Eli Roth seems to be the only one who carries the torch when it comes to extreme gore in the movies anymore.
So many modern horror films – found footage or otherwise – tend to be ghost stories that are rated PG-13, and the modern milieu is one of fighting off home invaders. And while many of these films are exceptional (OCULUS and SINISTER are particular standouts), there is a darker part of me that longs for something more difficult to stomach. Stories of extreme violence fell out of fashion when torture porn became tiresome to the public, and no subgenre or filmmaker or studio has dared approach anything that extreme since.
No one but Eli Roth whose HOSTEL movies (alongside the SAW series) were leading the charge of gore for a while there. In 2013, Eli Roth even took us one step beyond by making a tribute to one of his favorite horror subgenres, the Italian cannibal flick. His film, THE GREEN INFERNO payed direct homage to Ruggerio Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, one of the goriest, most disgusting films of all time. Roth is so fond of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and its immediate genre kin that he included a bibliography of his influences in the credits of THE GREEN INFERNO.
THE GREEN INFERNO, because of both extreme violence and studio politics, was shelved for several years and wasn’t released in theaters until September of 2015. Upon its release, critics were a little baffled as to why Roth would want to resurrect the dead cannibal subgenre in the modern age. Some even felt that the film’s extreme gore was just an adolescent Roth acting out, just playing a game of “What’s the most extreme thing I can do?”
When I saw it, I also dismissed it at first. THE GREEN INFERNO is about a group of college students who fly from the U.S. to a deep South American jungle to stop large corporations from clear-cutting the rain forests, using guerrilla videos to do so. They talk about protecting the local tribes and wildlife, but you can also tell that they’re motivated by ego and an urge for fame. Their plane crashes, and they are beset by a remote tribe of cannibals who systematically begin dismembering them and eating them. The women are targeted for clitorectomies. Few will make it out alive.
I thought that Roth hated these characters for shallow reasons, as implied by the film’s opening scenes where a few of our main characters are awakened on a weekend morning by noisy protestors outside. Those very same protestors are the ones who will eventually be eaten. I assumed that Roth was also likely awakened by noisy protestors, and in his groggy, cranky, early morning rage, conceived of a plot to get back at them by feeding them to cannibals. My initial interpretation was that THE GREEN INFERNO was a petty revenge fantasy against the people who cut into your sleep. And it seemed a pity that this was all he wanted to do because the film also had a gentle reek of racism on it. The tribe depicted is not based on any real known natives, but seem to be a half-informed amalgam of facts, rumors, and hearsay about the way South American Indian tribes behave. Roth was clearly making stuff up. The natives were not real people, but a boogity-boo “other,” about as culturally sensitive as the racist natives from 1933’s KING KONG.
But, after some reflection, I began to see THE GREEN INFERNO as something beyond petty revenge and racism. I saw THE GREEN INFERNO as a salient political commentary on an unfortunately persistent social phenomenon: that of slacktivism.
If you hadn’t noticed, we’re living in the age of the self-righteous Social Justice Warrior. In the days before the internet, we tended to call these people “Language Police”. The modern SJW is typically an online denizen who trolls social media and other people’s ‘blogs looking out for any language or attitudes that would offend any group at all (which includes any race, gender, mental health state, sexuality, or diet preference). Armed only with a keyboard and outrage, SJWs feel that, by merely taking a certain moral stance, they are helping the disenfranchised.
I admire that people want to help, and I appreciate that they’re of the mind to do something about it. But SJWs, by staying online, are actually doing very little. They’re not enacting legislation. They’re not donating money. They’re not volunteering their hands and backs to helpful labor. They are merely promoting their own attitude. It’s slacker’s activism. It’s slacktivism. Changing your Facebook profile picture “to show support” may feel good, and it shows to your friends where you stand politically, but it accomplishes nothing.
The characters in THE GREEN INFERNO are most certainly slacktivists. Sure, they have enough gumption to leave the country and try to stop clear-cutting first-hand, but we’re constantly told – through subtle directorial choices – that none of these characters are really wholly passionate about the cause. Even the leader seems to have dubious motives. These characters are trying to make friends, get laid, get their face seen on TV, and get lots of YouTube hits. The cause they are supporting could be anything. They have artificially inflated their outrage in order to put together a self-aggrandizing video of themselves doing something that will earn them fame. The cause could have easily been getting your pets spayed or neutered.
Eli Roth – likely the victim of a lot of social outrage online thanks to the extremity of his movies – has likely experienced artificially inflated outrage before. He sees what that outrage is really made of: insecure ego-slaking. So when it came to making his next movie, he likely had the perfect victims in mind for his cannibals. Roth is, by punishing the activists, revealing how ill-prepared they are for actual action.
THE GREEN INFERNO then is a deeply moral film. It’s seeing an injustice in the world – outrage and dishonesty disguised as justice – and seeks to undo it. Does the punishment fit the crime? Perhaps the punishment is indeed a bit extreme; I wouldn’t want an SJW to be eaten alive even in the worst of circumstances. But Roth seems to feel that it is a crime worthy of metaphorical on-screen death.
Are the natives still racist? Perhaps. But when taken as a “shock” element in a movie that seeks to outrage you, perhaps one can appreciate them as part of an older cinematic tradition of racist natives. Perhaps we’re not supposed to accept the natives. Perhaps they are supposed to be repellant. Or, and I suspect this is more the case, Roth assumes you’re so on his side about anti-slacktivism, that you see the natives as angels of vengeance. They become the sympathetic characters by dint of their dark powers of death. That, at least, I have an easier time accepting.