A common theme is beginning to show in Eli Roth’s films. Inevitable, one class or civilization clashes with another, the former class thinking it’s better than the latter. The latter class ends teaching the former class a lesson. In “Cabin Fever”, it was the backwoods rednecks that show the teenaged/twenty-something city folks that looking down on them is not smart when a flesh-eating virus is about. In the “Hostel” films, ethnocentric Americans are punished for underestimating the eastern Europeans adaptations to post-Soviet Capitalism in the face of squalor. Now we have “The Green Inferno”, which has a surprisingly nuanced political message, one being missed by a number of critics who underestimate Eli Roth’s intelligence. People have laughed when I’ve insisted that the “Hostel” films were really savage attacks on American Capitalism and post 9/11 ethnocentrism and American foreign policy, even though Roth is clearly influenced by the highly political exploitation films of the 1970s. Hell, even “Cabin Fever” had a jab at Capitalism with infected water being bottled and sold. A useless and exploitative product such as bottled water spreading the flesh-eating virus was a not-so-subtle, closing credits jab at business. “The Green Inferno” is about activism, what it can and can’t do, false idols, and ends justifying means.
The films begins with Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s real-life wife), an upper-class college student in NYC whose father (Richard Burgi) is a lawyer for the United Nations. Justine, like many upper-class young people, feels a need to do something about important issues, and in particular she is concerned with female genital mutilation around the world. This, along with a mini-crush on the campus activist leader Alejandro (Ariel levy), leads her to meet up with the activist group. Alejandro wants them to take a trip to the Peruvian Amazon to stop a militia-backed private corporation from destroying tracts of rainforest, and indigenous peoples’ villages to drill for natural gas underneath the ground. Alejandro’s plan for this is to livestream the company and militia’s activities online to shame them into stopping. I’m not sure if it’s a spoiler or common sense to say that this activity doesn’t really accomplish that goal, and that’s part of Roth’s point.
We see a few different examples of activism in the film. Early on, Justine is woken up by a handful of students on the quad who are on a hunger strike to get the school to offer its janitors healthcare. They have Occupy Wall Street-esque signs and are chanting, and look rather pathetic for being upper-class bourgeois kids who are more likely protesting to look like they care rather than actual giving a shit about the campus janitors. Despite this, the film tells us that their protest works, indicating that while Roth seemingly views this type of protest as childish, somewhat ignorant, and self-serving, he will concede it occasionally works for some issues.
Roth’s problem, I think, is with so-called hashtag activism. As the students who have traveled to Peru chain themselves to trees, wear bland masks over their faces (think Anonymous co-opting the Guy Fawkes mask from “V for Vendetta”), they wear shirts proclaiming #saveamazonia, and the whole livestream video to stop Capitalist destruction of nature deal is Roth’s criticism of the types of people on the internet who think creating a hashtag or using public shaming as a tool can affect real change. In real life, we’ve seen the limits of public shaming. “19 Kids and Counting” can get cancelled, but “Duck Dynasty” makes too much money to face a similar fate. Anthony Weiner can be forced to resign Congress, but not David Vitter. Volkswagen may face criminal charges for violating emissions standards, but GM merely pays a fine for a product that killed people. Public shaming as a tool against the powers-that-be only goes so far, and when it’s later revealed *SPOILER* that the protest only served to transfer the contract from one private company to another, and that Alejandro and his Peruvian contract were in on it, Roth is warning of us following charismatic leaders who may just be self-serving assholes pursuing their own gain and agendas. *END SPOILER*
After the initial protest, the students are on their way home in a little puddle-jumper of a plane when it malfunctions (likely due to sabotage), and crashes in the jungle. Many of the passengers die, and the ones who don’t are soon beset upon by a group of the indigenous peoples, who knock them unconscious with drugged blowdarts. They wake up and are paraded into their village, where we soon find out the tribe is one of manhunting cannibals, who plan on eating the survivors, and possibly do worse.
It’s been a while since a film like this has been made and shown in American cinemas. While the film is not as disturbing as I was hoping, or as gory, the fact remains that “The Green Inferno” is one of the goriest films to be released in American cinemas in some time. Sure, the “Evil Dead” remake has gore, but that was often comedic gore. While “Inferno” does suffer from Roth making some cheap, juvenile jokes here and there (his inability to mix comedy and horror, and tendency to resort to cheap humor, is what made me not like “Cabin Fever” as much as others did), the gore is largely over-the-top in a non-comedic fashion. Still, we have marijuana playing a major role in the plot, and a female character having absurdly-sound-effects-accompanied diarrhea. Unlike “Cabin Fever”, the jabs at humor didn’t completely take me out of the film, and I largely felt thankful that Roth was able to get a film like this released in theaters, as most films of this nature have been, for my generation and later, only available to us in the home video market. Truly violent, exploitative horror films, including films that have influenced this one like “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980), have been absent from cinemas in recent years as Hollywood decides to only give wide releases to PG-13 pieces of shit (“Ouija”, “The Lazarus Effect”) or neutered found footage films (“The Gallows”), with an occasional remake thrown in the mix (“Cabin Fever”, barely a decade old, is getting a remake). Whatever you may ultimately think of “Inferno”, this is the type of horror film that is either not being made these days, or is being relegated to the forgotten dust bin of history after a silent, VOD release. Hell, Roth’s next film, “Knock, Knock”, is being released VOD in a just a couple of weeks (“Inferno” was delayed from release a year due to issues with the financier, hence why Roth has two films coming out in the same year after 8 years without a directing credit). I miss movies like this being a common occurrence, as the horror genre is slowly killed by a young audience who has been weaned on garbage on “The Visit”, the advent of Redbox and Netflix making it unlikely new horror fans will just stumble on the forgotten greats of the horror genre, and Hollywood only allowing the shittiest horror films to get theatrical releases while gems from the indie scene, which used to be where the next great horror films were discovered, get shuffled off to die on VOD after maybe making a small profit.
“Inferno” was filmed with a digital film camera, but not one of the higher ends ones like the Red. The result is an image that looks cleaner and crisper than the films which inspired it, but it still has an oddly low-budget, non-polished feel that really works to suck you into the world, and feel like anything is possible. When was the last time you watched a horror film and felt unsafe because you didn’t trust the filmmaker to pull their punches, and felt like the film was willing to show you just about anything? Roth didn’t exactly deliver a truly disturbing horror film, like a “Martyrs” or a “Cannibal Holocaust”, but for a while, watching the film, you think the film is capable of showing you anything. The lush, green jungle becomes a character of its own, and you as an audience member feel as trapped as our characters. If there are any complaints I have with the nuts and bolts of the film, it largely centers on a scene featuring obviously CGI ants (not done well), and some of the acting. Ariel Levy could have used some help with line delivery and Sky Ferreira, who plays Justine’s roommate, cannot act in the slightest bit, but then again the films that inspired “Inferno” often had less-than-good actors.
So what is Roth’s message with this film? We see a pathetic group of bourgeois college students have success with a small protest on campus. We see a group of activists manipulated by a charismatic leader into taking place in an impotent protest which only serves to line the leaders’ pockets and maybe recruit more people to his cause, which is ultimately only about himself. Then, we see that the very people that group was trying to save ending up viewing them as enemies and proceeding to kill and eat them, with their saving grace being the very militia and private corporate drilling operation the group were trying to stop. This isn’t Roth arguing “just bulldoze the natives” as some critics have argued, but rather a more Star-Trek-Prime-Directive, anti-imperialism argument of leaving other people’s alone to develop at their own pace. As one character puts it, in an obvious jab at the Bush Doctrine, “we can’t just invade every country that behaves in ways we don’t like or agree with…any more.” Also, if the indigenous peoples view the outsiders as a threat, their actions, while horrific, make a bit more sense. Much as American intervention and drone bombings in the Middle East turn originally West-friendly or at least West-neutral citizens into anti-Western terrorists, sometimes the invading peoples, even if their motives are prima facie good, do more harm by intervening than if they had just left well enough alone. That’s not even taking into account the peoples who don’t have good intentions, as the militias and private corporation (and by extension the Peruvian government) don’t in this film.
When Justine is eventually saved, she sacrifices the truth by lying and saying that the tribe helped her, and that the real enemy is the company and the militia. Knowing that nothing can save her friends, it is a greater good to stop the exploitation of nature and destruction of native peoples’ land for Western imperialist profits, which causes massive harm globally every day, than to tell the truth about this one little tribe in Peru, who causes great harm to herself and her friends but is otherwise contained. Justine lies for the greater good, even if it’s uncomfortable. Compare this with Alejandro, who subscribes to Horseshoe Theory (that two extreme opposing ideologies are not that different, and closer to each other than to the center), is a 9/11 Truther, and justifies his nefarious actions. The film is obviously on Justine’s side, about the greater fight being worth more than her individual struggle, and that being saved by the militia does not make them the “good guys” regardless of what the tribe did to her. The critics who have seen this film seem to think the film is taking Alejandro’s position, but it is obviously siding with Justine. Justine’s friends suffer because they were ignorant or ignored risks, and didn’t know what they were getting into. Roth is arguing against activists who have only a shallow understanding of what they’re talking about. However, Roth does allow that those types of people can affect small changes, as the campus protestors show us. Justine is someone who is no longer ignorant, as seen the different levels of horror, and makes a cold and calculated decision about how she can best effect change for the greater good. She puts her own personal struggle secondary to the global struggle.
The film ends with a shot of Alejandro’s face on a t-shirt, stylized art work which calls to mind images of Che Guevara. Whether Roth is making a comment about Che as a false idol, or for the appropriation of his image by young people who know nothing about him I couldn’t say, but it’s a powerful image to end on (though there’s a mid-credit sequence, so technically it doesn’t end there, but you get the point).
I realize I haven’t even touched on the implicit animal rights message of the film, which differs from films like “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Cannibal Ferox” which featured real animals really killed on screen, but the connection of human meat to animal meat (the cannibals in the film also raise livestock to eat, showing their entire diet is not just eating the Other) is made clear in montages of meat preparation and such. One character, forced to eat human meat, mentions that she’s vegan, also showcasing that sometimes morality and ethics are a privilege of the bourgeoisie. After all, if you’re starving, you can’t afford to not eat certain foods, can you. I guess Roth is just mad at limousine liberals and champagne socialists who think they’re effecting change through the use of an iPhone or shopping for organic produce at Whole Foods.
“The Green Inferno” wasn’t the disturbing film I wanted it to be, and in a year that gave us “It Follows” it’s not even the best horror film released in theaters this year, but it is a welcome breath of fresh air, and a highly enjoyable and message-packed horror film that recalls the glory days of 70s and 80s horror cinema. I kind of loved it, despite its flaws, and I hope it lets audiences know that we don’t have to settle for the shit Hollywood tells us is horror nowadays. A-