The cannibal apocalypse: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, 1968)

The author John Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1941 that:

“It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die… two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”

Horror depends on our inability to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, and cannibalism adds to the recipe the terror of that death involving our total disappearance, not just our spirit but our bodies, incorporated into the stomach, then the cells and finally the shit of another. We cheer the death of the ‘bad guy’ because we feel at a primal level that his death is required for the continuance of our life. But what if, as Steinbeck says, the evil never dies, and keeps coming back for us?

This I think is the attraction of the zombie, who has become a critical character in our culture since the release of this movie in 1968. An earlier movie, The White Zombie (1932) saw Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own. Those zombies did what they were told, but they did not go out of their way to eat people. That type of compliant, submissive zombie is pretty much what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in what he hoped were non-lethal doses of acid.

George Romero’s genius was to combine the undead with the cannibal to create what in this story is called a “ghoul”. The zombie was still, in 1968, the undead servant of Haitian mythology. In this film, the ghoul, a figure that traditionally hangs out in graveyards and sometimes digs up corpses, becomes those corpses, and so gives birth to what we will ever after call zombies. These zombies are cheaper by the dozen – they have no will, no intelligence, just the force of numbers, and overwhelm the living with their ragged, shuffling weight of numbers.

What raises these dead? We are told by a TV newsreader that a strange phenomenon, perhaps radiation from a space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, is causing the dead to rise from their graves. They are voraciously hungry, but very fussy eaters – their preferred cuisine is living human flesh, although cooked (when a truck explodes) will do. But the horror in this movie is from the “banality of evil” – the things that really haunt our nightmares are not ogres and aliens, but cemeteries at dusk,

Ordinary (ish) looking people trying to get into our car, when we can’t find the keys

Technology that won’t work at times of crisis

And of course the dead. Particularly when they look angry. And hungry!

Romero did not just bring to life the zombie hordes, but also very many cannibal movies owe a debt to him, as do “splatter” movies generally. The simple opening scene of a couple of siblings driving across the desert to visit their father’s grave was later replicated to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. And of course many, many zombie movies and TV shows have followed in the shuffling footsteps of this one. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead.

The story revolves around a group of people sheltering in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, which is under assault by a growing crowd of cannibalistic, undead corpses. The phone doesn’t work, which is annoying, but the radio and even the TV are fine, which is useful as a dramatic device to fill us in on what’s going on.

The radio reports that they are:

“things that look like people but act like animals.”

The horror of this film seems so much greater by their ordinariness (although the low budget may have had something to do with it). Cannibals are often described as acting “like animals”, but of course, we are all animals, great apes, and cannibals are just as likely to be accused of treating their prey “like animals.”  Ordinary people, animals, fall down when shot, but the horror of these undead is their invincibility. It’s hard to kill someone who is dead, and has just risen from the grave. Shoot them in the chest and they fall over and then get up again and keep coming. They can however be shot in the brain or walloped on the head or burnt, so we are not left without hope.

But there are other dynamic binaries – heroism and cowardice, fire and fuel, shelter and intrusion, eater and eaten, and a scene where an infected girl within the boarded up house eats her own parents, and an undead brother returns to eat his sister. In two short scenes, Romero takes Freud’s insistence that cannibalism and incest are the two original prohibitions of mankind, and merges them into incestuous cannibalism. The film comprehensively problematises the narrative of humans vs monsters. We are all hiding in our houses, terrified of the latest headline, and we are also all members of the monster horde.

The protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American hero, which in itself was rare in the sixties. Romero says Jones was chosen just because he gave the best audition, but the dynamic he brings, particularly in the inter-relationship battles inside the house, where he insists on being boss, and of course in the climax, took the film into the heart of darkness that was 1968 America. As the ghouls lurched toward the house, the Vietnam war was raging, students and police were battling on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Party convention, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, and in Paris revolution was in the air.

But it’s not “all right”. The racism issues raised by the film further complicate the dichotomy between human and ghoul; human and, well, inhuman. Because when the authorities arrive, they are basically a vigilante mob killing ghouls with a random collection of guns, and building bonfires to dispose of the corpses. When they see a black man – will they recognise him as a real, live human? Well, no, Ben has made it through the night, surviving the attack of hundreds of the ghouls, only to be shot through the head by a police sharp-shooter as he emerges. The film ends with grainy images of him being pulled from the house with meat-hooks and burnt with the corpses of the again-dead, and the pictures are unmistakably reminiscent of photos taken at lynchings.

The review from the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, sums up the response to the movie at the time. This was written after he had watched the movie in a cinema filled with kids, who had been dropped at the cinema, unaccompanied, for an afternoon of fun scary time.

The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…

The movie has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Chicago Reader summing up:

Over its short, furious course, the picture violates so many strong taboos — cannibalism, incest, necrophilia — that it leaves audiences giddy and hysterical.

Interestingly, the movie was removed from Netflix in Germany, following a written demand from the German Commission for Youth Protection.

“Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the death camps in which millions died. What shocked Arendt was that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann, one of the most pivotal figures in the Holocaust, was a monster, in fact she found him “terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

This is the crucial difference between the early cannibals of Herodotus or Columbus and the ones inside our cities after 1888 (the year of Jack the Ripper). They don’t look that different from us. They are men and women, young and old, dressed and naked. We can no longer tell them for sure from our next-door neighbours.

The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are human but dehumanised. They are dead, but still walking and eating, and the dead and the undead all burn in the same fire. In fact, the ghouls are us, filled with rage at the fact of our mortality, but they don’t look that dissimilar from people you might be standing next to at a political rally.

Cannibals and windbags – WINDBAG THE SAILOR (William Beaudine, 1936)

This blog was written in the week of the 2020 US election; the film is not a classic of the cannibal canon, but then, the title sounded somehow appropriate.

In fact, it’s quite a nice change to watch a gentle English comedy after so many gruesome and gory stories from the usually humourless world of modern cannibalism. This one is about primitive, savage cannibals on foreign shores, and racist Eurocentric accounts have always found them hilarious!

Ben Cutlet is played by Will Hay, an actor who usually portrayed some sort of windbag (most often a teacher) whose comic effects involved the deflating of his pretensions. Hay was an influence on many later comedians including Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper and Ronnie Barker. Cutlet spends his days in his sister’s pub entertaining the locals with tall tales of his exploits at sea as a bold ship’s captain, even though he has never been to sea, and has only ever captained a coal barge.

He is tricked into captaining the unseaworthy Rob Roy by a gang of criminals who want to scuttle the ship for the insurance money. With Hay’s regular troupe, Jerry (Moore Marriott) and Albert (Graham Moffatt), he manages to escape the clutches of the crew and drift off on a raft. Another popular cannibal story is the starving shipwrecked crew eating the cabin boy, as happened for example in 1884, when a small ship called the Mignonette hit a big storm and sank. The four crew members survived in a lifeboat for a couple of weeks on two tins of turnips and a turtle they managed to catch. When the cabin boy fell into a coma, probably from drinking too much salt water, they slit his throat, drank his blood and ate him. In a scene that I suppose was considered most humorous, Cutlet soon starts to see Albert as a pig.

They finally drift to a West Indian island full of stereotypical natives. These primitive savages are amazed at the ship’s radio and bow down to it as the god Voiceinbox, worshipfully carrying the sailors to their chief.

He speaks cannibalised English, and Cutlet asks where he learnt it?

“My father, him meet good missionary.  Missionary, him good meat”.

Further dialogue is carried out in what the English imagine is native English:

“him belong me. Him taboo.”

Then the mutineers arrive and become the butt of cannibal puns.

Cutlet: “Well gentlemen, we meet again.”
Chief: “Ah, good meat. Plenty meat!”
Cutlet: “Voiceinbox seems very angry.”
Chief” “Me hungry too!”

Although Cutlet has promised to have the mutineers hanged, he won’t let the chief eat them, and instead stows them in the hold for the trip back to England, where he is hailed as a hero.

In 1936, when this film was made, Windbags were ruling the world (has much changed?) White supremacists saw themselves at the apex of civilisation, contemptuously exploiting, invading and exterminating the ‘lesser’ peoples of the world, demonstrated in the way Cutlet tricks his cannibal chief.

That year in Europe, Hitler was invading the Rhineland, while Stalin was purging his generals and his comrades alike in a paranoid bloodbath. Mussolini was dreaming of a new Roman Empire and invading Ethiopia. Spain was about to sink into a vicious civil war, and in England, Edward VIII, who admired Hitler, was succeeding to the throne, only to abdicate months later. The world was about to enter a new round of the Hemoclysm of the twentieth century, an orgy of bloodletting that would kill an estimated 85 million people.

Last century, killing was routine, but cannibalism? Him taboo.

Cannibalism 2020: the year so far

Look, 2020 hasn’t been dull, you gotta admit. So far this year, we’ve had fire, flood, famine and pestilence (pandemic variety) and it’s not even the solstice yet.

What Does 2020 Have in Store for the Life Sciences? | BioSpace

In reports of cannibalism, it’s all happening in the countries starting with the letter U; the United States and Ukraine are neck and neck. The US could have pulled ahead, but the guy who allegedly hung his Grindr date upside down, cut off his testicles and ate them, did it on Christmas eve, so technically that’s still 2019 (a pretty big year for cannibal stories – six cases documented).

2020: USA

In Brooklyn NY on April 15, Khaled Ahmad ran up to some cops from the 68th Precinct who were on meal break in a bagel shop about 4:30 a.m., and told them he had killed his 57-year-old father. The victim had been gutted and “the victim’s innards were removed but not found, leading some investigators to believe Ahmad may have eaten them”. Ahmad “had a history of mental illness” while the unfortunate father was a retired grocer, who had just sold his store in Rockaway Beach, Queens.

On the other side of the country, police were called to a home in Richmond, California, where they found Dwayne Wallick, a “suspected” cannibal, “digging into his grandmother’s dead body and trying to eat her remains”. The murder involved both a knife and an ice pick. “Police believe unspecified drugs may have played a role in the crime”. No shit, Sherlock.

PICTURED: California 'cannibal', 37, 'found eating his 90-year-old ...

2020: Ukraine

A 41-year-old Ukrainian admitted that he killed his girlfriend, then fried and ate her legs after the two had a drinking session at home on April 13. He hid the rest of her body in the reeds of a nearby river, where it was found the next day by a father taking his two children for a stroll.

Officers ambushed Oleksandr in his home and found him frying flesh from his girlfriend’s leg before eating it. Local reports said the police felt sick after witnessing the horrific scene. According to Ukrainian media, Oleksandr cooked his girlfriend’s legs and ate them after he reportedly ‘got hungry’.

Also in Ukraine, Maxim and Yaroslav Kostyukov, 42 and 21, were convicted of killing Yevgeny ‘Zhenya’ Petrov, 45, in Ukraine. The three had been drinking together when a row developed over the conflict between Kiev’s army and pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern part of the country.

A court heard how the son had held Petrov from behind while the father stabbed him twice in the chest. Yaroslav Kostyukov then beheaded the victim and cut flesh from the corpse as well as his heart, kidneys, liver and other internal organs. He confessed to cooking the “meat” which was served when the father and son hosted a homeless man called Yura.

Prosecutor Oksana Karnaukh said: “There is no such crime as cannibalism listed in the Criminal Code of Ukraine.” The pair were, however, charged them with murder and aggravating circumstances committed by a group of persons, and illegal possession of arms. And, presumably, legs.

Father and son cannibals who beheaded an ex-cop and cooked his ...

 

Here’s the thing – would you pick any of these guys as cannibals? They don’t have a single eye in the middle of their forehead like the cyclops or dog-faces like the cyanocephali. They don’t have bones through their noses like the mythical cannibals of the colonial stories. In fact, since Jack the Ripper, cannibals have looked “normal” – indistinguishable from anyone else. Cannibalism has come home, and the cannibal could be living next door.

This one is NOT cannibalism

“The US has been processing dead bodies from Covid-19 diseases into hamburgers”

That was a post on the now defunct WeChat conspiracy theory site Zhidao Xuegong (it translates as “the Scholar Forum for Ultimate Truth”) in May 2020. Another post claimed that Covid-19 may have killed a million people in the US, with the corpses:

“very likely being processed into frozen meat, fake beef or pork, or processed into cooked meat as hamburgers and hot dogs. Cannibalism has existed in the US before … and only a few dozen years ago, Americans ate blacks, Indians and Chinese.”

The site reportedly had millions of followers on WeChat, which is the Chinese equivalent to Facebook, before the Chinese government shut them down. Apparently China did not want to make relations with the US any worse than they already were.  The site was closed for “fabricating facts, stoking xenophobia and misleading the public” which apparently is illegal in some parts of the world (and very popular in others).

Now THAT would have supplied some interesting stats for my 2020 cannibalism tally.

Thank you!

This blog reviews films and TV shows involving human cannibalism. Sounds creepy, well, it is a bit, but it’s part of an exercise investigating how we decide what is edible and what is repulsive. Why are we happy to kill for food an animal that doesn’t want to die, yet unwilling to eat another animal that is already dead? Every work considered contributes to the answer to that question, some more than others of course.

Anyway, this post is to say thanks for reading this blog. In May, for the first time, the blog received well over 1,000 views, which is very exciting. As a special thank you, here is one of my favourite cannibal songs, by the wonderful Mr Tom Lehrer.

And remember:

Hannibal-only if equals

The last CANNIBAL on Earth — (“Last Man on Earth” Season 4, episodes 9-11, Will Forte)

The Last Man on Earth was a four-season American post-apocalyptic comedy series that showed on Fox from 2015-17. The protagonist (Will Forte, who also created the series) is Phil (or Tandy as everyone calls him – long story). Phil believes he is the only survivor of a mysterious virus (not coronavirus, but hard not to think about it while watching) that has killed off humanity and most other animals. He travels around the USA leaving signs on billboards asking other survivors to contact him in Tucson, but gradually goes crazy from loneliness.

Then he starts meeting other humans. As it’s a comedy, they are (nearly) all nice, friendly, peaceable people, who bicker but generally don’t bite. Until season 4, when he meets Karl (Fred Armisen), a serial-killer cannibal. In a flashback to before the virus, Karl is being socially inept, disgusting his dinner date with recollections of a boil he had just had lanced.

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The art of cannibalism stories is to disgust the viewer. Otherwise, where’s the conflict?

Karl’s modus operandi is to invite his prospective victim in for a sitting where he paints their portrait (a skill in which he is almost as deficient as his romantic conversation), then reach for his

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When his model goes looking for a refreshing drink in the fridge, Karl has to run.

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He flees to Mexico and sets up the same artistic practice, but is soon arrested and sent to a maximum-security prison, where he starts painting the other inmates, with designs to convert them into his next meal.

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Karl is also somehow immune to the virus, but has been unable to escape the prison in which he was confined for the four years after everyone else died. Karl has killed the only other virus survivor, a guard, and is wearing his uniform, to hide his status as prisoner/cannibal. Karl is nice too. Except for being a serial killer cannibal.

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Karl has an unexplained compulsion to eat human flesh, and is powerless to defy it, despite his desperate efforts to do so.

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He is obsessively drawn to a used Band-Aid, which is stained with the flesh of a burnt finger.

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He is unmasked when he is followed to a cemetery, where he hopes to satiate his longings with some well-rotted corpse-flesh, much to the disgust of the observers.

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What makes a cannibal? We have looked in this blog at several motivations such as savageism, starvation, revenge, psychopathy and entrepreneurship, and particularly at the figure of the wendigo, the mythical Algonquin spirit that inhabits the lost and drives them to an ever-escalating hunger for human flesh. Bryan Fuller implies in Hannibal that the good doctor Lecter is such a spirit, appearing as a figure with antlers, often disturbingly dressed in suit and tie. Traditionally, the cannibal required no explanation. In Classical stories, he (and cannibals were usually male) was a super-human or else hybrid figure, monstrous in appearance and easily identified as an ‘other’. In colonial times, they were tribes of savages, whose ignorance of the morals of Europe required the intervention of the conquistadors to ensure they were re-educated, which would usually involve the appropriation of their lands and the enslavement or extermination of the ‘cannibals’.

The contemporary cannibal is often typified by his inconspicuousness – acquaintances of cannibals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish or Armin Meiwes often spoke of how normal and prosaic they seemed. Karl fits exactly into this model of the contemporary cannibal – the others like him, and can hardly believe it, even when he admits to his addiction, as if it was an AA meeting.

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There are many ethical issues raised in this apparently light-hearted comedy. Everything in the world before the virus was about voracious appetite and power, and things have not changed that much. Now of course there is no money, and the stores are full of whatever you could want, but it’s all starting to go bad, even the tins. The few animals they have found alive have usually come to a sticky end – the cow whose milk they took died, her calf was left behind when they left for Mexico, the bull was killed and eaten. They found crickets and ate them. They catch a fish with a hook, much to their surprise. Phil threatens to eat a little dog’s butt at one point. Anthropocentrism, sometimes called speciesism or human narcissism, is now the supreme ideology, even though it has apparently led to the extermination of almost all life on Earth.

The main question of this brave new world, then, is: are there any ethical constants? The survivors are mostly besotted with the idea of having babies and repopulating the world with humans: is that a great idea? And while they are satisfied to smash down shop doors and take whatever they need, they are shocked at the cannibal doing the same. To Karl, to all of us, morality is simply relative to his immediate needs. Certainly not a view confined to cannibals.

Karl suggests they all go to bed, and discuss the problem in the morning. They will have questions for him. He will have questions for them too! His morality is straight out of Trump at Charlottesville:vlcsnap-00031.jpg

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As Dostoevsky said in the Brothers Karamazov:

“…there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality…. if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful. even cannibalism.”

Karl exemplifies what Aristotle called the “rational principle”.

Cannibalism as female empowerment: JENNIFER’S BODY (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

Jennifer’s Body is classified as a comedy, even though it’s rated R for sexuality, bloody violence, language and drug use. Well, all those things can be funny. Even cannibalism is sometimes the butt of jokes (well, quite often), and a lot of people get eaten in this movie.

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The story does not start with Jennifer (Megan Fox) but with her nerdy bestie Needy (Amanda Seyfried), “short” for Anita, although no one calls her that. Needy is revealed to be an ultra-violent resident of an asylum.

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The rest is flashback. Jennifer is the popular girl, the sexy girl, the one no one can believe is friends with the boring Needy, but she is bored in their little town of – wait for it – Devil’s Kettle. Jennifer wants to get off with the big city band in town, Low Shoulder. At their gig, Needy hears them arguing about whether Jennifer is a virgin, and leaps to her friends defence

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Jennifer later tells her that’s not even close to the truth.

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Now, when men are looking for virgins, there are only two possible explanations, depending on whether they are of a metaphysical bent, and these guys are very bent. So telling them Jennifer fits their shopping list turns out to be a very bad idea. Jen gets in the band’s truck as the venue burns down. Needy is distraught.

But she meant well. And later that night, here’s Jen, looking quite sanguine, in both sense of the word.

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Jennifer has been a virgin sacrifice to a demonic force, which promised greatness to the band. However, not being a virgin (even backdoor) means that the sacrifice, instead of killing her, left her possessed by the demon, a succubus.

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Yeah, OK, but the audience needs a good reason for a woman to start eating her dates (even if, after 100+ blogs, you and I could think of a dozen good ones). So she is possessed, and eating people. When she’s hungry, she’s weak and unhealthy, but when she’s fed (and cleaned up) she’s the life, or undeath, of the party.

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This is a really good film, with all the ingredients of greatness: the cast are excellent, the director, Karyn Kusama, is in her element (she made Destroyer with Nicole Kidman recently) and it was written by Diablo Cody, fresh from the triumph of Juno, for which she won an Oscar for best original screenplay. But the film bombed at the box-office, the accepted wisdom in those days being that successful films were made exclusively for 14-year-old (white) boys. This one wasn’t, it was about strong and often violent women, and has been gathering a cult following in the decade since its release.

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There have been many horror movies about women, often (e.g. Carrie or Teeth) involving revenge for something done to them. This fits with the cultural expectation that men will be the aggressors and the monsters, and from this fetid swamp arose the slasher movies, including most cannibal films. Jennifer herself has been sexualised by most of the men and boys who appears in the plot. She is kidnapped and murdered by the band, despite begging for mercy.

But Jennifer is not seeking revenge on the band – that will (but not until the credits) be Needy’s job.

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Jennifer is a monster for all the males who have objectified her.

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The film plays with the assumptions about male power and appetite. The boys Jennifer eats are gentle and considerate, not violent or aggressive – the huge line-backer she tears apart after her return is seen first crying for his friend, who died in the fire.

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Everyone assumes, of course, that his killer is male.

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But the body when found is being eaten by a gentle fawn.

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Despite widespread cultural beliefs, female monsters are not rarities.  Earliest mythology tells of the Medusa, the sight of whom “made the spectator stiff with terror” (much to Freud’s amusement) and even earlier, there are claims that Lilith, Adam’s ex before he met up with Eve, was, or became, a succubus. Jennifer is an ideal example of what film scholar Barbara Creed calls “The Monstrous-Feminine”, a concept of monstrosity that depicts not a female version of male monsters, but a cultural force defined by male fears about the feminine. These fears include being castrated (Freud’s favourite explanation), as well as confronting “the monstrous womb” – a terrifying image of a “black hole which threatens to reabsorb what it once birthed” (Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, p. 27). As the writer, Diablo Cody, says, it is an unashamedly feminist horror movie.

Jennifer’s Body was before it’s time. In an article explaining the woeful critical reaction to the film, Vice summed up:

‘Jennifer’s Body’ Would Kill if It Came Out Today

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“Every family has a secret recipe” – WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Somos lo que hay), Grau, 2010.

This Mexican film (in Spanish) has it all when it comes to Cannibal Studies. When we discuss cannibalism, we think of sacrificial rituals, or people starving, or maybe just psychogenic appetites – some inner appetite that can only be satiated with human flesh. In most cannibal films, the cannibals are minor personalities, indistinct threats to the protagonist, not the main characters.

Welcome to We Are What We Are. A family of cannibals survive on human flesh, which is harvested by the father in bloody ritual ceremonies. When Dad dies, how are they to carry on? This is a family much like the one in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: poor, disenfranchised, living on the edge of a consumer society from which they seem excluded.

Shot in Mexico city, the film reflects the struggle for survival in what some call a dog-eat-dog world, which of course is far more accurately a human-eat-human world, since we are often far nicer to dogs than to each other.

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Yep, and the boys, Alfredo and his younger, vicious brother Julián, have been evicted from their market stall because Dad didn’t pay the rent. He was a watchmaker by trade, and also a procurer of human flesh. Kept the family fed. No more though. The boys have to take over.

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Meanwhile, the coroner calls in the police. He has found something interesting in Dad’s stomach.

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The police are not interested though. They don’t bother with cold cases. Or hot ones either, apparently. The coroner tells them

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“In the reports, they blame the rats, but what about the two-legged kind?”

The boys head to the bridge, where the homeless children live. Self-service and easy to carry. This is not too far-fetched – there are many reports of death squads picking up kids and turning them over to drug cartels. But these boys have a different purpose, and they are not very good at it – the kids fight them off.

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A cannibal fail. Their mother is furious because they put the family at risk. “Next we start trembling, because we’re going to die.”

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Luckily, Sabina, the sister, has an idea.

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Mexico City is presented as corrupt, steamy and full of predators. No cannibal need go hungry, with the streets full of homeless children and prostitutes. But these aren’t any old hungry or depraved cannibals (although they’re getting there fast) – they have a ritual, and prostitutes apparently just won’t do, so Mum beats her to death with a shovel.

The poor and desperate usually stalk their own. The family has tried the outcast children under the bridge, then the vulnerable prostitutes; now Alfredo follows a group of young gays to an underground club and picks up a young man, who tells him, without irony,

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Alfredo is devastated by his first gay kiss. Well, we knew, he is so sensitive, while Julián is the one filled with carnivorous virility, and is quite straight, although incestuously drawn to his sister.

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All taboos are out on the table here, just like the prostitute’s corpse.

Mother and Julián take the prostitute’s body back to the street where they found her, and Mum abuses the girls for wanting to fuck her sons.

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On the hierarchy of monsters, she seems to consider cannibals rather higher than whores.

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Alfredo brings his new boyfriend home, for dinner, as it were. But Julián is not impressed. Nor is Mum, prompting Alfredo to ask why she hates him,

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Is he talking gay or cannibal? Maybe the status of outcast is enough. You are considered less than human, and so can be hunted, killed, eaten.

Mum has brought another bloke home, and they kill him after a struggle. But Alfredo’s boyfriend, Gustavo has escaped, and found the police:

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Meanwhile, the prostitutes are finding ways to motivate the cops to look into the murder of their colleague.

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Everyone is eating everyone in this world. Mum and sister are starting “the ritual” with the corpse, which involves candles, meat hooks and sharp knives. Juicy crunching sounds, as they pull the carcass apart. Look, if this troubles you, don’t ever go into a butcher shop – the actions and sounds are the same. Except for the munching on raw flesh bit maybe.

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OK, enough spoilers. It is a horror movie, so the rules say the monster must die, with the opportunity for resurrection (in case of a sequel). And in cannibal movies, there is the Wendigo factor: the bite of the cannibal turns the victim into a cannibal, much like the vampire legends.

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Except there really are cannibals in our world, and they are not always eating flesh. There are many ways of eating the outcast.

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The critics gave it 72% on Rotten Tomatoes, although the viewers were less generous.

The Los Angeles Times said it was

An unexpectedly rich exploration of family bonds, blood rituals and the oftentimes zombie-like desire to assume the roles proscribed to each of us.

The New York Post was similarly insightful

Grau’s script is intelligent, and it has something to say about family and social dysfunction. You just might want to skip meat for a few days.

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Next week: the season finale of HANNIBAL SEASON 2. “Everybody’s settling in for dinner”.

“Truly living with nature” – CANNIBAL TOURS (O’Rourke, 1988)

Cannibal Tours is a documentary by Australian director and cinematographer Dennis O’Rourke. The scenes in it are presented without comment, but its irony and disquiet at the nature of ‘cannibal tourism’ is blindingly obvious.

The soundtrack of the film is a mixture of music, sounds of nature, and a symphony of camera shutters.

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The film follows European and American tourists as they travel the middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Most of the villages in the film are inhabited by the Iatmul people. The tourists enjoy bargaining for local handcrafts such as woodcarvings and baskets, snap endless photos of the colourful savages, hand out cigarettes, watch dance performances, and offer naive comments about native people and how they live in harmony with nature.

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It intersperses the scenes of the tourists with black-and-white photographs from the era of German colonialism of New Guinea.

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The pervasive ethnocentrism of the tourists casts them as the savages, as they dehumanise and exoticise Sepik River life.

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Some of the tourists’ observations are reproduced below without comment, just as O’Rourke does on camera.

German tourist: I heard that German colonists were very popular!
Where have they killed the people? Here?
Local: At those stones we would dance and cut off heads.
German tourist: Now I need a photograph!

An Italian tourist observes:

They are truly primitive. I wonder though if their way of life is better than ours. Truly living with nature. Not really living, more like vegetating. The experts assure us they are satisfied. Happy and well fed. Nature provides them with the necessities of life. And they don’t have to worry about thinking of tomorrow.

Local: The previous generation saw the Germans arrive by boat and thought their dead ancestors had returned. Now, when we see tourists, we say about them ‘the dead have returned!’

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There are lengthy scenes of tourists bargaining for carvings and masks.

Native woman – tourists come and look but never buy. You white men have all the money! We village people have no money!

Talking about the Spirit House, one local person recalls:

The Germans, the English and Australians took all the sacred objects. The missionaries destroyed all the most powerful symbols kept in the spirit house. The missionaries threw them out saying “It’s the devil! Get rid of it!”

 

German tourist [into his tape recorder]: Now we see the remains of a house where, in the past, cannibalism was practised.

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…for reasons of survival. And custom too, I think. It was symbolic. I think cannibalism was a cultural practice, not a necessity. Because wildlife must have been plentiful.

Local: We sit here confused while they take pictures of everything. We don’t understand why these foreigners take photographs.

Italian: we must try to help them advance in the world, bringing to them some values and convictions. Naturally, this will involve going into their villages as the missionaries do to teach them. To educate and stimulate them to behave differently.

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… living in a world completely overwhelmed by nature. They are also human.

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even though our evolution could still be disputed by some.

There is much hilarity when the tourists find a phallus for sale.

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Back on their boat, the tourists wear native warpaint and play at being savages.

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Maggie Kilgour wrote that

“the figure of the cannibal was created to support the cultural cannibalism of colonialism, through the projection of western imperialist appetites onto the cultures they then subsumed “.

The imperialists now have cameras rather than guns. The film really asks – who are the cannibals?

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The film is available (at time of writing) on YouTube:

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