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REAL ANIMAL KILLINGS IN REEL LIFE


For those of us who love horror, animal killings—real ones—are a deeply unpleasant yet seemingly inescapable component of our movie viewing.  From Italian cannibal chowdowns like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST to surreal sickies like THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, most of us have experienced enough animal killing, torture and mutilation to fill a dozen slaughterhouses.

     This isn’t something I hear discussed much in horror circles.  In a sense, animal killings are a “dirty little secret” that most fans, myself included, would prefer to leave unmentioned. 

     Nevertheless, my take on the matter is strong and unyielding, and I’m sure it mirrors that of the majority of my readers: there is NO defense for killing an animal in a FICTIONAL format.  Otherwise why not kill people as well?

     I’ll acknowledge the graphic slaughter and evisceration of a cow that climaxes Fernando Arrabal’s VIVA LA MUERTE (1971), an extraordinary film in most respects, is a powerful image.  I also recognize the sequence represents a failing on the part of Arrabal, who could have found any number of ways to make his point without resorting to murder.

     I’d say the same about the gruesome nighttime kangaroo murders in the Australian WAKE IN FRIGHT (1970), but in this case the filmmakers might have found a loophole.  Yes, the killings are entirely real, but as an elaborately worded end credits statement informs us, they were filmed during an actual hunt conducted by licensed hunters and not staged specifically for the film.  Director Barbet Schroeder’s MAITRESSE, likewise, contains a scene where its hero dispassionately watches the slaughter of a horse; the scene was shot in an actual slaughterhouse, so the onscreen killing was simply part of the day’s real-life work.

     Documentaries like the infamous LE SANG DES BETES (BLOOD OF THE BEASTS, 1949) and MEAT (1974) offer far more comprehensive views of the daily workings of the world’s slaughterhouses, and both earn a high recommendation from me.  As upsetting as those films are, they deserve credit for showing how the meat so many of us happily consume each day is gathered and prepared. 

     The problem is that the “it’s okay to kill an animal so long as it’s eaten afterwards” argument has been co-opted by moviemakers to justify quite a few celluloid killings.  The prime culprit: John Waters’ PINK FLAMINGOES, where a chicken is literally fucked to death onscreen.  It’s okay, though, because, according to the filmmaker, it was later cooked and eaten by the crew--gimme a fuckin’ break!

     Even less persuasive is the rationale invoked by Italian filmmakers Ruggero Deodato (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) and Umberto Lenzi (MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY): that the slaughtering of countless animals in their films is justifiable because filming was conducted in primitive locals where people would have killed them anyway.  A weak argument under the best of circumstances, but a completely baseless one considering the hideous tortures those animals were subjected to: a live turtle’s limbs are chopped off with a machete (from MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY), a pig is shot repeatedly in the head (from CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST), a snake devours a rat on camera (MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY), etc.

     Skillfully made though they may be (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST in particular; there’s a reason it’s credited with kicking off an entire genre, and was ripped off so heavily by THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), those films exist solely on a level of pure exploitation, so the animal slaughters seem particularly offensive and pointless.  But would the killing somehow be justifiable in a so-called “art” film?  I’ll attempt to answer that question in a minute. 

     Right now, though, ponder this: what exactly is the point of holding a screaming muskrat up to the camera, as is done in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and slowly driving a knife into its belly and out through the top of its head?  Aside from simply padding the film’s running time, the act seems to have been committed to make the simulated human killings more convincing, and demonstrate what assholes the onscreen characters are.  I’d say it says a hell of a lot more about the questionable natures of the offscreen filmmakers.

__________   __________


     Were this vile trend confined to the horror/sleaze arena, it might be easier to take.  But animal killings are just as, if not more, widespread in so-called mainstream movies.

     Hollywood fare like THE NAKED PREY, FOOD OF THE GODS, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID and APOCALYPSE NOW all feature animals killed onscreen (surely you didn’t think the slaughter of the bull at the end of APOCALYPSE was faked?), as do respected foreign films like WEEKEND, ERENDIRA and 1900, to name but a few.  International critics may recoil at the animal killings in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but I wonder what they think about a lengthy sequence in the French classic THE RULES OF THE GAME (LA REGLE DU JEU, 1939) in which at least a dozen rabbits are shot.

     THE RULES OF THE GAME is often cited as the second greatest film ever made; I’ve read a number of essays on it, yet somehow NONE of them bother to mention the rabbit killings.  Another foreign “classic” that has received much rapturous acclaim is the Italian peasant drama THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS (L’ARBRE AUX SABOTS, 1978), even though the film contains more than one graphically depicted, truly repellant pig killing.  Once again, NO mention of this aspect has ever been forthcoming from the film’s admirers (and, furthermore, it somehow received a G rating!). 

     I get the feeling that, like many horror fans, mainstream critics would rather close their eyes to this practice and hope it will go away.  As for the filmmakers, I believe the attitude of Ingmar Bergman, one of the world’s most acclaimed directors, sums it up.

     According to David Carradine, the star of Bergman’s 1977 opus THE SERPENT’S EGG, the filmmaker ordered a horse killed during the movie--in Carradine’s words: “…it was okay because it was for art.  They got the horse from the slaughterhouse.  He reasoned that the horse was dying anyway, and he thought the art was worth it…He actually felt the art he was creating was more important than life.”

     What does it say about Bergman’s “art” that he needs to validate it by killing an animal?  Not a whole lot, in my view.  But then, the fact that he falls back on virtually the same “it was going to die anyway” excuse used by exploiters like Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi (see above) speaks volumes.

     Today most countries have laws prohibiting animal cruelty on movie sets, but the practice, contrary to the apparent hopes of many critics and audiences, has definitely NOT gone away.  How many fish, rats, chickens and pigs have laid down their lives for the greedy contestants on SURVIVOR?  And don’t forget that infamous WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK Fox TV program from ‘96, which should have been titled WHEN ANIMALS ARE PROVOKED (and subsequently punished for acting in self-defense).

     I believe it’s time we brought this Dirty Little Secret out of the closet.  Simulated animal murders are fine, just as simulated human killings are permissible in a fictional format.  But crossing the line in this area takes a film, its maker and, yes, even the viewer out of the realm of art and into that of real life criminality…and pretending otherwise will NOT help matters.
 


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