The film caused some scandal in Italy at the time of its release. Ten days after premiering in Milan, the film was seized by the courts, and the director, Ruggero Deodato, was arrested and charged with obscenity. He was later charged with murder and faced life in prison on the belief that several of the actors were murdered for the camera. Deodato contacted Luca Barbareschi and told him to contact the three other actors who played the missing film team. He presented the actors, alive and well, to the courts, and thus, the murder charges were dropped. The film remained banned in Italy for another three years.
The animal slaughterings in the movie were real, which ultimately resulted in the movie's being banned in its native Italy after the snuff film rumors were proved false. The killed animals were a coati or coatimundi (erroneously referred to as a muskrat in the film), a river turtle, a snake, a tarantula, a pair of squirrel monkeys, and a young pig.
Ruggero Deodato was inspired to make the movie after seeing his son watching the violent news on TV and noticed how the journalists focus on the violence. He also believed that some news angles were actually staged to capture more sensational footage, hence the similar angle seen in the film.
This movie has gained the title of the most notorious movie of all-time, and is often claimed to be banned in over 50 countries worldwide. If true, it would easily hold the world record for the most heavily banned film.
The iconic poster image for the film shows a "cannibal" girl impaled on a stick. Upon being summoned to court in order to assert that no actors were harmed during production, Ruggero Deodato explained that the girl simply sat on a bicycle seat attached to the pole's base, while holding a small pointed balsa wood piece in her mouth. The fake blood was then added. He commented that the girl had an unusually calm temperament to be able to remain so still during the filming.
In a 2005 interview, Carl Gabriel Yorke ("Alan Yates") said that when rehearsing for the sex scene with Francesca Ciardi ("Faye Daniels"), she suggested that the two go out in the middle of the jungle and "actually do it". Yorke declined, stating that he was with somebody back in New York. As a result, Ciardi was very upset with him for the rest of the shoot.
When Carl Gabriel Yorke ("Alan Yates") arrived in the Amazon for shooting, he wasn't given a script or an idea of what the movie was about. As soon as he arrived, director Ruggero Deodato shouted, "That's my star! Get him into makeup!" Almost immediately, the first scene they shot was the amputation of one of the character's leg. Yorke later in an interview said while staying there in the jungle, he didn't know whether this film was a Hollywood production or simply a snuff film.
Immediately after a pig was shot and killed in the movie, Carl Gabriel Yorke botched a long monologue that Ruggero Deodato very much wanted to be included in the movie. After rehearsing the line several times and doing fine, Yorke says he screwed up during filming because he heard the pig squeal and die. Retakes weren't possible because they was only one pig "allotted" to be killed and there were no more available.
Originally, Ruggero Deodato had a fake monkey head with fake brains in it for the natives to "eat" instead of killing and eating a real monkey. The natives talked him out of it, however, as monkey brains were a delicacy to them.
Though uncaring towards the nature of his film during shooting, Ruggero Deodato now regrets everything he did, mostly the actual animal killings. He said once that he wishes now that he never made the movie.
There have been six unofficial sequels to this film. Cannibal Holocaust II was the first movie to call itself "Cannibal Holocaust II" (in Italy, Turkey and the UK). Other movies that tried to associate themselves with this film were White Slave ("Cannibal Holocaust 2: The Catherine Miles Story" on European DVD), Eaten Alive! ("Holocausto Caníbal 2" on Argentinian DVD), Cannibal World (known as "Cannibal Holocaust 2: The Beginning" in Japan) and Land of Death (also known as "Cannibal Holocaust 3: Cannibal vs. Commando" in Japan). If all these movies were considered actual sequels, "Cannibal Holocaust" would have four "part twos" in its series.
In the ten days after its release, the movie grossed approximately $1.9 million in February 1980 (what would be about $5 million today) before it was seized by the Italian courts and Ruggero Deodato arrested. Because of its infamy and several subsequent re-releases, it is claimed that the film has grossed $200 million worldwide (inflation not adjusted), though this has never been verified.
The actress in the adulteress punishment was actually the head of wardrobe, Lucia Costantini. Apparently, the production team was unable to find any local women to agree to be in the scene. Costantini was completely covered in mud to give the appearance that she was a native.
The father of the actor who played Miguel was murdered during filming. Production was delayed slightly for the actor to go home for the funeral. He can be seen crying over his father's death in the scene in which Prof. Monroe, Chaco and Miguel are sitting outside the Yanomamo village immediately following the discovery of the bone shrine.
After seeing the film, director Sergio Leone wrote a letter to Ruggero Deodato, which stated, "Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world."
This film contains unsimulated sex acts, despite the actors involved saying otherwise. It was maintained till 2009, that Francesca Ciardi and Carl Gabriel Yorke's sex scenes were not only simulated but not occurring on set. These acts were confirmed as real by the actress Francesca Ciardi as occurring not just off set but during filming. She explained she kept up the idea for the sake of the actor who had a girlfriend at the time.
A real-life incident inspired this film. Ruggero Deodato, the director, based the film on a real incident he watched about a documentary crew who died investigating cannibals. The real-life documentary he saw, showing incidents he depicted in the film, was destroyed after it was discovered. Despite the footage being destroyed, an Italian cable network claimed it had a copy and was going to show it uncut. It never did, however, but it was confirmed that the station was serious about its advertisements and did possess a copy of the original film). Ruggero Deodato has said his film was a much tamer version of those videos and more inspired by seeing his son watching regular TV news.
A final subtitle at the end of the film states "Projectionist John K. Kirov was given a two-month suspended jail sentence and fined $10,000 for illegal appropriation of film material. We know that he received $250,000 for that same footage." is a reference to a distributor who screened the real cannibal footage that Ruggero Deodato based the film on.
The animals killed in the film were given to the tribes for food, so they weren't just killed for screen effect but food for natives. Ruggero Deodato still stated he later regretted filming actual animal deaths.
Ruggero Deodato reviewed hours upon hours of execution footage to create "The Last Road To Hell" Sequence. He later alleged that some of the footage he watched showed up in the "Faces Of Death" videos, a lot of which was rejected because it seemed fake when he saw it.