“After the Movie, Let’s Go Eat”
Outside the AMC in a mall in Carbondale, IL, an angry looking Amazonian stares back at me from his poster advertising The Green Inferno, Eli Roth’s latest horror film, adapted from the most revered of the “Italian cannibal” films of the early 1980s. Recently restored and released on BluRay, Cannibal Holocaust’s extra features include celebratory commentary by Roth, in an act both reverential and yet deeply cynical, finding any way to advertise a dying art form.
Contradiction is the only way of understanding both films. Gentle readers, I cannot quite imagine I’ll be able to convince you of this, but Cannibal Holocaust is the Citizen Kane of exploitation movies. In Orson Welles’ film, the reporter Thompson travels in search of information about Charles Foster Kane because of the inadequacies of the film documentary his studio has made about him. In Ruggero Deodato’s film, Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), an anthropologist from New York University wanders the Amazonian basin looking for four missing filmmakers. Mid-way through the film, he finds film canisters around the necks of the members of a lost tribe of cannibals. The professor returns to New York City, where greedy television executives start editing the footage for an exploitative documentary, meant to celebrate the consumed heroes. The professor is sickened by the New Yorkers, and forces the female executive of the network to watch the last two reels of film. Therein, we see the filmmakers gang raping a young Amazonian girl.
The footage has finally demonstrated, not the uplifting ethnography the network was sculpting, but instead the catastrophic moral failure of these post-modern Kurtzes, the stuff of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (by no accident, the film project that Orson Welles abandoned to make Citizen Kane). Indeed, by the time the found footage runs out and the Amazonians are mounting the filmmakers’ heads on poles, we are, like Marlow, forced to acknowledge the limits of language to describe the depths of human barbarity. However, unlike the speechless Marlow back in civilization with Kurtz’s Intended, Prof. Monroe forces the television executive to confront what her beloved filmmakers actually were, predatory monsters who murder villagers in order to make their artwork more marketable. The film skillfully intercuts shots of the streets of Manhattan with those of the Amazon, while Monroe queries, “I wonder who the real cannibals are?”
Of course, none of this excuses Cannibal Holocaust. Simultaneous to this very powerful critique of white colonialism, the exploitation film has one purpose, to titillate by showing men (both white American and Europeans, as well as Amazonians) violently assaulting women’s bodies. So, imagine my shock when I walked into the mall to discover a new iteration of the Italian cannibal movie playing in the very theater where a month before my kids and I had seen Inside/Out. Cannibal Holocaust is a grindhouse film that may or may not be appropriate for midnight showings in the pre-gentrified Times Square, but it most certainly would not have ever screened during the day in a mall in Southern Illinois. Italian cannibal films don’t play in Peoria, to misquote Variety.
The remake, The Green Inferno (named for the documentary film being made about the Amazon in Cannibal Holocaust) is a contradiction in entirely new ways. Roth states in the liner notes that he wants to pay homage to what he considers Deodato’s masterpiece. But in order to release his new movie widely, he has censored all of the sexual violence of his source text. Indeed, the film replaces it with an odd critique of female sexual repression.
The Green Inferno begins with Justine (Lorenza Izzo) attending an anthropology class at Columbia University where she naively expresses her outrage at learning of the present-day practice of female genital mutilation. In a huge lecture hall, she tells the professor that her father is a lawyer at the United Nations, and that someone should put at stop to such barbarity. This action outs her as an easy mark for a sketchy radical environmental group who are planning on chaining themselves to the backhoes of a rapacious corporation in Peru, who are about to destroy a tribe of Amazonians in order to extract the natural resources out of the rainforest. The hapless Justine tags along, what my brother calls a “liberal do-gooder.” However, when their plane crashes, the tribe (who turn out to be cannibals) begin eating the teenage activists one by one. In slasher film tradition, when the Amazonian priestess discovers Justine is a virgin, she begins preparing her for the rite of female genital mutilation. In an oddly earnest reprise of the ending of The Wizard of Oz, Justine awakens in her dorm room at Columbia, the film having been her nightmare about the horrors of female genital mutilation.
The Wizard of Oz excuses The Green Inferno no more than Citizen Kane excused Cannibal Holocaust. While Roth assures his film of an R rating, and thus its marketability in the mall-based multiplexes of America, by excising any and all depictions of sexuality, his so-called “torture porn” images relish in the acts of violent cannibalism. Jonah (Aaron Burns), the hapless overweight protester who recruits Justine because he is attracted to her, but too shy to act on these desires, is the first to be stuffed into the Amazonian smoker. In slasher film logic, he is consumed precisely because he expresses even a wisp of sexuality. And so The Green Inferno devolves into a false depiction of human behavior. It pains me to say so, but it is a film that makes one long for the… ahem, honesty of Cannibal Holocaust.