Eli Roth isn’t just a filmmaker. He’s a student of film, with a well-known passion for horror films — Italian horror in particular. One of his favorites happens to be Cannibal Holocaust, which is amongst the most difficult of films to sit through, with its depictions of cannibalism and real animal slaughter. Of course it would only be a matter of time before Roth, the director of two supremely gory and unsettling Hostel movies, would turn his twisted eye to subject matter like that, sans killing animals.
From 2013, and written by Roth and Guillermo Amoedo, The Green Inferno (the title is a nod to Cannibal Holocaust, as ‘The Green Inferno’ was the title of the film-within-a-film that characters were shooting) follows a group of student protesters who travel to the Peruvian jungle to stop a gas company from bulldozing the village of an isolated tribe. As the protesters are heading home, their small plane crashes shortly after takeoff, and the survivors find themselves prisoners of the very tribe they were trying to save. If one has not guessed it by now, the tribe are headhunting cannibals, and waste no time preparing dinner in grisly fashion.
Before viewers get to the gory and bleak part of this film, there is a lengthy setup where the main characters are introduced and developed.
The audience’s surrogate in this film is Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a college freshman who joins the protest group because she thinks its leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy), is cute. Before one thinks less of her for this, the group is a realistic mix of true believers and college kids who are just playing activist. Alejandro is enough of a charismatic leader that he convinces a good number of them to fly down to Peru to stage their risky protest.
Oil and gas companies do some bad things down in the jungle when isolated tribes are sitting on land they want. They bulldoze the area and hire mercenaries with itchy trigger fingers for security. Alejandro’s plan is to sneak onto the site, have everyone chain themselves to equipment and trees, and livestream the protest. The livestream is key, as that is all that will keep the mercenaries from just shooting all of them.
The protest is a smashing success, but then it all goes wrong as they are on their way home.
There aren’t a lot of modern horror films that have such in-depth storytelling and character development as The Green Inferno. Other horror flicks would have thrown in a kill at regular intervals to keep the audience from getting bored. Roth’s films develop at a much more natural and realistic pace, giving viewers a deeper understanding of the characters. Too often, first acts in horror flicks are treated as throwaway sequences, where shallow characters are thrown into thin plots, and the following violence is the only thing worth watching. Roth turns this formula around, giving his characters such life that it becomes all the more shocking when the bad things happen, and he will not be rushed.
The initial storytelling has such depth to it that should one go into the film with no foreknowledge of events (too late for thee, dear reader), the sudden horror and gore would seem to come from out of nowhere. It’s an incredible setup.
As for the scenes in the tribal village, they can be as difficult to watch as some of the scenes in the Hostel films. Very bad things happen to the main characters. Basically, picture what our dinner goes through before it hits store shelves and one will get an idea of what Justine and company go through.
Roth caught a lot of grief for how he chose to portray the tribespeople. He hired a real Peruvian tribe to play his cannibals, and by all accounts they weren’t offended or turned off. But, back in the first world, people took it upon themselves to be offended on behalf of all South American tribes.
Amazon Watch, an indigenous rights group based in Oakland, California, said of the film, “That such a patently racist film could be greenlighted and released in 2015 is an indictment not only of Roth, but Hollywood in general…These kinds of films and images feed the prejudices that already exist in society in regard to indigenous peoples.” They went on to accuse the film of aiding in governmental efforts to destroy the indigenous way of life.
That’s some pretty heavy stuff to hang on a movie. I wouldn’t categorize the film as racist, but it is problematic in our hypersensitive age, and Roth would be disingenuous were he to claim ignorance of this. Roth’s response to this criticism is worth quoting.
“The idea that the Peruvian or Brazilian government or any of these companies that have been systematically dismantling and destroying and ripping up the ground underneath these people for their minerals and gases — the idea that a movie is somehow going to justify that is childish and naive. The cause of it is money. They’re not doing it because The Green Inferno said, ‘These people are bad.’”
Also, some criticism conveniently ignores the tribe’s motivation for what they do in this movie. They don’t capture the student activists in a vacuum. As far as the tribe is concerned, they are at war with the encroaching oil and gas company, and they mistake the activists as being with the mercenaries and workers because they wore purloined company gear to sneak onto the clearing site. Sure, imprisoning and eating your enemies is not acceptable under our ‘civilized’ notions of war (bombing civilians is, unfortunately), but this is just a movie, and cannibalism of one’s enemies is no worse than the holocaust this tribe was facing.
In the end, this is a horror film. It was not designed to make a viewer feel comfortable. It was not meant to enlighten, although the reaction to it shines a bright light on hypocrisy. It was designed to shock and provoke feelings of revulsion. It does so.
Of final note are the performances of Ramón Llao and Antonieta Pari as the chief and medicine woman analogues of the village. They didn’t have a single line of dialogue in English or Spanish, but by mannerisms, affectations, and frightening makeup, rank near the top of horror movie bad guys of the last twenty years. Bravo to them for being game.