“I’m just gonna make you my zombie”: DAHMER: MONSTER – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Murphy and Brennan, Netflix, 2022)

This new docudrama (I can’t believe that’s a word) is quite a big deal in the highly respected academic discipline of Cannibal Studies. While many people think of Hannibal Lecter when the subject of cannibalism arises, in terms of contemporary culture (and therefore putting aside the Donner Party for now), Jeffrey Dahmer, known as the “Milwaukee Cannibal”, is a crucial figure, not least because he really existed, we know a lot about him, and we have a good understanding of what he did. Dahmer typifies the modern cannibal in that he seems so unremarkable; we have seen, and perhaps remarked at, his cool demeanour and the fact that he seemed like just an ordinary, everyday boy next door.

There have been a few Dahmer movies and documentaries, including some interesting interviews with the man himself, arranged in jail, before a fellow prisoner caved his head in with a metal bar. This new one has a pedigree though. First of all because it is presented by Ian Brennan (Glee, Scream Queens, The Politician) and  Ryan Murphy, who signed a $300 million deal with Netflix in 2018 and who brought us such enormous and terrifying hits as Glee, Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story and American Horror Stories.

Monster – the Jeffrey Dahmer Story runs over ten episodes, released concurrently on September 21, 2022. The length alone (almost nine hours) makes it more comprehensive and immersive than the other treatments. It is also different to most serial killer / cannibal documentaries and films in that it is presented not from Dahmer’s point of view, but from that of those around him – the victims, but also the family and the neighbours (who had to put up with the appalling stench of death that always emanated from his rooms or apartments).

“We had one rule going into this from Ryan, that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view.”

The first episode drops us into the main event – Dahmer in his Milwaukee apartment, trolling gay bars and offering young men and boys money to come home with him for a photo session, where he drugs them and attempts to turn them into love zombies by drilling holes in their skulls and pouring acid into their brains. When this doesn’t work, he has sex with their corpses, and harvests their meat.

One man escapes and flags down the police, who arrest Dahmer. The series then turns back to his childhood, his parents’ messy divorce, and the isolation which left him free to hatch his murderous plots. Later, we meet some of his victims, and his neighbour Glenda Cleveland who repeatedly tried to notify the police and FBI of what she heard, saw and smelled, but was comprehensively ignored and even threatened for her interventions.

“What do you do in there? The smell, power tools going all hours of the night, I hear screaming coming from your apartment.”

Dahmer, threatened with eviction due to her complaints, offers her a sandwich, saying “I used to be a butcher. I made that just for you.” Glenda refuses to eat it, and we know why – it looks like a chicken sandwich (and probably is).

But our willing suspension of disbelief declares it human meat, which is not kosher in any religious tradition. He tells Glenda to “eat it!”

Most of this documentary is very true to the facts as we know them, but in any re-enactment, there will be gaps to fill in or characters that need to be heard, without filling the cast list with an unmanageable number of people to remember. So the sandwich was apparently a fact, but was not given to Glenda but to another neighbour, Pamela Bass, who thought he was a generous if shy young man, and admitted that she ended up eating it.

Glenda, played superbly by Niecy Nash (from Scream Queens and Claws), is a strong woman caught in one of those nightmares where you know there is horror, but no one will believe you.

She demands to know what is in the sandwich.

“It’s just meat… It’s like a, uh, pulled pork.”

This is a regular theme of cannibal texts: they remind us that humans are animals, and our flesh and organs are made of meat. It’s a popular meme on animal rights social media sites. This one shows the real Dahmer, in case you’ve forgotten what he looked like.

Dahmer was looking for love, but he was not willing to risk losing it, so he tried to conscript his victims as undead zombies or as corpses, skeletons, or just happy meals. He showed affection – he is seen lying with his corpses, holding their hands, preserving their body parts. He loved them in much the same way that farmers often claim to love their cattle, sheep, pigs, etc, just before putting them on the abattoir trucks.

Dahmer is played brilliantly by Evan Peters (American Horror Story, X-Men, Mare of Easttown), who looks a lot like Dahmer, but with a touch of the young Malcolm McDowell – imagine Clockwork Orange but with cannibalism. If you want to know what Dahmer might have looked like forty years after his arrest, check out McDowell in Antiviral.

Jeffrey Dahmer murdered and dismembered seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991, thirteen years during which the police had no clue about his serial murder spree and, some might say, didn’t care much, since most of the victims were people of colour. And this is the heart of this rendition of Dahmer’s story – he was protected by the racism and incompetence of the American justice system. Here was a clean-cut white man, and people of colour disappear without trace all the time, apparently, so the police did not bother him, while the judges treated him as just a naughty boy.  Glenda’s frantic calls were met with apathy or rudeness.

He kept getting away with everything – one of the most extraordinary moments is shown in flashback in episode 2. On May 27, 1991, Glenda Cleveland called the police to Dahmer’s apartment after her daughter, Sandra Smith, and her niece, Nicole Childress, found a bleeding, naked and incoherent boy on the street who was running from Dahmer. Dahmer appeared, white and polite, and told the police that the boy was his 19 years old boyfriend.

He said the boy was drunk and they had been in an argument, and so the cops helped him take the boy back to his apartment, had a quick look around, made homophobic remarks about AIDS, and left the boy there.

The boy was bleeding from a hole drilled in his skull. After the police left, he was dead within the hour. It was later discovered that the boy was 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, Dahmer’s 13th victim. Incredibly, Dahmer was actually on parole for an earlier arrest for the molestation of another child, who was one of Konerak’s older brothers.

When Cleveland spotted Konerak’s photo in a missing person alert in the newspaper days later, she realised he was the young boy Dahmer had claimed was his boyfriend. She contacted the police and the FBI yet again, but they didn’t even return her call. Five of Dahmer’s seventeen murders, including that of Konerak, were carried out after Cleveland began contacting police. All but three of Dahmer’s victims were non-white.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a leader in the Civil Rights movement since the time of MLK, got involved in the case despite the urgings of some of his supporters, who didn’t think the movement should be linked to “a gay serial killer who eats people”. But as he says:

“I realised it was not just a gruesome horror show. It’s a metaphor for all the social ills that plague our nation. Bad policing, underserved communities, the low value we assign to our young Black and brown men, especially if they happen to be gay.”

The old profiling stereotypes no longer work, in fact never did. Dahmer was a serial killer who was ignored by the law for thirteen years, because he was white and male. In the Soviet Union at the same time, Andrei Chikatilo was killing and eating parts of over fifty women and children, ignored by the police force, because serial killing was considered impossible in the “workers’ paradise”. But those profiles still endure: a Black man on the street is instantly suspected of criminal intent, a white man, even Jeffrey Dahmer, is largely untouchable. In that sense, society dehumanises the poor, the coloured, the disabled, just as effectively as Dahmer did to his prey.

As the philosopher Michel Foucault observed, the world outside was a scary place filled with monsters up to the seventeeth century, and those monsters were thought to be probably criminals. But in modern times, the criminal is considered likely to be a monster. Ancient monsters were recognisable – usually grotesque and often hybrids of humans and other animals. But the contemporary monster looks, speaks and eats pretty much like the rest of us. Like Jeffrey Dahmer – the boy next door.

“They’re not psycho killers, they’re small business owners” 100 BLOODY ACRES (Colin and Cameron Cairnes, 2012)

There just aren’t enough Aussie cannibalism films (IMHO), particularly since the earliest movie I could find showing (purported) cannibalism, The Devil’s Playground, was made in Australia, way back in 1928. What few have been made are pretty great, including movies like The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (about a cannibal convict) and more recently Two Heads Creek, which saw immigrants to the Australian outback being cooked and eaten. There was also a movie made about the so-called Snowtown murders (most of which did not take place in the town of Snowtown) but it avoids mentioning the cannibalism of the last victim, for some reason.

Presenting country folk as hicks, rednecks, hillbillies, etc is certainly not exclusive to Australian films. In the US, such plots are usually presented as slasher horror, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and their endless sequels and prequels. In Italy during the “Cannibal Boom”, the primitives were tribes of savages, eating people for revenge, but also because they were yummy. But Australians love to see the humour, even (especially?) in a rapidly mounting body count and spurting arterial blood. 100 Bloody Acres is right in that tradition, filled with colourful rural characters who mispronounce words and aren’t that smart, taking it out on city slickers who stray into their territories.

This one stars two brothers, Reg (Damon Herriman, who (fun fact) played Charles Manson in both the Netflix series Mindhunter and in the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Lindsay (Angus Sampson who was in Mad Max: Fury Road, Fargo and most recently The Lincoln Lawyer). The Morgan brothers own and operate a small blood and bone fertiliser business in South Australia, the motto of which is:

“We’ll fertilize ya!”

Their business has been booming in the area, we are told, where six Salvos (Salvation Army workers – everything in Aust. is abbrev’ed) have disappeared without trace – not hard to see where this plot is going. Reg is on his way to deliver blood and bone fertiliser when he sees a road accident, hauls out the body of a man and puts him into the back of his van, less a few fingers, due to his clumsiness in closing the doors. Meant to be shocking or hilarious? Subjective I guess. Reg then picks up a young woman and her two male companions whose car has died on the way to a music festival, because he fancies the woman. The men go in the back of the truck with the bags of fertiliser and the car crash victim, and predictably freak out when the body is revealed by the bumpy road. Reg takes the trio to the factory, where they are tied up and made to watch the car accident victim, who turns out to be alive, lowered into the meat grinder.

Reg tries to rescue him, but ends up covered in blood and holding just his legs and, perhaps the area between them that attracts his befuddled gaze. There is a theory that movies, particularly thrillers and horror stories, are aimed at 14-year-old boys, and I’m sure they would find this scene side-splitting.

Turns out that blood and bone made from humans is far better (as fertiliser) if they are alive and scared and in agony; it’s all in the hormones. This why torment is a crucial part of the dog-meat industry, and also not far from the way we treat other animals we confine and slaughter.

The older brother, Lindsay, tests the blood from the mixture and declares it “liquid gold”.

The rest of the movie is slapstick gore involving chases, more victims being killed or losing body parts, and other merriment. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 77% fresh rating, and Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com called it:

“a smartly written and acted and exceptionally well-directed movie.”

The Guardian’s Australian Editor, Lenore Taylor, was not so enthusiastic, declaring it,

“a splatterfest that abandons suspense in favour of sniggers.”

100 Bloody Acres is not nearly as shocking as it imagines itself to be (unless maybe I’ve watched too many cannibal movies) but it is entertaining, well made, stylishly directed, and the actors are top-notch. It hums along, and may even be seen as satirising the more strait-laced and dour cannibalism films from the USA and elsewhere. If you like black comedy and gore, this one may impress.

From the point of view of Cannibal Studies, it raises some interesting questions.

  • Is it still cannibalism is you kill someone not to eat, but to use, for example, as blood and bone (or for their skin and bones, like Ed Gein or Jame Gumb)? Does cannibalism require oral ingestion, or does any use of the human body count?
  • Is cannibalism of the dead less repugnant if the intended meal is already dead? In this film, the brothers collect dead bodies from road accident sites (human roadkill) and grind them up into blood and bone. While roadkill of wild animals is not a hugely popular source for food or other uses, it is actually more acceptable to some animal activists than confinement and slaughter, in that the animals may not have known what hit them, and in any case are killed without murderous intent. So why not human roadkill (maybe making sure they’re actually dead)? Is it really worse to eat (or otherwise utilise) a dead human, who can feel no pain, than a living, terrified cow or pig? Consider the outrage in Illinois when a satirical site claimed the local morgue assistant was using body parts from deceased men to help her win a spaghetti-cooking competition. It was a hoax, but there have been other cases, such as journalist William Seabrook, who purchased human flesh from a hospital and cooked it just to see what it tasted like. What exactly is the problem?
  • And most intriguingly, why do we stroll nonchalantly past the blood and bone bags in the hardware store, yet can be shocked at the thought of human blood and bone? As Shylock asked, “if you prick us, do we not bleed?”

We are all made of blood and bone.

BLOODY HELL (Alister Grierson, 2020)

This is a ripsnorter of a thriller, and full of surprises. Defiantly internationalist, the film is an Australian-British action/horror film directed by Alister Grierson (Kokoda, Sanctum, Tiger) and written by Robert Benjamin. It is set in a basement in Helsinki Finland with scenes in Boise, Idaho, and features mostly Australian and New Zealand actors, with American or Finnish accents and dialogue as necessary. It was made on the Gold Coast in Queensland (as many blockbusters have been recently).

The main characters are both personas of Rex (Ben O’Toole – Hacksaw Ridge, Detroit, The Water Diviner).  O’Toole is superb (imagine a combination of Bruce Willis and Robert Downey Jr) in two roles: both the physical Rex and his inner voice, the part of him (and all of us) which commentates his life and ordeals, screams abuse, even when pretending to be calm and collected or even unconscious, and debates the best responses, rational or emotional, to every aspect of what is going on around him. O’Toole called this Rex his character’s “conscience”, but it’s not a Freudian split between an ego and a superego (or id) – it is more nuanced, and the invisible Rex (invisible to other characters – the audience and physical Rex can see and hear him) argues about practical and ethical issues all the time, sometimes compassionate, sometimes sneering and violent. That inner voice, as we all know, is exhausting.

Rex and his inner voice are off to Finland. Why? Well, Rex was in a bank, chatting to a teller he fancied, when a gang of heavily armed men came storming in and violently robbed both the bank and the customers. Rex, ex-military, was able to take on the gang and kill them all, but the last one was ready to surrender when invisible Rex screamed:

As the last robber collapsed, dickless, his gun went off, killing an innocent teller who had been hiding in a cupboard. Rex became a media sensation, with half the population calling him a hero, and the rest a “psycho twat”, and a plea bargain saw him in jail for eight years for causing the teller’s death, leading to his decision to emigrate, on his release. In a flashback to his court case, Rex is asked why he shot the bank robber in that particular spot.

“I wanted him down… and I didn’t want him to reproduce… win – win!”

Why Finland? Well, he shot spitballs at a world map in his jail cell, and fate led him to that country. Where, unfortunately, a family of cannibals awaited him, and he wakes up, barely twenty minutes into the film, hanging by his wrists from a water pipe in a dark basement.

With the classic trope of cannibal films, used so well in Texas Chain Saw Massacre – the extreme close-up.

He is missing a leg, blood dripping from the stump, but his inner Rex is still fine and walking around, and furious at their precarious situation. Our imaginary self, after all, is as threatened by our mortality as we are.

It is clear to us, the audience, that Rex’s body parts are a living larder, although it takes the Rexs a bit longer to figure out why his leg is missing.

“Black market limb trade… is that a thing? I’m pretty sure there’s a niche there.”

It’s actually a very funny film – the dialogue between the two Rexs and even some of the murderous Finns is often hilarious. Rex pulls himself up to the huge knot to try to free himself with his teeth, observing that, short of one leg,

Rex’s love interest is Alia (Meg Fraser – Leech) the daughter, who has spent her life trying to escape her family.

Rex offers to “rescue” her (which considering his position is ambitious), and tells her,

“If we get out of here, I’ll tell you the whole story over dinner. I’ll even pay, huh?”

Now Rex has to dump on vegans to the girl whose family is upstairs eating the meat of his right leg; the family are definitely not vegans, nor can they see anything much wrong in giving their oldest son his preferred meat species. Alia explains that her older brother Pati is “the oldest and the hungriest”. Like Rex, he certainly does like a bit of meat, but, like the Wendigo, there is only one source that will satisfy him. Many omnivores will eat any meat except human. Pati will eat any meat as long as it’s human. As omnis like to say “it’s a personal choice.”

“He’s the reason you’re here. And very soon, there will be nothing left of you.”

Cannibal Studies is usually concerned with the anthropological or metaphorical aspects of the act – exposing the outsider as uncivilised, or else dripping irony about our own rapacious appetites. This film manages to do both, as Rex rants about the Finnish family, and how he wants to be back in the good ol’ USA,

Which is ironic, because if you check the “Cannibal News” category on this blog, you will see that a goodly proportion of modern cases of cannibalism occur in the good ol’ USA (and none in Finland*). The USA is the apotheosis of consumer societies where, just like Alia’s brother,

The rest of the film concerns Rex’s attempts to escape – not easy when one leg is gone and one of the family members has just tried to saw off the second one. You’ll have to see it to find out how that goes. It’s well worth it. Film critic Rob Hunter sums it up nicely:

“It’s a serious tale of survival encased in blackly comic humor, maliciously creepy twins, and the most sweetly sensual stump-washing scene you’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.”

The movie premiered in Australia on October 8, 2020, and in the United States a day later at the Nightstream Film Festival. It has a 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with comments like “blissfully, absurdly over-the-top, but in a twistedly charming way”.

This is a blackly humorous horror-thriller, and is quite brilliantly executed by Alister Grierson, particularly as the hero, normally the action figure of such stories, is tied to the ceiling and missing a leg for most of the film. You might think that would slow down the pace, but director Grierson keeps it tearing along. I usually stop and start when reviewing a movie, but this one I gulped down in one sitting, then came back for details.

As for the lead actor, Ben O’Toole, he seems to have got a taste for the cannibal stories. He said in an interview that he’d like to play Titus Andronicus, who was William Shakespeare’s favourite cannibal.

Let’s not forget, too, how much cannibalistic symbolism is involved in sex, such as “I could eat you up” as well as various foodie words for cunnilingus and felatio. And of course the French (or Finnish) kiss, when Rex and Alia finally escape.

And just to prove other people like puns too, here is the last frame of the film.

* Actually, there is a case of Finnish cannibalism – Jarno Elg, a supposed Satanist, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998 for murdering a 23-year-old man, eating some of the body parts and inciting some friends to participate in a ritual that included torturing the victim while listening to songs from The Cainian Chronicle album by the Norwegian black metal band Ancient. Elg was granted parole in 2014.

The movie is available at Amazon.