Bloomsbury Food Library-Who Can Be Eaten? Consuming Animals and Humans in the Cannibal-Savage
What’s Eating You?
What’s Eating You?

Cynthia J. Miller

Cynthia J. Miller is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emerson College, USA, and a cultural anthropologist specializing in popular culture and visual media. She serves on the board of the National Popular Culture/American Culture Association, and is Treasurer and Governing Board member of the International Association for Media and History, as well as Director of Communication for the Center for the Study of Film and History. She also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Popular Television. She is the winner of the James Welsh Prize for lifetime achievement in adaptation studies and the Peter C. Rollins prize for a book-length work in popular culture. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications
and A. Bowdoin Van Riper

A. Bowdoin Van Riper is a historian who specializes in depictions of science and technology in popular culture. He is Web Coordinator for the Center for the Study of Film and History and an archivist for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Van Riper’s publications include Imagining Flight: Aviation in Popular Culture (2003), and A Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists and Inventors in American Film and Television (2011). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications

Bloomsbury Academic, 2017


Content type:

Book chapter


Psychology of Food

Related Content

Who Can Be Eaten? Consuming Animals and Humans in the Cannibal-Savage Horror Film

DOI: 10.5040/9781501322402_ch-015
Page Range: 253–268

Low budget, formulaic, and largely produced in Italy, the “cannibal-savage” exploitation horror genre encompasses fewer than two dozen films released between 1972 and 1988, with its peak years between 1977 and 1981 (the so-called cannibal boom). These films follow a standard narrative in which a party of “civilized” urban protagonists enters the jungle (whether in South America, the Caribbean, or Southeast Asia) and encounters “savage” indigenous people, who subsequently attack, capture, kill, and devour them. In many cases, one or more of the “civilized” protagonists are revealed to have selfish motives for entering the jungle, exploiting indigenous resources and occasionally committing violent acts against the people themselves. Cannibal-savage films, especially before 1982, are also well known for a peculiar and disturbing genre trope: the real killing and, usually, consumption of animals.[1]

This chapter focuses on the relationship between consuming animals and consuming humans in the cannibal-savage genre. On one level, these films make manifest a neocolonial anxiety about Western consumption of the jungle and its inhabitants—that is, within the narrative, colonizers “consume” indigenous land and its resources metaphorically; indigenous people exact revenge by consuming the colonizers literally. But by juxtaposing scenes in which real animals are killed and eaten with scenes in which human beings appear to be killed and eaten—often using real animal entrails to simulate human organs—these films also draw attention to Western cultural anxieties about what it means to be human, the violence inherent in the acquisition of meat, and which animal species are acceptable as part of the human diet—in other words, the questions of who can be eaten and what it says about us.

The savage cannibal

Cannibal-savage films place “civilized” protagonists in opposition to indigenous “cannibal” Others, who are cast in these films as being closer to animals than to human beings. (Among other things, both animals and humans are shown eating raw viscera; additionally, both lack language.) However, as Cary Wolfe and Jonathan Elmer point out, species significations form a kind of grid rather than a simple dividing line, a grid in which we find quadrants of the “animalized animal,” the “humanized animal,” the “animalized human,” and finally, the “wishful category of the humanized human, sovereign and untroubled.”[2] The distinction, however, only becomes meaningful with a “humanized human”—the nonindigenous outsider—present in the film to create opposition, as well as to observe and comment upon the animalized human others.

This category of “humanized human,” however, is nearly always troubled in cannibal-savage films, as “civilized” outsiders reveal themselves be quite “savage” in their treatment of the native people they encounter. The protagonist of Last Cannibal World (1977), after escaping from the tribe that has held him captive, rapes one of the tribeswomen, then kills their chief, tears out his heart, and eats it. Similarly, the documentary crew in Cannibal Holocaust (1980), who have come to find and film a “savage cannibal” tribe, end up torching a peaceful village, killing their livestock, and raping a woman. (Upon viewing the found footage of the crew’s behavior, one character muses, “I wonder who the real cannibals are.”) Like many horror films, cannibal-savage films explore the fear that “civilization” is merely a mask for an underlying brutal savagery (cannibalism) that lies at the heart of all human animals. While we are clearly positioned to identify with the Western protagonists over the indigenous characters, it is suggested that “we” are nevertheless equally or more savage than “them.”

In Cannibal Ferox (1981), Gloria, a graduate student researching cannibalism, is eager to prove that, as she states in the film, “cannibalism as an organized practice of human society does not exist, and historically has never existed … let’s say it was an invention of racist colonialism, which had a vested interest in creating the myth of the ferocious, subhuman savage fit only for extermination. The mythical lie of ‘cannibal ferox’ was only an alibi to justify the greed and cruelty of the conquistadores.” The film sets up this analysis only to reveal it as well-intentioned naïveté, once Gloria encounters the real cannibals she had sought to disprove the existence of. After she emerges as the only survivor of her party’s trek into the jungle, the film cuts to a final scene in which she receives an award for her now-published thesis, Cannibalism: The End of a Myth. It is revealed that Gloria has lied about the true fate of her companions and is receiving accolades for having (somehow) disproven the myth of cannibalism.

Perhaps more than any other film, Cannibal Ferox gestures toward real-life debates among anthropologists about the extent—or even the very existence—of ritual cannibalism. Gloria’s thesis echoes the name and topic of a book by the anthropologist William Arens: The Man-Eating Myth, published just two years before the release of Cannibal Ferox. Arens’s claim was that most if not all reports of ritual cannibalism (as opposed to survival cannibalism, which he acknowledges) were unfounded due to the absence of credible eyewitnesses; his book directly indicted the field of anthropology for being lackluster in gathering clear supporting evidence for claims of cannibalism, inciting a furious debate among anthropologists and garnering attention from the popular press as well. Reflecting on the way in which Cannibal Ferox borrows from Arens’s book and the controversy around it, Gavin Weston et al. write:

The irony of using Arens’s idea regarding the fabrication of cannibalism as a starting point to show a cannibalistic “other” is perhaps lost on the those who set out to make films where the sine qua non is shot after shot of mud-caked people eating intestines. While there is sympathy for the cannibals across these films, and while the anthropologists are shown to be “on their side,” it is hard to watch the films without feeling that their primary objective is to shock viewers rather than to make them question the ethnocentric construct of a cannibalistic or savage Amazonian “other.”[3]

While cannibal-savage films do gesture toward the underlying savagery of their “civilized” protagonists, actual indigenous people are still relegated to the role of the savage other; even if their violence is justified retribution, they are still cast as dangerous and predatory. What’s more, indigenous actors remain voiceless and nameless within the films’ narratives and absent from the credits, accorded the same status within the film as animals and other “natural” features of the films’ settings.

Animal violence and consumption

Cannibal films exhibit a simultaneous desire for and fear of the “wild and uncontaminated world” of the jungle (as The Mountain of the Cannibal God [1978] proclaims in its opening credits), which they locate in “exotic” locales such as Papua New Guinea, the Amazon, and the Philippines. Several films (including Cannibal Ferox, Eaten Alive [1980], and Cannibal Holocaust) open with establishing shots that visually juxtapose the city with the jungle: as the protagonists leave their urban environments to enter the jungle, these films frequently include sweeping aerial shots of thick trees and, notably, shots of wildlife.

The inclusion of animal inhabitants of the jungle in these “arrival scenes” might seem to simply flesh out the establishing shots that situate the narrative in a particular place: they are part of the scenery, part of what establishes the jungle as not-city. But throughout these films, animals continue to make their presence felt at incongruous, shocking moments, primarily in scenes of violence and consumption. As human characters make their way through the jungle, the action is interrupted by spliced-in footage of a snake devouring a monkey (Mountain of the Cannibal God, Eaten Alive) or lizard (Last Cannibal World, Primitives [1980]), or a leopard eating a coati (Cannibal Ferox). There are also numerous scenes of humans killing and eating animals ranging from insects and grubs to monitor lizards and turtles to mammals such as monkeys, coatis, and pigs.

These scenes of animal violence and consumption may initially seem to be completely superfluous interruptions of the narrative. In fact, several DVD and Blu-ray releases of the best-known film of the genre, Cannibal Holocaust, offer viewers the option of watching the film with the animal death scenes omitted, since the film still works as a coherent whole without them. The scenes, however, serve two critical functions: first, authenticating the narrative, and second, confronting audiences with violations of food taboos, and thus underscoring the ultimate food taboo—cannibalism—that is at the heart of the genre. Taken together, they force viewers to reflect on what it means to be both “human” and “civilized.”

The authentic animal death

Cannibal films are frequently invested with the illusion of authenticity and realism: Last Cannibal World and The Man from Deep River inform the audience in the opening credits that they are “based on a true story,” while Mountain of the Cannibal God proclaims New Guinea to be “the last region on earth which still contains immense unexplored areas, shrouded in mystery, where life has remained at its primordial level.” In this sense, they gesture toward ethnographic and nature documentaries, as well as toward the “mondo” exploitation documentary films of the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Mondo Cane [1962], Africa Addio [1966], Savana Violenta [1976]), which are often considered to be direct predecessors of the cannibal-horror genre. The “mondo” films pasted together unusual and shocking clips from around the world, many of which were staged or completely faked. Scenes of real animal slaughter, ranging from snakes being skinned in a Singapore marketplace to foie gras production in France, are also commonly found in these films.

Cannibal-savage genre films, like mondo films, use scenes of unsimulated animal slaughter to help authenticate the film and produce a sense of realism—as Erik van Ooijen puts it, they “[rely] on the ability of the indexical body to break through the layers of fictional meaning.”[4] Jonathan Burt concurs that violence toward animals in film “breaks the boundary between image and reality … the idea that animals represent an insertion of the real or the natural into film is crucial to the question of violence.”[5]

The association of animal death with a realist aesthetic was perhaps first articulated by Sergei Eisenstein: about the use of slaughterhouse footage as metaphor for the slaughter of (human) workers in his film Strike (1925), Eisenstein explained that the animals stand in for human actors who would—without actually dying—be unable to achieve the desired quality of realism for the greatest impact. He wished “to extract the maximum effect of bloody horror” by filming the actual slaughter of animals, in order to “excise from such a serious scene the falseness that the screen will not tolerate but that is unavoidable in even the most brilliant death scene.”[6] In other words, the visceral impact of the animal death sends a more powerful message than a faked human death ever could. Akira Lippit argues, “The actuality of the animal slaughter supercedes the metaphor and imposes from outside the diegesis a taste of death, of the real.”[7]

While directors of cannibal-savage films are presumably less invested in conveying political messages to an audience than Eisenstein was—real death is used in these films exploitatively, for “shock” entertainment—the desire of provoking a powerful “effect of bloody horror” remains the same. Here, as in mondo films, the murder and gruesome dismemberment of animals on screen is intended to both add an element of authenticity and elicit visceral reactions from the film’s audiences. An infamous scene in Cannibal Holocaust in which the filmmakers slaughter a giant river turtle, for example, is really not focused on the death of the animal. The death itself happens rather quickly: the turtle’s head is chopped off with one stroke of a machete. The focus of this scene is, rather, on the slow dismemberment and disembowelment of the carcass, along with the reactions of the characters watching (one of whom turns away in disgust and vomits) (Figure 15.1). The flesh of the turtle is then cooked and eaten (Figure 15.2).

Figure 15.1. In Cannibal Holocaust, a character is disgusted by the sight of the turtle’s evisceration …

Figure 15.2. … but nevertheless eats its cooked flesh.

The same pattern is evident in other films in this genre: in Eaten Alive and Mountain of the Cannibal God, a monitor lizard is quickly gutted, then skinned; the camera then zooms in as the body cavity is spread open and the animal’s entrails scooped up with bare hands. The camera lingers on this shot, as the human fingers explore the innards of the lizard.[8] A similar scene occurs with a caiman in Last Cannibal World. Scenes of animal death are also captured primarily through long takes and with a single camera, with as little editing as possible.

Both academic scholarship and popular writing on cannibal-savage films have all-but-universally connected scenes of animal slaughter to the genre’s investment in realism and authenticity (as well as pure shock value) and argue that the inclusion of real death scenes in these films helps boost audience credibility when it comes to simulated human death scenes.[9] In large part, this is also due to the fact that most scholarship on the genre has focused exclusively on Cannibal Holocaust, a film that—unlike others in the genre—self-consciously explores questions of veracity and ethics in filmmaking.

Frequently cited as a forerunner of the “found footage” horror film, Cannibal Holocaust tells the story of a lost group of documentary filmmakers through a framing story in which their recovered film is screened for a group of television executives. In this recovered footage, filmmakers are shown fomenting an intertribal war and committing acts of rape and murder in the process of making their “documentary.” Reflecting on the film’s animal death sequences, Neil Jackson argues that

[b]‌y blankly recording the bodily contractions and contortions of a body in extremis, the film documents mortal states which reinforce and echo … the various instances of simulated human death. The mimetic aspects of the film’s violence are therefore absorbed into a discourse which frequently blurs the distinctions to be drawn between simulation and actuality, seeking to further tease the viewer into believing that the human slayings are as genuine as those enacted upon the jungle creatures.[10]

In other words, the role of the animal in the cannibal-savage film is to stand in for the human. Especially in films like Cannibal Holocaust, which maintains the pretense of containing human snuff footage,[11] authentic animal deaths gesture toward the suggested shock of witnessing real human death. While what is desired by these films’ audiences and filmmakers is the witnessing and capturing of the human death, the animal serves as a sufficient substitute.

How is this act of substitution—animal for human—satisfactory? In his book Violence and the Sacred, René Girard explores this question as it relates to ritual sacrifice, which has always relied on diverting violence onto a sacrificeable body. He writes that while sacrifice must “conceal the displacement upon which the rite is based,” the sacrifice must also bear some resemblance to the original object—he cautions, “this resemblance must not be carried to the extreme of complete assimilation, or it would lead to disastrous confusion. In the case of animal victims the difference is always clear, and no such confusion is possible.”[12]

The “horror” of the cannibal-savage film is that it does not abide by these rules of sacrifice—the difference is not clear, as human and animal become confused in scenes of cannibalistic violence, when human beings are suddenly “food” as previously only animals had been. What’s more, real animal viscera are frequently used in scenes of cannibalism to stand in, convincingly, for human viscera; the effect is potent precisely because it’s difficult to tell the difference. When we identify scenes of animal slaughter, as Mikita Brottman does, as having “associated implications of a vicious and abhorrent attitude toward living human beings”[13] as well as having a certain power over our perception of scenes of cannibalism as real and authentic, we acknowledge that there is an uncanny resemblance—too close of a resemblance—between the shrieks of a dying coati and the screams of a dying human, between eating the entrails of a lizard and eating our own.

Clearly, a distinction should be made between violence against animals/humans and the consumption of animals/humans—humans may behave violently toward animals for reasons other than food acquisition, such as fear, revulsion, or self-defense. (In several cannibal films, tarantulas and snakes are killed without being eaten.) But because these films deal explicitly with questions of food and consumption—by virtue of their being about cannibalism—it is important to acknowledge a second role played by scenes of animal slaughter: the foregrounding of cultural food taboos.

Food taboos in the cannibal-savage film

Previous scholarship on animal snuff (as well as the accidental killing of animals in the process of filmmaking) has explored questions of when the practice is considered acceptable or justifiable, and when it is seen as revolting and worthy of condemnation.[14] “Acceptable” instances typically fall into two categories. The first applies when the film is considered to possess “redeeming social or artistic value” (as US obscenity laws define it), often because it is the work of a well-regarded “art” director. Examples include Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), both of which include scenes of hunting or slaughtering rabbits. The second applies when animals killed in the film were intended for slaughter with or without the camera present; that is, when they are part of an existing animal agricultural system. Examples of scenes covered by the second exemption include the slaughter of a cebu in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and the filming of a cattle slaughterhouse in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1978).[15] Related to this, I would propose that animal slaughter in film is also only considered acceptable when abiding by cultural food taboos dictating which animals may be eaten.

In cannibal films, part of what turns the common practice of animal slaughter for meat into a horrific, shocking act is the fact that with few exceptions, the animals being killed and eaten are not commonly considered “food” by Westerners: caimans, snakes, turtles, and monkeys. For Western viewers, these animals are not part of a recognizable system of animal agriculture, despite the fact that they are considered part of an acceptable diet in many other parts of the world. This includes, often, the regions where the cannibal films are made; Deodato, among others, has pointed out that all of the animals killed in his films were indeed eaten by the indigenous actors.

What’s more, the disgust provoked by some scenes of animal slaughter and consumption hinges on what parts of the animal are eaten, and how they are eaten. Meat is used, in this instance, to demonstrate the animal-like savagery of indigenous characters and to juxtapose them with “civilized” protagonists. While the latter may kill animals for food as well, they are usually only shown eating cooked meat, which often no longer resembles their prey; both animals and indigenous people, in contrast, are portrayed eating raw viscera with their bare hands. In Mountain of the Cannibal God, for example, an indigenous man is shown skinning a snake with his teeth, while in another scene, others eat the raw organs of a disemboweled lizard. These displays of “savagery” echo earlier scenes in which a small monkey is devoured alive by a snake and a crocodile eats a monitor lizard: human predators are depicted similarly to animal ones. The “civilized” protagonists, in contrast, eat only the cooked meat of crabs they have caught—fare that would not be out of place in an expensive restaurant. Moreover, in this as well as most of the other films surveyed here, animal viscera are prominently displayed and sometimes eaten by indigenous characters.

Following Claude Levi-Strauss’s work on “the raw and the cooked,” anthropologist Nick Fiddes argues that cooking is a primary characteristic distinguishing nature (raw) from culture (cooked). In particular, he identifies the importance of the cooking of meat: “Raw meat, dripping blood, is what is eaten by wild, carnivorous animals, not by civilised humans … Raw meat is bestial and cooking sets us apart.”[16] What’s more, cooking meat also may serve to distance ourselves from its origins. “Cooking ameliorates the stark animality of the flesh, by altering its colour, imposing a human hallmark since we are the only species to possess this skill, and confirming, beyond doubt, the death of the beast.”[17] In other words, the transformation of beast to meat, and thus the dissociation of meat from a living creature who was slaughtered and butchered, is made complete with the transformation of the flesh from red to brown, from raw to cooked.[18]

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these scenes foreground the process of butchering as a part of the meat-acquisition process, making explicit the violence contained within the practice of meat consumption, no matter what animal is the source of the meat. By showing in gruesome detail animals being killed, disemboweled, and eaten, these films reveal what Carol Adams calls the absent referent of meat: “that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal … meat becomes unanchored by its original referent (the animal), becoming instead a free-floating image.”[19]

Norbert Elias points out that this disassociation between “meat” and “slaughtered animal” arises as part of what he calls the “civilizing process.” In the upper classes of medieval European society, he notes, the entire dead animal or large portions of it were served and carved at the table. But over time, a shift occurred, and indications that meat comes from a dead animal began to be avoided. Elias writes:

In many of our meat dishes the animal form is so concealed and changed by the art of its preparation and carving that while eating one is scarcely reminded of its origin … people, in the course of the civilizing process, seek to suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be “animal.” They likewise suppress such characteristics in their food.[20]

Among the lower classes, however—those who must slaughter the animals and pluck or dismember them in order to turn them into “food”—the connection between animal and meat remains palpable.

In an ethnographic study of slaughterhouse work and the politics of sight, Timothy Pachirat draws upon Elias’s work to point out that what kind of violence against animals human beings are capable of “standing the sight of” varies across cultures and time periods. Pity and other emotions, such as disgust, are “an emotive response that becomes increasingly refined and widespread … [with] the advancement of a civilizing process that has as its central mechanism concealment and distance.”[21] Our shock at the sight of slaughter and our pity for the animals killed is not a “natural” response but one generated by unfamiliarity—the product of a culture in which slaughter is generally concealed from sight. For those who are accustomed to treating living animals as incipient food products—those on the farm or in the slaughterhouse—shock is usually nullified. When “civilized” humans react with shock to the sight of an animal’s slaughter, “it is a reaction predicated on the operations that remove from sight, without actually eliminating, equally shocking practices required to sustain the orbit of their everyday lives.”[22]

When asked during an interview about the slaughter of animals in Cannibal Holocaust, Ruggero Deodato admitted that he would not do it again were he to make a film today. He reasons that “times have changed. When I was a child I lived in the country and it was normal to see a chicken, a rabbit, or a pig being killed. Today my daughter sees it and becomes distressed.”[23] That is, like Elias and Pachirat, Deodato identifies a “modern” disconnect between the killing of an animal for food and its consumption as meat.

Erik van Ooijen argues that while films like Cannibal Holocaust are condemned for their cruelty to animals, in fact they may draw back the curtain on meat as a “reification of violence”:

We may actually find an ethical and political potential in the depicted dismembering of animals as contrasted to the purely reified presentation of a steak or a hamburger in, for example, a seemingly harmless romantic comedy. In both cases, deadly violence is an inevitable part of movie production, but while the mainstream comedy conceals real violence in the reified props of fictional meaning, exploitation cinema uses indexical presence in making strange our ideological relationship to food as pure commodity.[24]

That is, van Ooijen identifies a certain hypocrisy at work in ethical critiques of scenes of animal slaughter, when we consider that they simply show first-hand what most people participate in on a daily basis through eating meat. Of course, it is unlikely that most viewers of cannibal-savage films are aware of the cognitive dissonance provoked by these scenes, or that they change their behavior or mindset accordingly—that is, by becoming vegetarian or by becoming more closely attuned to where their meat comes from. In part, this is due to the breaking of food taboos mentioned earlier: eating the raw brains of a monkey may simply be too far removed from eating a cooked hamburger for most viewers to make a connection between the two. Still, van Ooijen’s observation raises questions about how such scenes could be read politically when cultural attitudes about diet—as well as attitudes about the ethical considerations human beings should have for animals in general—are so resistant to challenges.

Who can be eaten?

Jeremy Bentham famously proposed changing the form of the question used to judge what rights humans should provide nonhuman animals. Rather than asking whether animals can reason, he argued, we must ask: “Can they suffer?” Jacques Derrida notes that Bentham’s question shifts the issue from an active to a passive stance; to suffer implies incapacity, an inability to act, a lack of power. “‘Can they suffer?’ amounts to asking ‘can they not be able?’ … Being able to suffer is no longer a power; it is a possibility without power, a possibility of the impossible. Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life.”[25]

It is in part because of this that we disavow our connection with other animals, with our shared vulnerability and mortality. Yet one of the most important lessons we might take from Derrida is that any disavowal still leaves a trace of itself. We find this trace returning in the cannibal film in two ways: first, in parallels between human and animal savagery (as problematic as that may be); and second, in the highlighting of what Derrida calls “the possibility of nonpower”[26] shared by humans and nonhumans—the presentation of human beings as “able to be eaten” in the same way that animals are. As a hunter proclaims in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), “You have to share risks with the animals. Man, too, can be hunted.” (Subsequently, he and his wife are captured, killed, and eaten by an indigenous tribe.)

What the cannibal films trouble—violently and horrifically—is what is normally taken for granted: the animal can be eaten while the human cannot be. Cora Diamond argues that meat eating is a core element of learning what it is to be human—that is, to be different from animal. “We learn what a human being is in—among other ways—sitting at a table where WE eat THEM. We are around the table and they are on it.”[27] In this sense, the fear of being food for another—of being the one on the table—is linked to a fear of not being human.

Interestingly, this fear does not seem to exist—at least, not in the same way—within the actual indigenous cultures portrayed in the cannibal-savage films. The anxieties that these films attempt to work through may only be those of the filmmakers and their audiences, not of the “savages” being filmed and represented.[28] In his work with the Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, anthropologist Eduardo Kohn finds that when the Runa hunt animals for food, they enter into a “web of relations” with those animals as well as everything else in our shared environment with them. “One’s ability to destroy other selves rests on and also highlights the fact that one is an ephemeral self—a self that can all too quickly cease being a self.”[29] Similarly, Tim Ingold argues that hunter-gatherer societies understand how “humans are, indeed, just like other animals … by virtue of their mutual involvement, as undivided centers of action and awareness, within a continuous life process.”[30] And Eduardo Viveiros de Castro notes that in some Amazonian societies, nonhumans are considered to have a sort of spirit or personhood equal to that possessed by humans—they simply have different bodies and thus different perspectives. He writes:

All of the inhabitants of the cosmos are people in their own department, potential occupants of the deictical “first person” position in cosmological discourse: interspecies relations are marked by a perpetual dispute surrounding this position, which is schematized in terms of the predator/prey polarity, agency or subjecthood being above all a capacity for predation.[31]

This inverts the common message of the cannibal-savage film, which is that human beings are little more than savage animals at heart. Instead, we are all people—though people whose basic mode of relating to each other is rooted in predation. What the cannibal-savage films cast as terrifying and horrific, then, is what the indigenous cultures they depict take as a given: we can all be eaten.


Adams, J. The Sexual Politics of Meat. New York: Continuum, 2010.

Brottman, Mikita. Meat Is Murder! An Illustrated Guide to Cannibal Culture. London: Creation Books, 2001.

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Clastres, Pierre. Archaeology of Violence. Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2010.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

DeVos, Andrew. “The More You Rape Their Senses, the Happier They Are: A History of Cannibal Holocaust.” In Cinema Inferno: Celluloid Explosions from the Cultural Margins, edited by Robert G. Weiner and John Cline, 76–100. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.

Diamond, Cora. “Eating Meat and Eating People.” Philosophy 53, no. 206 (1978): 465–79.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. New York: Urizen Books, 1978.

Fiddes, Nick. Meat: A Natural Symbol. London: Routledge, 1991.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Hobbs, Simon. “Animal Snuff.” In Snuff: Real Death and Screen Media, edited by Neil Jackson Shaun Kimber Johnny Walker, and Thomas Joseph Watson, 63–80. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Ingold, Tim. “Hunting and Gathering as Ways of Perceiving the Environment.” In Animals and the Human Imagination, edited by Aaron Gross and Anne Vallely, 32–54. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Jackson, Neil. “Cannibal Holocaust, Realist Horror, and Reflexivity.” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 21, no. 3 (2002): 32–55.

Jauregui, Carolina. “‘Eat It Alive and Swallow It Whole’: Resavoring Cannibal Holocaust as a Mockumentary.” Invisible Culture 7 (2004). (accessed January 6, 2016).

Kerekes, David, and David Slater. Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff. London: Creation Books, 1995.

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013.

Lippit, Akira. “The Death of an Animal.” Film Quarterly 56, no. 1 (2002): 9–22.

Morgan, Ed. “Cannibal Holocaust: Digesting and Re-digesting Law and Film.” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 16 (2006): 555–70.

Pachirat, Timothy. Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Petley, Julian. “Cannibal Holocaust and the Pornography of Death.” In The Spectacle of the Real, edited by Geoff King, 173–85. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2005.

Plumb, Ali. “Eli Roth Talks The Green Inferno.” Empire Online, February 5, 2013. (accessed December 9, 2015).

Van Ooijen, Erik. “Cinematic Shots and Cuts: On the Ethics and Semiotics of Real Violence in Film Fiction.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 3 (2001): 1–15.

Weston, Gavin, Jamie F. Lawson, Mwenza Blell, and John Hayton. “Anthropologists in Films: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’” American Anthropologist 117, no. 2 (2015): 316–28.

Wolfe, Cary, and Jonathan Elmer. “Subject to Sacrifice: Ideology, Psychoanalysis, and the Discourse of Species in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs.” boundary 2 22, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 141–70.

[1] The parameters of the genre are somewhat nebulous: not all films associated with what I am here calling “cannibal-savage” horror actually show graphic depictions of cannibalism; they are alternately referred to as “jungle” films, connecting them with a long tradition of Western obsession with the savage, the uncivilized, and the untamed. (For example, the colonial fiction of Edgar Wallace and H. Rider Haggard, Tarzan and Sheena stories, early travel documentaries, and adventure films.) Additionally, not all films of the genre contain scenes of animal slaughter, although they can be found in the most popular and best-known examples of the genre: Last Cannibal World (Ruggero Deodato, 1977); Mountain of the Cannibal God (Sergio Martino, 1978); Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980); Eaten Alive (Umberto Lenzi, 1980); and Cannibal Ferox (Umberto Lenzi, 1981).

[2] Cary Wolfe and Jonathan Elmer, “Subject to Sacrifice: Ideology, Psychoanalysis, and the Discourse of Species in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs,” boundary 2 22, no. 3 (Autumn 1995): 147.

[3] Gavin Weston et al. “Anthropologists in Films: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’” American Anthropologist 117, no. 2 (2015): 321.

[4] Erik Van Ooijen, “Cinematic Shots and Cuts: On the Ethics and Semiotics of Real Violence in Film Fiction,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 3 (2001): 10.

[5] Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 136.

[6] Quoted in Akira Lippit, “The Death of an Animal,” Film Quarterly 56, no. 1 (2002): 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] It is, in fact, exactly the same scene in these two films—the footage in Eaten Alive has been reused from the earlier film, along with another scene of a monkey being swallowed by a snake.

[9] Cf. Neil Jackson, “Cannibal Holocaust, Realist Horror, and Reflexivity,” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 21, no. 3 (2002): 32–55; Julian Petley, “Cannibal Holocaust and the Pornography of Death,” in The Spectacle of the Real, ed. Geoff King (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2005), 173–85; Carolina Jauregui, “‘Eat It Alive and Swallow It Whole’: Resavoring Cannibal Holocaust as a Mockumentary,” Invisible Culture 7 (2004), (accessed January 6, 2016); Ed Morgan, “Cannibal Holocaust: Digesting and Re-digesting Law and Film,” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 16 (2006): 555–70; David Kerekes and David Slater, Killing for Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film from Mondo to Snuff (London: Creation Books, 1995).

[10] Neil Jackson, “Cannibal Holocaust, Realist Horror, and Reflexivity,” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 21, no. 3 (2002): 41.

[11] Director Ruggero Deodato intentionally fostered rumors that several actors had been killed during the making of the film, and he was actually brought to trial for allegations that Cannibal Holocaust was in fact a snuff film. Charges were thrown out when the ostensibly murdered actors appeared in court (Andrew DeVos, “The More You Rape Their Senses, the Happier They Are: A History of Cannibal Holocaust,” in Cinema Inferno: Celluloid Explosions from the Cultural Margins, ed. Robert G. Weiner and John Cline (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 76–100). Interestingly, the court then replaced the murder charges with ones of animal cruelty, invoking a little-used law that had initially been intended to outlaw bullfighting; in court as well as in the film itself, animals are used as substitutes for humans.

[12] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 11.

[13] Mikita Brottman, Meat Is Murder! An Illustrated Guide to Cannibal Culture (London: Creation Books, 2001), 138.

[14] Cf. Simon Hobbs, “Animal Snuff,” in Snuff: Real Death and Screen Media, ed. Neil Jackson et al. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016); and van Ooijen, “Cinematic Shots and Cuts.”

[15] Both films, of course, would likely fall into the first category as well.

[16] Nick Fiddes, Meat: A Natural Symbol (London: Routledge, 1991), 89.

[17] Ibid., 114.

[18] Of course, many “civilized” cuisines contain raw meat dishes, such as sushi or steak tartare. However, these are still carefully prepared and are often associated with sophisticated culinary skills; the raw meat is thus still transformed in order to distinguish it from its original form. To eat a plate of sushi is quite different from eating an entire raw fish.

[19] Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat (New York: Continuum, 2010), 13.

[20] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (New York: Urizen Books, 1978), 120.

[21] Timothy Pachirat, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 251.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Quoted in van Ooijen, “Cinematic Shots and Cuts,” 11.

[24] Ibid., 11–12.

[25] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 28; italics in original.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” Philosophy 53, no. 206 (1978): 470.

[28] Director Eli Roth reports that in the process of filming his homage to the genre, The Green Inferno (2015), he showed Cannibal Holocaust to the tribe he had hired to act in his movie. According to Roth, “They thought it was the funniest thing that they had ever seen.” See Ali Plumb, “Eli Roth Talks The Green Inferno,” Empire Online (February 5, 2013), (accessed December 9, 2015), paragraph 6.

[29] Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 17.

[30] Tim Ingold, “Hunting and Gathering as Ways of Perceiving the Environment,” in Animals and the Human Imagination, ed. Aaron Gross and Anne Vallely (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 49.

[31] Quoted in Pierre Clastres, Archaeology of Violence (Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2010), 47.