“…to keep your family alive”, CADAVER (Herdal, 2020)

New cannibal movies keep arriving, thick and fast. This one is from a young Norwegian director, Jarand Herdal, and was released on Netflix in October 2020. It is a traditional dystopian story, a genre in which people are driven to cannibalism by desperate circumstances – think Soylent Green, Delicatessen, or 28 Days Later. Dystopian films sometimes don’t bother telling you what happened to destroy our civilisation, for example We Are The Flesh or The Road. Others spell it out, and nuclear war is always a popular explanation, as is the case in Cadaver.

The film starts with children running into a vast room, playing among huge piles of clothes and bags. They try things on, and one girl discards a shirt, when she finds a stain on it. A bloodstain of course. We see a family making its way through a street where bodies lie in the road and survivors fight for food.

Discarded newspapers tell of a nuclear disaster. A family, Leonora and Jacob (Gitte Witt and Thomas Gullestad) and their daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are desperate and terrified, down to their last tin of food, when they are offered tickets to dinner and a show at a grand hotel. Who hasn’t fallen for that line?

The showman is the suave, beautifully dressed Mathias (Thorbjørn Harr) who seats the crowd at dinner tables where waiters bring steaming plates of meat. Mathias welcomes them to the show, and tells them that

“everything that takes place tonight is staged. Everything is a show. Everything.”

The show is the theatre itself. The “audience” are told to wander the corridors, explore the rooms, but they have to wear bronze masks in order to distinguish themselves from the “actors”, who look like normal (maskless) people, and act out dramatic scenes of conflict and sex and suicide.

Alice disappears and, as Leonora and Jacob search, they ditch their masks, making them indistinguishable – they become actors instead of audience. Just as well, as the audience keep disappearing. And given the plates of meat served up in the middle of mass starvation, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where they are disappearing to. Our protagonists, however, are clueless.

They witness Mathias addressing his actors, like a pope or king, as they kneel before him.

“You know where you came from. You know what we have here. If we don’t stick together like family, it will devour us.”

The rest of the movie is Leonora wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric corridors, trying to work out what is going on, and where the hell Alice has got to. There’s a plot reveal: Mathias is running a factory farm, with the only mammal still available in large numbers. The actors’ job is to put on a show so audience members will split up and follow them into rooms where they will fall through trapdoors, to an unknown fate. At the bottom of the trapdoor are the brawny butchers. It’s Sweeney Todd, in Norwegian.

When the actors and audience follow Leonora into the kitchens, they are shocked and horrified. I mean come on, where did they think all this meat was coming from?

We also find out why the audience must wear masks – because the actors might know some of them, and:

“as long as they are masked, you won’t be able to tell.
It makes it easier.”

The identical masks give them an air of indifference and facelessness – they look like victims. It’s the same reason farmers will tell you they never give names to the animals they plan to kill. Anonymity is essential for objectification. You don’t want to meet your meat.

When Leonora confronts Mathias, he offers her the opportunity to join the cast, asking her

“What would you do to keep your family alive?”

The title “CADAVER” (“Kadaver” in Norwegian) is an interesting choice. According to Dictionary.com, it means “a dead body, especially a human body to be dissected”. It is therefore a scientific term, implying research or study. Mathias and his merry men are chopping up the guests for dinner, but there is a way out for a talented person like Leonora – like Theseus and the Minotaur, she can navigate the maze of corridors and trapdoors and confront the beast, or even choose to join him. Survival depends on her choices and decisions. Almost certain starvation outside or murder and cannibalism inside. You can watch on Netflix to see which way she goes.

The Digital Spy review (which, I warn you, is full of spoilers) has a poll at the end, which asks:

“Would you have joined Mathias’ cannibal cast?”

The possible answers are:

1. Look… it’s the apocalypse, OK?
2. No way, I’m a vegetarian.

When last checked, the vote was about 50/50.

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