Shocking audiences and redefining the boundaries of what is acceptable on-screen has always been an important part of the horror genre’s history. Horror fans are drawn back to the genre by the promise that the next film will bring something new to the table. There has been a shift in film etiquette in recent decades, and what was considered shocking in the 1930s may be laughable in 2018, while audiences of today would be appalled by what was considered mainstream entertainment at that time.
On-screen taboos such as cannibalism continue to enrage viewers. Despite the fact that we’ve seen cannibalism in horror films for decades, the idea still has a primal and unsettling quality to it, and even those with the strongest stomachs can be shocked by an effective performance by a director.
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Italy produced the most controversial cannibal movies. In these exploitation films, people from the “civilized” world were kidnapped and eaten by the natives of South America. Only a few extreme examples of this genre remain today because of both their staged violence and the animal cruelty they included in order to increase their notoriety.
In addition to the cannibalism depicted in these films, cannibalism has appeared in other horror films. Played for laughs, symbolism, or good ol’ fashioned frights, horror is all three of these things at once. To that end, we’ve selected some of the best cannibal films ever filmed. Once you’ve done that, be sure to peruse our lists of the best horror movies about possession, the best horror movies about exploding heads, and the best horror sequels. It’s a good thing you’re not starving…
11. Trouble Every Day (2001)
Known more for her work on arthouse dramas like Beau Travail than cannibal horror films, director Claire Denis made the frightening Trouble Every Day in 2001. Betty Blue’s Beatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo star as a cannibalistic woman and an American man who is infatuated with one other, respectively. It’s a leisurely, artistic horror film that’s in no way your typical scarefest. However, this uncompromising blend of sex and violence will be appreciated by those who enjoy unusual, daring filmmaking.
10. Cannibal Apocalypse (1980)
Hollywood has long been known to influence Italy’s film industry, as evidenced by the numerous rip-offs and replicas that have resulted from films like Star Wars and Jaws. Antonio Margheriti intended to capitalize on the success of Apocalypse Now by making a film named Cannibal Apocalypse in 1980, during the height of Italy’s cannibal craze. Two Vietnam soldiers return home afflicted with a cannibal virus and go on a rampage of man-eating mayhem on the streets of Atlanta in this ridiculous but very amusing cult movie. John Saxon (Black Christmas, A Nightmare on Elm Street) is the star, and the disco/funk soundtrack is out of this world. What else could you possibly want?
9. We Are What We Are (2010)
In Mexico’s We Are What We Are, the cannibals aren’t only a menace, they’re the major characters. After a father dies, his family is forced to fend for themselves after he had been the breadwinner in the household. So they begin kidnapping people from the nearby town, with varied degrees of success, as the police begin to realize what is going on. Although the picture is dark and dramatic and perhaps suffers from a lack of likeable characters, it is beautifully directed by Jorge Michel Grau and will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In 2013, there was an excellent American remake of the same name.
8. The Green Inferno (2013)
The iconic Italian cannibal flicks of the early 1980s, which were known for their jungle setting and Third World horrors, have not been attempted to be remade in any significant way in recent decades. The Green Inferno, directed by Eli Roth in 2013, was an attempt to bring the subgenre up to speed for a new generation unfamiliar with the prior cult classics. Roth injects a political element into his film, like he did in the Hostel series, by sending a group of idealistic young environmentalists into the Amazon rainforest to oppose the logging company’s devastation of historic tribes. Of course, one of these tribes will eventually catch them and serve them as meal. In the Green Inferno, Roth switches between dark satire, collegiate humor, and grisly flesh-eating shocks in a jumbled narrative style. But the gore is high, and it’s good to see that the jungle-based cannibal thriller has some life left in it for horror enthusiasts.
7. Ravenous (1999)
One of those weird genre mash-ups that doesn’t work, yet nevertheless does, Ravenous is the case. Despite its darkly comical tone, this horror/western was a box office dud due to a slew of technical issues during production. Yet this really enjoyable film has grown in popularity over the years and is certainly worth seeing again. “Colquhoun” (Robert Carlyle) tells Guy Pearce (Guy Pearce) stories about having to consume human flesh in order to survive the winter in a remote military outpost during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. This is when it starts to become weirder and darker, but it’s also brilliantly directed by Antonia Bird (after the original director was sacked during production), and there’s an amazing score by Michael Nyman and Blur’s Damon Albarn, who are responsible for some of the film’s best moments.
6. Parents (1989)
In 1989, this comedic horror oddity was directed by Bob Balaban, well known for his roles in great films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Gosford Park, and, most recently, Isle of Dogs. When Michael, 10, is persuaded that his parents are cannibals, he sets out to prove them wrong. Because Mary Beth Hurt and Randy Quaid’s parents aren’t quite the flesh-eating monsters that their son Michael imagines them to be, the film’s success is largely due to this uncertainty among the viewers. Although Parents is a humorous parody of 1950s suburban life, it never takes itself too seriously, earning a devoted fanbase over the years.
5. Hannibal (2001)
We never saw Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter cannibalize anything in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, despite the fact that he was one of the most well-known actors to play the role. Following up with Ridley Scott’s Hannibal surely wasn’t the case. Hannibal has a more overt approach than Silence did. One of the most insane moments ever seen in a high-profile film is the culmination of this absurd, over-the-top, and enjoyable film. It has been revealed that corrupt Justice Department official Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) has been captured by Lecter, drugged, and has had the top of his head surgically removed. A portion of his brain is then cooked and served up as a meal to him as he is tied to a chair and completely ignorant that his brain has been exposed.
4. The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
There are only a handful of remakes that actually improve upon the original. Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 original is scarier, bloodier, and more intense than the original. In the New Mexico desert, as the family’s automobile breaks down, a horde of scary, mountain-dwelling cannibal mutants hunts them down. They’re genuinely frightening, thanks in large part to the amazing unsettling make-up effects created by the vfx experts KNB. These mutants go after, kill, and devour their prey one by one.
3. Cannibal Ferox (1981)
Even if Cannibal Ferox isn’t the best Italian cannibal film, it’s one of the most shocking in the genre. Even if it doesn’t have Cannibal Holocaust’s level of sophistication, it does include some of the most brutal and disturbing sequences in the genre. However, director Umberto Lenzi and effects master Gianetto de Rossi deliver some truly nasty scenes in this film, which follows the same general premise as the others (First-World explorers are captured and eaten by Third-World cannibals). However implausible it may appear, the claim that Cannibal Ferox was “banned in 31 countries” in marketing materials does hint at what may be found in the book. Not recommended for the faint of heart.
2. Raw (2016)
It’s no surprise that some of the best recent horror films have come out of France, and Raw is no exception. The film’s gorier cannibal scenes caused fainting and walkouts at festival viewing, earning it considerable notoriety. Despite the fact that it has several impressive sequences, the film is much more than a collection of grisly shocks. This coming-of-age tale, directed by Julia Ducournau, follows a vegetarian called Justine as she begins veterinary school and begins to have cannibalistic desires. Garance Marillier’s portrayal as Justine, a woman who can’t resist the temptation to consume human flesh, is a standout in Raw, which has a bizarre, dreamy ambiance and surprising dark comedy.
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The cannibal classic by Ruggero Deodato continues to be a landmark in the Italian cannibal cycle. Although it’s certainly the best of its kind, it’s also one of the most difficult films to watch because of its unique approach to storytelling. In the first half, an American anthropologist travels to the Amazon jungle to investigate the disappearance of a team of documentary filmmakers. That they were all slain out there is revealed by him, and the rest of the movie shows us their reels of film, as the indigenous are manipulated and tortured in order to acquire some sensationalist video. It’s only a matter of time before everything goes horribly wrong. Documentary filmmakers and the “civilized” world’s influence on distant populations are examined in Cannibal Holocaust at times. On the other hand, it stands on its own as a nasty, exploitative film. Some very horrifying scenes occur when the filmmakers are turned into supper by cannibal tribes as a result of their inexcusable depiction of animal cruelty. Films like The Blair Witch Project were influenced by Deodato’s amazing found footage method, and the film still has the potential to shock and offend nearly 40 years later.