Of all the genres I never thought I’d see resurrected, hard-core-gore cannibal films came in right after Esther Williams water-ballet musicals. But there’s no holding back Eli Roth. In The Green Inferno, the man behind Hostel and Hostel 2 does jungle flesh-munching with so much bravura that I have to half-admire him. And he doesn’t only deliver a p.c.-flouting orgy of torture and dismemberment. He also skewers environmental activism, just in time for the Pope’s rousing encyclical on its behalf. His ecowarriors get quite the comeuppance. Leaders of supposedly grassroots movements are shown to be more devious and self-serving than the companies whose voraciousness they protest. Tree-huggers get impaled on branches, at one with the nature they revere. Indigenous people whose existence is threatened by the rain forest’s destruction don’t say, “Bless you, white master.” They say, “Yum. Lunch.”
Yikes, did this movie take me back. I remember visiting the old Deuce — where I sat behind a guy who wasn’t just smoking pot, he was using a bong, great clouds rising to the peeling ceiling — to see Make Them Die Slowly, which I’d later learn was the American grindhouse title for Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox. (Ferox turns out to be Latin for “fierce.”) For professed horror mavens, seeing these ugly, pointedly artless films was a test of manhood, though passing it seemed like failing a larger, more human one. The most acclaimed of the movies, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, featured actual killings of a giant sea turtle and a squirrel monkey. (I’m told — I skipped those chapters on the DVD.) The intention was to blur the line between documentary and fiction, and it worked. The tribesman looked real — maybe those non-actors were getting snuffed, too. You couldn’t be quite sure.
In the Italian films, some of the first-world victims had it coming, their grisly deaths a payback for exploiting and killing natives. But in The Green Inferno, Roth punishes his characters for being naïve enough to think that social action can bring about positive change. His New York heroine, Justine (Lorenza Izzo, who’s also his wife), and her roommate (the singer Sky Ferreira) look with derision on a group of lefty hunger-strikers. Although Justine’s father works for human rights at the U.N., she only joins the cause because she’s taken with the activists’ handsome, charismatic leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy, not to be confused with the former New York writer). Does she really have a chance with Alejandro, who’s flanked by a jealous blonde girlfriend? After a ride to Peru and a puddle jumper into the jungle, Justine finds herself in front of bulldozers and with a company goon’s gun to her head, and finally realizes the awful truth about the group’s methods. And she ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
What happens next begins nightmarishly and gets worse. But unlike the '70s Italian cannibal movies, The Green Inferno doesn’t have a mondo vibe. It’s artfully made and acted with skill. I believed every agonized shriek. After the plane crash that bisects the film along with several of the characters, the tribe that comes upon the survivors is wondrous to behold. The bodies of the men, women, and children are coated with red ochre and chalk and have nifty piercings. Their architecture is rudimentary, but they accessorize with relish, evidently reluctant to toss away skulls, bones, teeth ... anything. Although the big butchering setpiece might well disturb my sleep for years, there’s something rather warm and fuzzy about the subsequent labors of the mothers and children: Even Hillary Clinton would appreciate the way the movie demonstrates how it takes a village to kill, clean, disembowel, cut up, and roast a large human being.
Roth is a very deliberate fellow, and he has a real theme. The horror in The Green Inferno unfolds amid lush, verdant settings, which puts it squarely in the American tradition of satirizing “civilized” writers and painters who celebrate an ecstatic spiritual oneness with nature. That tradition goes back at least as far as Melville’s “The Mast-Head” chapter in Moby-Dick, but Carl Hoffman’s recent history/travelogue Savage Harvest underlines (more than once) the irony of Nelson Rockefeller and his ilk prizing “primitive” New Guinea art at the same time the artists were pulling out his son’s entrails and roasting his limbs. Roth is careful to set up a bloody vagina-stabbing with an early scene in one of Justine’s college classes, where a female professor with short hair lectures about genital mutilation, implicitly suggesting that it’s a patriarchal ritual intended to subjugate women. But in this tribe, the women are mutilated by other women — especially a crone with a dead, milky eye who also screams with glee as she digs the eyeball out of a living human being and pops it in her mouth.
When a director works this crazy-hard to provoke, it’s best not to take the bait. Just summarize and leave the field. Apart from a ludicrous, Fort Apache–style coda, Roth hits his marks. He eviscerates the Occupy movement and all those rich kids who are just there to get laid. (Why else would anyone demonstrate against the excesses of crony corporate capitalism?) He sticks it to critics who decry anything smacking of “torture porn” — although it’s worth saying that “torture porn” was never (at least in my formulation) intended to mean that you get off on characters’ pain the way you get off on their sexual pleasure. You “get off” on identifying with the victim, too. The point is to feel something visceral, extreme. Eli Roth is extremely extreme. My head is off to him.