The cinematic attraction to cannibalism, in its earliest form, comes from a colonial fascination with the Amazon and from real-life western survivalist stories. Depictions of the tribes of the Amazon started appearing in adventure movies of the 30s and 40s, though depictions of actual cannibalism in South America or elsewhere did not appear until the 1960s. Tales of western expansion in American continent also provided endless fascination, culminating in the Donner Party narrative of stranded explorers turned cannibals.
But it was 1972’s The Man from Deep River that kickstarted the genre we now know as Cannibal Films. The Italian direct Umberto Lenzi combined mondo cinema documentary with the American westerns, particularly Man from Horse, about a white man captured by Native Americans, and produced the first exploitation cannibalism film.
Ever since, cannibalism has been a popular subject of world cinema. Popular being loosely applied here, of course. There have been dozens of films about cannibalism–horror, comedy, even musicals about cannibals– some of which have crossed over to mainstream audiences, but mostly they have lived in grindhouse theaters, under the auspices of cult film and exploitation.
And for good reason, honestly, because the cannibal film genre is sustenance for an appetite many might not have a taste for. Not only is the violence usually awful, but historically the genre is also baked in white privilege, exploitation and overt racism. Playing the subgenre of early Cannibal Film is unwelcome for these very reasons (cough Eli Roth).
But cannibalism as a subject has since broadened its scope, and it has become a tool for social and political commentary and satire. The latest cannibal film to land is Raw, Julia Ducournau’s coming-of-age story of a teenage vegetarian who gets a taste for flesh, does just that, making a movie about women’s bodies that is both a disgusting film and a powerful one. Raw was a sensation at Cannes last year, simultaneously winning prizes and sending audiences to the hospital.
For the curious, or the adventurous, or simply for viewers who like cinema in extremis, below are 9 of the most notable cannibal films, and a verdict on whether or not they are worth your precious screening time.
A coming-of-age tale of a young vegetarian who gets a taste for meat, Ducournau’s Raw is a feast of feminine horror storytelling. It’s sexy, political, disturbing, and absolutely mesmerizing.
The Stake’s review of Raw is coming next week.
Best Critical Take: Kate Walsh says “With this unusual device of cannibalism, Ducournau vividly illustrates a uniquely feminine body horror, both emotional and corporeal, rendered in vast, bold, dripping red strokes.”
Verdict: See it.
Eli Roth, 2013
Eli Roth made what might have been a “smart” movie on paper, but in execution turned out to be a terrible disaster. A group of college-aged activists heads to the Amazon rainforest for some good old fashion social-justicing when they’re captured by a tribe of cannibals and forced to fight for blah bla blah.
Roth makes an intellectual effort to return to the exploitation roots of the cannibals in the Amazon story, and he bakes that story in contemporary political commentary. But he seems completely unaware of why the Amazonian tribal trope was left behind in the first place.
Best critical take: Inkoo Kang from The Wrap said “Eli Roth‘s faux-smart, long-shelved, and exploitative-as-hell cannibal tale “The Green Inferno” is a remarkably perfect example of horror’s unexamined white privilege.
Verdict: Skip it.
Trouble Every Day
Claire Denis, 2001
French director Claire Denis gets graphic in her violence and sex, with Tricia Vessey and Vincent Gallo starring in the arthouse take on cannibal cinema. Denis’ stylistic voice shines, perhaps because the material here is drenched in muck.
It’s not close to Denis’ best work, but in the genre of cannibal movies, it stands apart.
Best critical take: Andrew O’Hehir from Salon said watching it “is like biting into what looks like a juicy, delicious plum on a hot summer day and coming away with your mouth full of rotten pulp and living worms.
Verdict: Watch it.
Ridley Scott, 2001
Probably the cannibal film that had the most popular cross-over appeal, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal is also notable for being a major letdown to its predecessor, Silence of the Lambs. A dumb plot, poorly executed makes Hannibal utterly forgettable.
And if there is one unforgivable sin when it comes to making a cannibal film, it’s being forgettable. Though I do remember with some pleasure the image of Anthony Hopkins feeding Ray Liotta his own brains. Ridley Scott, everyone.
Best critical take: Charles Cassaday from Common Sense Media says: “Not for kids.”
Verdict: Skip it.
Antonia Bird, 1999
Remember the Donner Party? That’s what Antonia Bird is dealing with in Ravenous. It’s 1847 in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and Robert Carlyle be hungry. Carlyle plays a stranger who comes upon a lightly populated military fort and brings his flesh-eating ways with him.
What works in Ravenous is Bird’s unwieldy sense of humor, which makes what should be a dour, unwatchable mess into a surprisingly enjoyable satire on American consumption.
Best critical take: Simon Abrams at Village Voice says its “the best-ever Manifest Destiny Cannibal Comedy.”
Verdict: Watch it.
Cannibal! the Musical
Trey Parker, 1996
A shpadoinkle of a movie if I ever did see one. I guess this is the precursor to South Park, which has been persistently brilliant and silly in equal measure for going on a million years now. But despite a devoted fan-following a recent off-broadway adaptation, I can’t see anything in Cannibal! The Musical except a persistently not funny, not brilliant, surprisingly boring student film.
Best critical take: Alex Castle from IGN says “if it weren’t for a cultural touchstone known as “South Park,” I would not be writing this review.”
Verdict: Skip it.
Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Juenet, 1991
My personal favorite cannibal film is this post-apocalyptic French comedy from Juenet et Caro. Set in the confines of a single apartment building, the ground floor butcher shop is the source of food for the building’s tenants. Food, in this instance, being the recent hires of the building’s landlord.
In this unlikely environment a relationship blossoms, between the landlord’s daughter and the recently hired, soon to be eaten butcher’s assistant.
Best critical take: Tim Brayton from Alternate Reading said “If we take the idea of a romantic comedy set in the ruins of a dead society and dressed up with cannibal horror seriously at all, it’s hard to see how it could turn out better than this.
Verdict: Watch it.
Bob Balaban, 1989
Cannibalism as comedy was never more on-the-nose than in Parents, a dark as pitch comedy directed by Bob Balaban in his feature film debut. Set in the 1950s, the film focuses on a 10-year old kid who thinks his perfect little suburban home life might be built on a big secret: his parents are cannibals.
Spoiler; they are. Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt make great creepy 50s parent cannibals, too, even if the movie falls flat in the same way that many comedy-horror mashups fail: there’s no payoff to the picture because the joke isn’t reconciled with the horror of the subject. There’s a lot of good subversive comedy and icky horror, but Balaban can’t bring it all home.
Best critical take: Den of Geek says “it’s all handled very well.”
Verdict: Watch It
Ruggero Deodato, 1980
No list of cannibal films is complete without the one that goes all the way: Cannibal Holocaust. Deodato did found footage documentary decades before it was cool in America (though even he was late to the game in Italy) with this visit to the Amazon story of unrelenting gore and violence and blood and gore and violence and gore. The opening credits contain the line, “For the sake of authenticity, some of the sequences have been retained in their entirety.” And after you’re like, no shit.
The movie is revolting, and I don’t recommend it. But it also has a special place in cinema for the tactics of its making and marketing campaign, which included hiding the actors away after the films release audiences would find the documentary believable.
Best critical take: best: “Even the most desensitized, ghoulishly amoral gleaners of deviant cinema can’t just stare down the nastiness on display in Cannibal Holocaust and just shrug it off.”
Verdict: Skip it unless you’re a student of the genre.