Eli Roth Sets the Table Well, But Fails to Serve Up a Satisfying Main Course

Eli Roth has garnered a reputation over the years as one of the better “extreme horror directors” in the business. His films intend to shock with exaggerated violence and a meanness that calls back to exploitation horror of the 1970s, a time that saw a different level of maturity enter the cinema. His first feature, Cabin Fever, captured that vision perfectly. The 2002 film is a very good horror-comedy, heavily inspired by classics like The Evil Dead 2 and some of Romero’s Dead series. His directorial work since then, though, has failed to live up to the standard he set over a decade ago.

Roth has more or less stuck within the genre that gave him his big break. His latest effort, The Green Inferno, continues down that same path, focusing on a group of young college kids who are kidnapped by a tribe of cannibalistic, Amazon natives, who are eventually sacrificed and eaten by said tribe. It’s a not-so-subtle throwback to the nasty Italian horror films of the 1970s that consistently succeeded in shocking audiences.

green inferno - two girls

Image: BH Tilt

The Green Inferno tries very hard to offend its audience, taking more than just its name from noted Italian cannibal horror film, Cannibal Holocaust. A particular standout of the Italian-made horror films of that era, Cannibal Holocaust has gone down in history as one of the most notorious films ever created, largely thanks to the nearly unbelievable controversy it caused in Europe.

Director Ruggero Deodato of Cannibal Holocaust was arrested by French authorities after a magazine article accused the director of making something more than just a violent fantasy. He was literally charged with murder because of the exceedingly graphic and convincingly realistic images he put on screen. The sensationalized case was further exasperated due to some ill-advised marketing that forbade the film’s cast from doing any media work to promote the film. This led the courts to believe Deodato had actually killed members of his cast, firmly cementing Cannibal Holocaust as one of most important films in the movie industry’s eternal battle against censorship.

Roth’s film, similarly, focuses on a group of mostly white people who get too close to the native world. They are college underclassmen who spend their free time feigning support for environmental causes, and they’re led by an older student named Alejandro (Ariel Levy), who instructs his impressionable followers to get down for the cause by taking off to the Amazon rain forest for the weekend (seriously, just two days) to disrupt the deforestation plans of a greedy logging company.

It’s at about this point that Eli Roth political messaging comes into focus.  He sets out, early on, to skewer “slacktivism” culture – the idea that millennials are more inclined to promote social causes online than to actually work for them in the field. Roth wastes no time in criticizing this brand of online advocacy, using his main cast as fill-ins for the kind of broad stereotypes that Fox News reporters were looking for, while they trolled the streets of New York City during the 2012 Occupy Wall Street movement. These students are clearly more comfortable typing up Tumblr posts than they are dealing with militant tribes and unlawful militias in the jungle, and Roth takes great delight in revealing to the audience just how foolish these students are for making their protests in the real world.

Before the student-environmentalists take off on their casual protest weekend, they accept incoming freshman, Justine (Lorenza Izzo). Justine’s skeptical of the whole rain forest trip, because all she’s seen of the group so far is that they’re pretty good at getting high. Luckily, her Dad is a lawyer for the United Nations and he reasons that this trip would be a great, totally safe and exciting way for his daughter to get some real world experience. Good looking out, Dad!

The students fly to the edge of the forest, chain each other to construction equipment, and easily ward off the logging company. You know, typical protest stuff. Best of all, they wrap things up so tidily they’ll be home in time for Monday classes – nice! But this is a cannibal movie, and at close to an hour into the film, we still haven’t seen any humans get eaten. So, they don’t make it back in time for classes. Their tiny airplane explodes on the flight back, killing several of their friends instantly and another couple in a rewardingly vicious crash. The crash strands them deep in the Amazon, alerting a nearby tribe of natives to their location. The natives approach and – mistaking the students for members of the evil logging company – capture and imprison them.

Though the film was released in 2015 – a struggle Roth would spin as result of the film’s graphic violence, a classic marketing tool for horror films – it was filmed in 2012 during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The influence that movement had on Roth is painfully evident – the characters in The Green Inferno are broad, wafer-thin caricatures of those protestors. Roth’s film paints these groups as mostly trust-fund babies who are interested in the scene, but less interested in pushing for meaningful change. There’s definitely some truth to that idea, but as a point of cultural criticism, his film does an ineffective job of giving any reason as to why we should look at these kids with such joyful disdain.

Image: BH Tilt

Image: BH Tilt

However, to be fair, no one is going to see The Green Inferno for Eli Roth’s nuanced social commentary. We’re in the theater for some grisly cannibal grubbin,’the real gross out stuff that makes our stomach’s churn in delighted disgust. The best illustration I can give for how effective the film is at producing that effect is through my own screening experience. I went to see the film with a group of four friends, one who is well-versed in the ways of foreign horror, and three who have little exposure to the genre. From the three newcomers, I expected reactions in the “Oh God, what did we just watch and why?” range, but instead all I got was, “It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting,” and “Wow, the writing was awful.”

But I would be so ready to forgive the film’s poor writing, which is pervasive and unbearable at times, if it did a better job delivering on its gory premise. We’re talking native, cannibalistic tribes here! Roth should have had no problem delivering a steady dosage of killin’ and eatin’, with the grotesque imagery slowly ramping up to a big finale. There’s a formula to these kind of films for a reason.

Instead, Roth paces his film the way a real-life cannibal might spit-roast a fresh kill – slowly and over very low heat. The Green Inferno takes over an hour until it finally gets to the promised cannibalism, and once it hits, there’s not a whole lot to keep the fire going. Admittedly, the first feasting scene is supremely well-made, and Roth does an excellent job conveying a sense of chaos and confusion between the native tribe and the shocked students. The killing and dismemberment, supplemented by a variety of ritualistic torture, is visceral and unsettling in the way this kind of horror should be. I looked over at the three horror pups next to me and saw at least one gasp, and several eyes being covered, so at least Roth got that part right.

But once that gruesome scene plays out, the action begins a disappointing de-escalation. The plot propels onward, however brain dead the eventual resolution, but the violence never matches the intensity and energy of that first dismemberment.

That’s about what The Green Inferno amounts to – a decently made extreme horror flick with laughable writing and a few memorable kills. Audiences less familiar with the brand of horror Roth is mimicking might well be shocked by his film, but anyone familiar with the Italian films he is paying homage to will likely leave the theater with an empty stomach.