Lights, Camera, Eat him: The film industry’s strange fascination with cannibalism

In the real world, cannibal stories never fail to horrify the public. Cannibal killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Armin Meiwes captured the imagination of a global audience because they engaged in the horrific act. Considering that cannibalism remains among society’s deepest taboos, it was inevitable and natural that film makers sought to exploit the theme as a means to push the boundaries of cinemas.  And exploit it they did. Cannibalism serves many thematic functions in film: it can serve as a means to heighten suspense for psychological reasons in horror films. It can function to lampoon other genre of cinema. It can behave as a commentary on how firm morality and etiquette may be shaken in the face of death. The role of cannibalism in cinema remains versatile, and enjoys a history that has conquered every aspect of cinema spectrum of popularity and failure.

Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust

Most popularly, however, cannibal movies have been approached from a more comical angle – a representation of the degeneracy of the characters in the film, as well as the art form of cinema itself. Cannibal movies boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s coincided with the popularity of Grindhouse theaters. These Grindhouse theaters spawned genres and movie themes that were rejected by the pedestrian mainstream Hollywood fare. Grindhouse theaters reveled in its own sleaziness, in its own exploitation, in its risqué nature – that is why people attended these shows. It was a degeneracy of the art, but that was its intent. From this respect, cannibalism fit grindhouse like a custom-made glove. Cannibal movies became a sub-genre of the exploitation movies, and it peaked with the popularity of grindhouse theaters.

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In particular, Italian filmmakers led the charge in promoting and producing cannibal films. The popular theme in these films focused on the interaction between the “civilized” worlds and the exotic cultures with particular tastes – namely, for human flesh. Among the more famous directors and films during this boom included Italian, Ruggero Deodato. His “epic” film, Cannibal Holocaust was so controversial that following its premier, Ruggero Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges, and the Cannibal Holocaust was banned in Italy and other countries because of its gore, real animal cruelty, and perverse nature. Although the main actors in the Cannibal Holocaust had contractually agreed to sell their deaths in the movie as legitimate by staying out of the press for a year, when rumors of their deaths were pressed against the director, they all came out for support. The Cannibal Holocaust seems to be one of the most terrifying, extreme horror films of all times.

But, cannibal movies have enjoyed their success in mainstream Hollywood too. In 1991, The Silence of The Lambs won five Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins’ chilling portrayal as a cunning and vicious cannibal serial killer, Hannibal Lecter. For this purpose, cannibalism was treated as a means to heighten suspense and enhance the antagonist of the film. The popularity of the film The Silence of The Lambs was a proof of people’s deep interest in cannibal killers in the world. Though the cannibal killer Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of The Lambs is a fictional character, the world has witnessed many real cannibal killers such as the Russian Hannibal Lecter, Andrei Chikatilo. The Silence of The Lambs, being inspired by the real cannibal stories for sure increases the thrill.

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Another popular cannibal film in the early 90s was Alive which told the true story of a Uruguayan Rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes and whose survival depends on eating the deceased. Cannibalism, in this context, was to pose as moral questions to viewing audiences: How far would you go in order to survive?

Cannibal movies have enjoyed every success and failure on the cinema spectrum: Some cannibal movies bombed, some developed underground followings, some boomed a new genre, and some cannibal movies even made their way to the Oscars. The function cannibalism served varied by film – sometimes it horrified, sometimes it was to reflect, sometimes to laugh, or sometimes for the sake of difference. However, what rings true is that cannibalism, given its taboo nature, remains a potent theme in insuring that the audiences are left with images to remember.


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