This weekend's "We Are What We Are," an English-language remake we liked almost as much as the original, deals with a family that has a certain taste that's frowned upon in most polite circles. Simply put: they're cannibals. And cannibalism, in the long and colorful line of cinematic taboos, is certainly one of the more outrageous. But it can also provide the backdrop for seriously twisted, enjoyable, over-the-top films with the ability to scare and make you laugh, sometimes all at once. And with "We Are What We Are" on its way to theaters, it got us thinking about the best movies in which people don't just need people, they eat people.
We decided, in whittling down the surprisingly long and varied list of movies that deal with cannibalism, to focus on the movies in which cannibalism is one of the film's main concerns, instead of a weird flourish or plot thread. This is a list of movies where the act of consuming another person's flesh is mainly what the movie is about. (And no, vampires don't count; that's blood, not flesh.) We also tried to steer away from the mainstream, looking at more of the oddities of the field, instead of the tried and true obvious choices. So sit back, relax, clear your plate, and enjoy our list of the ten best cannibal films. They're lip-smackingly good.
"Cannibal Holocaust" (1980)
In spite of its grindhouse reputation, Ruggero Deodato’s horror masterpiece was, in fact, one of the most influential films ever made. The first half depicts the usual group (of poorly dubbed) ugly Americans/westerners, this time documentary filmmakers, who condescendingly fool around with the primitive locals while shooting indifferent indigenous footage. There’s no tip-toeing around the fact that these people are disgusting, and after they gang-rape a villager, it’s hard to not hope for the title to come true. And it certainly comes true, but in a way most unexpected, as the crew doesn’t make it back to the States, but the footage does. There are several implicit jokes in having the executives settle into a cozy room to watch what was brought back from the jungles, as if they’re being dared to find a moment to finally declare what is essentially snuff unairable. Watching people watch the footage, which comprises nearly the entirety of the second half of the movie, complicates the issue of morality: we’re watching the reactions to this atrocity through the reactions of first world citizens, allowing the audience to implicitly judge the misplacement of audiences’ sympathies by casting a mirror onto the viewer. It’s not at all an easy viewing, but within “Cannibal Holocaust” there is the germ of every single found footage movie that currently populates mainstream horror filmmaking, from the shock of seeing violence through multiple lenses, to the uneasy audience commentary that allows viewers an eerie, forced introspection.
"Cannibal: The Musical!" (1993)
Before “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone made a name for themselves with this twisted musical, one that provides a gleefully anarchic retelling of the legend of famous cannibal Alfred Packer. The duo, who also star in this ramshackle low budget effort later purchased by Troma, don't skimp on detailing the many ways the homicidal Packer gorged on his innocent victims. And that famous Parker-Stone sensibility is here as well. Both “Team America: World Police” and “South Park” featured moments that comment on their own cheapness, and so too does this film, which likely comes from the skimpy chump change they had to make a period-specific film with a minimal cast and crew. The self-referential attitude carries on to the casting of Japanese actors as Native Americans, a shortcut repurposed to serve as political commentary. But where “Cannibal: The Musical!” shines is through the lyrics and melodies of the film’s songs, which boast distinctly hummable tunes that foreshadowed Parker and Stone’s reputation as naughty transgressors who knew their way through a toe-tapper or two. Everyone who sees “Cannibal!” comes away with a different favorite tune, from the madcap “Let’s Build A Snowman” to the call-and-response of “That’s All We’re Askin’ For”—Parker and Stone would become so fond of “Shpadoinkle” that the opening bars became the soundtrack to their company logo.
“Eat to live,” opines Robert Carlyle, quoting Benjamin Franklin, “Don’t live to eat.” Those words prove to have a cruel irony in Antonia Bird’s peculiar western saga, one that connects the dots between the tragedy of the Donner Party and the recklessness of the country’s embrace of Manifest Destiny. Guy Pearce plays a coward soldier who somehow survives a massive battle by hiding, and ends up tagging along on a mission to explore uncharted areas of the west. His meekness soon attracts the mysterious Carlyle, possibly a flesh-eating survivor of the Donner Party who has managed to reawaken the spirit of the ancient wendigo beast by dining on human flesh. “Ravenous” was mis-marketed as some savagely violent action western when it fact it’s something of a genre-mixed comedy, one that features arch performances from a supporting cast that includes Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies and Neal McDonough, all of them collectively raising their eyebrows with the material, not at it. “Ravenous” was apparently tinkered with heavily in post-production, though the finished result is great fun, featuring a punchy period score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman and the sort of irreverent spirit that comes from a pre-millennial western genre piece starring actors from “L.A. Confidential” and “Trainspotting.”