With a film as cruel and upsetting as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust it can seem trite to discuss the beauty and creativity of the soundtrack. Here, after all, is a movie whose bad reputation rests on its capacity for grimy, traumatic realism, and the killing of live animals on camera. And yet, as anyone who’s seen the film will attest, the score provides a vital emotional register for the film; one could go so far as to say that Riz Ortolani’s music is the conscience of Cannibal Holocaust.
Riziero ‘Riz’ Ortolani was born on the 25th March 1926 in Pesaro, Italy and died in Rome on the 23rd of January 2014. He studied at the Conservatorio Statale di Musica in Pesaro and got his professional start as a musical arranger for the Italian TV network RAI. His first major success came with the international box-office smash Mondo Cane (1962) directed by Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi and Paolo Cavara. This was the film that birthed the ‘mondo’ movie craze of the 1960s and 1970s; a genre which presented a hotchpotch of outrageous, amusing or sickening clips filmed mostly in third-world locations. Masquerading as serious documentaries, the voyeuristic (and often fake) mondo movies fulfilled a role that the internet delivers today; a platform for the grossest, wildest, most bizarre images the world has to offer. Ortolani’s lush, melodious title theme lent a grandiose sweep to the titillatory travelogue, and such was its quality that in 1963 it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song (with the addition of words by British lyricist Norman Newell). The score was also nominated for a Grammy in 1964. Evidently comfortable working with Jacopetti and Prosperi, Ortolani went on to score the same directorial team’s La Donna Nel Mondo (1963), Africa Addio (1966), and their confrontational but massively misjudged slavery ‘exposé’ Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971).
Elsewhere in Italian cinema, Ortolani was in demand for his ability to combine brooding modernist string arrangements with jazz-inflected cues. He created two magnificent scores for Lucio Fulci, One On Top Of The Other (1969) and Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972), delivered classy material for Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet... So Perverse (1969) and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), and provided memorable soundtracks for such disparate Italian thrillers as Armando Crispino’s The Etruscan Kills Again (1972), Flavio Mogherini’s The Pyjama Girl Case (1977) and Maurizio Pradeaux’s Death Steps In The Dark (1977), the latter of which strongly anticipates his work on Cannibal Holocaust. His chief collaborations, however, were with Antonio Margheriti, Damiano Damiani and Pupi Avati. For Margeriti he wrote an incongruous but deliciously cool jazz score for The Virgin Of Nuremberg (1963) and intense, neurotic string arrangements for Castle Of Blood (1964), Web Of The Spider (1971) and Seven Deaths In The Cat's Eye (1973). For Damiani he scored eleven projects, including four of the director’s signature dramas about corruption in the Italian establishment: Confessions Of A Police Captain (1971), How To Kill A Judge (1975), The Bodyguard (1977) and The Warning (1980). From the 1980s onwards he became the composer of choice for Pupi Avati: horror fans revere his brilliant theme for Avati’s Zeder (1982) but may be less familiar with the many other scores he wrote for the Emilia-Romagnian director, including their first collaboration, Aiutami A Sognare (1981) and Ortolani’s last recorded work, the TV mini-series Un Matrimonio (2013).
Nothing else in the composer’s career, however, packs quite as much punch as his work on Cannibal Holocaust. Ruggero Deodato recalls that although he approached Ortolani on the basis of his work on the 1960s mondo movies, he was worried that the composer would balk at the extreme nature of the film! Luckily for Deodato, Ortolani watched a rough cut of Cannibal Holocaust, declared it a work of genius, and agreed to start work immediately.
In any other context, Ortolani’s instrumental title theme would sound like a sweet and lovely easy-listening number, perhaps awaiting the tender ministrations of Europop warbler Demis Roussos. The only hint of strangeness is the synthesised choral melody line, which has a muffled, slightly corroded quality; a fading dream of comfort instead of the real thing. Title sequence aside, there is almost no music in the first half of the film, as Robert Kerman’s investigator treks into the jungle looking for a lost documentary expedition. For Kerman’s scenes with the Amazonian Yacumo and Yamamomo tribes there’s just a simple non-committal drum pattern; emotional overtones are suppressed. All of this changes in the second half, which concentrates on the material shot by the doomed documentarians, retrieved by Kerman still fortuitously in its cans. Now, as the emphasis shifts to the found footage, Deodato pushes the music high in the mix and uses it ironically. It has been laid over the images by an enterprising editor, we are told, to ‘juice things up’ for the benefit of TV executives viewing the material for possible transmission. It’s a bitter joke about the media’s manipulation of reality which is more relevant than ever, given the tendency of even the most sober news networks to prostitute documentary footage with ‘mood music’, stylised graphics and histrionic voice-overs.
“Adulteress’ Punishment” sets the tone for the horrific scenes. A powerfully ominous synthesiser riff underpins the gravest of string arrangements, drooping with a sense of portent and tragedy, an orchestra with the weight of mankind’s wickedness on its shoulders. “Massacre of the Troupe” features Ortolani’s most alarming and intense string arrangement, with microtonalism rendering his massed unison chords and glissandii subtly deranged, fraught with unresolvable tension. “Crucified Woman” meanwhile adds an aching elegaic tone to one of the most appalling and brutal scenes, with strings accompanied by the subtle incongruity of country-folk acoustic guitar and bass, reminding us that the film is intended as a diatribe against, among other things, American involvement in the affairs of the Third World.
A prominent feature of Ortolani’s approach to Cannibal Holocaust is the use of synthesisers and electronic percussion, in particular a device called the ‘Syndrum’, a touch-sensitive drum pad triggering electronic sounds, used on a great many pop and disco records of the period, most famously Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” (1978) and Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” (1979). It also featured, in a very different context, on Joy Division’s first album Unknown Pleasures (1979), specifically the tracks “Insight” and “She’s Lost Control.” In Ortolani’s hands the Syndrum takes the notion of the tribal drumbeat and imbues it with a morbid, stomach-churning sleaziness. Ortolani had already embraced synthesisers on The Pyjama Girl Case two years earlier, but they play a much more striking and oppressive role here, with a brutal quality that underlines the savagery of the cannibals and the callousness of the white protagonists, not to mention the technological modernity that enshrines ‘documentary’ images of slaughter.
Cannibal Holocaust is packed with cynical, mean-spirited characters, so it is not toward their emotional lives that Ortolani turns for inspiration. Instead the music acts upon the presumption of a moral response in the viewer. Along with horror an incredible sadness permeates the compositions, as though a sorrowful omniscient eye is being cast over the human animal. Ortolani once described his score as a “religious adagio” and there is indeed a metaphysical aura, something of the pulpit to the stern and critical position it takes. At an emotional level one can hear common ground with Samuel Barber’s famous “Adagio for Strings” (1936) or Remo Giazotto’s “Adagio in G minor” (1958), although Ortolani’s penchant for stridency gives a colder, more ascerbic slant, as does the near-absence of vibrato in the violin technique.
Deodato’s directorial approach, on the other hand, has no religiosity; under his control the film is a hard-to-swallow mixture of amorality and moral censure. The mismatch sticks out like a peeled thumb; there’s no credible way to square Deodato’s amoral strategy of killing animals on camera with his tub-thumping anger at the immorality of Western media, or to correspond his relentless depiction of sexual violence against native women with his assertion that the film has the sanctity of Amazonian tribal culture at its heart. Only as a dissertation on manipulation does the film have credibility. Deodato’s ironic use of music results in a fractured relationship between film and audience not unlike Jean-Luc Godard’s use of Georges Delerue’s compositions in Contempt (1963). Ortolani scores as though addressing the Fall of Man; Deodato remains detached, applying the cues metatextually. His use of music, though structurally disciplined and coherent, is as cynical as the rest of his conception. The dissonance of these two approaches -- Ortolani sincere and emotional, Deodato ironic and intellectual -- adds yet another level of discomfort to Cannibal Holocaust.
Why did Deodato wish to make such a horrifying and distressing film? If one believes recent interviews it’s because he was concerned about the oppression of indigenous peoples by white cultural incursion and felt critical of the Italian media’s bloodthirsty reporting of homeland terrorist atrocities. Riz Ortolani’s reason for agreeing to score the movie remains obscure, but one thing is for sure; his engagement with the images was heartfelt. Thanks to his moving and indelible music, Cannibal Holocaust inspires intensely complex feelings; of compassion mixed with horror, and despair at the depths of human depravity.
Originally published in the February issue of Birth.Movies.Death. Mondo and Chiller are hosting a Cannibal Holocaust feast at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin this Valentine’s Day in honor of Mondo’s release of the film’s soundtrack on vinyl. Get tickets here!