“Reports of widespread cannibalism” – NO BLADE OF GRASS (Cornell Wilde, 1970)

Cities are locked down, citizens are trying to escape from a deadly virus, food is rationed, rumours abound of dark government plots to kill off sections of the population. No, it’s not a COVID-19 movie but a speculative fiction film from over fifty years ago. From the trailer (above):

“Mankind destroyed what made most of the world liveable. Nature – wounded, diseased, and enraged – took revenge on her murderers. She cut off their food supply, and then waited, while they consumed each other.”

Yes, it’s a cannibal film based on a cannibal book, and its premise is the human war against nature, the way victory inevitably turns into defeat, and then perhaps extinction. The book it was based on, The Death of Grass by John Christopher, came out in 1956, which makes it quite prescient, and a bit of a shame more people didn’t read it back then, when carbon dioxide levels were 314 parts per million, compared to today’s 422ppm. Here’s a quote from that book:

“…he could no longer believe that there would be any last-minute reprieve for mankind. First China, and then the rest of Asia, and now Europe. The others would fall in their turn, incredulous, it might be, to the end. Nature was wiping a cloth across the slate of human history, leaving it empty for the pathetic scrawls of those few who, here and there over the face of the globe, would survive.”

Those who did take it seriously were film-makers like Ray Milland, who made Panic in Year Zero! in 1962 with a very similar plot, and this one, No Blade of Grass, an adaptation of Christopher’s book made by the acclaimed American actor turned director Cornell Wilde, whose 1965 film The Naked Prey was in many ways a forerunner of the Italian “Cannibal Boom” films of the 1970s and 1980s.

The film, set in the UK, starts with scenes of environmental destruction, as did its more famous American rival Soylent Green three years later. Soylent Green specifically nominated global warming as the cause of the collapse of the food system, due to the human population peaking in a way Thomas Malthus might have found terrifying.

In No Blade of Grass, it’s a virus sweeping the globe (right up to date, again); this one is killing all the grasses, including wheat, oats, barley, rye and rice, the food staples, without which the human species (and many other animals) will starve. We’re already getting a taste of this, as discussed in last week’s blog, with the blockade of Ukraine, the grains from which make up a majority of the food supplies for some of the poorer countries.

Of course, that is ‘over there’ and while we can feel sorry for the starving masses, we also have remote controls so we can turn off the sad news and enjoy our dinners. Just so, in this film we get unsubtle examples of starving children, interposed with rich, entitled, white British folks scoffing their roast beef and looking superior as they hear the news from overseas where, we are told, 600 million people have died of starvation, and the Chinese government is using nerve gas to kill 300 million of their own citizens to keep the state from total anarchy. The news continues:

“In the countries which no longer have any form of government, there are reports of widespread cannibalism.”

But even the comfortably bourgeois patriarch John Custance (Nigel Davenport) is making plans, in his light-hearted, Pythonesque way, to take his family up to visit his brother in the country. Do come along, old boy, he tells his daughter’s boyfriend, a scientist who has insider knowledge of what’s going to happen, because:

Anarchy breaks out in London and major cities. Fighting their way out of London, John and his family adopt the savagery of the collapsing society, robbing and killing those who stand in their way.

The car is stopped and John is knocked unconscious, while his wife (Jean Wallace, Cornel Wilde’s wife and frequent collaborator) and daughter (Lynne Frederick, later to be the last of the many wives of Peter Sellers) are raped. This rape scene, not the famine and cannibalism, turned out to be the controversial part of the movie, since Lynne Frederick was only 15 at the time. Nevertheless, Michael never loses his eyepatch or his cool or his alpha masculinity, while the women mostly do what they are told, and their hair remains perfectly coiffed.

A short-wave radio news bulletin reports:

“All the evidence indicates that France, Germany, Italy, in fact all of Western Europe along with a major part of Asia, South America and Africa have ceased to exist as part of the civilised world. In the midst of complete anarchy, and mass starvation, the horrors of cannibalism are already widespread.”

Only America and Canada are left, in the words of the US President, to “survive and preserve… the heritage of man’s greatness.”

When they finally arrive at John’s brother’s farm after a battle with a bikie gang that seems to owe more to the early Western than to science fiction, they have collected a whole lot of salt-of-the-earth farmers, whom the brother is not pleased to see, as he doesn’t want to feed them. The final showdown is therefore a modern iteration of Cain and Abel – the battle of the brothers.

The really odd thing about this cannibal film is that, while we witness the descent of civilised British gentlefolk into savagery, we never see any actual cannibalism. We hear a lot about it occurring in other countries, and speculation about it being about to happen at home, but the British seem to find each other particularly unappetising.

Cornell Wilde was an activist director, intent on convincing his audiences that the world was going pear-shaped in a hurry, and he was not big on subtlety. Unfortunately, the audience expects not just social commentary but also entertainment, and despite a lot of shooting and explosions and murders and rapes, the film suffered from some wooden dialogue and irritating flash-forwards which extinguished any suspense. The film received a desultory score of just 40% on Rotten Tomatoes.

No Blade of Grass is over fifty years old, which doesn’t excuse but partly explains the overt sexism, classism and racism that it addresses while also often seeming to endorse. Yet the film’s environmental theme is even more current today than it was on its release fifty years ago. Pollution is killing off agriculture, the water is contaminated and unfit for drinking, animals are dying out everywhere. The two little boys in the car even mention global warming, years before most of us had heard of it.

When COVID hit in 2020, people queued for food and water and guns and (most urgently) toilet paper, and there was much talk of famine, the breakdown of social order and, inevitably, the rise of cannibalism, just as we see in this film (although being British, they never discuss or seemingly require toilet paper). With no grains and no domesticated animals, people naturally turn to the only available meat, that which grows on the ape called Homo sapiens. But fifty years on, we don’t seem to have learnt anything from such speculations.

The film ends with a narrator announcing:

“This motion picture is not a documentary; but it could be.”

Indeed.

The Cannibal as superhero – “HE NEVER DIED” (Jason Krawczyk, 2015)

This is a smart, sassy and quite funny cannibal movie, which does not conform to most genre rules. I wanted to review it now, because the next movie in the series (not exactly a sequel), She Never Died, is going to be released this year.

The protagonist (I won’t say hero, even though modern superheroes shares a lot of his alienation and angst) is Jack (Henry Rollins). Rollins is wonderful in the role, making the film seem a lot less silly than it really is. The critic from rogerebert.com said:

“You don’t need to know anything about Henry Rollins to appreciate his tongue-noticeably-in-cheek action hero performance in horror/superhero genre hybrid “He Never Died.

Unlike most superheroes, Jack is immortal, indestructible, and a cannibal. As a result of the first, he is deeply depressed, and as a result of the third, he has found a quiet routine (watching TV, playing bingo at the church hall) to keep his cannibalistic tendencies under control. Why bingo?

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As a cannibal who doesn’t want to eat people, he has to buy blood from a hospital intern. A couple of thugs come looking for the intern but Jack beats them up and throws them out. When they find the intern, Jack rescues him, because he needs the blood. It satisfies his cravings, without actually having to kill anyone.

Then he discovers he has a daughter from a failed marriage. Andrea (Jordan Todosey from Degrassi) has her own problems with alcohol. Everybody has problems involving consumption, but isn’t that universal? She also asks a lot of questions. She is surprised when Jack says he doesn’t eat meat, I guess he looks pretty macho, and meat is so – well – culturally male.

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Which is weird since he eats blood all the time. Sort of a reverse kosher rule I guess. Andrea asks if she can stay with him for a few days, which is another problem for his routine. Don’t we all sometimes wake up at night with the munchies?

When the thugs come looking for Jack, he tears the throat out of one of them, and eats it. It revives his hunger for flesh.

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Jack then eats a particularly obnoxious neighbour. He walks the streets looking for people who deserve to be eaten (a bit like Sheila from The Santa Clarita Diet). He drops a wad of cash, but the proposed victim hurries to return it to him, making him apparently ineligible for consumption. He bumps into the leader of a gang of men on a dark street, but the man apologises, much to Jack’s disappointment. Luckily, he vomits on a bunch of street toughs, one of whom is aggressive enough and old enough to eat. Yes, there is also an age-limit to his cannibalism.

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When he goes back to the diner, he is no longer a vegetarian. Well, cannibalism will do that. Lévi-Strauss wrote in “A Lesson in Wisdom from Mad Cows” about the link between a meat-based diet and cannibalism.

“The link between a meat-based diet and cannibalism (a notion broadened to take on a certain universality) thus has very deep roots in thought…. Indeed, a day may come when the idea that human beings in the past raised and slaughtered living things for food and complacently displayed slabs of their flesh in shop windows will inspire the same revulsion as what travellers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries felt about the cannibal meals of American, Oceanian, or African indigenous peoples.”

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So, in life there’s appetite, and there’s love. A phone message informs Jack that Andrea has been kidnapped and her mother killed, but he hardly reacts, doesn’t even go to the assigned rendezvous. But then Jack walks home Cara, the waitress from the diner (Kate Greenhouse), and is surprised by a sudden show of affection.

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He rushes home, intent on going back to his peaceful life of drinking blood and not killing people, but spills the last bag of blood all over the floor. He tries to lick it up, sponges up what he can, squeezes it into a glass, but it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

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When the bad guys turn up at the diner and kill the boss, Jack wipes them out, snacks on parts of them, and goes looking for his daughter. Love, supported by appetite.

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He gets shot in the head and has to borrow Cara’s toolkit to get the bullet out, because otherwise it will heal over and he’ll get migraines. She is starting to realise he is not what she expected.

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So we find out what we sort of knew from the unfortunate, spoiler title of the movie:

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Yes, Jack is Cain, son of Adam and Eve, who killed his brother Abel and has been cursed to wander the planet ever since. Cain makes another appearance in the TV series Lucifer, but not as a cannibal, so outside the scope of this blog. Good show though.

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The bad guys have turned Jack back into one of them. But there’s all sorts of dodgy metaphysical questions raised, most of which don’t get answered. Since when is Cain a cannibal? Why has he been involved in famines and massacres throughout history? Who is the dude in the pork pie hat who appears only to Jack?

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Cain was a peaceful grower of crops, a tiller of the land, while Abel was a shepherd, presumably killing his lambs for his sacrifice. How does that make Cain the bad guy in the argument? Anyway, why do we need a reason for Jack’s cannibalism: a divine punishment? Can’t it be enough that he just is the way he is? As Hannibal says: “nothing happened to me, Agent Starling. I happened.”

Jack cannot die, and cannot live without being a cannibal.

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But isn’t that the story of Homo sapiens?

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The movie has 87% “fresh” rating on the Tomatometer.

 

Apologies to those who noticed that I mentioned in last week’s blog that the next review would be Beneath the Planet of the Apes. An otherwise excellent academic text on cannibalism spoke of “an underground tribe of post-apocalyptic mutant cannibals” in that film, so I eagerly watched the whole turgid 1.5 hours. Not a sign of cannibalism anywhere. It was, in fact, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, so it has moved all my other bad movies up one notch. Every cloud…
Next week: COPYCAT KILLERS episode 8: “A real life Hannibal Lecter comes to light.”