The vampire of Sacramento: “RAMPAGE” (Friedkin, 1987)

Rampage is a 1987 film from William Friedkin, the director of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). It is based on the case of RICHARD CHASE, an American serial killer who murdered six people in the span of a month in December/January 1977-78. He was nicknamed “The Vampire of Sacramento” because he drank his victims’ blood and cannibalized their remains. In this version, the victims have been altered, as has the killer, who is now named Charlie Reece (Alex McArthur). Charlie is presented as the nice, helpful boy-next door. He’d mow your lawn, or bring in your shopping.

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Then maybe kill you and drink your blood.

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The film wastes no time on showing Charlie getting hungry, killing three people who appear to be chosen at random, and then revealing his self-perception, as a caged tiger.

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The film is mostly about the keen young prosecutor, Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn). Fraser is caring, empathetic, liberal, an opponent of capital punishment, until he comes across this case.

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“The women’s bodies were cut open to get at the organs… Some of the organs were removed.”

There’s also a glass that has been filled with blood, and drained.

Another family are burying their dog. They know Charlie poisoned the dog, and report him to the police. Then Charlie comes visiting. The mother is cut up like the others and sexually assaulted, the child has vanished.

Charlie is quickly arrested, and we see his cellar, full of body parts, weapons and Nazi regalia. His mother tells his lawyer about how Charlie had to witness domestic violence at a very young age. Charlie tells his psychiatrist about hearing Satan on the radio, telling him to kill people, and taking his blood from him when he disobeys. He describes shooting the little boy so he could suck his blood, then putting him in a trash can.

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All the pieces are there for an insanity plea. The psychiatrists agree to say he was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed his blood was poisoned and his heart failing.

At the trial, we hear how normal Charlie was – his friends talk of his reasoned non-violence, his scout master says he was a good boy, his steady girl tells how thoughtful he was. Then a nurse tells of finding his diary, listing all the dogs, cats and rabbits he had killed. The prosecution’s psychiatrist is asked “did he know he was killing living human beings?”

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That was the point. That was why he did it. He claims he has a belief that his body is failing and infected and he’s convinced himself that someone else’s blood will repair him. He had to kill them to get the blood.

In other words, he was psychotic, but he knew what he was doing at all times, and is therefore legally sane.

As the movie bogs irretrievably down in legal and psychiatric argument, Charlie livens it up as he escapes (something Chase did not do), kills the guards and then invades a church, killing the priest and drinking his blood.

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Back in court, the defence’s psychiatrist says Charlie was driven by his sickness and had no free will. He asks

What makes a respectable young man turn into a killer?

After he is found guilty, the judge orders a PET scan, a new technology that scans the brain.

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“We’re looking at a computer enhanced image of the chemistry of the brain. And what we’re seeing is a picture of madness.”

But it’s too late; in the original version of the film at least, Charlie’s mom has smuggled him pills, and he kills himself.

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Rampage was completed in 1987, just in time for DEG, the production company, to go bankrupt. It was not released in the US for the next five years, and was finally released, with a different ending, in 1992 by the Weinstein company. In that version, he is sent to a state mental hospital, and writes to a man whose wife and child he has killed, asking him to visit. A final title card reveals that Reece is scheduled for a parole hearing in six months. He will probably kill again. While the original version quibbled with the idea of capital punishment, the revised version reinforced the necessity of putting him down. European versions usually show the original ending, in which Charlie commits suicide, and the DA regrets fighting for the death penalty.

Basically, this movie is like a long episode of CSI or SVU, and in fact there is an episode of CSI called “Justice Is Served” which is also based on Chase’s murders. The director, Friedkin, called it “among the lowest points in my career.” The film scored what could charitably be called a modest 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. With only nine reviews, you might call it ignored rather than despised. The script is clunky and some of the acting is wooden, although Alex McArthur as the killer is great, looking a bit like a (more) demented John Travolta. The soundtrack is by the wonderful Sergio Leone, who wrote over 400 movie scores, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Roger Ebert, the doyen of movie critics, wrote, “This is not a movie about murder so much as a movie about insanity”.

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The real Richard Chase

Well, yes – Chase was, by the age of ten, exhibiting evidence of all three parts of the Macdonald triad: bed-wetting, arson, and cruelty to animals, considered as indicators of future violent tendencies.

Rampage is a classic psychogenic cannibalism story. Like Jeffrey Dahmer or Albert Fish, we can hate what Charlie did and yet not quite blame him for it – he is driven by what we consider wrong beliefs, which cause him to ignore the sanctity of human life. Yet how sacred is human life, in a world in which thousands of children die of malnutrition every day while their government exports grain to the West to feed pigs and chickens? Charlie believes he needs blood due to an imaginary illness, just as so many people are convinced they need to eat animal flesh. He starts on dogs, cats and rabbits and graduates to humans. To the cannibal, we are just one more species on the shopping list: if it’s OK to eat Fido, it must be OK to eat the neighbours. There is a logic there, which the meat industry would much rather you ignore.

 

Next week = some light cannibal relief with the new comedy CORPORATE ANIMALS

“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”.

Loving and biting: “TROUBLE EVERY DAY” (Denis, 2001)

Trouble Every Day (its real title, not a translation from French) is a love letter from director Claire Denis to Paris, the ‘city of love’. It opens with some serious French kissing and there is a lot of oral action during the film – kissing, licking, biting, eating – they are all variations on the theme of seeking pleasure through oral connection.

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Variety described the film as “”over-long, under-written and needlessly obscure” but that is not uncommon in American reviews of French films. It lingers on images, particularly Paris, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grey and seedy, sometimes both, the grunge lit by the sunset.

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Like any big city, Paris is a place to seek love, make love, hide, sometimes get killed (and sometimes even eaten). Certainly the city (not just Paris) is famous for eating up and spitting out its residents, at least on a metaphoric level. And sex, particularly in Paris it seems, tends to be a mixture of tenderness and extreme violence.

The plot is simple and immune to spoilers – people are obviously going to get eaten (it happens a lot, particularly on movies reviewed on this cannibal blog) and that action starts pretty much right away. Coré (Béatrice Dalle) lures men with the promise of sex, then tears them to pieces and eats them. Léo (Alex Descas) loves her, protects her, buries the bodies, cleans her up, kisses her and then locks her in her room when he goes to work. But she always escapes (helps that she has keys and electric saws hidden strategically around the room).

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When a couple of neighbours take his absence as an opportunity to break in, well, you can guess the rest.

Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey) arrive in Paris for their honeymoon, but Shane has other images filling his mind, and we glimpse some of them even as he sits, desolate, in the plane’s toilet, not even bothering to have a wee (come on – you know how hard it is to get a turn in one of those?)

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Shane is seriously creepy and, as he stares down at June in their Paris hotel, we find that his loving is also not without teeth.

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Turns out he knew Leo and Coré, worked with them on bioprospection research, looking for plants that would cure nervous diseases, mental diseases and problems of libido. Think there is any money in that lot? But Leo was impatient with their caution, wanted to test it on humans. And of course, that experiment backfired. Some plants heal mental diseases and libido, others turn you into cannibals. C’est la vie.

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But the plot is not so important. Denis is telling us that love, or at least sex, is about touch, communion, intimacy. And what is more intimate than not just kissing and biting your partner, but swallowing, incorporating them? The definition of marriage in the Bible is “they shall become one flesh”. Cannibalism is the ultimate expression of that – once the blood is wiped off, the lovers have indeed become one flesh.

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The movie got 50% on Rotten Tomatoes website, so no one can quite make up their mind. I liked (although disagreed with) the review in the Seattle Times:

“I’m not sure these words have ever been together in the same sentence: This erotic cannibal movie is boring.”

The film is probably a lot more disturbing on the big screen, as Denis glories in extreme close-ups, particularly of touching, kissing, licking, bleeding, as well as lingering on areas of the body that usually don’t make it into Hollywood films (but usually do in French films). Luckily, having sat through a guy having his tongue ripped out and a hotel maid being raped and killed, there is at least, at the end, a puppy.

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Auto-cannibalism: “In My Skin” (de Van, 2002)

First off, if you don’t like gore (hey, it’s a blog about cannibal films, not necessarily slashers), then you may want to avoid this little French number. If graphic scenes don’t bother you (or if you like them) then this one is quite intriguing and very well made. But –– you’ve been warned.vlcsnap-2019-02-16-15h47m58s843.png

Marina de Van both directed and starred in this film, one in a genre of French movies which became known as New French Extremity films. There’s not a great deal of plot, but there’s a lot to the film in terms of the concepts and questions it raises. The film starts with a series of scenes: traffic, buildings, doors, etc, split screen into the image on one side, and a negative version on the other. So we’re already exploring dualism. The lead character, Esther (played by the director, Marina de Van), is a picture of privilege: she is white, well paid, well off, has a loving boyfriend – she’s on top of her world. Then she has a fall. A real fall, onto some rubbish, and actually injures her leg. But it doesn’t hurt. She doesn’t even notice the abrasions for some time.

Her doctor (played by her real-life brother, Adrian de Van) and her boyfriend (Laurent Lucas) are both concerned about her feeling no pain, but she brushes them off. Then she starts poking her wound, then the cutting starts, then the stabbing, then later the chewing (which qualifies it for my cannibal blog). That’s all I’m saying – no spoilers.

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In the director’s words, the movie asks “does this body really belong to me?” In an interview, she revealed that the story is based on an childhood accident, when she was hit by a car and had her leg broken, and she saw her leg not as part of her, but as a “fascinating, deformed object.”

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Here’s the point: we look at each other with love or lust or hatred or fear, but it’s always only skin deep. What is beneath that surface? Derrida tells us that the binary opposition of inside to outside is the “matrix” of all oppositions. We consume the insides (muscle, fat, blood) of other animals but are horrified at our own internals – think of the warning given on the news when showing an accident or terrorist event, often quickly followed by an advert or a kitchen show involving bits of a dead lamb.

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Why are we so repelled by what’s under our skin? Judith Halberstam tells us that skin is a “metonym for the human”, and any breach of it reveals a “semiotic of monstrosity” – the uncanniness within the body. Or as Angela Carter put it, “if flesh plus skin equals sensuality, then flesh minus skin equals meat”.

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This film, and cannibal films generally, remind us that we are not gods or angelic beings – we are animals, and are made of meat, just like the animals we torment and slaughter. When Esther looks into her own being, she feels the same appetite others feel when walking past a roast.

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In My Skin received 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one reviewer saying “A spellbinding, forceful film that refuses to be ignored” and another slamming it as “a bloody mess, in more ways than one.” The film received the Best International Film award at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2003. Make up your own mind.

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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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