The foundation of many horror tropes can be traced to the breaking of social taboos, and one that can easily trigger the collective gag reflex of an audience is the idea of eating the body of another human being. Presumably we are offended and horrified by the concept of cannibalism as civilized people, yet it is a theme that movies have been using to titillate audiences since the very early days of film itself. Beginning with early movies that presented the idea through sensationalized documentaries about foreign cultures, or used it as a plot device in adventure films intended to depict indigenous people as savage enemies, this simplistic way of looking at cannibalism in film became increasingly complex as time passed. Filmmakers have returned to the idea of eating flesh time and again, finding different ways to get under the audience’s ever-thickening skin. The subject appears in films of every genre type, and I’d like to focus on the various ways filmmakers have made use of its tremendous shock value and included it as part of the film’s narrative. I’ll also be touching on a few examples of movies that treated cannibalism in unusual or influential ways.
The earliest films to suggest cannibalism in their plots typically had adventure themes, with people from “civilization” encountering cannibal tribes in the jungles of Africa or South America (such as the 1917 version of She and the 1922 film The Jungle Goddess). Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X (1932) featured a hunt for a full moon serial murderer who cannibalized parts of the bodies of his victims, an early treatment of flesh eating as a horror motif. There were also early documentaries such as Cannibals of the South Seas from 1912 and Black Shadows in 1923, although of course there were not explicit scenes of cannibalism included, nor were they exclusively focused on it as a concept. Under the surface, these documentaries played to the viewer’s curiosity and apprehension of an unknown culture very different than our own, which may be why the idea of contemporary characters venturing into unfamiliar wilderness and being besieged by “cannibal tribes” is a genre staple that we keep returning to. With screen taboos regarding graphic violence slowly disintegrating, it was inevitable that one day we would see films that showed us what those early jungle adventure films only suggested. Although Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is one of the most notorious of these adventure type cannibal films, there were a few before (and many more after). The Italians were really into it, with Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato leading the contributors. In addition to Cannibal Holocaust, Deodato did Jungle Holocaust (1977) and Cut And Run (1985), while Lenzi directed Cannibal Ferox (1980) (aka Make Them Die Slowly), Eaten Alive! (1980), and Sacrifice! (1972) (aka Man From Deep River), all which featured cannibalism as an element of the intrusion of “civilized” people into more undeveloped areas. Cannibal Holocaust makes its premise out of the idea of Western journalists barging into the jungle to exploit the indigenous, making the journalists the bad guys as they rape and massacre some natives and are then violently slaughtered en masse. The movie utilizes a found-footage concept, so the violence is presented as if it is actually happening. Although the title suggests there will be lots of cannibalism, only one character is actually eaten, but the on-screen deaths are extremely violent, and the film also incorporates sexual violence into its agenda to shock. There was also a trend of killing animals on screen for real, something Cannibal Holocaust and several of the aforementioned films contained. The shock factor was the selling point of these films, but it’s hard to escape the idea that this recurring scenario suggests a sense of xenophobia regarding what the viewer perceives as a primitive culture, just like those old documentary reels of the early 1900s. This trend continues into recent cinema, with found footage film Welcome To The Jungle (2007) and Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013) carrying on the “jungle cannibal” tradition with the intention to shock the viewer as much as possible with graphic violence.
Cannibalism presented as fear of foreign cultures wasn’t limited to these types of gory adventure films, however. I can think of another example in the 1975 film The Ghoul, which cast Peter Cushing as a man living with a small staff of servants in a lonely mansion on a moor, sheltering his son in the attic of the house. Cushing’s character was a missionary in India, where his son unfortunately picked up on the habit of cannibalism and went insane. Strangely enough, he also returns with an Indian woman who prepares his son’s unusual meals, using the flesh from young female victims that just happen to end up there. When the son is finally revealed, his face is green and is covered by an amorphous blur on the film, suggesting something supernatural occurred as well when he decided to take up eating human flesh. This positioning of a foreign culture poisoning another is really the opposite of the Italian jungle cannibal films, where white men intruded into foreign territory and encountered evil. Here, a white man brings back the “evil” foreign culture with him, his son having been “converted” while he himself was busy trying to convert the locals to his own creed.
Transformation became a familiar way for filmmakers to present cannibalism in films, as people who ate human flesh were sometimes suggested as having done so as a result of going through a change, either natural or supernatural. Although it probably has more than one cultural foundation, this idea that eating human flesh turns the eater into a demon can be traced to the Native American myth of the Wendigo, a cannibalistic monster or evil spirit that inhabited the forest. Although the cannibalism aspect was played down in favor of presenting it as a creature of vengeance in the 2001 film Wendigo, there were several earlier films (in 1978 and 1995) with the same title that dealt with the same legend. The Wendigo as cannibal also appeared in the rarely seen Canadian slasher Ghostkeeper (1981), where a trio of young people on a snowmobiling trip discover a remote ski resort, now seemingly abandoned. They come to realize that it is actually inhabited by a crazy old woman who helps slaughter stragglers just like them so they can be fed to an imprisoned Wendigo in the cellar of the building. The creature itself looks human in form, and not much is ever explained about the myth, although the movie has the distinction of combining the Wendigo with a format more in line with the slasher films of the 1980s. The Wendigo concept was also used in 1999’s Ravenous, with the consumption of human flesh becoming a curse that is passed on among a group of soldiers during the Mexican-American war.
One of the most enduring films to deal with cannibalism also had transformation as its foundation; if you want to split hairs, the monsters of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead inhabit a grey area where they are not truly cannibals, since they are dead human beings who prey on living human beings, but it’s impossible to overlook the fact that cannibalism was there in the film, especially in the scenes that showed zombies fighting like animals with one another over severed limbs and piles of intestines. Here was cannibalism in its most savage form, since the perpetrators weren’t even interested in preparing their human meals before eating them, preferring to rip them apart raw. Although the scope of this film is small, Romero’s 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead had an even more apocalyptic vision and was even more explicit both in its violence and its metaphoric representation of cannibalism as consumerism run amok. These two films inspired countless imitations, including a rash of Italian films that rivalled the jungle cannibals films in their numbers, as well as their mission to take on-screen violence to the limit of what was acceptable. The images of bodies being broken apart and consumed, sometimes while the victims were still alive and screaming, were undoubtedly the images that some audiences were imagining (and hoping to see) when they attended any previous film that purported to show “cannibals”.
Umberto Lenzi added a zombie cannibal flick to his own series of flesh eating films: 1980’s Nightmare City (known in the US more commonly as City of the Walking Dead). 1980 was a banner year for cannibal films of all types; director Antonio Margheriti also contributed Cannibal Apocalypse (1980), where a pair of US soldiers carry a disease that causes people to turn into cannibals. Cannibal Apocalypse was unique in that it treated the urge to eat human flesh as a communicable disease that transformed its victims into cannibals, rather than making them the living dead. Another Italian, Joe D’Amato, combined the slasher and cannibal genres with 1980’s Antropophagus (aka The Grim Reaper), where it’s revealed that its flesh-hungry villain was made that way when he was forced to eat the bodies of his wife and child after they became stranded on a remote island. It’s worth mentioning that the finale features the maniac being disembowelled and, in his last dying act, feeding on his own intestines, perhaps a screen first!
1973’s Messiah of Evil also dealt with normal people being converted, but there was another aspect as well, one that can also be identified as a foundation of screen cannibalism: that of the occult conspiracy. Messiah‘s heroine, Arletty (played by Marianna Hill), seeks out her missing father and discovers that his entire town has been taken over by the evil of a mysterious supernatural figure known for spreading cannibalism as some kind of religious experience. The townspeople who have been ‘infected’ by him are transformed by the act of eating flesh into pasty, ghoulish figures who bleed from the eyes, but their behavior is ordinary enough that they can fool potential victims into thinking they are normal–until the attack happens, that is. Another 1973 film, Warlock Moon, concerned a young college student whose groovy new boyfriend lures her to a remote abandoned resort in order to make her the main course in a ritual sacrifice by a cannibalistic elderly witch and her small cult of followers. 1974’s Shriek of the Mutilated also involved a cannibal cult, this time with an even more novel cover: the secret society has a member who teaches at a university, and he periodically selects certain students to be victims who accompany him to an isolated location under the pretense of hunting down a yeti. This film is notable in that it suggests that the cult of cannibalism is much more common than any of us imagined; the professor takes his new protege to a restaurant that offers human flesh that can be ordered off-menu for cannibals in the know. 1973, another banner year for filmic flesh-eating, also gave us Cannibal Girls, where another religious figure preached cannibalism to three beautiful women, allowing them to maintain their youthful beauty through the eating of human flesh. Although there was no conspiracy, a much earlier film, Herschel Gordon Lewis’s 1963 Blood Feast, also linked its cannibal villain to the worship of an Egyptian deity. Blood Feast predates even Night of the Living Dead in its desire to show explicit gore on screen, in living color, but Romero’s film is far more nihilistic, not only depicting cannibalism as transformation, but as the apocalypse.
Another popular way cannibalism appears in films is as a secret family activity, whether the family is isolated or hiding in plain sight among normals. 1968’s Spider Baby features veteran actor Lon Chaney Jr. as a chauffeur who acts as the guardian for an inbred family of lunatics who exhibit murderous, cannibalistic tendencies. Seemingly in an effort to enhance the link that the film has to cannibalism, one of its re-release titles was The Liver Eaters. 1974 British production Frightmare (aka Cover Up) is memorably disturbing in its depiction of familial evil, both murderous and otherwise. The mother of the family is a manipulative sociopath who is into eating human flesh; she is incarcerated in a mental hospital after her crimes are discovered, along with her loving husband, who is completely controlled by her and does her bidding. The father’s daughter from a previous marriage, Jackie, cares for her rebellious and delinquent younger sister, who is the cannibal’s daughter by birth. When the mother and father are released from the hospital, the evil woman immediately resumes her cannibalistic ways, and it comes to light that the younger daughter has been meeting with her mother in secret, where she has learned the family meat-eating tradition. The real horror of the movie is the father’s complicity while the mother and younger sister murder innocent people and eat their flesh, concluding with the imminent murder of Jackie while her father stands by and watches, horrified but unable to help.
A distant cousin of Warlock Moon (1973) is The Folks At Red Wolf Inn (1972), aka Terror House, where a naive young college student is lured away from a lonely spring break by a letter summoning her to a free vacation at a remote seaside inn. She finds herself instead confronting a family of cannibals who use this elaborate ruse as one of their methods of acquiring fresh meat. The twist is that she falls in love with the family’s grandson, and after she figures out why the inn likes to fatten up the guests, she finds herself teetering on the verge of either being accepted into this way of life or becoming the next meal. Although she reacts in horror to the idea after she realizes she’s been gorging for a few days on human meat, there is a crucial scene where she makes an attempt to eat it anyway, and we’re not sure if she’s doing it to save her own life or to continue her budding romance. In the long run she is able to be corrupted by her experience, apparently finding that murder and cannibalism aren’t so bad as long as you have love.
The idea of cannibalism as corruption of innocence is a theme we often return to, such as when Anthony Hopkins offers a child a bite of the human brains he has brought aboard a plane flight in Hannibal (2001), but a better example of it as a thematic element is the 1989 film Parents. Set in 1950s America, the film concerns a young boy on the brink of awareness that he’s being raised by a mother and father who are secretly cannibals; a series of disturbing nightmares leads him to question the meat that his parents have been serving him, and he realizes that he does not want to take part. This movie directly connects cannibalism with the loss of innocence by including a scene were the boy discovers his parents having sex while covered in blood.
Definitely the most widely seen family shocker was 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which nobody reading this article is going to need explained to them. Like Night of the Living Dead, its influence is immeasurable. Even if it is not the first of its type, it was the first to do it so damn good. Its success most definitely cemented the cannibal family as a recurring scenario in film, leading to later films like Wrong Turn and its sequels, not to mention a more frequent interest in filmic cannibalism in general. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) featured its own peculiar inbred cannibal family, this one a little larger than Tobe Hooper’s. Horror comedy Motel Hell (1980) went back to the chainsaw and gave us another clan of cannibals making smoked meats out of incapacitated victims they keep buried alive in the backyard, selling this mystery meat to unsuspecting buyers. The notion of the family as a cult of cannibalism continues into the contemporary era of filmmaking, a notable recent occurrence being Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Somos lo que hay, remade as an American film just three years later as We Are What We Are. Similar to the young boy’s growing awareness in Parents, the plot gives us more young people on the verge of making their own decisions about whether they want to be part of a family’s cannibalistic rituals.
Sometimes cannibalism appears in film as a symbol of decadence or greed. 2004 Hong Kong shocker Dumplings concerns an ageing actress who begins using a mysterious woman’s bizarre methods of restoring youth and beauty by eating aborted fetuses. Initially horrified, she quickly loses her squeamishness about this and continues to make demands for more of this product, regardless of the cost or consequence. A bizarre appearance of cannibalism as a plot point outside the horror genre, the 1959 Suddenly, Last Summer climaxes as Elizabeth Taylor’s character reveals the truth about the destruction of her decadent cousin, Sebastian, who was using her as a lure to attract male youths that he could proposition for sex. The local boys that he’s been exploiting manage to corner Sebastian in the streets and literally eat him alive.
Director John Waters’ 1972 cult masterpiece Pink Flamingos positions cannibalism as something seemingly embraced casually by his lead character Divine. In the context of the film, Divine is a counterculture anti-heroine known as “The Filthiest Person Alive”, and apparently this involves the use of human beings who have opposed or offended her as food. An excised scene later exhibited as part of a special edition of the film shows her munching casually on the severed ear of an enemy. A reporter asks her to give her political views and she exclaims “Advocate cannibalism!” Most bluntly, in one of the film’s many “shock scenes”, an entire birthday party gathering reverts to eating human flesh when police arrive to break up the party and are massacred by Divine, her family, and their guests, who tear them apart and eat them on the spot. Moments later, we see Divine and her family happily bidding farewell to their guests as they leave, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. Another satiric comedy, Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul (1982), makes the film’s title its climactic punchline–Raoul is one of the characters, you see, and the movie ends with Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov cooking and serving his body for dinner guests when they realize they haven’t had time to go grocery shopping.
Cannibalism practiced purely as a means of survival makes for an especially lurid story, as we know that this can and does happen. 1972’s Raw Meat concerned a section of the London Underground being stalked by the last remaining descendant of a group of workers who were trapped decades prior in a tunnel collapse. Cut off from the rest of the tunnels and with no rescuers to help them, the group survived by eating their own dead, their descendants never knowing any other way of life. This single remaining member of the clan finds access to the main station and starts picking off commuters to use as food. 1976 Mexican film Supervivientes de los Andes, known in English speaking countries as Survive!, was a dramatization of a real life incident from 1972 where a group of plane crash survivors are forced to resort to cannibalism when they are stranded on a snowy mountain. Directed by prolific filmmaker Rene Cardona, the film took an exploitative approach, even employing a tabloid-style advertising campaign that hyped the shocking nature of the case. In 1978, Rene Cardona Jr. delivered a fictional film titled Cyclone that was similar in tone to Survive!, concerning a plane that crashes into the ocean. The survivors take refuge on a tour boat and are swept out to sea, where they begin to starve. Starting with eating another survivor’s pet dog, those remaining are eventually forced to eat the body of a dead passenger in order to survive their ordeal.
These survival films are also linked to another cannibalism motif, the post-apocalyptic scenario. Unlike George Romero’s living dead films, which pioneered the idea of cannibalism bringing about the apocalypse, films like Soylent Green (1973) and Delicatessen (1991) presented humanity faced with food shortages that force cannibalism. In both of the two mentioned films, people are duped into eating human flesh by others who hold power over them. Soylent Green is the more cynical of the two, with the wealthy elite who control the government providing a foodstuff made out of human cadavers for the masses to consume while they themselves enjoy delicious meals and healthful food. Delicatessen deals with a microcosm of society in the form of an apartment building where the landlord butchers human beings for their meat, which he then sells to his unsuspecting tenants. Even without the plot element of apocalypse, the various film manifestations of the Sweeney Todd tale also contain elements of desperate people falling on hard times and resorting to treating people as potential food.
I haven’t mentioned every film that features flesh eating or I’d have to write a book, which just goes to show how often the idea of humans eating humans comes up in our entertainment. There’s a lot out there, and undoubtedly a lot more to come. Cannibalism will continue to fascinate filmgoers, because consuming human flesh will continue to be a cultural taboo–at least, this author hopes so.