A Brief Look into Cannibal Cinema


Just to muster up enough courage to watch a movie about cannibalism, nevertheless, to read an editorial about cannibalistic movies takes a special kind of …person.  Let’s not lie to ourselves anymore; it’s no secret to you or me that everyone is fascinated by the age old practice of cannibalism.  The idea in and of itself brings so many emotions to the forefront which usually starts with disgust (usually) and is very closely followed by fascination.  What could make a person do such a thing?  Is it for survival or is it for some kind of religious ceremony?  Is that person even aware of what they are doing?  All these questions are quickly raised because not only is the subject socially taboo, but it takes something inside a person that is so removed from any kind of cultural understanding to drive them to the point where they physically ingest the remains of another human being. 

When I say cultural understanding, I’m not talking about savage cannibals running around in the jungles of the Amazon, I’m talking about people who live, breathe, and know nothing but one civilized culture… who just decide out of the blue to eat people anyways (Some people call when I’m referring to as “insane”, “not all there”, or “loony”).  So what drives a person to do this?  Even worse, what drives a person to force another person to eat a third dead person (think about it, then you’ll realize how gross that all is).  Well I can’t say I’m entirely sure myself, but what I can look at is how movies having stories and plots that contain cannibals.  Apparently their appearance in movies can be broken down into three handy categories.  Who would have thought right?

The first subgenre of cannibal films is what I am naming “The duped” section.  Some cannibal centric films which may fall into this category would be Sweeny Todd, Eat the Rich, and well… any zombie movie.  In this subgenre, people are engaging in cannibalism, not because they are willing to, but because they are tricked into it by another party or element.  In Sweeny Todd, hundreds of people are fed meat pies that are unknowingly made from human meat.  In this case it isn’t so much about the action of eating people it’s more about putting one past the people that have wronged you in one way or another.  Todd was wronged by the judicial system (the State)where his wife and daughter were taken from him so in a twisted way it makes sense that he feeds humans to the people (those people are “the state”) who made his life a complete wreck.  Zombies themselves are also considered duped because no matter what the reason that they exist, it was most likely against their will.  They get regenerated and feed on other humans.  They never asked for that.

A lot of times in subgenre, taboo is much more in the forefront here, but not in an exploitative sense, more of the Old English definition.  It’s a thought or idea that is so extreme and ridiculously impossible that people will use it jokingly.  No one would ever actually eat a person, so “wouldn’t it be funny if we say Bobby eats people?  Everyone will laugh at the ridiculousness”.  Then monocles would fall into wine glasses in a room filled with robust laughter.  This was before Dahmer (which was when s**t “got real”).

The second little heading in these cannibal movies is “the survivor” subgenre which includes movies along the lines of Alive, The Hills Have Eyes, and Doomsday.  They are all about people that are pretty much at their wits end and must eat other people in order to continue living.  It’s is completely essential to their survival and comes out of a basic animalistic instinct to survive.  It may be shocking and it may be taboo, but it isn’t portrayed in a way where it is only about exploitation.  There is a higher goal at work here and most likely it is to get through the situation and survive.  This is interesting because it highlights the fact that cannibalism is the absolute last resort. 

Doomsday is slightly different because the people in the infected zone did make a spectacle out of cooking and eating another human.  The movie itself treats this scene like an insane moment of exploitation where a person is violently killed and eaten, but I feel that it is something a bit more ritualistic than that.  It’s about the survivors proving to the remaining world that yes, they are a bunch of savages, but it isn’t really their fault.  You (the rest of the world) abandoned them to this fate.  If they didn’t want to make it a point to everyone that they were eating humans than they probably would have just killed him in peace, not a public exhibition. Either way he was eaten because the people in the crowd are obviously short on food.  Besides just surviving, what would it take for a person to eat another person?  Would you really believe that the characters in Doomsday were insane cannibals if they had plenty of food available to them but did this because they were bored?

Well that brings us to our third subgenre called “the crazies” which encompass the utterly insane people that do it just because they wear their socks on their hands and communicate with stuffed animals with various knocks and whistles (they are crazy).  This subgenre would include films such as Cannibal Holocaust or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  In these films, there are clear antagonists that are identified with via the protagonist’s point of view (often our own) which makes the antagonists look like insane savages.  Mostly because they exist in our real world and go to lengths aren’t really necessary (unlike the survivor subgenre).  The actions are seen by us as well as the protagonists in the movie as completely unmotivated and therefore beyond the realm of comprehension.

I know what you are already saying and the answer is obviously yes.  Some of these subgenres overlap with one another.  For example the family in The Hills Have Eyes, “they were crazy, so they ate people right”?  Normally I would agree with you, but they live in the middle of the desert.  You are going to take whatever you can get out there, that is just survival.  With all the exceptions that may occur, Cannibal movies are in themselves a very niche subgenre of horror which appeal to only a select group of people.  It’s the biggest taboo there is and it has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  With the way films are going these days, it doesn’t look like that is stopping any time soon and I can’t say that I’m at all disappointed. Does that make me weird?

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