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The Green Inferno: Exploitative or exploitation?

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The Green Inferno faces criticism for its depiction of indigenous tribes, but is that just what exploitation cinema does best?

Later this year, Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno will be released in cinemas across the UK, marking Roth’s first time in the director’s chair since Hostel: Part II and promising to be his most terrifying horror venture yet. Roth hopes to outdo the cannibal exploitation films of the 70s and 80s, but his homage has raised an interesting question: while most exploitation films simply exploit their subject matter, do cannibal exploitation films (yes, it has its own sub-genre) go further into exploiting the (reportedly) real tribes they film by portraying them as savages?

Exploitation films exploit a subject matter or trend to a heightened degree, hoping to gain publicity through ensuing controversy

Exploitation films are generally synonymous with low budget and independent productions which, owing to their lesser ability to market and advertise their films, are seen to exploit a subject matter or trend to a heightened degree, hoping to gain the sought publicity through ensuing controversy. They can arise in the wake of an event, riding off the back of a popular film’s success, or (as with the cannibal exploitation films) from shock and uproar, making them a must-see picture.

This does not, by any means, indicate that all exploitation films are empty vehicles with nothing to say. There have been times when it has taken an exploitation film’s brazen attitude to punch through our expectations of cinema and open up previously unseen creative possibilities, examples being Night of the Living Dead, The Wild One, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cannibal Holocaust. The latter is of particular interest when considering Eli Roth’s Green Inferno – Cannibal Holocaust’s working title was in fact The Green Inferno (a fairly on-the-nose reference on Roth’s part), and Roth’s reasons for wanting to link his film with Cannibal Holocaust seem obvious; Cannibal Holocaust is an exceptional film, and the publicity generated by its controversy still echoes in popular culture today.

cannibal holocaust

Famously, ten days after its premiere, Cannibal Holocaust’s director, Ruggero Deodato, was arrested and eventually charged with having murdered the actors involved in the film. Owing to a brilliant but ultimately unfortunate publicity stunt, Deodato’s innocence hung in the balance longer than necessary, as the actor’s had signed contracts promising to disappear from public life in order to create controversy around the film. Needless to say, Deodato proved his innocence, but the film’s reputation as a genuine snuff film still entered horror legend.

Most exploitation films are often so lurid and extreme that they’re clearly fantasy – they wish to shock, but rarely convince

Now, if it is the portrayal that one finds exploitative, then there is one important trope of cannibal films – which features in Cannibal Holocaust – to consider: it is the Western interlopers who are portrayed as the real savages, and the cannibalistic natives serve as comeuppance for the explorers’ civilised evils and snobbery. Therefore, it would be hard to say these films are exploitative of the tribes on the grounds of portrayal – they are rarely the ultimate bad guys, while the portrayal of the West is usually much worse.

Moreover, as with most films under the umbrella of exploitation, they are often so lurid and extreme that they are clearly fantasy – they wish to shock, but rarely convince. Though Cannibal Holocaust is a rare exception (it did effectively utilise a realistic found footage style), we can already see from the crisp, HD Green Inferno trailer and recognisable cast that Eli Roth is not attempting to create realism. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will leave the cinema genuinely believing Peru is occupied to cannibals.

More on Cannibal Holocaust here: Ten great films with questionable messages

the green infero

There remains, however, a question of whether even filming the tribe in the first place is exploitative, especially when considering that the publicity for The Green Inferno claims a previously un-filmed tribe appears on-camera. But it is important to remember that exploitation films exist to inflate that truth (or even be completely untruthful) in their publicity. Exploitation’s history would suggest that we are most likely being fed sensationalism and, considering the film’s genre, that’s fine. If it wasn’t sensational, it wouldn’t be a good exploitation film.

It doesn’t seem reasonable to single out The Green Inferno purely because of the way in which the tribal footage is used

If we speculate that Roth has in fact used a very remote tribe to star in his film, then it could be considered exploitative on the grounds that it could have disrupted their way of life. However, it would seem no more or less exploitative than if, say, National Geographic filmed them. The only solid basis for concern regarding the exploitation of the tribe is that they were filmed; in that case, one has to call into question all filming of remote tribes. Considering the volume of documentarians who have made films about indigenous peoples, it doesn’t seem reasonable to single out The Green Inferno, or indeed any cannibal film, purely because of the way in which the footage is used is seen to be a less admirable endeavour.

Exploitation films are most definitely not for everyone; they are bold and unashamed. While they definitely exploit their subject, they don’t exploit those involved, and The Green Inferno would seem to be no different. No doubt the reiteration that the tribe has never been filmed before is a trap laid to incite controversy – complaints and protests are all just free publicity to the exploitation director. The only way in which Roth may be deserving of rebuke will be if The Green Inferno turns out to not be an entirely repugnant, bloody, visceral, pile of gore, as anything less would be a poor representation of the gloriously bad taste world of exploitation cinema.


More on horror: CGI is killing the modern horror movie


Featured image: Exclusive Media Group

Inset images: Grindhouse Releasing; Exclusive Media Group


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