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A snuff film is a motion picture genre that depicts the actual murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of distribution and entertainment or financial exploitation. Some filmed records of executions and murders exist but have not been made or released for commercial purposes.
The very first recorded use of the term "snuff film" is in a 1971 book by Ed Sanders, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. He alleges that The Manson Family was involved in making such a film in California to record their murders.
The metaphorical use of the term "snuff" to denote killing appears to be derived from a verb for extinguishing a candle. The word has been used as such in English slang for hundreds of years. John Camden Hotten lists the term in the fifth edition of his Slang Dictionary in 1874 as a "term very common among the lower orders of London, meaning to die from disease or accident." The word is descended (via the Middle English "snuffen" or "snuppen") from the Old English "snithan", meaning to slaughter and dismember, from "snide", meaning to kill by cutting or stabbing, from "snid", to cut.
The Michael Powell film Peeping Tom (1960) featured a filmmaker who committed murders and used the acts as the content of his documentary films, although no real murders are seen in the film. The concept of "snuff films" being made for profit became more widely known in 1976 with the commercial film Snuff. A low budget exploitation horror film entitled Slaughter was directed by Michael and Roberta Findlay. In an interview decades later, Roberta Findlay said that the film's distributor Allan Shackleton had read about snuff films being imported from South America and retitled the film to Snuff to exploit the idea; he also added a new ending that depicted an actress being murdered on a film set. The promotion of Snuff on its second release suggested it featured the murder of an actress: "The film that could only be made in South America... where life is CHEAP.", but that was false advertising. Shackleton put out false newspaper clippings that reported a citizens group's crusading against the film and hired people to act as protesters to picket screenings.
In the wake of Snuff, numerous films explored the idea of snuff films, or used them as a plot device. They include Last House on Dead End Street (1977), Paul Schrader's Hardcore (1979), Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline (1979), the Ruggero Deodato film Cannibal Holocaust (1980), David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), the Nine Inch Nails film The Broken Movie (1993), the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), the Alejandro Amenábar film Tesis (1996), the film Strange Days (1995), the Anthony Waller film Mute Witness (1994), the Johnny Depp film The Brave (1997), the Joel Schumacher film 8mm (1999), the John Ottman film Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000), the Fred Vogel film August Underground (2001) and its sequels, the Mariano Peralta film Snuff 102 (2007), the Wes Craven film Scream 4, the Scott Derrickson film Sinister (2012) and the Ridley Scott film The Counselor (2013).
Internet snuff films are alluded to in the Marc Evans film My Little Eye (2002), and the film Halloween: Resurrection. The Showtime TV series Dexter features an internet snuff scene. Most recently the subject has been addressed in British film director Bernard Rose's film Snuff-Movie (2005), the Nimród Antal film Vacancy (2007) and also in the WWE film The Condemned (2007) and the Gregory Hoblit film Untraceable. Rockstar Games, the controversial game publisher, released the snuff-themed Manhunt in 2003.
Some murderers have recorded their acts on video. Documentary film makers and television news crews have also captured footage of executions or accidental deaths. The resultant footage is not usually considered to constitute a snuff film because the deaths were not enacted in a for-profit film.
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The assassination of Alexander I of Yugoslavia in 1934 was one of the first to be captured on film. The sinking of the HMS Barham in 1941 and the 1955 Le Mans disaster were both captured on film and have been widely shown since then. The American public was gripped by the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The self-immolation and death of Thich Quang Duc, a monk who protested against the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem during the Vietnam War, was not only one of the most notable figures to have his death captured on film, but he was one of the first individuals to have his suicide recorded. The Passenger, a film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, includes film footage of a firing squad execution. The stabbing death of Meredith Hunter by a Hell's Angel at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway was captured and shown in Albert and David Maysles' documentary film Gimme Shelter. The 1995 documentary film Executions showed several executions of people condemned to death.
The 2001 Daytona 500 witnessed the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the event after he was in an accident. The footage of the wreck was not shown on live television, as the camera was fixed on race leaders, but was shown afterwards in replays after the race was over. Although Earnhardt was not the first NASCAR driver to die in a wreck, he was arguably more famous than many other drivers that have died. His crash forced NASCAR to implement new safety regulations, such as the Car of Tomorrow. NASCAR has not replayed Earnhardt's wreck, but many videos of the incident exist on the internet. In 1994 Ayrton Senna's fatal crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was also shown on live television but he died later in a hospital. Nodar Kumaritashvili's fatal accident at the 2010 Winter Olympics luge event was televised live to millions of viewers.
On September 11, 2001, hundreds of millions of people saw television news coverage after the attacks that included footage of people jumping to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center in New York City.
News footage or intentional political records that captured murders, executions or suicides, including those of Nick Berg, Paul Johnson, Kim Sun-il, Eugene Armstrong, Daniel Pearl, Inejiro Asanuma, Lee Harvey Oswald and Yitzhak Rabin, and the suicides of Ricardo Cerna, and Budd Dwyer have been posted on the Internet. Such footage was either of a real event and shot for documentary purposes, or the assassins filmed a murder to use the record for political purposes. The resulting footage cannot be called a snuff film according to its definition.
The Faces of Death video series presents archive footage of various deaths, corpses, injuries and autopsies including car accidents, suicides, shootings (including the press conference suicide of Dwyer) and other borrowed footage.
In several cases murderers and serial killers have recorded aspects of their crimes, although they filmed their victims while still alive. These include:
The first two films in the Japanese Guinea Pig series are designed to look like snuff films; the video is grainy and unsteady, as if recorded by amateurs. In the late 1980s, the Guinea Pig films were allegedly one of the inspirations for Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki's murders of preschool girls. The Guinea Pig film he owned was "Mermaid in a Manhole".
After viewing a portion of Flower of Flesh and Blood, the actor Charlie Sheen thought that the murder depicted was genuine and contacted the MPAA, which contacted the FBI. FBI agent Dan Codling informed Sheen and the MPAA that the FBI and the Japanese authorities were already investigating the film makers, who were forced to prove that the murders were fake. While the Guinea Pig films are not snuff films, two were purported to be based on snuff films. The Devil's Experiment was supposedly based on a film sent to the Tokyo police showing a group dismember a young woman. Although Flower of Flesh and Blood was supposedly made after manga artist, Hideshi Hino, received snuff materials, it was based on his own manga.
Other than graphic gore, the film contains several scenes of sexual violence and the genuine deaths of 6 animals onscreen and one off screen, issues which find Cannibal Holocaust in the midst of controversy to this day. It has also been claimed that Cannibal Holocaust is banned in over 50 countries, although this has never been verified. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine named Cannibal Holocaust as the 20th most controversial film of all-time.