of Deodato’s life has been passed battling his own creature, trying to reason with it, or maybe simply trying to fully understand it, and fending off perceptions the film generated about him over the years while embracing the fame it brought him. Deodato was a fun-loving, womanizing, outrageous, egocentric man, larger than life in so many ways, who found himself living for decades with this dark, fascinatingly twisted creature that he tried to educate and direct but that would not listen.”

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