Green Inferno Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
New York college student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) meets student activist Alejandro (Ariel Levy) when he goes on a hunger strike on behalf of underpaid janitors. Smitten, she agrees to help Alejandro undertake his next project: rescuing an Amazon village from destruction by a greedy multinational corporation. But Justine soon comes to regret her decision when their plane crashes in the Peruvian jungle and the students realize they are not alone. No good deed goes unpunished as the well-meaning students are captured by the cannibalistic tribe they came to save. (From Universal’s official synopsis)
Eli Roth’s career as a would-be master of terror began with the unexpected theatrical release of his independently produced ‘70s horror homage, Cabin Fever (2002), followed by the more contemporary Hostel (2005), which went on to be a major hit for distributors Lionsgate and Screen Gems. Unfortunately, many viewers mistook Roth’s indictment of ‘bro’ culture as a celebration of it and, seemingly annoyed by his hyperactive horror nerd persona and appearances in Quentin Tarantino and Alexandre Aja movies, decided to label him the frat boy of modern horror. These misconceptions (2020 edit: something Roth unfortunately leaned into in the years since) and so-called ‘torture porn fatigue’ (possibly the least horror fan-like thing to ever happen to horror fandom) kept people away from Hostel Part II (2007), which is too bad, because it was one of the smartest and most beautifully shot horror movies of the ‘00s.
Roth’s exponential growth as a filmmaker between these three movies is comparable to Peter Jackson’s growth from Bad Taste (1987) to Braindead (aka: Dead Alive, 1992) and, as a fan, I was excited for Roth to make his Heavenly Creatures (arguably Jackson’s best movie, 1994). Sadly, Roth disappeared from the director’s chair for almost a decade. He kicked around an idea for a disaster movie entitled Endangered Species (as yet unmade), continued with those aforementioned acting roles (mostly bit parts), co-wrote/co-produced RZA’s The Man the Iron Fists (2012) and Nicolás López’ Aftershock, lent his name as producer to a couple of Last Exorcism movies (2010, 2013), and showed up on a number of Blu-ray special features for genre pictures. Then, his fourth film as writer/director, The Green Inferno, stalled due to a distribution crisis in 2013 and sat on the shelf until 2015, when it was released a couple of weeks before his fifth film, Knock Knock.
Hostel Part II was a love letter to Italian exploitation cinema of the ‘70s that wasn’t entangled in specific callbacks to earlier films. It was more of a tonal homage that non-fans could still appreciate for its more universal themes. The Green Inferno takes a slightly more direct approach. Instead of applying an overall Italian flavour to modern social anxieties, Roth is contextualizing those anxieties within the structure of one of the most tasteless, mean-spirited, and controversial Italian exploitation sub-genres of all – the cannibal film. This patently offensive cycle began when Italian filmmakers attempted to recreate Hollywood adventure movies (specifically Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse, 1970), but grew in popularity due to images of grueling violence, not swashbuckling exploits. In reaction, those filmmakers engaged in a competition to one-up each other with harrowing gore and callous sexual content, including the actual on-screen slaughter of exotic animals. The Green Inferno is very aware of its heritage, including a number of direct references to the films that inspired it (the end credits include a literal list of Italian cannibal movies), but, like Hostel II, it is insular enough to work for audiences that aren’t familiar with the tropes – though do note that no animals are killed over the course of the movie, on-screen or off (Roth is a card-carrying member of PETA, after all).
With The Green Inferno, Roth grips firmly to his roots telling stories about young, upper/upper-middle class, urban Americans and their ill-fated adventures outside the comforts and safety of modern civilization. When stacked end-to-end, this xenophobic tetralogy reveals an escalation in isolation. During Cabin Fever, a group of college students gather in a remote spot in the woods of rural America, where they are menaced by the locals and fall victim to a flesh-eating virus. During the Hostel movies, two different groups of college students leave their home country and travel to a near lawless Eastern European city, where they are sold to the highest bidder for slaughter. Here in The Green Inferno, yet another group of college students wander out of country and outside of every vestige of 21st Century civilization, where they are literally eaten by the native peoples, who mistake them for enemies. In a year of recycled formulas and populist nostalgia (assuming that we’re counting The Green Inferno as a 2015 release), Roth is, at the very least, trying to revamp his blueprint, based on different thematic needs and different kinds of nostalgia. He’s also firmly imprinting the formula with his own storytelling infatuations – heroic characters that betray their friends, lovable losers whose decency can’t save them from certain doom, sexual temptation leading into danger, and cruel, not to mention dangerous children.
The Green Inferno’s harshest critics have derided it for its apparently cynical view of social responsibility. Indeed, Roth and co-writer Guillermo Amoedo (co-writer of Aftershock and writer/director of The Stranger, 2014, which was produced by Roth) are satirizing the well-meaning upper class youth that take it upon themselves to defend political and environmental causes. But to assume that the filmmakers unilaterally distrust social activism, because they recognized a compelling connection between modern social activism and the Italian cannibal genre, is the same as assuming that all of the filmmakers behind slasher movies distrust promiscuous teens that smoke pot. Roth and Amoedo are sometimes making fun of a braggarty brand of smug activism, but they’re mostly revisiting the cruel, almost EC Comics-level irony Roth has enjoyed exploring since Cabin Fever. More importantly, most of the college activists mean well and are being deceived by a cynical leader that is the film definitively frames as the villain of the story. These characters – villains and protagonists – perfectly fit the Italian cannibal mould, specifically Cannibal Ferox, where a knowitall anthropologist drags her friends and colleagues into the Amazon basin in an effort to prove that modern cannibalism is a myth. Her hubris dooms her friends, but she survives the ordeal and, in an act of ultimate hypocrisy, she publishes her findings, claiming that she didn’t find any proof of modern cannibalism, despite witnessing the act first hand (not that I want to spoil the end of The Green Inferno…).
The more appropriate criticism is that Roth and Amoedo are approaching youth culture as outsiders this time and that he might not ‘get it’ anymore. The dialogue during the college-set sequences is abrasively contrived and unfunny, veering dangerously close to an old man’s mocking impression of ‘what the kids talk like these days.’ Moreover, the first-act tone leans too hard onto the satirical slant, which, in turn, devolves into something of an unsuccessful Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker-styled spoof. Alongside a number of dopey scatalogical jokes (certainly not a rarity in an Eli Roth movie) are a cadre of young characters that are utter parodies of various horror movie/teen comedy stereotypes. I understand that this was likely Roth and Amoedo’s intention, but the joke is so on-the-nose that it’s grating. Fortunately, the standardized set-up only takes about 30 minutes of screen time before the characters are established enough for KNB’s special effects techs to start tearing them apart.
In completely technical terms, The Green Inferno is a step back from the Hostel films. However, it’s hard to fault Roth for the lack of that indelible or elegant imagery, because the film’s goals don’t jibe with graceful camera moves and stoic framing. Most of Italy’s cannibal movies were shot from the hip using the most affordable and portable 35mm cameras available at the time. Roth’s modern equivalent is sort of dogmatic in its respect for the often necessary vérité style of those films and was shot using small, consumer grade-style digital cameras. It looks cheap, which, coincidentally, it was – on half the budget of Hostel II (not counting the significant inflation in production costs over the last decade). This lack of funding demands the benefit of the doubt in reference to bargain digital effects (the jaguar, the ant attack, and plane crash), but, as the film progresses and the danger increases, the immediacy of the footage does carry a certain power. Though Roth breaks the tension from time to time with the aforementioned poop comedy and miscalculated dialogue, the final half of the movie is a proper counterpart to the hellish spiralling horror of Ruggero Deodato’s über-cannibal opus, Cannibal Holocaust (1980). The final 45-or-so minutes of the film are basically a series of escape attempts and violent atrocities, some of which are never-before-seen in the cannibal exploitation pantheon. The violence pushes the R-rating, but not quite beyond its current ‘acceptable’ levels. Roth likely knew he wasn’t going to be able to release the film in theaters if he tried to match the jaw-dropping abhorrence of the movies he was mimicking.
And speaking of Cannibal Holocaust, I have to applaud Roth for not going with a found-footage aesthetic. Deodato’s film is famous for its sadism, sure, but it was also a progenitor of the found-footage/mockumentary genre. This, coupled with the fact that camera phones play a significant role in the story, means that Roth had multiple excuses to go with the format, yet he resisted it. Perhaps he knew he was beaten to the punch by Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013), in which Vice.com documentary filmmakers are murdered after intervening with a Jonestown Massacre situation in a similar looking jungle environment (fun fact: Lenzi’s second cannibal film, Eaten Alive!, revolves around a Jonestown-esque storyline). This would make sense, considering that Roth was co-producer on The Sacrament, but I actually get the feeling that he was simply interested in a ‘softer’ vérité approach.
Other critics have called Roth racist for exploiting the villagers and presenting a savage (though fictional) version of their culture. The Italian cannibal cycle was hugely racist in terms of content (they’d often waste energy discussing the brutal nature of civilized white people, while otherwise presenting the natives as degenerate and sub-human) and most of the filmmakers were accused of treating their native cast members with contempt. Based on what appears on film, it seems clear that the indigenous people in the film are having fun acting. Supporting players are seen cracking smiles, while the lead cannibals, especially the ‘Elder’ (established Peruvian actress Antonieta Pari), are chewing the scenery with relish (the commentary track is full of very happy behind-the-scenes stories). So, while it’s difficult to deny that the sentiment of The Green Inferno may be racist, I believe Roth’s version of this trope is more culturally sensitive than his ‘70s/’80s counterparts (he is, at the very least, more interested in the cannibals as people than Lenzi or Deodato) and that the filmmakers were probably not explicitly exploiting the native cast (I have no idea what the compensation was).
According to the specs on imbd.com, The Green Inferno was shot using Canon C300 digital HD cameras (during the commentary, Roth states that this is the first feature shot using these particular rigs). I believe this was the first time Roth used a digital format for something he was directing, but cinematographer Antonio Quercia had time to familiarize himself with similar Canon cameras while shooting Aftershock. Roth and Quercia use a lot of shallow focus and hand-held techniques, which keeps most of the backgrounds soft and fuzzy, but the foreground images on this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer are incredibly sharp, to the point that I considered turning down the sharpness on my TV to compensate for all of the enhancement effects. There are a number of bright white hotspots and a number of smoothing/ghosting artifacts, all of which are common for other Blu-ray transfers culled from Canon camera sources. I’m definitely not an expert in the field of digital cameras, but, given how often these ‘problems’ (certainly an issue of taste over objective quality) coincide with movies that claim to use Canon rigs, I think it’s safe to draw this conclusion. Color quality is vivid and, thankfully, pretty naturalistic (the filmmakers don’t employ a lot of digital grading, but the hues are eerily consistent) and black levels are strong. There’s a bit of blooming and occasional low level noise, but, other than the digital artifacts that I’m blaming on the cameras, I can’t see any real compression.
The Green Inferno is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The aural stage is set during the opening credits, which begin over a black screen set to the bare sounds of the rain forest. It’s immersive and beautifully layered, but it also sounds very ‘produced’ and sort of synthetic. I assume that shooting in the elements made it difficult to get decent location sound and most of the environmental ambience had to be created in post. Still, dialogue is natural, even during the particularly noisy native chanting/cheering sequences. Artificial or not, the effects work is busy and directional movement is adequate. Manuel Riveiro’s original score is a mixed bag, including slightly annoying synthesized dramatic/spooky cues and more feature-appropriate tribal and Latin themes. The music has a nice stereo spread, a deep LFE response, and doesn’t overwhelm dialogue or effects.
Commentary with director Eli Roth, producer Nicolas Lopez, and cast members Lorenza Izzo, Aaron Burns (also SFX tech), Kirby Bliss Blanton, and Daryl Sabrara – Roth is always a good commentator and both he and Lopez come prepared to discuss the many blessings and hardships of the production. I was afraid that the actors would get in the way of the momentum of the commentary, but they actually have quite a bit to add, especially Lorenza, who is on screen for almost the entire film. That said, there’s a bit too much ‘this is my favorite shot’ talk and back-patting – both common side-effects of group commentaries. Roth acts as moderator and sometimes interviewer, though, disappointingly, he rarely discusses the Deodato and Lezi movies that inspired him.
The images on this page are NOT representative of the Blu-ray image quality.