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More than Just a Piece of Meat: The Evolution of the Cannibal Film

Do you have the appetite for these movies? 

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  • Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures

Cannibal films have long dished up a buffet of cinematic offerings. In the 1970s, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) portrayed cannibal families who snatched up unsuspecting travelers for dinner in rural regions of the United States.

The ‘70s and ‘80s also saw a boom of Italian exploitation films from directors like Roggero Deodato, who made the notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Such films often focused on white people encountering tribes of native cannibals in remote jungle locales and have been criticized for their extreme violence, racism, and misogyny.

Subtler were the notes of cannibalism in Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973), which dealt with the topic as an institutionalized response to climate change and diminishing food supply, set in a dystopian 2022.

And because a palate cleanser is sometimes necessary, the ’80s cooked up dark comedies like Eating Raoul (1982) and Parents (1989), showing us cannibalism can be fun, too. In the ‘90s, dessert was served with the release of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), starring Anthony Hopkins as everyone’s favorite cannibal: Hannibal Lecter. More dark cannibal comedy was plated with the release of Delicatessen (1991) and Ravenous (1999).

The progressive dinner continues with a meaty stew of movies from the 2000s, demonstrating the sub-genre's adaptability and ongoing evolution. Following are recent cannibal films that bring a taste of something new to the table.

Related: 13 Terrifying Real-Life Cannibals Who Will Make You Sick to Your Stomach

Fresh (2022)

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  • Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures

Modern dating can be a real nightmare. Mimi Cave’s directorial debut focuses on one young woman’s attempt to navigate the dating world and its sexism and utter disappointments. When we meet Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones), she’s on a terrible date with a man who points out her flaws. Soon, she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan), who is charming until he lures her into a brutal cannibal situation where she’s next on the menu. Women are a food source for men in this meditation on what is taken from women in the dating and marriage process. Let this film be a reminder that the next hot guy who talks to you in the produce section at the grocery store is probably a cannibal out shopping for a side dish.

Gretel and Hansel (2020)

Gretel & Hansel
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  • Photo Credit: Orion Pictures

Cannibalism might seem appealing if the meat has been magicked into a candied yam or glazed ham—and you’re hungry enough. Oz Perkins’ retelling of the classic fairy tale utilizes cannibalism as an answer to starvation and potential source of power for a young woman in a world with few options. After teenage Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her little brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) are thrown out of their home, Gretel rejects her only job offer at a brothel and the siblings take to the woods. They’re starving when they happen upon the house of a witch (Alice Krige) where they’re offered a marvelous spread. Gretel has an opportunity to explore her innate spiritual gifts though she is suspicious of the source of the meals and must decide whether she will stay.

The Platform (2019)

The Platform
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  • Photo Credit: Basque Films

Fine dining isn’t for everyone. Cannibalism is a response to food scarcity in Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s Spanish horror film, which imagines a prison as a “vertical self-management center.” A fancy buffet is cooked in a gourmet kitchen at the top of a tower and lowered down on a platform each day. Prisoners on upper levels eat as much as they want, leaving those at the bottom to starve or resort to exploring new, fingers-and-toes kinds of treats. The protagonist, Goreng (Iván Massagué), finds himself on a lower level with a cannibal—and struggles with whether to eat or be eaten.

The Bad Batch (2016)

The Bad Batch
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  • Photo Credit: VICE Films

The sophomore film by Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), imagines an apocalyptic hellscape where society’s rejects are forced to live in a lawless desert. Protagonist Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is captured by a band of body-building cannibals led by Miami Man (Jason Momoa), a surprisingly proficient portrait artist in addition to savage killer. The cannibals cut off and consume Arlen’s leg. After a harrowing escape, she finds her way to the makeshift Town of Comfort led by The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a cultish leader who throws frequent, psychedelic raves. Jim Carrey plays a mute desert wanderer. The film examines the falsehoods of the American Dream and cost of survival, told through a drawn-out, semi-plotless dreamscape that allows time to wonder: Would I resort to cannibalism if Momoa drove toward me across the desert, shirtless on a motorcycle, and asked? The answer, irrefutably, is yes.

Raw (2016)

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  • Photo Credit: Petit Film

College is a difficult time for many and can give rise to bad habits and stress eating. Julia Ducournau’s French horror film focuses on Justine (Garance Marillier), a first-year veterinary school student who is reserved, seeing herself as average, when she moves to campus and struggles to fit in. Born to a family of vegetarians, she’s never eaten meat until she’s forced to consume raw rabbit liver as part of a hazing ritual. She soon develops unusual cravings for human flesh; as she indulges, she gains confidence and sexual prowess. She’s definitely “that roommate” who leaves questionable meat in the fridge and lets it spoil.

We Are What We Are (2013)

We Are What We Are
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  • Photo Credit: Belladonna Productions

Family traditions can be cumbersome and revolve around meals you’d rather not eat. It’s not so different for the family in Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are, a remake of the 2010 Mexican film of the same name. After the death of the family matriarch, the father (Bill Sage) adopts strict parenting of his daughters Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers), who must take on their mother’s murder-cooking role to support the family’s fleshy diet. The necessity of cannibalism is explained through reflections on the importance of tradition: it’s simply what they’ve always done.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

The Hills Have Eyes
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  • Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The universally important horror film rule to stay on the main road is highlighted when an unsuspecting family takes a shortcut into cannibal territory in Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 film. The family (including actor Ted Levine, known for his role as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs) is attacked by a band of mutant cannibals while driving across the New Mexico desert. The setting near an old mining town and mid-century nuclear weapons testing site is adorned with faded American flags. The cannibals’ physical deformities have been caused by radiation from the testing. Though they blame the government for their monstrosity, they are ruthlessly violent and quick to indulge in human meat.

Wrong Turn (2003 and 2021)

Wrong Turn
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  • Photo Credit: Constantin Film

“Wrong turn” is the understatement of the century in the first installation of the seven-film Wrong Turn franchise, which features an inbred cannibal family in rural America. College-age travelers (Eliza Dushku, Desmond Harrington) take a shortcut only to be attacked in a remote wooded area by a family of cannibals that shows no mercy. The 2021 remake (also titled Wrong Turn) turns the original premise on its head, with liberal, young adult tourists (Charlotte Vega, Adain Bradley) as the outsiders who get lost and ignorantly assume, despite their college degrees and work at non-profit organizations, that the locals hunting near the Appalachian Trail are out to kill them. Though the locals are indeed violent, they are notably not portrayed as cannibals and briefly have our sympathy.

Still hungry? Other recent cannibal film offerings include: Dumplings (2004), Hannibal Rising (2007), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Hunger (2009), Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal (2012), The Green Inferno (2014), and Bone Tomahawk (2015). For additional reading on the topic, check out Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.s’ book, Eaters of the Dead: Myths and Realities of Cannibal Monsters.

Eaters of the Dead by Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.

Eaters of the Dead: Myths and Realities of Cannibal Monsters

By Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.

Featured image from "Fresh" via Legendary Pictures.