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.”
"Eating Raoul" (1982)
More a black comedy than an out-and-out horror movie, "Eating Raoul" walks a fine tonal tightrope and somehow manages to get away with it, mostly because its absurdist sense of humor makes it an always pleasurable romp even when its subject matter becomes rather bleak. Director/co-writer Paul Bartel stars as Paul Bland who, along with his wife Mary (Mary Woronov), play a prudish married couple living in Hollywood who take to murdering swingers in their apartment building for a little extra cash. Robert Beltran plays Raoul, a small time criminal who witnesses the Blands’ dirty business before striking up a bargain for his silence, sharing the profits of the murder victims (Raoul also strikes up a sexual relationship with Mary, which might be the most insane part of the whole movie). As the title suggests, the movie climaxes (spoiler alert) with a wonderfully wacky bit of cannibalism in which Raoul is both killed and consumed. Bartel, a graduate of the "Roger Corman School," knows how to keep things lively, and often times the movie plays like some pitch black sitcom gone horribly wrong (at one point Paul tries to sabotage Raoul’s lovemaking by slipping him a mickey meant to diffuse his erection). Everything is arch and camp but at 83 minutes, the movie never wears out its welcome and always has something fun and goofy up its sleeve. The characters, in fact, were meant to return for a sequel entitled "Bland Ambition," which Bartel wrote with original screenwriter Richard Blackburn, but it failed to materialize. We did see a brief return of the Blands, however, in the Corman joint "Chopping Mall," which sounds like a slasher movie and not a movie about killer robot security guards running amok and blowing people’s heads up (what it actually is).
Like "Eating Raoul," "Parents" walks a fine tonal line between campy and horrifying, but unlike "Eating Raoul," tips more towards the terrifying, especially in a series of prolonged, nightmarish sequences in which our young protagonist Michael (Bryan Madorsky) starts imagining the outlandish horrors he suspects are quietly happening all around him. Michael is just an everyday kid living in ’50s suburbia, except that he has a growing suspicion that his parents (played by Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt) are murderous cannibals. And what’s more—he fears that he’s feeding him their "leftovers" (when he asks his father what the leftovers were before they were leftovers, Quaid quips back, "Pre-leftovers"). Director Bob Balaban does a lovely job with the material, emphasizing the production design’s period detail while also pumping up the surrealism whenever the mood suits him (to great effect, it should be noted). When the movie’s funny, it’s really funny, and when it’s scary, it’s really fucking scary. It’s also a sharply satirical work, as well, showcasing the underlying nastiness of the "Leave it to Beaver" era of housewives and diligent dads. Released by the now defunct Vestron Pictures, it has gained something of a cult life on home video, although a true reappraisal of "Parents" has yet to happen. Unlike "Eating Raoul," we can’t imagine this one getting the Criterion Collection treatment anytime soon. Which is a shame.
Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet became instant filmmakers-to-watch with "Delicatessen," their darkly delicious debut. Set in a steampunky, post-apocalyptic Paris, the movie concerns an apartment building and that building’s bizarre inhabitants. Caro and Jeunet are obsessed with the interconnectedness of the tenants, which is exhibited brilliantly in the film’s teaser trailer, where the squeaky springs of a couple making love echo, in one form or another, throughout the building (a kid inflating the tire of a bike, a woman beating a rug, etc.) The man making love in the trailer is the butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who serves as the de facto landlord of the building and offers up cannibalistic delicacies. Caro and Jeunet are working in full-on comic book mode here, and even the cannibalism is delivered on screen with a dash of zany surrealism. (The "plot" of the movie, involving Jeunet and Caro favorite Dominique Pinon and a race of underground freedom fighters, who also happen to be vegetarian, is less enjoyable than when they just let the characters, who are equal parts Federico Fellini and "Friday the 13th," do their thing.) "Delicatessen" has aged nicely, mostly because of its mixture of gruesomeness and goofiness, and its light touch with such a grisly subject.
"Trouble Every Day" (2001)
Claire Denis’ underrated genre piece centers on two couples, each
of them coping with a unique hunger. Americans Vincent Gallo and Tricia Vessey
must cope with the fact that their taste skews towards human flesh, but they
can’t erase the physical affection between them that intensifies when
one of them opts to feed on a third party. These two are diseased in the worst
sense, each of them disgusted by their own desires of the flesh: when they gaze
upon the gory milieu they’ve just created, both of them know that modern
science has to find a cure for them in a hurry. On the other side of the
spectrum is the power dynamic between Denis regulars Alex Descas and Beatrice
Dalle. Her hunger is animalistic, and it forces him to keep building restraints
for her, ones that she continues to break. With minimal dialogue, both of these
relationships feature co-dependent people struggling with their vices, caught
between doing what’s right for their lover, and preserving the relationship.
Denis’ film is memorably gory, and unforgettably gorgeous: there’s an
intense eroticism to a moment when a chained-down Dalle has her way with a
curious teenager, leaving behind blood-streak walls that resemble a twisted
modern art exhibit. Frequent Denis collaborators The Tindersticks contribute
their moodiest, most tuneful score, sensual chamber music that gracefully
accents the forbidden love happening onscreen.
While Jonathan Demme‘s "Silence of the Lambs" will be best remembered for introducing, to the world at large, the character of Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (portrayed, in an Academy Award-winning performance, by Anthony Hopkins), it’s Ridley Scott‘s "Hannibal" where we actually get to see him do his ghastly business. In this grotesque bit of Grand Guignol, Hopkins slices the top of the head of a federal agent (Ray Liotta), removes part of his brain, and then serves it to Liotta, all while plucky FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore subbing for Jodie Foster), half-drugged, watches on in horror. At the time the sequence made waves for its graphic violence, even though looking back on it, it’s kind of cartoony and, like so many of the movies on this list, is equal parts funny and horrific. Maybe even more perverse is the movie’s final scene, which shows Hannibal, now missing a hand, feeling a bit of brain to a small child on an airplane. Yick. Although, to be sure, both the brain-eating scene and the scene with the little kids and the "leftovers," are keeping with the movie’s tone, which is so over-the-top that it would be hard to spot the top from where the movie is perched (it involves a pack of killer pigs and a man whose face was removed years before by Lecter, played by an uncredited Gary Oldman). There is a certain air of joylessness to the sequel, though even without some of the original ingredients, "Hannibal" does have enough bizarro charm to make it a tasty treat.
"Blood Diner" (1987)
There’s wacky and then there’s "Blood Diner," a loose, pseudo-remake/sequel/something of Herschell Gordon Lewis‘ infamous 1963 splatter classic "Blood Feast." "Blood Diner" shares the original movie’s creaky plot mechanics (involving an ancient cannibal goddess… or something) and love of purposefully phony-looking fountains of gore, and is something of a hoot. Rick Burks and Carl Crew play the owners of a vegetarian diner who slice and dice women in the hopes of resurrecting a primal goddess (it should also be noted that they are doing all of this under the command of their dead serial killer uncle, whose pickled brain they keep in a mason jar). This would be unrelentingly ghastly if the movie didn’t have such a wonderful sense of humor, as corny as it is, with dialogue like "The first thing we need are a couple of stomachs from two tramps" (keep in mind the disembodied brain says this), which oscillates between the revolting and the hilarious. There are a lot of food jokes, of course, with some of the sharpest barbs reserved for the vegetarian food crave of the period. Of particular note are the film’s sub-par optical effects and make-up, which only adds to the "hey-let’s-put-on-a-show" atmosphere of the movie. This one is an acquired taste, we admit.
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007)
Oddly overlooked upon its initial release, there should be a long, dedicated cult following ahead for Tim Burton‘s adaptation of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name, which is based on the supposedly true exploits of the titular barber (played in the film, with "Bride of Frankenstein" hair, by Johnny Depp) who gave his customers a little too close of a shave. This is old school horror movie stuff, with arching arterial sprays of crimson shot against stark grey backgrounds. The "cannibal" part comes in when Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), Todd’s partner in crime, disposes of the bodies by dicing them up into meat pies and serving them to the patrons of the dusty pub she owns. It’s ghoulish stuff, for sure, but Burton adds a lightness of touch to the material, even when it boils down to little more than a musical number composed of various shots of people getting their throats slit. There’s a love story in there, too, and a tale of revenge, plus Todd trying to reconnect with his long lost daughter. But on purely cinematic terms, it’s really all about the murders and the meat. As adapted by John Logan, the movie trims away much of the fat of the original musical (sorry, we couldn’t resist), offering a leaner, meaner version of "Sweeney Todd," one that’s all sinewy and full of muscle. While most would say that a leaner version would be less delicious, it’s hard not to eat up "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," no matter how disgusting those meat pies look.
Honorable mention: Movies that almost made our list include the obvious, like "Silence of the Lambs," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (the original, of course), and sci-fi fable "Soylent Green," as well as more marginal, esoteric fare like "Society" (by "Re-Animator" principle Brian Yuzna), "The Revenant," "We’re Going to Eat You," and the original "Blood Feast," a movie that’s still more fun to talk about than it is to actually watch. There’s also the original "We Are What We Are," and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," which uses cannibalism as one of the cheekier taboos it trots out. "The Road," while less a straight-up cannibal movie than one about a father-and-son’s survival in an ashy, post-apocalyptic world, still features a band or roving cannibals, as does "Doomsday" and, infamously, "C.H.U.D," a movie whose acronym-for-a-title suggests a band of Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. More recent examples include the indie curio "Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal" and Eli Roth‘s "Green Inferno," which just had its somewhat limp premiere at Toronto. And last but certainly not least is "Alive," the magnificent, based-on-a-true story drama about the survivors of a horrible airplane crash that are faced with the unthinkable: eating their dead fellow passengers, probably the only option worse than the airplane food itself.
Which of your cannibalistic favorites did we miss? Sound off below.