The 100+ Most Controversial
Films of All-Time


The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
Movie Title Screen
Film Title/Year, Director

Cannibal Holocaust (1980, It.)
D. Ruggero Deodato

Banned in several countries, this gore-soaked movie's use of "found footage" to reveal the fate of a missing documentary crew made it seem too real.

This extremely graphic, hotly-debated cult classic Italian film - the uncredited inspirational precursor of the faux-documentary "found-footage" smash hit The Blair Witch Project (1999) - was filled with violent, grisly, and disturbing images.

[Note: Another Italian exploitation film Cannibal Ferox (1981, It.) (aka Make Them Die Slowly) with unbelievable scenes of graphic violence (including castration and breast impalement) in the Amazon followed closely on the heels of Cannibal Holocaust (1980). It was also banned and controversial for its extreme violence. See below.]

The cannibal-exploitation film was purportedly the story of a four-person American film crew that disappeared while making a documentary (a feature entitled "The Green Inferno") about the last surviving indigenous tribes that still practiced cannibalism in the wilds of South America's Amazon jungle area. The entire film crew consisted of:

  • director Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke)
  • Alan's girlfriend and script-girl Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi)
  • cameramen Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen)
  • cameraman Mark Tomaso (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi)

A search and rescue mission was undertaken, led by New York University anthropologist Harold Monroe (with two guides: Chaco and his assistant Miguel), who discovered footage of a film crew's journey. The reels were taken back to NYC for viewing. Masterful cinematic tricks and special effects created an unnerving view of the fate of the team - found in the undeveloped film cans of raw footage.

Grisly, realistic-looking scenes (either realistic or staged) included a leg amputation with a machete (to prevent snake-bite poisoning), a staged hut burning where women and children had been herded, guts-eating, a brutal ritualistic "punishment for adultery" torture with a large dildo, numerous animal slaughterings (including a horrible turtle murder), a forced beating and abortion (and burial of the undeveloped fetus in mud), a forcible gang-rape of a young native girl in a muddy field, beatings with large hammers, male genital dismemberment followed by body mutilation, disembowelment and the display of guts, and Faye's rape, beating and beheading.

The film's most notorious scene included the discovery of the impalement of the young gang-raped female on a pole, with a pole inserted from her mouth to her genitals.

For his work on the film, the director was arrested by Italian authorities on suspicion of murder charges and faced life in prison, following its 1980 Milan premiere. He endured a trial when Italian authorities were unconvinced that the footage was indeed staged. Deodato lost the original trial, and all prints were to be destroyed, but he managed to have the ruling overturned in the early '80s when the actors finally appeared on TV to prove otherwise. Some five years passed before the film saw release in Deodato's home country. This movie was banned for twenty years in certain countries, including the UK.

Cruising (1980)
D. William Friedkin

William Friedkin's sexually-frank thriller offended gay-rights activists by implying that homosexuality inevitably leads to murder.

William Friedkin's notorious, grisly slasher-thriller film about a police investigation examined the seedy and dangerous underworld of gay S&M in NY's heavy leather bars (including The Ramrod). NY Times reporter Gerald Walker's 1970 novel of the same name was the basis for the dramatic film, about an NYPD police investigation to find a self-loathing homosexual serial killer who was targeting gays.

It displayed actual leather-clad gay-bar patrons as extras in the meat-packing district rather than actors, and was considered a precursor to some segments of Irreversible (2002, Fr.). It received three Golden Raspberry nominations: Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Director (losing twice to Can't Stop the Music (1980) and to Xanadu (1980)). Two months after the film was released, a man killed two patrons and injured almost a dozen others at The Ramrod with a sub-machine gun.

The originally X-rated film (eventually reduced to R after massive cuts) is currently truncated. It still lacks approximately 40 minutes of footage that were censored and edited out. It opened with a disclaimer: "The film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world which is not meant to be a representative of the whole."

However, major protests by gay groups - the first of their kind - accused the semi-exploitational film of being anti-gay and homophobic prior to the AIDS crisis for its depiction of the gritty, kinky, dangerous, sex-obsessed and depraved lifestyle of homosexuals. The protest centered around the film's ultra-provocative plot -- murders in gay nightclubs, and the film's negative, one-sided and stereotypical view of gays portrayed as crude psychopaths, sexual deviants, and sexual predators engaged in violent fetishistic activity and various hardcore sexual acts (i.e., a scene of fisting with a nearly naked man shackled and hanging from the ceiling).

The controversial film about an alternative or extreme lifestyle starred Al Pacino as a supposedly-straight undercover cop (posing and transforming himself into a gay man in order to fit the serial killer's victim profile) named Steve Burns. He was investigating violent serial killer murders in the Big Apple's homosexual underworld, evidenced by body parts found in the Hudson River, and thereby connecting violence with the homosexual lifestyle. He was dispatched to locate and identify possible suspects and possibly to serve as 'bait' for the killer.

One questionably campy scene, a police interrogation, involved a large black man in thong underwear and a cowboy hat inexplicably conducting the brutal questioning. In one startling scene, Burns was tied up butt-naked on a bed and threatened with a knife. The film also included an extended sequence of the climactic and ferocious stabbing scene ("You made me do that" was offered as justification).

By film's end, the theme of the ambiguity of the killer's identity was still maintained. Burns continued to visit gay bars even after the case appeared to be solved and the serial killer was apprehended -- and a last-minute scene opened up the suggestion that the sexually-confused Burns was the killer.

Heaven's Gate (1980)
D. Michael Cimino

Bad pre-release buzz, including explosive accusations of animal abuse, helped turn Michael Cimino's epic western into a legendary flop.

This notorious, big-budget epic film was a major financial disaster for its studio (United Artists, the studio of Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks) - it also was a disaster for the western film genre for the remainder of the 80s, and it ended the reign of the New Wave of 1970's 'auteurs' or independent film-makers.

Michael Cimino's expensive 'boondoggle' film and revisionistic Western told about the Johnson County Wars between starving Eastern European immigrant farmers and mercenaries hired by the cattlemen.

Its self-indulgent, financially-irresponsible and excessive writer/director who had been praised for his Best Picture and Best Director-winning The Deer Hunter (1978), took the brunt of much of the film's criticism, for its ballooning budget that was almost six times above-budget to produce (from $7.5 million to about $44 million), for its overlong incomprehensible plot (originally a 5-hour version that was cut down to 219 minutes), for its miscasting and slow pacing, for its expensive on-location shooting and fastidious over-attention to detail and historical accuracy, and for allegations of animal abuse - all for a film without major stars.

Following its initial release in late 1980, the film was pulled from theatres, edited down by over an hour in length, and re-released a few months later, although it still failed miserably. UA's corporate parent, Transamerica, was forced to sell the bankrupted studio to MGM for only $350 million as a result.

Heaven's Gate was one of the first films to be prejudged by a critic. The infamous review of New York Times critic Vincent Canby ("It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect") built negative press until Cimino's film was doomed to have an un-profitable theatrical release. The film received numerous Razzie Award nominations including a Worst Director prize for Cimino, although it received generally positive reviews after release to video, and fairly good results from its international box-office. It was critically re-evaluated by the LA-based Z Channel when it premiered on cable TV in its uncut version in 1982, but it was already too late.

The documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate (2004), composed of a series of interviews (and based on Steven Bach's 1985 book of the same name), provided a behind-the-scenes look at the film - one of Hollywood's most notorious disasters. The film became the biggest flop in film history at the time (US box-office was only about $1.5 million), and since then has been synonymous for any film judged to be a monumental 'turkey' that faced major financial disaster.

Cannibal Ferox (1981, It.) (aka Make Them Die Slowly)
D. Umberto Lenzi

As nasty and unwatchable as the previous year's Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and one of the most banned films ever made, with scenes of eye-gouging, brain eating, two male castrations, cruelty toward animals, and death by breast impalement.

Umberto Lenzi's Italian exploitation 'cannibal' film was notorious for being one of the most banned and violent films ever made. It aspired to be as nasty and unwatchable as the previous year's Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and was banned from viewing in dozens of countries.

It exhibited gruesome death scenes and tremendous shock value for its explicit gore and gratuitous violence. Its opening included a warning statement about its barbarity:

The following feature is one of the most violent films ever made. There are at least two dozen scenes of barbaric torture and sadistic cruelty graphically shown. If the presentation of disgusting and repulsive subject matter upsets you, please do not view this film.

The controversial film began with NYC drug dealer Mike Logan (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, aka John Morghen) selling heroin to a drug user who was subsequently shot by mobsters. Soon after, coke-snorting Mike fled to Paraguay with badly-injured partner and fellow adventurer Joe Costolani (Walter Lucchini, aka Walter Lloyd), and began exploiting, torturing and abusing the natives to acquire their precious gems and drugs. Mike treated the locals with sadistic disrespect - he gunned down and murdered a native girl and kidnapped a hostage, and then blamed hostilities on the natives..

Also in the jungle setting were NYU Ph.D. graduate student anthropologist-researcher Gloria Davis (Lorraine De Selle) with her brother Rudy (Danilo Mattei, aka Bryan Redford) and blonde friend Pat (Zora Kerova). Gloria's theoretical objective was to prove that cannibalism was a myth (an "invention of colonialism"). The two groups met up, and soon slutty Pat was sexually seduced by Mike, helped with a dose of cocaine. Within a short period of time, the mistreated natives sought revenge and captured the entire group. The wounded Joe was accosted by the angry natives, who disemboweled him, pulled out his intestines, and ate them.

Joe's Disembowelment

During an escape attempt, Rudy's leg was bloodied in a jungle booby trap and he was attacked by piranhas when he hid in a body of water. Natives shot him with a lethal poison dart. Mike was also caged, but fled into the jungle, although he was recaptured and treated harshly like the villager he had previously tortured. He was castrated with a machete (his prized excised genitals were eaten raw and the painful wound was cauterized) and then imprisoned underground. He actually escaped again - and upon recapture, his right hand was amputated. He was then restrained in a crude apparatus - positioned under a wooden table with a hole in it, through which the top of his head appeared. Natives chopped off the top of his skullcap with a machete to eat his brains. An horrific and repulsive partial decapitation death method was the one in which Mike suffered and expired.

A torturous 'meat-hook' death was inflicted upon feisty female victim Pat. She was stripped of her shirt, and then iron hooks were pierced through both of her breasts. She was impaled by both breasts and suspended by ropes attached to the hooks to bleed to death in the Amazon jungle sun, as Gloria watched her die.

By film's end, Gloria was freed by a sympathetic male native, and was able to reach safety and civilization when discovered by monkey traders. A few months later, she published her dissertation thesis titled Cannibalism: End of a Myth and received her doctorate degree in anthropology. Her writing was all a lie - and a distortion of her jungle experience. However, her reasoning was that the violence she had experienced was first inflicted upon the natives by her "civilized" and "superior" society - and those acts of violence bred more violence.

Pat's Death By Breast-Hanging

Brutality Toward Natives:

Mike's Machete Castration

Mike's Hand Amputation

Mike's Slow Decapitation Death and Brain Consumption

Gloria's Rescue

The Evil Dead (1981)
D. Sam Raimi

Sam Raimi's debut was virtually guaranteed an X-rating for blood and gore, but the rape-by-tree scene was the capper and it was released unrated.

This was the first installment of Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, a low-budget, non-humorous B-grade horror film with the Stephen King quoted tagline: "the ultimate experience in grueling terror."

Due to the film's graphic violence, it was banned in several European countries. In the UK, the film was subject to obscenity trials and various censorship cuts - particularly the tree-rape scene. On-screen blood and gore would have given the film an NC-17 rating if Raimi had presented the film to the ratings board when it was first released.

This was the ultimate "cabin in the woods" film - with malevolent evil spirits being unleashed upon five college students in a Tennessee cabin after the reading of a forbidden book (the "Naturan Demanto" or the Necronomicon).

The film's most controversial scene, the infamous (and gratuitous) predatory tree rape scene, was accused of being misogynistic. In the scene, university student Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), main character Ash Williams' (Bruce Campbell) younger sister, was attacked in the woods outside the log cabin by tree branches and vines that wrapped around her neck and limbs, stripped her of her clothes, caressed her and then spread her legs ("It was the woods themselves, they're alive") - one tree branch suddenly impaled her in her crotch. Soon after, she was chased back to the house (with quick POV tracking shots), she was transformed into a demon zombie with a greyish white face and superhuman strength.

The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
(chronologically, by film title)
Intro | Silents-1930s | 1940s-1950s | 1960-1961 | 1962-1967 | 1968-1969
1970-1971 | 1972 | 1973-1974 | 1975 | 1976-1977 | 1978 | 1979
1980-1982 | 1983-1986 | 1987-1989 | 1990-1992 | 1993-1995 | 1996-1999
2000-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-2009 | 2010-present

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