Two years after it premiered to the hoots, hollers, and horrified walkouts of festival audiences, Eli Roth’s barf-bag throwback The Green Inferno is finally making its way into American theaters. Enjoying this rancid slab of red meat depends not just on an appetite for slop, but also a taste for sloppy leftovers. Like every one of the filmmaker’s prior features—Cabin Fever, his two Hostel movies, and Aftershock (which he co-wrote and starred in, but didn’t direct)—The Green Inferno sends a gaggle of boorish college kids out of their protective bubble of privilege, where certain doom awaits. The scenery in Roth’s movies may change, from the Deep South to Eastern Europe to Chile, but the warning remains the same: Stay where you belong, ugly Americans, or the world will eat you alive.
In this case, Roth makes the threat quite literal, with a spiritual tribute to the most infamous of midnight movies, the Italian jungle massacre to rule them all, Cannibal Holocaust. Roth has long advertised his admiration for that repugnant cult classic, going as far as securing its director, Ruggero Deodato, for a cameo appearance in Hostel: Part II. Yet The Green Inferno, named for Holocaust’s snuff-film-within-the-film, never approaches the appalling power of its predecessor, which can still send even the most jaded of genre buffs sprinting for the exit. It’s probably a good thing that Roth hasn’t attempted to top Deodato’s orgy of simulated atrocities (and un-simulated animal slaughter). All the same, there’s little fun in watching him cannibalize his own work instead, simply scribbling “flesh-eating savages” into his Mad Lib screenwriting template.
The target this time is supposed false altruism, with Roth subjecting a group of pretentious twentysomething radicals to a nasty comeuppance. Inspired by the passionate soap-box speechifying of the charismatic Alejandro (Ariel Levy), diplomat’s daughter Justine (Roth’s wife, Lorenza Izzo) joins several student activists, many played by the cast of Aftershock, on a trip to the deepest reaches of the Peruvian jungle, where they plan to save an indigenous tribe from a lawless, uncaring lumber company. Because this is a Roth production, in which all exotic foreign lands are death traps for Yankee tourists, the kids wind up in the clutches of the very natives they were trying to protect. One guess as to how the locals like to deal with outsiders.
After the interminable setup, which mainly exists to engender ill will toward the sacrificial lambs, The Green Inferno arrives upon its single memorable moment, a spectacularly gross and harrowing death scene. Here, and only here, does Roth come close to achieving the primal horror of the genre he’s attempting to revive. Gorehounds will slurp it down and ask for more. Yet once that brutal “highlight” has come and gone, the intensity flags. Roth keeps backsliding into lowbrow comic hijinks, like a “Scooby Doo plan” involving a hidden bag of marijuana. And he fails to capture the lush beauty of his rainforest setting; The Green Inferno looks flat and ugly, a far cry from the Werner Herzog adventures the director keeps citing as a visual influence. There’s also the inherent racism of the whole cannibal genre, which Roth can’t really mitigate, even by convincing the actual population of a remote Amazon village to play his hungry tribesmen. (Because they had never seen a movie before, the producers showed the villagers Cannibal Holocaust, which has to count as some kind of crime against cinephilia, international relations, and basic human decency.)
The Green Inferno fancies itself a gory skewering of what Roth has repeatedly referred to as “slacktivism.” But do his heroes/victims, who at one point put themselves directly in the line of fire, really qualify? Roth can’t seem to tell the difference between bitching about a problem on Facebook and actually flying across the world to put yourself in the thick of a conflict. And so his film just plays like another smug cautionary tale: Just as Hostel basically warned its audience to never leave the country, The Green Inferno imparts the charming message that getting involved in causes is for suckers and phonies. “Activism is so fucking gay,” says an eye-rolling co-ed (played by pop star Sky Ferreira) early in the movie. Given that she doesn’t end up on the menu, one can’t help but assume that Roth agrees. Longpig would go down smooth compared to this guy’s worldview.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit The Green Inferno’s spoiler space.