As with most horror fans, my earliest experience of Deodato was the notorious "Cannibal Holocaust" during the home video era. That film, along with Umberto Lenzi's "Cannibal Ferox," were by far the two nastiest titles a teenager could rent. My shock turned to appreciation when Deodato began having an influence on Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino. Roth not only put Deodato in a "Hostel" film, but emulated the maestro quite literally with "The Green Inferno." Eventually, the man himself came to the American Midwest and I was able to have a very broken conversation with him in Italian. He was kind enough to give me grammar corrections, and we ended up dining at a nearby restaurant. That day remains one of the highlights of my life.
"Deodato Holocaust" is a very simple concept. The majority of the film is Deodato himself sitting in what looks like a hotel lobby and recounting stories from his life. But this simple concept is very effective; other interviewees might have rounded out the stories more, but this is not their film. This is one man's story in his own words.
We learn early on that Deodato has never embraced the "horror director" label, arguing that he also made romance and fantasy pictures. He was not even a fan of the genre - ironically because of the gore - and did not view his cannibal pictures as "horror" films. How they could be anything else is puzzling, but he is quite sincere in his position.
His early years really do not suggest a "master of horror." Deodato was pro-monarchy in his youth, as his mother allegedly descended from nobility and therefore he felt a kinship with the king. This political stance lead him to meet and befriend the anti-monarchy, pro-Republic Rossellini family and their friends, including such icons as Ingrid Berman. Deodato made "about sixty" films (in his estimation) as an assistant to Rossellini, Sergio Corbucci and others. None of them horror.
Rossellini was Deodato's strongest influence, and this is where he learned all about realism, and the use of strong images. A child's suicide figures in "Germany Year Zero (1948), for example. Deodato picked up on this realism and strong imagery and intensified it for the next generation. Working with Corbucci, Deodato is said to be the one who landed Franco Nero the iconic role of Django, making him an international star.
His directorial debut was the little-known "Gungala, the Panther Woman" - though he was credited under a fake name. From there he made a Hercules movie, 007 knockoffs and police thrillers. He was on the road to success, getting more well known all the time. And then... he achieved notoriety internationally through the marketing of "Cannibal Holocaust" as a documentary. People believed that real murders were shown, and legal battles ensued that kept him from directing for a while (in Italy, you needed a license to be a director).
Although Deodato may not see himself as a horror director, the 1980s saw him making horror film after horror film. He took over "Cut and Run" from Wes Craven, and made a few slasher films. Things took a strange turn, and he shot "Dial Help" and "The Washing Machine", films about a killer telephone yes, really) and washing machine (duh), respectively. From there, his star faded.
According to Deodato, 1999 was the year he gained immortality. Not through anything he did, but because of "The Blair Witch Project" (which he considers a poor excuse of a film). The success of this found footage pioneer reminded people of an earlier "found footage" story - "Cannibal Holocaust" - and Deodato was now seen as a genius rather than an outcast. While I was already aware of who he was, this attention indirectly gained Deodato a following and ultimately brought him to American horror conventions. So, on behalf of all the Deodato fans, thank you "Blair Witch"!
"Deodato Holocaust" puts Deodato in his rightful place, rather than as the "cult" figure he has become. Much of the film covers his horror career, and no doubt the filmmakers were drawn to him because of these films. But we also see how he has more in common with Rossellini, Corucci and Fellini than with Argento and Bava. Is it too late to honor this man and get decent releases of his hidden gems? Even the definitive book on his career is hard to come by. "Cannibal Holocaust: The Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato" is out of print and used copies easily fetch $45. Reprint this book, and somebody (Arrow Video?) get cracking on a new 4K transfer of "Gungala"!
"Deodato Holocaust" had its world premiere on Thursday, May 16th as the Opening Night Film of the Fantaspoa Film Festival in Porto Alegre, Brazil. No doubt it will continue to tour festivals throughout 2019, and see a wider release later on. If you have the chance to catch it, please do.