31 Days of Nightmares -- The Green Inferno

31 Days of Nightmares — The Green Inferno

This is a film with heavy baggage and a lot of problems. Socio-political problems, so hang onto your hat.

I want to just write a short, scathing review of this, because as a piece of entertainment, it was only ok. But there’s so much going on here that deserves discussing.

First, respect to Eli Roth for being the only mainstream director right now making exploitation films. And he’s getting them wide releases in your neighborhood cineplex. So that’s something.

Green Inferno has historical baggage because it’s so closely connected to the 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust. That movie is infamous for a number of reasons: the producers were put on trial in Italy for murder because the scenes in the film were so realistic (never change, Italian legal system, never change); the cast killed and butchered actual animals on camera (the reason I never have and never will watch this movie); and its use of handheld cameras and documentary style make it the first found-footage horror film. Green Inferno is the name of the fictional documentary that Cannibal Holocaust is about, the film within the film. And Cannibal Holocaust is open to a lot of interpretations because it tries to couch its violence and gore within a moral about civilized people being just as savage as the savage jungle people.

But Roth’s Green Inferno is actually based on a lesser known movie, Cannibal Ferox. The plot mirrors Ferox very closely — idealistic white people head into the jungle to protect natives, find natives are cannibalistic savages, one is rescued and lies about the cannibalism to protect them. There’s incredibly extreme gore and brutality galore, but the movie is actually at its best as a sort of jungle escape adventure movie. The murder scenes are gruesome, but mostly bog the movie down. There’s some bleak humor going on as well (“They’ve got the munchies!”).

But this movie could really be subtitled Eli Roth’s Wide World of Problematic Tropes. He does a lot of nasty things in this movie, and I’m not sure he’s entirely conscious of all of them.

The most obvious is of course the inherent racism in depicting a South American tribe as brutal cannibal savages. Roth has tried to deflect criticism here by saying the exploitation of the jungle and destruction of tribes by oil companies is way worse than anything a silly movie could do. I almost bought that, but the thing is, media matters. When you repeatedly depict people as inhuman monsters, it makes it easier for people to do those things, to destroy their homes and murder them. Check out some 20th century war propaganda and you’ll see this a lot.

On the other hand, every movie needs a bad guy, and that bad guy is going to be some type of person, and isn’t necessarily saying “every person of this type is also evil.” And this is a classic horror trope, the idea of being somewhere isolated an encountering an entire degenerate society that’s focused on murder and brutality. It eliminates the safety valve of going to the authorities, because there are none. It makes otherwise mundane, friendly entities (grandmothers, children) part of the horror by having them accept and take part in it. It’s the horror behind Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and even that X-Files episode about the inbred family. A village of jungle cannibals is genuinely scary.

But Roth’s problems don’t stop there. This is clearly a political film, but it’s not entirely clear what its message is. Every character is reprehensible. It condemns idealistic white liberal college students, but makes those doing real work to change the world just as evil. It pits the natives against brutal oil company security forces, and obviously no one comes out as the good guys there.

There is a recent horror trope (or, I should say, recent awareness of, since it’s existed for a long time) that simply depicting the dominant culture being treated the way they usually treat the minority culture counts as horror. The alien invaders put everyone in slave camps and take away their land…hm, sounds familiar. The vampires treat everyone like property and use them as if they were just another resource…when has that ever happened in history? The students in Green Inferno encounter this “other” culture and are terrified by it (for good reason). In the jungle, however, the students are the “other,” their outsider status shown through their imprisonment, humiliation, and use as a food resource. This could have been interesting if Roth had played with the trope, focused on it and explicitly compared it to treatment of the natives, but he doesn’t, and I think this trope shows up here through the usual method — a lazy writer who doesn’t understand the implications of what he’s written. “Wouldn’t it be scary if…?” If what? If a bunch of white people were treated the way they usually treat the brown people?

Everyone suffers brutalization and violence in this movie. But the way it is focused and used is very strange. The first person killed and eaten by the natives is the only black guy. Seriously? And when the women in the group are singled out for violence, it is always sexual in nature. It’s more lazy writing — hey the college kids saw a presentation on female genital mutilation in the first act, I wonder if that will come up again?

It’s pretty bad. And in the end, watching this was more a test of endurance than anything I especially enjoyed.