College freshman Justine joins a group of conservation activists heading down to the Amazon to fight off some greedy land developers who are threatening the existence of one of the indigenous tribes. The protest goes wrong and the activists are bundled straight onto a plane out of Peru. Unfortunately, the plane develops a fault and crash-lands in the jungle. Taken captive by one of the tribes they were trying to protect, Justine and her friends realise that they are now in the clutches of cannibals – and they’re next on the menu.
Eli Roth’s love-it-or-hate-it throwback to the Italian exploitation flicks of the 70s and 80s, you’ll only really ‘get’ The Green Inferno if you’ve had the courage to sit through one of the numerous cannibal flicks such as Cannibal Holocaust or Cannibal Ferox that have inspired him – The Green Inferno is actually one of Cannibal Holocaust II’s alternative titles. Generally tough to watch, even for seasoned horror veterans, these cannibal films included all manner of gruesome splatter sequences but, more disgustingly, some actual animal violence. Try watching the unedited version of Cannibal Holocaust where a real turtle is killed and ripped open without feeling queasy – it’s a difficult ask. But those films were a product of their time, where messed-up Italian directors gorged on guts and gore for a living and churned out some of the most extreme films ever made. It’s pretty ridiculous to even think that something as exploitative as The Green Inferno could make it to cinemas in 2015 when the aforementioned Italian cult films have been banned in numerous countries around the world for years. A masterful PR campaign in the build-up to release banned trailers and clips from being shared on social media and showed footage of people allegedly fainting and throwing at previews, promising a disturbing and violent experience like no other.
The Green Inferno is nowhere near as controversial as said Italian inspirations – for a start they avoid any unnecessary cruelty towards animals – and even compared to some other horror films over the last few years (or even some of the grislier episodes of The Walking Dead), it’s not the most graphic thing you’re ever going to see. As a homage to the flicks of old, The Green Inferno works very nicely. The big problem is, ironically enough, the production values that a modern day film budget brings with it. The older films were grimy, faded documentary-like productions which many believed were snuff movies (Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato was arrested in 1981 and charged with murder after people believed he had killed his actors during filming) and worked because of the raw and natural savagery that was depicted in them. The Green Inferno swaps this realism for Hollywood gloss and cleanliness where the actors look clean, washed and their make-up is pristine. It loses a lot of its magic and impact. But that wasn’t the only thing that these cannibal films played upon so let’s move on.
As is the norm with this sub-genre, the film takes a bit of time to get going as the characters start off in civilisation. We take satisfaction in seeing their daily idyllic lives with not a care in the world, knowing full well that they’re about to face a situation straight out of their darkest nightmares. The use of a cast of relative unknowns works here as we’re under no pre-conceptions about which characters will live and die or in what order. Sadly, the script gives most of them little to break free of generic stereotyping and not many of them develop a personality. It’s true that some won’t live long enough for us to care about them but it would have been nice to see a little more humanity come to the fore with the characters.
We’re treated to some lovely cinematography of the Amazon during the sequences in which the group arrive in the jungle. Roth did film in South America and having read up on the conditions that the cast and crew faced, it adds a whole new level of realism to proceedings. Check out some of the back story to production if you have a chance. Filming on location really gives the audience a sense of isolation – these people are thousands of miles away from help, in the middle of one of the most inhospitable and deadliest places on the planet. It’s the plane crash mid-way through where Roth remembers he’s directing a horror film and he pulls out all of the tricks with a startlingly realistic sequence, complete with slow-motion sickness.
Once the group encounter the cannibal tribe, things take a turn for the worse (for them) but better for the audience. The main gore set piece involves one character have their eyes removed, tongue cut out, limbs systematically hacked off and then beheaded before being slapped into the mud oven until cooked. It’s a brutal sequence, unrelenting in its assault on the senses and arguably the highlight of the film. From then on, it’s a combination of the characters attempting to escape their prison before being served up as steaks and grisly sequences of the unlucky ones falling victim to the bone cleaver. The fact that this was all passed without Roth making edits is a sign of the times, though there is little of the outright sexual violence here as was present in the originals (hooks through nipples, penises being sliced off, woman raped with big stones, etc..
Roth doesn’t know how to play the tone and there’s a constant clash between jokey moments, outright depravity and bizarreness. Between the cannibals getting stoned, a badly-timed bout of diarrhoea and a perverse sequence in which one character’s answer to the horrors he’s just witness is to start pleasuring himself, the film throws in scary moments of genital mutilation, heads-on-spikes and flesh-eating ants. This is Roth doing what he’s doing in Hostel and Cabin Fever, toying with the audience a bit during times of tension, but here it works to kill off the horror of what is happening. The cannibal films of old were as deadly serious as anything you’ll see and Roth would have been wise to stick to the same tone, rather than imbue this with some of his usual frat-boy-esque humour. It’s a minor sticking point however and one which doesn’t detract too much to the film.
The Green Inferno is a great throwback to the Italian films of old but that’s just about all it works as. Roth clearly has a love and affection for the sub-genre (Cannibal Holocaust is apparently his favourite film) and this comes out in droves during the graphic sequences in the second half of the film. However, it treads no new ground as far as the sub-genre goes, simply repeating what always was a very basic formula and story but for the 21st century. If you’ve ever wanted to get into those older films, The Green Inferno would be a great way to start but for a genre veteran like myself, its ability to shock and scare was greatly diminished.