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Eat or Be Eaten

[whitespace] Ravenous
Michael Fairaizl

K-Rations Were Never Like This: Robert Carlyle dines on long pig in 'Ravenous.'

From 'Night of the Living Dead' to 'Ravenous,' movies about cannibalism leave us with a queasy feeling in our guts

By Richard von Busack

CANNIBALISM, LIKE morality, is always for other people. Writing about cannibals, the 16th-century essayist Montaigne compared the bad manners of his European readers to the virtues of the cannibals: At least cannibals eat what they kill. In Montaigne's day, criminals were tortured and maimed while alive; thus: "I conceive that there is more barbarity in eating [that is, tearing] a man alive ... than to roast and eat him after he is dead."

Warming to the subject, Montaigne cites ancient philosophers who justified cannibalism in emergencies. He goes further and praises the captive savage's bravery when faced with the possibility of becoming his enemy's dinner. Some captives sing death songs about how they've eaten the relatives of their captors.

They exhibit true nobility, the philosopher suggests: "In plain truth, these men are very savage in comparison of us; of necessity, they must either be absolutely so or else we are savages; for there is a vast difference between their manners and ours." Montaigne's humanism flows into Shakespeare. In The Tempest, Shakespeare created Caliban (an anagram for "Cannibal"), whose savagery has redeeming qualities.

Jonathan Swift's 1729 "A Modest Proposal" is a satirical essay about a unique solution to Irish overpopulation. In Swift's essay, cannibalism isn't just a just a virtue, it's good economic sense.

Cannibalism as a satire on ultimate greed, or cannibalism as a sign of a backhanded nobility--one of these two themes informs most movies on the topic of eating people. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter was the most memorable character in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs; Lecter wasn't a hypocrite, and he knew, as a satirist, that the phrase "consumer society" is more sinister than it sounds. And Leatherface, the honest career cannibal in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was, per Montaigne, a type of noble savage. A man without family is nothing, said Don Corleone--at least Leatherface had family.

The new cannibal film Ravenous fails probably because it doesn't work out either of these two themes. It seems to be a protest against anthrophagy--a meat-is-murder movie. The previews sell the film as if it were an evil comedy, with accents on the punch lines: "Eat ... to live, don't live ... to eat"; "he was tough--but a good soldier ought to be tough."

The basic horror of flesheating is spoofed as a cheap joke. (See Robin Williams uttering the poor-taste joke "Donner, party of 50" in the family pic Patch Adams.) This strategy can be amusing; it worked in the Trey Parker/Matt Stone 1995 collaboration, Cannibal! The Musical. A clever cross between Oklahoma! and Alive, the film was perhaps influenced by early goremeister H.G. Lewis' use of the plot of Brigadoon for 1964's Two Thousand Maniacs.

But a movie about cannibals is mostly interesting as a social critique, and if the critique is missing, the film can usually be nothing more than a gory comedy. Ravenous' two title quotes are Nietzsche's warning about becoming a monster if one fights monsters, and " 'Eat me'--Anonymous." The latter sums up the movie. Ravenous does try to add a political context to the cannibalism, but the story is hopelessly divided between silliness and seriousness.

It's set in winter in the late 1840s, in a lonely army fort in the Sierra Nevada. Some of the military men have discovered that super strength can be gained through eating the dead--an old Indian legend, you know. (Montaigne implies that cannibalism can be good for you, as he stresses the health and vigor of his savages.)

The evangelizing head cannibal is a military officer played (unenthusiastically) by Robert Carlyle. His plan harmonizes with Manifest Destiny--God's own plan for the expansion of the U.S. It's right for him to be well fed, since "this country is stretching out its arms and consuming all it can."

The cleverest part of Ravenous is its reference to the U.S.-Mexican War. In flashback, we see how our hero, Capt. Boyd (a sulking Guy Pearce), was subjected to a nasty shock: he was buried alive and accidentally ended up drinking blood.

Those forgetful of history always talk about this country losing its innocence in Vietnam. Yet the Mexican conflict was our first war of aggression against another country, and the intellectuals of the time--Webster, Thoreau and Emerson among them--recognized this aggression and protested.

It's an interesting idea--a baptism of blood fouling a pure country. Ravenous should have gone further; after all, there are real-life stories of cannibalism in armies. The 1959 Japanese film Fires on the Plain is a classic about cannibalism in the Pacific in World War II; it tells how foot soldiers are selected as meat by their commanding officers. This true-life horror, in which soldiers became not just figurative meat but literal meat, could have been used to give Ravenous some teeth, some guts.

NOT ALL CANNIBAL movies are satires or tales of misunderstood savagery. In Eating Raoul (1982), the Blands (director Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) put the seal on their humdrum marriage by dining on the man who was coming between them. In 1959's Suddenly, Last Summer, Sebastian (Montgomery Clift) flaunts himself and meets a terrible fate at the hands of a pack of insane street urchins.

Often, characters who have acted like animals get treated like animals, butchered and devoured. In 1989's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, a gangster is forced to eat human flesh. All these are metaphorical stories; they aren't really about cannibalism as much as they are about marital farce, punishment fantasies and the degradation of the artist.

But aside from Fires on the Plain, the most important of all cannibal movies is George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead, about an outbreak of zombieism in the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The film spawned three sequels and dozens of imitations. It is neither Swiftian satire nor a Montaigne-style plea for understanding. It is beneath metaphor--a horrible attack by poisonous flesh-eaters on a dwindling group saved only by military violence. Violence triumphs; as Romero wrote later, "The ghouls in essence win out."

As original as Night of the Living Dead is, it has a forebear, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). Romero owes much to that Hitchcock classic--in scenes of the house's windows being boarded up, in the placement of a mauled body in the far corner on the floor of a room. Especially, Night of the Living Dead looks back to Hitchcock's work as a story of something inexplicable, something senseless--complete with the half-indicated suggestion that the attack was punishment for the hopeless failure to communicate. (Nobody remembers what a sad film The Birds is!)

TO MAKE a proper cannibal movie, maybe you need bad times. Night of the Living Dead is such a piece for 1968, with its riots and assassinations. The nearly contemporary Jean-Luc Godard included cannibalism in the berserk breakdown carnival Weekend (1967), in which the societal breakdown was upfront instead of an undertone.

Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre engage in paranoid horror; they are most interested in making the audience know what it would be like to be cannibalized. These films not only had the advantage of an era throbbing with bad vibes, but also had the advantage of atmospheric presentation.

I felt sorry I was bored by Ravenous, because it was the sort of thing that would have pleased me once. Years ago, movies like these were seen in large, decaying theaters on their last legs, in bad neighborhoods. Other malcontents would be muttering away in the broken seats nearby, amid the vermin and the pungent musk of failure in the air. But at a dry, dull, neutral movieplex--with its small screen, anonymous surroundings and inevitably well-behaved divorced guys taking advantage of the $4.50 matinee--Ravenous is nothing more than a squib.

What's missing in this 1999 cannibal movie is a sense of dread, the quality scriptwriter John Russo described when writing about his script for Night of the Living Dead: "We all dread the witch hunters, the terrorists who plant bombs to kill those they have never met. The existence of this primal fear ... is the truly basic reason for the success of Night of the Living Dead."

We may be at peace with the idea that in this world it's eat or be eaten. And we may feel too uneasy about the colonization and destruction of people outside Western civilization to use them for horror props anymore. One too many films cannibalizing each other's plots has diluted the power of the gut-muncher; but the primal fear of strangers is still there, waiting to be exploited in the right hands.

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From the March 25-31, 1999 issue of Metro.

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