Cannibal movies are a particularly taboo subgenre of horror cinema. In fact, a human eating another human on camera is one of the most gruesome acts of violence one can inflict — and many modern filmmakers won’t depict it directly. Cannibalism is off limits in modern pop culture.
Yet, as many horror fans know, there was a disturbing trend in the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s spawned by Italian horror filmmakers like Ruggero Deodato who made several films in the cannibal genre. This lead to what is called the “Golden Age” of cannibal films, if you can call it that, or the “Italian cannibal boom” and many of these movies went on to become cult classics. Here is a survey of that movement, the movies that pre-dated and a few that came after it.
In this exceedingly gruesome film that is widely considered the “first slasher movie,” a crazed Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses prepares a feast made of human flesh that is intended to resurrect the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. He gathers the items for his human stew one at a time—by chopping off a woman’s limbs while she bathes; by yanking a woman’s tongue right out of her mouth; and by ripping a woman’s brains right out her skull on a beach late at night. Although the special effects are horrible and the “blood” looks like bright red paint, the film is still nearly impossible to watch due to its exceeding violence. The director, Herschell Gordon Lewis, would go on to make several other zero-budget slasher films, earning himself the moniker “The Godfather of Gore.”
A superbly odd black comedy horror, Spider Baby stars Lon Chaney, Jr. as the caretaker of three siblings in a rotting mansion who all share the same genetic disease that makes them regress into animal primitivism once they reach puberty. The title refers to one of the three children, a girl in her late teens who eats bugs and moves with the grace of a spider. When a lawyer comes to investigate conditions at the mansion, he is murdered and dumped in the basement, where he is eaten by the deadly denizens there, for apparently there are far more than three family members suffering from this genetic disease.
Released in Italy as Pigsty, this film unravels two related stories, only one of which involves cannibalism. In that segment, a man who wanders amid the volcanic wastelands around Mt. Etna joins a band of murderous cannibals. At the end as he faces execution, he proclaims: “I killed my father, I ate human flesh and I quiver with joy.” Time Out says “The story is about the human capacity of destruction and a rebellion against the social prerequisites implied against it.”
Distinct from the rest of the early 1970s Italian cannibal movies by the fact that the producers were somehow able to snag two famous American actors—Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach—the plot involves a girl and her brother flying to New Guinea to investigate why her husband disappeared in the jungle there. But upon arrival, they realize to their horror he was kidnapped cannibal tribes. Film Fanatic says the film features “dense jungles, camera shots zooming in on menacing wildlife, native tribesmen (and women) enacting bestial rituals, and Andress heaving her glistening bosom while making heated proclamations.”
This is perhaps the only film on this list where the entire world practices cannibalism without even realizing it. In a dark, dirty, disease-ridden, overpopulated world sometime in a dystopian future, food has grown so scarce that the government issues people crackers called “Soylent Green,” which are ostensibly made from soybeans and are protein-rich. But to his horror, Charlton Heston realizes that the main ingredient in Soylent Green is not soybeans.
This Canadian horror flick in the grindhouse tradition tells the story of a couple that goes on a remote honeymoon trip. The cannibal part of the movie deals with an urban legend about three alluring women that go by the names Anthea, Clarissa, and Leona who use their sexual charm to lure men back to their places and then eat them alive. In “is this a dream, or is this reality” kind of fashion, the young couple try to come to terms in a comedic but also dark way with whether or not this is a real event.
Widely considered one of the most influential horror films of all time, this original film in what would be a series of knockoffs and sequels made back more than three hundred times what it cost to produce. The plot involves a group of friends who are abducted and tortured by a family of cannibals en route to visiting an old homestead. The main villain in the family is a tall mute man named “Leatherface” because be wears a mask made of human skin, a detail that was thought to be inspired by the real-life story of Wisconsin killer Ed Gein. In fact, the opening credits claim that events were based on a true story—a lie that helped cement the film’s success.
It’s almost impossible to explain why this movie involves cannibalism without spoiling the ending, but all we’ll say is that Don Johnson (Miami Vice) and his dog—who is able to communicate with him telepathically in English—travel over a ravaged postnuclear wasteland trying to survive. Johnson meets a hot young lady friend who, although she meets his physical needs, is far more annoying and less witty and insightful than the dog. At the end, when food is extremely scarce, Johnson must decide whether it’s the girl or the dog who gets eaten.
In this trash classic by John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray), a woman and her nurse who murdered the woman’s husband are arrested and given a choice—they can either go to prison or be exiled to a place called Mortville, an impoverished pit of sleaze ruled over by the corrupt Queen Carlotta. They choose Mortville over prison. In the end, the girls join the other peasants in helping to overthrow the despotic queen, at which point they all eat her.
Released in Italy as Ultimo mondo cannibale and in other English versions as Cannibal The Last Survivor and Jungle Holocaust, this is the first in director Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Trilogy,” the most famous of which is 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. Ironically, it was originally intended to be a sequel to Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 cannibal film Man From Deep River, but Lenzi dropped out from the project during pre-production.
Jungle Holocaust tells the story of an oil prospector whose plane gets damaged upon landing on a remote island. When they finally find the oil prospecting camp for which they were searching, they realize that all the workers have been massacred and eaten by natives. He is able to take a girl hostage and escape the cannibals, but will he find his plane in time to escape?
A superficially friendly seeming brother-sister duo of farmers kidnap travelers, bury them alive, kills them, smokes them in a smokehouse, grinds up their flesh, and then sells it as sausage at a roadside stand, The film was originally intended to be a straight horror film directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame until Hooper balked at the odd script. Much of the original scripts more extreme elements, such as bestiality, were purged. But the final version contains a chainsaw duel not in the original script that may have been a sly middle finger to Hooper. Roger Ebert says, “Motel Hell is not nearly as gruesome as the films it satirizes, and it finds the right stylistic note for its central characters, who are simple, cheerful, smiling, earnest, and resourceful cannibals.”
Like so many other films in the cannibal canon, Eaten Alive deals with the struggles between primitive and modern societies, and as in so many other cases, the primitive society in question just happens to reside in the jungles of New Guinea. The plot involves a young woman who teams up with a soldier of fortune to find her missing sister, only to encounter a bizarre jungle cult led by a white man who for some reason thought it would be a smart idea to locate his congregation in the middle of a cannibal-infested jungle. There are endless scenes of animal torture, most of them stock footage from previous cannibal movies such as Sacrifice!, Jungle Holocaust, and Slave of the Cannibal God.
The second and easily the most influential film in director Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Trilogy,” Cannibal Holocaust is actually two films: The first involves a professor in a rainforest on a rescue mission, and the second is the film footage he finds by a lost documentary crew in the middle of that rainforest. The violence is graphic: There are scenes of castration, a live abortion, a woman raped with a dildo, and endless consumption of human flesh. The murder scenes were so realistic that the director was arrested 10 days after the film’s premiere and charged with murdering three of his own actors. The charges were eventually dropped, but that should give you an idea of how graphic the film is.
Veteran Hollywood actor John Saxon stars as a Vietnam vet who was hoping for a peaceful retirement in Atlanta until an ex-combat partner shows up to inform him about rampant cannibalism in Vietnamese jungles. But before he can take another breath, it appears that the cannibals have already infested Atlanta—because cannibalism can now be transmitted via a virus when you bite someone—so the two war vets must now plot for a safe escape from what Saxon had hoped would be a safe retirement space.
Three friends set out to disprove cannibalism on a trip to the Amazonian jungle, where they meet two men trying to escape a vicious cannibal tribe. There are several scenes of graphic animal cruelty featuring genuine footage—a snake eats a rodent, a tiger eats a monkey, and an alligator, boar, and turtle are all killed and gutted on camera. Little White Lies says that Cannibal Ferox remains a hard watch, playing a duplicitous game with our own sense of moral orientation as it both feeds and condemns our desire for the taboo sensations promised by its title.”
A dark comedy about eating human flesh and selling it at a restaurant, this movie was a sleeper hit when it first came out and has gone on to create quite the cult following. The plot involves Paul and Mary Bland—an aptly named puritanical married couple who find themselves surrounded by late-1970s hedonism—whose only dream is to escape city decadence and open a restaurant out in the country. They decided to kill two birds with one stone by placing a swingers’ ad in a local paper. When people reply, they are murdered and given to Raoul, a Mexican criminal whose plan for corpse disposal involves cannibalism. The Blands are able to both put a dent in urban degeneracy as well as open their dream restaurant in the country.
With an original Italian title of Schiave bianche – Violenza in Amazzonia and also released in English as White Slave, Amazonia tells the tale of a woman whose parents were kidnapped and killed in the Amazon seeks vengeance against a tribe of indigenous headhunters, only to wind up kidnapped herself. In the end, though, she realizes that her parents’ murders were arranged by another family member as a result of a land dispute.
Four friends in search of a lost professor venture into the jungle, where they are forced to square off against a group of murderous treasure hunters who are killing natives. Although it bore no relation to the original Cannibal Holocaust except for the theme of cannibalism, Green Inferno was one of several films to also be released as Cannibal Holocaust II in an effort to capitalize on the original’s success. Although the film shows no actual cannibalism, it does feature a 12-second clip where a monkey is actually killed with a poison blowdart. According to Mondo Digital, the protagonists “get to wrestle snakes, wallow in mud, and dodge carnivorous fish that wriggle up people’s butts.”
It’s rare to get a movie that features an entire plot synopsis in its title, but this would be one such case. A group of “Piranha Women” who live in the “Avocado Jungle”—which for some reason is located near the dry desert wastelands of San Bernardino, CA—subsist on the flesh of men they seduce and kill. The US government sees this not as a threat to male survival, but to the valuable avocado groves in the jungle, so they send a feminist professor into the jungle in the hopes that she can persuade them to relocate near Malibu.
More Movies with Cannibal References
- Fires on the Plain (1959) this horrifying movie from Japan depicts the violence of war and cannibalism.
- Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) is based on a play by Tennessee Williams, and the film makes references to taboo subjects such as incest and cannibalism.
- Tenderness of the Wolves (1973) this German movie is based on real serial killer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann. Fritz killed and possibly ate dozens of boys and men.
- The Hills Have Eyes (1977) features evil cannibals.
- Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) in what seems to be a heartwarming tale of Southern women bonding over tales of misfortune and love gone wrong takes a dark cannibalistic turn when it is strongly implied that the body of one of the woman’s abusive husbands became an ingredient in a charming little cafe’s barbecue sauce.
- The Silence of the Lambs (1993) is a psychological horror story about Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal and serial killer.
- American Psycho (2000) while the movie itself does not depict cannibalism, the serial killer that stars as the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, eats people in the book version and this is implicitly suggested in the film as well.
- In My Skin (2002) cinema from the French that features unwatchable scenes of self-cannibalism.