“We’re NOT Maori cannibals”, FRESH MEAT (Danny Mulheron, 2012)

New Zealand has produced some world class directors; think of Jane Campion, or Peter Jackson. Not a lot of cannibal movies unfortunately, considering the country’s reputation – Jackson’s first feature film Bad Taste had a lot of humans being eaten but, unfortunately for this blog, the eaters were space aliens, so not technically cannibals. Jackson’s Braindead was closer, involving zombies. Can you be a cannibal if you are undead? We’ll have to consider that question some time, perhaps when we run out of movies about living cannibals (probably about the time we get to net zero).

But Danny Mulheron gets right into freshly killed, cooked (and sometimes raw) human body parts in this film. Like Jackson’s Bad Taste, Fresh Meat was Mulheron’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive inception.

The plot involves a family of Maoris, recently converted cannibals, being taken hostage by some bumbling criminals. Rina (Hanna Tevita) is home from her lesbian explorations at “St Agnes Boarding School for Young Maori Ladies” when a bunch of criminals break in to her home to hide from the police, having killed some prison guards to free their boss from a prison van.

But that’s Rina’s second shock of the day; the first was finding her parents’ new eating regime in the fridge.

Turns out her Dad (Temuera Morrison from Once Were Warriors and The Mandalorian)  is reviving an “eighteenth century post-colonial religion” – he has found the prophecies of Solomon Smith and become a “Solomonite”; he now believes that eating people (“taking their life-force”) will cause the family to flourish.

Yes, among the satire on Maori and Pakeha cultures, there is the odd dig at Christian transubstantiation.

Mum (Nicola Kawana) produces hugely popular cooking shows and books, she’s a Maori Nigella, into marinades, and she describes the meat she uses:

Rina is shocked that her brother (Kahn West) would agree to eat human flesh, until he tells her about the pork and rosemary pies that her family sent to her at school. It wasn’t a choice.

The subsequent bloody altercation with the criminals is set to fill the larder nicely. Dad tells the last living criminal, Gigi (Kate Elliott), who is hanging upside down ready for slaughter, that

“ritualistic cannibalism dates back to 1000BC to the Hun phase in Germany. The Bible itself refers to the siege of Samaria in which two women made a pact to eat their children. The Aztecs, the French, the Brits… Your ancestors probably did it. I know mine did.”

There is lots of Maori humour, and not all relating to cannibalism. Dad is an Associate Professor at the University, and blames white racism for his failure to be given tenure as full professor. When the cops knock at the door, he complains

Rina’s neighbour is a white boy who is in love with her. When he appears and is invited in (“we’ll have him for dinner” says Dad – yes, Hannibal lives), he points out that he is a vegetarian, but politely eats what turns out to be a human testicle, only getting suspicious when he spots something else on his plate.

Even when they have him tied up in the basement ready for slaughter, he politely tells them

Dad replies with the best line of the movie:

“Oh, we’re not Maori cannibals. We’re cannibals… that just happen to be Maori.”

But Dad has his own agenda: to become immortal:

“By eating the still-beating heart of my youngest son, I’m halfway towards immortality. But I still need to drink the blood of my virgin daughter.”

Doesn’t quite work out that way, Rina’s not a “virgin” after that scene in the shower with her girlfriend. Or does it?

What is it about virgins and blood sacrifices anyway? Are the rest of us not good enough to sanitise humanity’s sins with our polluted blood? We exploit the innocent and gentle ones, and then expect that, by slaughering them, we somehow clear our guilt at doing so. Remember the line from Leonard Cohen’s song Amen:

Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…

Anyway, the takeaway from this movie is that Maoris, traditionally accused of cannibalism, can be Maoris and cannibals without being “Maori Cannibals”. The two identities can be separated, even as they coexist. There are other families of cannibals who are not defined by their race; consider the Mexican film Somos lo que hay or its American adaptation We are what we are.

In cannibal studies, it is not unusual to be buttonholed by someone who has become aware of your field of interest and told with great solemnity “the Maori were cannibals, you know.” I tend to politely thank the informant for sharing a “fact” that almost everyone “knows”. But if I am feeling feisty, or have had a few drinks, I might invite them to unpack that statement – which Maori, whom did they eat, and what evidence are you presenting for this?

The British invaders of New Zealand were keen on declaring that the indigenous peoples, of wherever they went, were cannibals – it made their job of invading, enlightening and/or exterminating the inconvenient locals so much easier. But there is some evidence that much of the talk of Maori cannibalism was either misinterpretation or just slander – imperialists in the age of expansion tended to use words like “savage”, “barbarian” or “cannibal” pretty interchangeably – if you had dark skin and didn’t speak English, you were probably a cannibal, with no evidence required other than some hearsay from conquistadors or missionaries. But if an alien civilisation invaded Earth and found a copy of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a bookshelf, they might well assume that it was a history book, and that we were all cannibals.

Amazon.com: Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the  South Seas: 9780520243088: Obeyesekere, Gananath: Books

Ganath Obeyesekere’s excellent book on cannibalism in the South Seas makes clear that the oversimplification of Maori culture and mythology (and perhaps humour) probably led to often tragic misinterpretations of local customs. In fact, he says, it is likely that many Maori were convinced that the British were cannibals. And who could blame them? If those aliens mentioned above put down Grimm’s Fairy Tales and took a look inside our industrialised slaughter factories, where 135,000 farmed animals are killed every minute, they would assume we were far more bloodthirsty than they, or the Brothers Grimm, could have imagined. No wonder they don’t make contact.

It is interesting to consider the differing responses to cannibalism in the family of this film. Social Psychologist Melanie Joy calls the ideology surrounding and justifying the eating of meat, dairy and eggs “carnism” – a set of largely unconsidered beliefs in three beliefs that start with the letter N: that these products are “normal, natural and necessary“. We drink milk, eat meat, scramble eggs, based on the insouciant assumption that all these things are normal, necessary and natural (and, a fourth N, nice to taste). The family members reflect these views, but in relation to a different food source: Homo sapiens. Dad thinks eating humans is “necessary” in order to absorb the life force of the victims, and make himself immortal. Mother is a celebrated chef; for her, eating meat is “natural”, and where it comes from is not an issue, as long as it cooks well and tastes good. Rina’s brother finds the whole thing “normal” – his parents do it, and he wants to learn from them, and make them proud. Only Rina objects, although she was willing to eat the pies they sent her when she thought they were bits of a different animal. She’s like a vegan at a barbecue, heart-broken to see her family so unthinkingly accepting the death of animals, or at least, those that she can see and talk to.

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, 10th  Anniversary Edition - Kindle edition by Joy, Melanie, Harari, Yuval Noah.  Politics & Social Sciences Kindle eBooks @

If you don’t like gore and body parts (and violence and lesbian kissing) then you might want to skip this movie. But if you don’t mind all that, and like a rip-snorting plot, plenty of humour, a little suspense, and lots of intertextual winks to cultural foibles, some (perhaps unintentional) observations on the ideology of carnism, as well as some great acting and direction, then watch Fresh Meat. Recommended.

“A spoiled bloodline of inbred animals”: BONE TOMAHAWK (S. Craig Zahler, 2015)

This is a cannibal film, also a Western and a horror movie, so it has something for (almost) everyone. Although a low budget work by a first-time film-maker, the film has been widely recognised for the excellence of the script and direction, and the characterisation by a team of top actors. And the graphic nature of its climax.

Bone Tomahawk is set in a small town in the last days of the Old West, a frontier society held together by a sheriff, Franklin Hunt, played by Kurt Russell (who managed to fit in a starring role in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight that year as well), with an understated calm and a brooding power. A drifter comes into town and Hunt shoots him when he tries to run from the saloon, necessitating Samantha (Lili Simmons from Banshee), who practices medicine, to treat him in the jail. She, the drifter and a deputy are all abducted during the night – the only evidence is an arrow in the wall, and a dead African-American stable boy. Who could have done that?

We assume Indians, but a Native American they trust, “the Professor” (Zahn McClarnon, from Longmire and Fargo), tells them these are not the “Indians”, or at least the ones with whom the American invaders have been at war. They are a tribe with no name, no language (i.e. less than human). The local Indians call them “troglodytes”, cave dwellers,

The Sheriff, his “back-up deputy” and comic relief, Chicory (Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under and Shape of Water), the mysterious Indian-fighter Brooder (Matthew Fox from Party of Five and Lost) and Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson from Fargo) with a broken leg that is fast turning gangrenous, set out in pursuit. Most of the film, until the climax when they meet the trogs, is more a road movie than a Western or a cannibal horror film. It’s four cowboys against the elements. On the long ride out to the land of the trogs, they come across two Mexicans and Brooder kills them, suspecting that they are scouts for a bandit gang. Chicory explains

“Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of manifest destiny”.

Manifest destiny was a widely held cultural ideology that proposed that the culturally and racially superior American settlers were destined to expand across North America. Inferior, backward, savage peoples were meant to get out of the way, or be exterminated. Even the horses were supposed to be racially intolerant. When the rest of the gang comes in the night and steals their horses, Brooder is incredulous that his horse would allow a Mexican to ride her.

Discrimination, be it racism, speciesism, ageism, ableism or any other, is never all-encompassing. Most racists don’t hate everyone, or at least not equally. The settlers in areas like the old West hated the ‘Indians’ for defending their lands, which the white men wanted. Even in the era when this movie is set, sometime in the late nineteenth century, some Native Americans like the Professor were accepted as, if not equals, at least semi-civilised negotiating partners, while others, who maintained their resistance, were considered bloodthirsty savages, and portrayed as killers, rapists and sometimes cannibals.

In this film, this second group is distilled into a people so inhuman that they do not even have language, which is often the first thing quoted in defining the supposed gulf between humans and other animals. They are accused of raping and killing their mothers and, worse yet, abducting and raping white women, requiring the gallant sacrifice of heroes such as depicted here. One of the party, Brooder, boasts of having killed more Indians than all the rest of the town put together. When pressed, he admits that not all were men, as Indian women and children can also handle an arrow or a spear, and he tells of losing his mother and sisters to an Indian massacre when he was ten. For Brooder, white vs red, civilised vs savage is no different to good vs evil. He is an absolute racist, but for what he considers good reasons.

Yet even these less-than-human troglodytes are racists – they left the black stable-boy behind, because “they don’t eat Negroes”. No explanation is given, and it makes no sense since, under the skin (of whatever colour) we are all red meat. Yet their refusal to eat black people paints the white supremacism of the others as less vile somehow – look, these brutal savages must be exterminated – and they’re racists too, so it’s OK for us to discriminate against them.

Of course, those we wish to destroy must be dehumanised, vilified, and preferably accused of vile crimes, of which cannibalism usually seems to be the leading contender. But there is little evidence of Native Americans indulging in the flesh of their victims, whereas only fifty years before the demise of the Old West, the Donner Party had tucked into the remains of the members of their party who had died in the bitter winter snows of the Sierra Nevada in 1846-47. When they ran out of corpses, they murdered and ate their Native American guides.

The film is written and directed by S. Craig Zahler who also wrote the music with Jeff Herriott. It is a tour de force, a modern film that manages to bring to life the Western, a genre that, like its heroes, does not ever seem to die. American Frontier scholar Matthew Carter points out that this story is

“informed by one of white America’s oldest and most paranoiac of racist-psychosexual myths: the captivity narrative

In these narratives, civilised society is threatened by an evil outside force, and something precious (usually a woman) is stolen and must be recovered. In Bone Tomahawk, traditional narratives are challenged to some extent – the women are not passive, Brooder’s prejudice is challenged, the savages are motivated by the drifters desecrating their burial ground. But the heroes are white men, the story is told from their perspective, the fear of the outsider or alien (remember this is only a few years after 9/11) offers a stark binary which equates civilised with good and savage with evil. It is the myth that was used to justify manifest destiny and the genocide of the Native American tribes. The trogs are barely human – they are covered in white mud which disguises their humanity and they have whistles implanted in their throats instead of having voices, so they cannot be engaged in rational discussion. We see a prisoner scalped and then cut open while alive, to establish their monstrosity.

Their own women, we see at the end, are heavily pregnant, blinded and their limbs removed, so they are simply breeding machines for more warriors, a reference, intentional or not, to the way anti-Islamic propaganda depicts Moslem women as blinded by fundamentalist controls and their burqa.

But perhaps the Professor is the most interesting character. In Westerns, there were good Indians who were assimilated into the dominant culture, often assisted in spreading ‘civilisation’ (think Tonto in The Lone Ranger).

Then there were the evil Indians – the outsiders, vicious and merciless, uninterested in accommodating the invaders on their land, and often (although not always) portrayed as cannibals.

“There’s something evil in those woods”: SUPERNATURAL Season 1, Episode 2 “Wendigo”

Supernatural is a TV series created by Eric Kripke, first broadcast in 2005. Fifteen seasons later, the final episode (there were 327 in total) aired on November 19, 2020. You could call that a successful series.

The plots follow two brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester, who hunt demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural beings. The first two episodes were directed by David Nutter, who later won an Emmy for Game of Thrones.

Sam and Dean’s origin story in the pilot episode shows an idyllic home with a loving mother, doting father, and a demon who drips blood into baby Sam’s mouth, then ties their mom to the ceiling where she bursts into flames. Well, you can’t blame them for being a bit down on supernatural entities.

Dean’s metaphysical mission statement is:

“Killing as many evil sons of bitches as I possibly can.”

In episode 2, the boys come across a Wendigo, normally explained as a human transformed into a monster by the act of cannibalism. They find a love interest in a girl who is looking for her brother, one of a group of campers recently snatched by said Wendigo while playing computer games with friends in their tent in the deep woods (as you do) and reading Joseph Campbell’s book about the hero’s journey

Turns out the Wendigo eats a sounder of people every 23 years, and they find a man who, as a child, was attacked by the monster in 1959 but survived, with massive scars. He tells them:

Well, they finally get around to reading their Dad’s journal – he has a slim leather volume of handwritten notes on every evil thing you could need to know about. They explain the Wendigo to the other campers.

Cultures all over the world believe that eating human flesh gives a person certain abilities: speed, strength, immortality. You eat enough of it, over years you become this less-than-human thing. You’re always hungry.”

You can’t kill a Wendigo with bullets or knives.

Dean attempts to draw the Wendigo away from the others, with the hilarious taunt:

“You want some white meat, bitch?”

The Wendigo is a figure from Algonquin folklore, a spirit who possesses his human victim, giving him an insatiable hunger for human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied, thus the emaciated form.

The Wendigo is said to have a heart, or whole body, made of ice. The creation of the Wendigo, like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, is a “becoming” which requires the destruction or transformation of lesser beings, just as humans like to believe that the processing of “lower” animals into meat is required for their continued existence. In the television series Hannibal, Lecter is often shown as a dark figure with antlers, a Wendigo, who manifests and wreaks carnage (e.g. the episode “Hassun”).

Margaret Atwood in her lecture on the Wendigo pointed out that, unlike most monsters, the Wendigo offers two different terrors – being eaten by it, but also transforming into it. While all cannibals threaten us with physical dissolution through their digestive tracts, a simple bite from the Wendigo, or being possessed by its spirit during the act of eating human flesh (even if the act is necessary to survive) can destroy one’s will and endanger the whole tribe.

To the First Nations people, the Wendigo represented winter, hunger or selfishness and, particularly in subsistence communities, there is a direct causal link between those things – winter means shortages, which lead to hunger and struggles for resources, and sometimes cannibalism. In times of starvation, we are capable of anything. Cannibalism stories were not uncommon on the American Frontier, and popular culture has often told tales of white-man cannibalism using the Donner Party, Alferd Packer and the Wendigo, sometimes all mixed together, as in Antonia Bird’s Ravenous.

But when the Europeans came with their ships and guns and viruses, those they dispossessed, enslaved, raped, tortured and massacred came to the obvious conclusion that the white man must be possessed by a Wendigo spirit. This Wendigo spirit of ruthless and voracious consumption may be less blatant in the twenty-first century, but is still evident in the exploitation of sweat-shop workers, in human trafficking, and in the intensive factory farming that turns sentient animals into commodities by the billions. Also in the covert sexism and racism in shows like this, that depict “cis-het” white men taking on the world of evil and saving civilisation from the outsiders and aliens that haunt our dreams.

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.

Racists and Cannibals: JUNGLE JITTERS (Friz Freleng, 1938)

Not a movie this week, but a cartoon! Even today, many cartoons depict racist and sexist stereotypes, but JUNGLE JITTERS was so gratuitous that it was placed on a list known as the Censored Eleven, a list of  Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons taken off television in the United States in 1968 because of their offensive stereotyping of black people. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia links to this cartoon, as well as to several other real stinkers.

This cartoon, which is well under a hundred years old, followed the favoured interpretation of colonialism – the native people were uncivilised savages, probably cannibals, waiting for the white man to bring them into the modern age. This process was always violent and exploitative and often involved the expropriation of their lands and even extermination. But the public image of colonialism was the semi-human cannibals, as amusing as apes, and the civilised Europeans, who might be running the place, or could be poaching in a cauldron. This cartoon managed to fit all of that ideological baggage into less than eight minutes.

The idea that those who are not part of the Western liberal tradition must be primitive cannibals seems strange to us now, but let’s not forget that Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel and many other European philosophers considered indigenous people, whose strange customs were reported by the explorers, to be primitive savages, urgently in need of enlightenment. H.G. Wells in his 1920 book Outline of History wrote, “At first, the only people encountered by the Spaniards in America were savages of a Mongoloid type. Many of these savages were cannibals”. Even in this century, the weary trope continues to raise its head – a British Secondary School exam board recently apologised for approving a psychology text that contained a question on teamwork, involving a group of cannibals cooking a missionary.

In the “plot” of this cartoon, a travelling salesman brings a case of useless consumer goods to a fenced village. At first, the natives don’t want to let him in, but then change their perception of him.

Of course, he is soon in a cauldron, with jokes about “hold the onions” etc.

Then there is the love interest. This was a problem – depicting primitive natives indulging in cannibalism was unproblematic, but the “Hays Code”, which set the moral guidelines for American cinema from 1934-1968, definitely frowned on miscegenation – any hint of sex between the races.

The solution in this was to make the Queen into a white woman, without explanation, and have her see the salesman not as the cooked chicken envisaged by her tribe, but as Clark Gable and Robert Taylor.

While he appears to be some sort of dog, she seems to be based on a chicken (but not edible for some reason) and of course she is the kind of spinster that Hollywood loved to show as desperate and dateless.

She arranges an instant wedding, but he is repelled by her and, hilariously, chooses to leap back into the cauldron, expressing the hope that

“…they all get indigestion!”

I guess people still make racist and sexist videos today, in ever greater numbers, probably, but at least they are no longer distributed by major entertainment companies and aimed at children. Perhaps we are making progress. Or is racism and sexism simply becoming more sophisticated?

Immigrants and cannibals: TWO HEADS CREEK (Jesse O’Brien, 2019)

The thread that runs through cannibalism texts, from Homer’s Cyclops to Harris’ Hannibal Lecter, is the social outsider. It is a theme that never seems to age, since humans love to form cliques, united by an irrational hatred of those who don’t belong, even if it’s just because they dress differently or support a different sporting team. The most obvious example at the moment, and for most of modern history, is the immigrant.

Norman is played by Jordan Waller who also wrote the script – you may have seen him appear in the TV series Victoria. He runs his mother’s Polish butcher shop in Slough (it’s a real place, although there is definitely a pun in there). It’s post-Brexit Britain, and the locals scream abuse and paint his windows with dog-shit.

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He’s English, but his shop sells Polish meats, so he is the hated outsider. His twin sister Anna (Kathryn Wilder) is the assertive one, and is totally uninterested in his butcher shop.

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When they discover at their mother’s funeral (held in the butcher shop) that they were adopted, they find a postcard from their mother, postmarked from a small Australian town: Two Heads Creek. Not sure if this is international invective, but in Australia, “two-heads” is pretty much a synonym for “inbred”, and is used to denigrate rural people. The outsider does not need to come from outside – just a different region will do.

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Norman is named after his mothers’ favourite singer, the Australian pop star Normie Rowe, who was enormously popular in the sixties, until the government decided to conscript him to the war in Vietnam as a publicity stunt. Normie’s oeuvre is featured heavily in the soundtrack. Nevertheless, the twins know nothing of Australia as they sell the butcher shop and head “Down Under” to seek their birth mother, except for clichéd English convict stereotypes, so when the customs agent asks if he has a criminal record, Norman answers “is that a prerequisite?” They travel ten hours to the outback town with a group of Asian immigrants, on a bus driven by an Indigenous man, Apari (Gregory J. Fryer) who is treated like dirt by their guide.

This is a blog about movies involving cannibalism, so it’s probably not a big spoiler to mention why the immigrants are being sent to Two Heads Creek.

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Australian governments of both parties have a long-standing practice of locking up refugees in offshore detention and leaving them there to rot or go mad. So far, they have not considered cannibalism as a solution, so we have to hope they don’t see this movie.

There are lots of explicit cannibalism scenes, as well as some cute intertextual references, e.g.

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The movie is far from subtle in its treatment of jingoism, racism, sexism and various other discriminatory practices popular in Australia and elsewhere.

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But an important thing to realise about cannibalism is that it is an ultimate equaliser – although only certain groups may be chosen as victims, once skinned and cooked, we are all the same. Our differences are, literally, skin deep.

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The scenes of cannibalism are accompanied by another soundtrack, this one the Aussie group Skyhooks, with their big hit “Horror Movie” which, in the song, turned out to be about watching the evening news, and so is just as relevant now as ever. Perhaps more so.

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They do get to meet (and almost eat) their mother, yes, she is named Mary (the wonderful Kerry Armstrong from Lantana, Seachange and so much more), who perplexes them by describing their father as “a good man”.

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The final act is a climax of gore, wildly over the top and full of people being stabbed in the crotch, presumably for the 14-year-old-boy market. The main antagonist, Apple (Helen Dallimore) gets shot with an arrow and goes into the giant meat-mincer with her middle finger the final part to be ground up, while screaming the theme of the movie:

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The best line of the film is from their mother, who is hit in the neck by a lethal boomerang studded with nails, but dismisses it as “only a flesh wound”

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Apari, a descendant of the original inhabitants of the land, is left to clean up the blood and corpses that litter the town. With some justification, as he watches the Australians and the English hobble off, he says:

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This well-crafted film is only the second feature from Australian director Jesse O’Brien. He said of the setting, the mining town of Cracow in the Banana Shire, 500km northwest of Brisbane, that

“I think that myth of the outback being ‘a scary place’, which isn’t always true, does fit rural Queensland really well.”

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The cast is great and the film is fresh, funny and still manages to ask some interesting questions about differences and about appetites. It has a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Film Threat described it as:

“A deliciously deranged horror-comedy, overflowing with blood and wit.”

The movie is available on Amazon Prime.

 

“All I want is to eat that arm and become like you”, DISTRICT 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

Back in 2009, fifteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa seemed to be the obvious place to make movies that offered clear metaphors about racism and xenophobia. Today, they’d probably be filmed in Minneapolis, but nonetheless, after more than ten years, this movie works just as well, perhaps even better in this time, when people have to fight for their lives against both racism and an invasive disease.

DISTRICT 9 is directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson), and set in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is presented as “found footage” – fictional news stories, CCTV and interviews. District 9 is an internment camp for aliens – not from across the border or across the ocean, but across the universe. A giant UFO hovers above the city showing no signs of life, and when the authorities cut their way inside they find it is full of diseased and starving aliens, who look, as Roger Ebert said, like two metre tall lobsters. They are brought to land and housed in a secure area – District 9 – where they recover, and cause havoc with their love of wrecking stuff and eating lots of cat food.

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Yes, it’s not without humour. There are “interviews” with people of different races, all saying that these aliens – now known universally as “prawns” – should be sent home or else taken out of the city, away from human contact. Resettlement camp, detention centre, ghetto – those who are different can be separated with just some pernicious circumlocution.

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The movie follows Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a naïve and nerdy mid-level executive in a huge multi-national corporation called MNU (it stands for Multi National United), which supplies mercenaries for just such situations.

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Wikus heads off with his army and a clipboard, believing that he is going to knock on doors and ask the “prawns” to agree to be moved to a new camp, whereas of course the whole process is aimed at intimidation and terrorising of the populace.

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Searching one building, he finds a tube of alien fuel, which they have been synthesising for twenty years, planning an escape. He opens it, and it sprays all over him.

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Soon, he starts metamorphosing into a “prawn” – his hand turns into an alien claw, and his teeth and nails start to fall out. This is obviously a big problem – actually two. First, his company, MNU, wants to cut him up and study his organs, desperate to learn how to transmute others, because the aliens have immensely powerful weapons that will only operate in the hands of someone with alien DNA. He escapes back to District 9, pursued by the sadistic head of the corporation’s private army, who personifies white supremacist violence.

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Back in District 9, Wikus is captured by a Nigerian criminal gang, who make their fortune from the aliens, selling them cat food, and offering interspecies prostitution (delicately presented). The Nigerians’ leader, whose name is taken from that of a former President of Nigeria, also wants to control those weapons, and believes eating Wikus’ arm will make him part alien as well. Why not just eat a prawn? Oh, they’ve tried that.

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The trope of cannibals taking on the strengths of those they eat has been around pretty much forever. It is used to explain both mortuary cannibalism, where the strength of the ancestors is passed to the descendants through their flesh, and also aggressive cannibalism where the legs of the fastest enemy, or the testicles – you get the idea. It revolves around the idea that “you are what you eat”, but if you believe that, well, what does that say about the trolls who love to write “But BACON!” on vegan social media sites?

The film was shot around Johannesburg, and the squalid hovels shown were in an area of Soweto that was being demolished and the people relocated. The story is based on the true case of District Six in Capetown, where 60,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s by the apartheid regime. But finding a parallel story of forced removals of oppressed populations would not be difficult in most of the world’s nations. A reviewer wrote in an article entitled “District 9 reveals human inhumanity”:

“Substitute “black,” “Asian,” “Mexican,” “illegal,” “Jew,” or any number of different labels for the word “prawn” in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue, echoing what we historically as a species are all too capable of doing.”

Several different facets of cannibalism are presented in District 9. The Nigerians eat “prawns” – is that cannibalism, or if not, what about their plan to eat Wikus as he transforms into a prawn? The big corporation is only interested in the billions of dollars that will come from working out how to operate the alien weapons, and are ready and willing to sacrifice Wikus and use his body parts in pursuit of this goal. The aliens are tall and powerful (pulling people limb from limb in a few scenes) and look a bit reminiscent of the creatures from the Alien movie franchise, even though they don’t eat each other or the humans; but  they are keen on meat from other species like pigs and goats and whoever ends up in the slurry called cat food.

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The formal definition of cannibalism tries to restrict the definition to humans eating humans, but it is always leaking out the sides. What we see in this film is the way that anyone can be abused, objectified and even eaten if they can be reclassified as inhuman or subhuman. Wikus starts the story happy to burn down shacks full of alien eggs, enjoying the sound of the eggs bursting, which sounds like popcorn. Captured by the corporation and made to operate alien weapons, he is happy to destroy pigs but begs not to be made to shoot the aliens. Later, turning into a “prawn”, he is more than happy to use the alien weapons to blow apart various soldiers of his former employer, to protect the prawns. The irony of this film is that Wikus, who is a fully carnophallogocentric human in the terms used by Derrida (“adult white male, European, carnivorous and capable of sacrifice”), only finds his humanity when he begins morphing into something else and becomes one of the outsiders he previously disdained.

It’s well worth seeing – if you don’t dig the message, then there’s plenty of action scenes, car chases and explosions. Some unintended explosions after the movie, too, when the Nigerian Information Minister asked cinemas to ban the film because it depicted Nigerians as criminals and cannibals. Not the first time white people have applied those epithets against Africans, and the film also scored a mention in Salon’s list of “white saviour” movies, since Wikus is white, and desperate to remain so. But the Malawian actor, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, who played the gang leader, said that the Nigerians in the cast weren’t bothered: “It’s a story, you know. It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place.” Sensible, but not a great look for a film that is slamming racist stereotypes through the metaphor of speciesism.

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The direction is adroit and the story buzzes along with never a dull moment. The acting is first rate, even the guys in the alien suits become sympathetic characters, and the special effects are first rate. The film has a 90% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s available on Netflix.