Dear Meat (J. Snow, 2020)

This blog has laboured mightily to keep up with the constantly growing catalogue of cannibalism movies and TV shows, as well as the increasing number of actual cases reported in the media. So this week we are taking a rather exciting side-trip into the wonderful world of short stories, a place where the sets can be as lavish as the author wishes since there are no Producers cutting budgets, the protagonists can do anything the mind can conjure up without the need for stunt persons or insurance, and the whole thing requires no masks or social distancing.

The story considered in this week’s cannibalism blog is called DEAR MEAT, and it appears in the third Women of Horror Anthology, titled THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY.

The anthology contains an amazing assortment of thirty fresh looks at the wonderful world of horror. I have, naturally, chosen to review the cannibalism story by J Snow, since that’s what I do, for reasons best known to myself and the Department of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne.

Ms Snow has written and published five cannibalism stories; reassuring to know that others also labour in these fields. For those of you who wish to know how (or why) she writes, there is an interview at Paula Readman’s Clubhouse.

Dear Meat was written a few years before the pandemic, but reads like it could be taken from tomorrow’s newsfeed. It involves a small elite group of rich and powerful men who have decided that human population growth is threatening to destroy the biosphere, and so must be stopped and reversed. More than two thirds of the population, billions of people, must be “eliminated.”

Various ingenious and possibly prophetic strategies are mentioned such as introducing viruses and tainted vaccines, genetically modified foods and contaminated water supplies. Free tubal ligations and vasectomies are encouraged, and abortions allowed up to two months after birth. But the key plan in this story is to set the populace at each other’s throats, or more precisely at the barrels of guns. Yes, hunting season for humans becomes the only way to feed the family. Tags are issued, which is apparently the way hunting works in the USA, and the distribution is weighted according to the discriminatory preferences of these shadowy rulers – the “unworthy and unholy” are allotted the most tags meaning the poor and the non-Christians are most likely to be hunted and cooked. Illegal immigrants are always open season. The rich and the politicians, however, don’t ever seem to end up on the butcher’s slabs.

English cleric and economist Thomas Malthus pointed out in 1798 that population increases geometrically, but food availability increases only arithmetically. All things being equal, this means we must run out of food, unless there is a disaster or an intentional reduction in human population growth. Too many people and not enough food is likely to lead to cannibalism, although Malthus did not venture into such abject speculations. The ethologist John Calhoun crossed that bridge in his study of rats, where he found that putting rats into a utopian environment, with no shortage of food or shelter, and letting them breed unconstrained, ended up in a chaotic maelstrom of sexual deviance and cannibalism. A Malthusian/Calhounian scenario is the basis for the film Soylent Green which is set (honest, I’m not making this up) in 2022, when overpopulation has led to a situation where the enormous population of poor people can only be fed by recycling the bodies of those who die or can be persuaded to accept euthanasia.

Not so in Dear Meat. The people running the government know one thing that has been true since the start of humanity: when there is hunger,

“People turn on each other, become monsters, all for one tiny morsel.”

The people turning on each other in this story are from a family; a man, a woman and a child. Not even close to a large family by today’s standards, but in the world of the story, any increase in population (child) must be balanced by a decrease (a hunted tag). One person must die, be carted to the butcher and carried home as meat, just as the odd hunter does now to deer or kangaroos or anyone else that happens to move at the wrong moment.

I am introducing some levity because this is a grim scenario, skilfully crafted, beautifully written and with an ending that I absolutely will not spoil. The wonderful thing about eBooks is that they are ridiculously affordable and offer hours of reading pleasure. This collection, and particularly Dear Meat, is highly recommended.

Here’s a review from Goodreads:

And here’s one from Amazon:

The author’s details are here, and the book is available at on line retailers including Amazon.

Cannibal supermodels: THE NEON DEMON (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Marcellus (Hamlet Act I, scene iv) claimed that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, but it’s not their cannibal films or actors. The Neon Demon is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (currently in trouble with PETA for killing a pig for a TV series). Refn has made several movies (Pusher, Valhalla Rising, etc) starring Mads Mikkelsen, probably known best by the readers of this blog as Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps Svend in Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Green Butchers. This film does not have Mads in it, but it does have Elle Fanning as a sixteen-year-old model who, we just know, is going to be chewed up, swallowed and spat out by the Los Angeles fashion industry.

Books about screen-writing always stress the opening image – it sets the scene, establishes the atmosphere, tells the viewer what to expect. Well, this one sure does.

Jesse (Elle Fanning from The Great) dead on a couch, blood caked onto her throat and down her arm. A grim male gaze from a photographer. The killer? Police forensics?

No, he’s an amateur photographer doing audition shots for her, and is probably the only nice guy in the story, and we all know where nice guys finish. Anyway, Jesse is befriended, as she wipes off the fake blood, by a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone from The Hunger Games), who takes her to a party to meet the LA fashion scene.

The other models hate her for being young and pretty and not needing the constant plastic surgery to fix all the things the surgeon and our culture say is wrong with their bodies. In the bathroom, as you do, they discuss lipsticks, which they note are always named after either food or sex, and speculate on this new commodity, Jesse. Is she food or sex?

Either way, it’s about appetite. Think of an animal, any animal – a snail, a snake, a human. What is the animal thinking about? It’s almost certainly food or sex. This film combines the two. The men have the power – the celebrity photographer, the fashion designer, even the sleazy motel manager (played with black humour by Keanu Reeves) – Jesse is their fresh meat.

The young, hopeful girls have their looks, and a useful booster of narcissism, a taste for the neon demon of fame, which fuels their journey through the fashion jungle.

When they get “old” (over twenty apparently), they inject various toxins and go under the plastic surgeon’s knife to fix what they are convinced are their failings. But it’s never enough. Jesse sees visions which confirm her own beauty in her eyes:

Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.

But once used up, the women and girls are rejected, discarded, left to fight among themselves – to the death. Jesse is edible to them too, but not in the male way, more in the way that Elizabeth Báthoryis alleged to have bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her youth.

That’s a small taste of the real cannibalism in the film, which infiltrates the metaphoric cannibalism of the meat markets of advertising and fashion. There is an ancient tradition, from the earliest days of tribal ceremonies and the Wendigo to Richard Chase and Armin Meiwes, that eating the flesh or drinking the blood of a victim (preferably a young fit one) will transfer their strength and attractiveness to the eater. If you can keep them down of course.

An even older tradition talks of killing and eating the gods of the harvest, in order that they may be reborn and bring with them next year’s prosperity. The tradition survives in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist service. Jesse is a young and beautiful. She is, or thinks she is, a goddess. How can she not be eaten, in this film both metaphorically and literally?

There is no point in going on with the plot, it’s filled with rape, paedophilia, murder, masturbation, necrophilia, and of course cannibalism, but you really need to see it yourself, and anyway, the plot is not the point. Brian Tellerico, the reviewer from Rogerebert.com, summed this up:

It is a sensory experience, driven by the passion of its fearless filmmaker and a stunning central performance by Elle Fanning.

The director called the film an “adult fairy tale”:

“I woke up one morning a couple of years ago and was like, ‘Well, I was never born beautiful, but my wife is,’ and I wondered what it had been like going through life with that reality. I came up with the idea to do a horror film about beauty, not to criticize it or to attack it, but because beauty is a very complex subject. Everyone has an opinion about it.”

Everyone had an opinion about The Neon Demon too, with some of the audience at Cannes booing it and the rest giving it a standing ovation. You can make up your own mind – it’s an Amazon original, so you should be able to find it quite easily wherever you are in the world. It is a beautiful film, the acting is superb, the direction is assured and precise. The horror is not so much from the gore, as the scenes of young girls being treated as meat. But that is exactly the point.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of what he called “carnivorous sacrifice”:

“The establishment of man’s privileged position requires the sacrifice and devouring of animals.”

The animals we sacrifice and devour are little more than infants – chickens for example are slaughtered at seven weeks of age. Pigs are killed at six months (less if they run into Refn, apparently). We no more eat old animals than photographers seek out old models. Remember Curtis’ line in Snow Piercer:

“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”

Or the words of John Jacques Rousseau:

The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, you take them as your pattern. You only hunger after sweet and gentle creatures who harm no one, which follow you, serve you, and are devoured by you as the reward of their service.

Cannibalism is no more or less than the sacrifice and devouring of animals – in this case, the Great Ape known as Homo sapiens. As voracious consumerism and greed extends its reach, to plunder the entire planet, the distinction between us and the other animals seems increasingly to evaporate.

“I wonder who the real cannibals are” CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Deodato, 1980)

This movie is a big deal, in cannibal studies.

When you hear terms like “video nasties” or “grindhouse”, Cannibal Holocaust tends to be high on the list of titles mentioned. The film’s violence was extreme in 1980, although it has certainly been exceeded since then, with the “benefit” of CGI special effects. The scenes of death and cannibalism were enough to get the director, Ruggero Deodata, arrested for suspected murder, as he had arranged for the actors to go underground to give the impression that, just maybe, he had gone for the ultimate in cinéma vérité: a snuff movie. Where the film remains at the cutting edge (sorry) of extreme cinema even today was in its presentation of authentic animal cruelty, in the midst of fictional human deaths. For this it was widely condemned, even by those who otherwise enjoyed the film, and it was banned in several countries, including Italy and Australia. The best part of the film is probably Riz Ortolani’s stunning soundtrack. But in the end, I must grudgingly say that Cannibal Holocaust is a film more relevant than ever – because it is a direct indictment of “fake news”.

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At a time when news stories were increasingly becoming sensationalist beat-ups, and the American failure in the Vietnam war was still being blamed on the ubiquitous media coverage of the gruesome results of that conflict, Deodato is asking the question: “what can we believe”? Or, as the protagonist of the film, anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) asks in the last few frames

“I wonder who the real cannibals are?”

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This is the question that every cannibal film or TV show asks, in its own way. Hannibal Lecter denies he is a cannibal in season 3 of Hannibal (I’ll get to it in a couple of months) when he tells a victim, whose leg they are both eating:

“This isn’t cannibalism, Abel. It’s only cannibalism if we’re equals”.

Cannibalism is about power and appetite. Those we accuse of cannibalism, in this case the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, were in all probability never cannibals. The imperialists who came in search of gold, like Columbus, or oil or timber or news footage were the real consumers – of humans who had been transformed into commodities and resources. Cannibal Holocaust asks us to think about what, in the panorama of abuse, death and torture that surrounds us, is real?

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This wasn’t the first Italian cannibal film: that was Man From Deep River. It wasn’t even Deodato’s first cannibal film, which was Last Cannibal World (Ultimo Mondo Cannibale). He had gratuitous animal cruelty in that one too. But Cannibal Holocaust asked new questions about the media in which it was made, about the motivations of the documentary, and about what Deodato himself was doing.

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The film is told from the viewpoint of an anthropologist, Monroe, who is asked to go to the Amazon, to the area frequented by cannibal tribes and known as the “Green Inferno” (a name that spawned a tribute movie 33 years later). His mission is to find out what happened to four young American film-makers who disappeared there without a trace. Well, guess who came to dinner?

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The first half of the film is Monroe negotiating with the locals, watching a rape and murder, helping eat an adulterer, shooting several natives, and finding and recovering the cans of film that have survived the whole sordid adventure. And yes, making friends, but not enjoying dinner with the cannibals.

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The second half of the film purports to show that recovered film, which a television network wants to show uncut to the public to sensationalise their deaths. This part is often referred to as the forerunner of the “found footage” movies that became enormously popular later with Blair Witch Project. In fact, Punishment Park (Watkins, 1971) was probably the first found footage film, claiming that its story of anti-war protesters being dumped (and filmed) in the California desert is actual newsreel. But in that period, what was genuine newsreel footage was on television every night, and showed dead American soldiers, burning Vietnamese civilians, and Kent State University students being gunned down by the National Guard. The difference between real and fake news was becoming opaque, years before the time of Trump (in fact, when he was still busy avoiding the draft). Deodato said he believed a lot of the news reports of Red Brigade terrorism in Italy had been staged for the cameras. In any case, even in unvarnished reporting, the framing of the camera and choice of which shots to use make the concept of real, impartial news unattainable.

 

Who were the cannibals? The ones depicted as real savage cannibals in Cannibal Holocaust were described by Francesca Ciardi, who played Faye, one of the lost American filmmakers, as:

…perhaps the sweetest people I have ever met. The cannibals were just local people. They put wigs on them but in real life they were very clean people: they worked in offices and they wore well-pressed shirts”.

The most controversial legacy of this film is the appalling animal cruelty. Deodato juxtaposes brutal violence on humans (rape, murder, cannibalism) through special effects, while filming live and in gory detail the killing of a coatimundi, a giant turtle, a monkey (whose brains are eaten while still alive), a tarantula, a snake and a pig. When their guide gets bitten by that snake, we get “live action” of them chopping up the snake, then chopping off the man’s leg. The team make sure the camera is rolling before wielding the machete.

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What is he trying to achieve through this collision of fake human and actual animal deaths? Is it simply to try to extend the illusion that, just perhaps, these shaky images were indeed real footage, and the actors were dead? Well that didn’t last past his murder trial, where he had to produce them in the court in order to be exonerated.

Critic and media academic Calum Waddell points out that this movie shows vile and debased behaviour on both sides – the ‘savage’ natives and the ‘civilised’ Westerners. But the Americans are punished for it – they are eventually killed and eaten for their troubles. The natives? A few get shot or burned, but there is no judgement. Waddell calls this a “fascist perspective”, because white people shouldn’t act like this, and so get punished, but the “savages” – well, that’s just the way they are. We can’t expect better of them, and in fact the Americans, when they first land, young, strong and white, are the picture of gung-ho adventurers, seemingly invincible. Then they regress into savagery, as they trek deeper into the green inferno.

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They (the savages) are cannibals by nature, and we (the civilised) risk becoming like them. The civilised whites lose their humanity as they enter the inhuman world of the cannibals, just as American troops in Vietnam lost theirs as they became enmeshed in that jungle war and started to massacre villagers. The film crew set fire to the native village so they can film an imaginary war between tribes. They capture a young girl and rape her just for fun, then film her body, impaled on a stake for losing her virginity.

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Cannibal Holocaust documents the loss of belief in the inevitable progress of humanity, usually told through the invincibility of white privilege.

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The Americans film everything, even their own death at the hands of the infuriated natives. The interlopers act as imperialists always have, but now they get eaten for it.

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To complicate the question of truth or simulation, we are shown a series of clips that the Americans are said to have recorded earlier in their careers, which we are told were staged for the cameras. These were clips of actual executions and abuses that Deodata presents here as fake news, created to be sensationalist newsreels.

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So now we have Deodato playing with our heads: real human executions are presented as fake, while fake rape and killing is presented as real. Real animal abuse, insisted upon by the director, is accompanied by gallons of human gore and agony which we know is fake.  Monroe is told: “Today people want sensationalism.”

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The subtitles did not use spell-checking

Yet the roller-coaster of fact and fake does not really work. Did Deodato really expect people to file out of the cinema (when it was finally shown after years of censorship) scratching their heads and saying “those guys really did get eaten! Damn shame.” The scenes of actual vicious killings of animals seem meant to drive home the point that, just maybe, the deaths of the young Americans are real too. But, as Waddell points out, the coatimundi is killed in the first half, which is unequivocally a fictional presentation (or at best re-enactment) of the expedition to find the lost tapes. So that creature’s death is totally gratuitous.

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Or is it? Deodato seems to be saying: don’t swallow anything you see on screen.

Here’s the thing. Real atrocities go on, but usually in the dark, or behind walls, at least not near any cameras. The Americans catch and chop us a giant turtle who continues to move as his head is removed and he is disembowelled.

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We can be squeamish at the death of that beautiful turtle – Faye is filmed throwing up as they chop the animal’s head off, but then we see her biting into the cooked meat soon afterwards.

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The turtle died totally unnecessarily for the sake of a cheap movie shot. We can also be sickened by the scenes of rapes and murders of humans, which are fake, but look pretty real. But every moment, as we reach for the remote and gratefully turn off the movie, real atrocities are continuing everywhere, in wars and domestic abuse and abattoirs and laboratories. Real animals quiver in their death throes, millions of them every second, while we turn our faces away from the dying turtle. We are not filming those abuses, but very often we are paying for them, through our taxes or our shopping. Like Faye, the cruelty repels and nauseates us, but the appetite makes us forget. This film, perhaps, helps us to remember.

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Not easy being green (or lunch): THE GREEN INFERNO (Roth, 2013)

Green Inferno (Eli Roth) is a homage to Italian cannibal films of the late 1970s and early ’80s “cannibal boom”, particularly Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which featured a film-within-a-film called, you guessed it, The Green Inferno. The film follows a group of activists who are forced to fight for survival when they are captured by a cannibal tribe. This is a standard trope of the Italian cannibal films, although Roth tries to inject a few twists to bring it up to the 21st century (they are trying to save the tribe).

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The film was made in 2013 but only released on September 25, 2015.

The protagonist is Justine (Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo, at that time soon to be, and since then divorced, wife of Eli Roth). She plays a college freshman, who is a rebel without a cause. As the film opens, she is involved in a hunger strike to win health insurance for campus janitors. She escalates to outrage over female genital mutilation when she attends a lecture on the practice, and rushes off to lobby her father, who is a UN lawyer.

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The trouble starts when Jonah (Aaron Burns) invites her to a meeting of an activist group led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy). The group plans a trip to the Amazon rainforest to stop a big corporation from illegally logging the forest and exterminating the ancient native tribes who live there; their goal is to film the logging crews with cell phones and stream footage, to raise public awareness.

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The operation is funded by a drug dealer named Carlos, who flies them into Peru in a small plane. They arrive in the Amazon and head to a logging site where they begin their protest, chaining themselves to bulldozers while filming the loggers cutting down trees. A private militia arrives, and the protest receives viral attention on the internet when Justine is nearly shot by one of the militia officers. The group is arrested, but Carlos pays the police to let them go.

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In a scene reminiscent of Alive!, the plane crashes into the forest; OK, they are bouncing through trees instead of snow, but like Alive! wings are falling off, people are falling out of the back of the plane, etc. The survivors search for a GPS phone to call for help, but then the cannibals arrive, painted blood red. The group are shot with tranquiliser darts and taken to a small village where they are imprisoned in a bamboo cage.

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The female elder of the cannibal tribe dismembers and decapitates Jonah, in graphic detail, starting with his eyeballs and tongue.

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Tongues traditionally get a beating in cannibal movies, maybe because they represent the human ability to communicate with language, and so are ideal targets for those whose prime directive is not the survival of civilisation. Man From Deep River had a similar scene. Hannibal serves tongue to his friends in episode six of the first season of the television series, and Cordell promises to do the same to Hannibal in Season 3 episode seven:

I’ll boil it, slice it very thin, marinate it in olive oil, garlic, parsley and vinegar.

And of course, Clarice is warned about the time Hannibal ate a nurse’s tongue in Silence of the Lambs.

Here’s the twist: Alejandro had cynically staged the protest to benefit a rival company, and the eventual deforestation of the area is inevitable. If they can survive until the next lot of bulldozers arrive they might be saved – and because they cooked Jonah first, the village may not need to eat any more of them for a while (he’s a big lad).

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OK, no more spoilers – if you like gratuitous gore, go watch the movie. Suffice it to say that female genital mutilation manages to get back into the plot, and people get eaten – one alive, another by ants. Not sure which is worse.

Green Inferno was filmed on location in Chile, the Peruvian Amazon and New York City.

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But to make it feel really authentic, Roth decided to cast the Callanayacu tribe from Peru as the main “stars”. Nearly every person (except the Americans) in the movie is an actual member of the tribe that Roth discovered in the Amazon. A remote, self-sustaining farming (definitely not cannibal) community with no electricity or running water, the Callanayacu had little contact with the outside world beyond the occasional supply boat.

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While Roth had found the perfect cast, he soon found that most of the tribe had no concept of what a movie was, and had never seen one. So Roth brought a generator and a TV and made them watch the 1980 grindhouse film, Cannibal Holocaust.

“We had to explain to them conceptually what a movie was, and showed them Cannibal Holocaust — and they thought it was the funniest thing that they had ever seen” Roth said in an interview.

Roth says the decision to film in the Peruvian jungle paid off.

“The footage looks so spectacular. It’s something you couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. We went farther than any cameras had ever gone before. They call the river gorge ‘Pongo de Aguirre’ because Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God was the last film to shoot there. But we went deeper, to a point where there was nothing but river and jungle. It was an incredible experience.”

Roth’s movies are all tributes to the great horror classics. Green Inferno does not try to say much new – it puts a bunch of (mostly) white people in a jungle full of primitive irrational cannibals, out of their depth, and makes them face their worst fears – the key trope of cannibal films. Probably the majority of cannibal movies do that, including Road to Zanzibar. The twist here is that the cannibals are not the bad guys – they are doing what Roth imagines primitive people did all the time (he is certainly wrong there).

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The people he is condemning are of course the venal corporations, but also the sanctimonious “social justice warriors” as he calls them:

“the film is really about people getting caught up in causes they don’t know anything about and doing it for vanity reasons more than for the cause itself.”

But Roth is not doing much for the locals either, showing them as brutal and merciless killers, and Survivor International said the group was “disturbed” by the depiction of the tribe, explaining, “These stories have created a racist view of uncontacted and isolated groups.” Amazon Watch and AIDESEP voiced similar concerns.

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The film took a hammering by the critics. Variety said:

“A project that boasts all the appeal (and aroma) of a carcass rotting in the rainforest.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a measly 36%, with the audience rating below even that.

Stephen King, on the other hand, who knows a bit about horror, tweeted that the film is:

“like a glorious throwback to the drive-in movies of my youth: bloody, gripping, hard to watch, but you can’t look away.”

 

Incidentally, this is not the only Green Inferno movie. As well as the film within a film in Cannibal Holocaust, the cannibal film genre was supposed to have died with Antonio Climati’s 1988 film  Natura Contro (English: Against Nature), also known in English as The Green Inferno and Cannibal Holocaust II.

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Climati had no intention of making a sequel to Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, and the title was used by distributors of the film to cash in on the success and notoriety of the earlier film. In 2002, British distributor VIPCO released Natura Contro on VHS and DVD as Cannibal Holocaust II, the film’s best known name. Not much cannibalism in it though.

Next week: more Hannibal episodes!

 

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