Of all the horror genres, jungle cannibal films might be the most niche. They boomed in the 1970s with directors like Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato - whose Cannibal Holocaust still sets the standard for cinematic extremism - but there have been scant few jungle cannibal films in recent decades. Eli Roth’s mission is to change that, to bring gut-munching South American cannibal tribespeople into the mainstream.
I don’t know that The Green Inferno will do that, but it made this long-time fan of the genre very, very happy. It’s among the most extreme and bloody R-rated movies I have ever seen, and while the movie’s savagery cannot stand up to the gonzo gore of Make Them Die Slowly or Deodato’s masterpiece, The Green Inferno pushes far past any boundaries of mainstream violence.
In the grand tradition of Hostel and Hostel Part II, The Green Inferno follows a group of college kids who get in way over their heads while out of the country. In this case it’s a group of activists, college students who head to the Amazon to protest deforestation that threatens local stone age tribes. But when a plane crash (an all-timer, in my opinion) strands them deep within the jungle the kids learn that maybe the tribe isn’t the idealized version of man living in harmony with nature that they thought. Their condescending liberalism never prepared them for a village of red-painted headhunters who don't fit any of their primitive native as childlike innocent stereotypes.
Roth’s Hostel films are political in a way that some have misconstrued as accidental; that won’t happen with The Green Inferno, and this time his social commentary - he’s largely taking shots at modern ‘slacktivist’ fads like Invisible Children/Kony 2012 - trips over the line into satire. I wish he had been more subtle, but subtlety was never a hallmark of the jungle cannibal genre, and his heavy-handed messaging actually pays off in a final stinger that’s bloodless and not a scare moment but is nonetheless a profoundly cynical twist that puts the nihilism of past jungle cannibal movies to shame.
Some aspects of The Green Inferno are frustrating. Once the film gets to the jungle it is often gorgeous, but the opening sequences in New York City are the worst sort of crummy, flat digital photography. Roth proved with Hostel Part II that his filmmaking craft is extraordinary - it’s one of the most beautiful, elegant horror movies of the last decade - so the stateside stuff in The Green Inferno is a big step back. And it’s confusing because the jungle photography is so gorgeous, with bright, urgent colors that pop and compositions that create a sense of caged terror. It’s possible that the New York sequences look like that on purpose, to keep them visually delineated from the vibrant jungle sequences, but even if it was a choice it’s a distracting one.
It’s the opening act in New York, and some of the acting in the film, that makes me understand why there are those who don’t particularly like The Green Inferno. But once the film hits the second act it is a relentless machine of gory fun, and I can’t understand how any hardcore horror hounds could scoff at it. Roth remains a genius at filming his gore in ways that accentuate the pain and horror without becoming so brutal as to be numbing; the first cannibal kill in the movie (also the best, to be honest) is as horrific as any murder I have ever seen on screen, but it’s also - and be prepared to judge me for this - absolutely fun. Yes, a man is having his eyeballs graphically scooped out and eaten like grapes, but in a way that had me hooting and hollering.
Someone complained to me that The Green Inferno doesn’t bring much new to the jungle cannibal table (although I’d argue that having the victims be well-meaning idiots rather than absolute colonialist assholes is a great reversal of the usual scenario in these movies), but who cares? The genre has been dormant for decades, and Roth has jumpstarted it. The only way The Green Inferno could be more authentically an Italian cannibal movie would be if it starred Italians and featured the sickening deaths of real animals (The Green Inferno is one of the few jungle cannibal films where all the animals onscreen make it out okay). It’s not just homage, though - The Green Inferno isn’t a checklist of references to old movies. It’s very much an Eli Roth film, one that happens to be a strong example of a spectacularly niche horror genre.
At this point Roth’s bona fides as a fan shouldn’t be questioned, but just to prove it all the film’s credits feature a text history of the jungle cannibal genre. It’s the best possible way to do that kind of referencing; instead of littering the film with in-jokes and nods, the movie basically has footnotes.
With The Green Inferno Eli Roth secures his position as one of the top filmmakers working in horror. It’s not his best film - I think it’s going to be tough for him to top the underappreciated greatness of Hostel Part II - but it’s a wonderful work of nastiness. Flawed and uneven, The Green Inferno transcends its limitations to be the sort of cheer-out-loud experience that needs to be seen in a packed movie theater. It's been a long time since something this sick has been this much fun.