A pair of bare feet walk on the green earth, followed by a smaller set of bare feet. The camera pans up to a middle-aged man and a young boy, both adorned in tribal jungle dress, walking through the jungle. A loud roar, and the camera shows us a yellow tractor destroying neighboring trees. These two contrasts of leaving footprints on the earth open Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno.
Eli Roth is one of the few horror directors who likes to address social issues while doing it through gut-wrenching, mind-bending horror and gore. His film The Green Inferno is no different. Whereas in Hostel I & II, he explored capitalism vs morality, here Roth examines activism vs preservation, as exampled against the backdrop of cannibalism.
Lorenzo Isso plays Justine, a college freshman who becomes enamored with the older Alejandro (Ariel Levy), an activist who is raising a group to go to the Amazon rainforest to protest the destruction of South America’s virgin landscape. The plan is simple: gather some likeminded people, film the logging company and its militia (yes, militia) with their camera phones, and shoot the image simultaneously around the world via satellite.
In order to sneak in so close to the logging team they have to get in unseen the best they can. They do this by acquiring similar looking yellow jumpsuits and hardhats. If they can accomplish this, these college students from New York will help prevent the destruction of the South American rainforest and show the world that preservation is worth facing death. What follows is an intense scene where the viewer wonders if these activists are ready to lay down their lives.
Later the young people are on the way home in their jet when their only engine on the single-engine plane fails, and they crash. Soon after, the remaining survivors are captured by an indigenous tribe who bring the students—still wearing the logging-company yellow jumpsuits—into their village. Of course, neither the New Yorkers nor the natives speak the same language, but it doesn’t matter: what is clear is that the tribe is going to preserve their culture, even at the cost of the lives of these WASP activists who intended to do the same.
It’s more than just miscommunication here, but misperception. Alejandro wants to feel important, like he’s making a difference, and although Justine comes along, the viewer is a bit unsure if she wants to go along to make Alejandro happy, if she really wants to make some change in a region she only reads about, or if she wants to shake the coattails of her senator father and be her own person. These are all noble ideals. However, so are all the ideals of young, impressionable college students who see their whole lives before them, and have to jump now at an opportunity that may never come again. The tribal village (who we soon learn are cannibals) know only the life they’ve ever known, and truly want to preserve, and seeing the latest newcomers wearing the all-too-familiar clothing of those destroying their civilization only enhances their resolve.
Roth keeps the intensity goes by having the tribe painted red, which looks eerily similar to the blood on the survivors. When it becomes apparent that they are prisoners awaiting their turns at becoming the next meal, they are faced with desperation in the possibility of escape or being caught and tortured before being eaten. As stated earlier the idea here is that this isolated, uncontacted group of aboriginal people know their days are numbered, but are trying to keep their way of life. The cannibalism in the film is always aimed at outsiders threatening their civilization, and never turned at themselves. However, when the young protagonists arrive in the jungle, things constantly get worse for them because they really don’t know what they’re doing. They not activists so much as they are students projecting the idea of activism. If they knew this was the culture they were preserving, would they have been as ambitious to undertake this mission? Which one is deadlier: the logging company destroying countless numbers of precious trees, and hence ecosystems, for money, or a primitive people who not only approve, but desire the consumption of the flesh of foreigners who threaten their way of life? Like with Roth’s other films there is no easy answer, yet instead of just letting us ponder the result, he shows us in the most graphic, uncomfortable ways that what is at stake does not have an easy solution. He makes us think. The Green Inferno is visceral and disturbing just as movies sometimes need to be.