Director Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno opened last week, after sitting in distribution limbo for two years. So now that the latest effort from the architect of horror hits like Cabin Fever and Hostel is making a frontal assault on theaters near you, it begs the question: Was it worth the wait? The short answer is yes and no, in maddeningly equal measure.
The movie follows a group of campus radicals planning a protest against deforesting loggers in the Peruvian jungle. Led by magnetic douchebag Alejandro (Ariel Levy), the activists chain themselves to deforestation equipment, seemingly halting the company’s destructive progress and garnering mucho social media attention with their smartphone recordings of the event.
Any glad-handing gets cut short, however, when the puddle jumper shuttling the students back to civilization crashlands in the thick of the jungle. The would-be social justice warriors, still clad in their neon logger undercover togs, are then mistaken for loggers by one very pissed-off—and very cannibalistic—tribe of locals.
The Green Inferno is a love letter of sorts to one of the most disreputable sub-genres in the already sketchy pantheon of exploitation cinema. Cannibal movies flourished in grindhouses throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and they all followed a similar, nihilistic pattern: Several usually unlikeable outsiders would run afoul of cannibals in a remote jungle before being graphically tortured, killed, and summarily chowed upon. The sub-genre represented the ultimate test of intestinal fortitude: Their grainy shot-on-location rawness and crudely effective gore scenes exuded a queasy documentary realism, with truly contemptible interludes of actual animal cruelty occasionally thrown in for good measure. It says something (I’m not sure what) that after four decades of sensory overload media and sideshow-freak reality TV grubbiness, the cannibal movies can still pimp-slap and shock the hell out of even the most jaded viewers.
By comparison, this modern-day contribution to the cannibal oeuvre comes off as damn near artful in places. Director of Photography Antonio Quercia captures the Peruvian locations in sweeping aerial shots, with impossibly lush carpets of green foliage (you’ll never see a cannibal-infested jungle Hell look so ravishing). Roth can’t totally avoid the borderline racism inherent in his antagonists, but the red ochre-covered and charismatic tribespeople in this movie are allotted much more dignity than the pathetic mud-caked extras munching on entrails in the old grindhouse cannibal flicks.
That said, hardcore gorehounds can expect their money’s worth. The director delivers the gruesomeness with intestine-yanking, eye-popping gusto (sans any animal abuse, thank Gods). And contrary to the complaints of some of his detractors, Roth also backs up the gouts of blood and mountains of innards with equally effective doses of well-engineered suspense. The dude’s got raw talent and genre love to burn, so if you’re signing on for nothing more than a nerve-rattling roller coaster of a horror movie, The Green Inferno does deliver on that mission during its best moments.
At a time when modern cinemas are glutted with numbingly focus-grouped and unthreatening piffle, you’ve gotta admire the fact that someone got a movie this openly transgressive into multiplexes in the first place. It’s just a damn shame the end result isn’t better. The idea of literally and metaphorically skewering hashtag activist poseurs is a fertile one, but Roth’s and Guillermo Amoedo’s iffy script fails to run with that ripe conceptual fruit. Few of the characters make any real impression, and bro humor trumps sardonic wit far too frequently.
Worse yet, the movie’s climax plays like an asinine, contractually-obligated setup for a sequel, not the bone-chilling coda it could’ve (and should’ve) been. Yeah, it’s only a gross-out horror movie, but with a sharper screenplay The Green Inferno could’ve jostled and challenged a viewer’s brain with as much ferocious imagination as it jostles and challenges a viewer’s stomach.