Here I’m going to examine one of the more pertinent issues facing modern horror fans: the similarities and differences between zombies and cannibals. Many claim the two are one and the same, and not without justification: most cinematic zombies, after all, tend to devour human flesh with as much relish as cannibals. There are, however, important differences, notably the fact that zombies aren’t technically alive and cannibals–be they the aristocratic slobs of LA GRANDE BOUFFE or the primitive freaks of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST–usually are. I’ll have more to say on that issue in a bit, but first let’s examine the cannibal-zombie intersections a bit further.
I’m not joking when I say this is a highly controversial issue. John Martin’s 2006 book CANNIBAL: THE MOST SICKENING CONSUMER GUIDE EVER!, a survey on Cannibalism in the cinema, was criticized for including in its lineup straight zombie films (wherein the flesh-eating is apparently “inter- rather than intra-species”). I can understand why an author might include zombie films in a cannibal movie survey, even though zombie and cannibal lore are quite different in most respects.
The Pastaland Cycles
When examining the intersection of zombie and cannibal films, Italian cinema is a natural place to start. It’s a fact that the late 1970s-early 80s heyday of the Italian cannibal film (represented by CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, CANNIBAL FEROX, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, etc) paralleled that of the Italian zombie boom (see ZOMBIE, ANTHROPHAGUS, BURIAL GROUND, etc). The origins of those respective traditions, however, are quite divergent.
Italian exploitation cinema of the time was predicated on imitating successful American movies. For a film to be greenlit its prospective director reportedly had to answer the all-important query “What’s this like?” Thus, the spaghetti zombie cycle came about due to the success of George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, while the cannibal films followed the template of Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, a jungle-set MAN CALLED HORSE rip-off filled with unusually graphic violence and elements culled from the notorious faux-documentary “Mondo” films of the 1960s (real-life animal killings, etc).
The results, unspooled on the screens of grindhouse cinemas everywhere, were some of the most revolting movies ever made.
Origins and Offshoots
Zombie cinema is fairly easy to trace. Essentially, you need only take Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and work your way backward and forward. This is to say that Romero’s classic contains many elements filched from older zombie films like J’ACCUSE!, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and CARNIVAL OF SOULS while also standing as the template for all subsequent zombie media.
Cannibal movies are another matter entirely, as the pastaland chow-downs outlined above are but one facet of an extremely fragmented bunch of films. Prior to the late 1970s it seemed cannibalism was largely the province of European art films (see Pier Paolo Pasolini’s PORCILLE, Fernando Arrabal’s J’IRAI COMME UN CHAVEL FOU and Marco Ferreri’s LA GRANDE BOUFFE), where it was usually utilized as a metaphor for bourgeoisie exploitation. In the mid-to-late 1980s, on the other hand, cannibalism became a facet of screwball comedy (see EATING RAOUL, CONSUMING PASSIONS, EAT THE RICH, etc). And then there are cannibal-themed oddities like THE FOLKS AT RED WOLF INN (1972), PARENTS (1989) and LA CARNE (1991) that don’t fit into any of the abovementioned cycles.
Cannibals and Zombies Today
These days cannibal flicks are pretty scarce (with HANNIBAL and THE WOMAN being among the scattered examples) while zombies are enjoying unprecedented popularity in film and fiction. Thus, if you’re looking to pit zombies and cannibals against one another you’ll have a clear winner. Compounding that victory is the fact that today’s zombie media doesn’t appear to have absorbed much from any of the above-mentioned cannibal movie cycles, with the flesh noshing of THE WALKING DEAD, WORLD WAR Z and so forth being inspired, like most everything else in modern zombie lore, solely by the precedent-setting films of George Romero.
The reasons for zombie media’s popularity aren’t difficult to fathom. Although zombie and cannibal films both deal in extreme graphic violence and flesh eating, zombies aren’t real while cannibals are (a factor made even more prominent in the Italian cannibal films’ inclusion of scenes of actual animal cruelty). Cannibals, after all, do exist in our world, while I have yet to see any evidence of actual zombies.
A friend of mine, who claims DAWN OF THE DEAD as one of his favorite movies, has no problem viewing the zombie flesh munching of that film but freaked out and shut off his VCR upon seeing a living, breathing man do the same thing in CANNIBAL FEROX (for the record, I made fun of him for doing so but it had little effect). Never mind that both films are equally graphic in their depiction of human flesh eating, and that CANNIBAL FEROX is in its own way just as fantastic as DAWN–and arguably more cartoony (its cannibals, for starters, apparently don’t believe in cooking their meat before devouring it).
By the same token, the 2001 release of HANNIBAL inspired an outcry over its scenes of cannibalism, complete with a memorably hysterical L.A. TIMES editorial pontificating about the downfall of Western Civilization due apparently to those scenes. Yet that editorial’s author was conspicuously silent during the releases of 28 DAYS LATER in 2003 and the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake the following year. Both films were just as graphic as HANNIBAL but were zombie themed, and so had the mitigating element of fantasy.
I don’t believe cannibal movies are in any way superior to zombie films, or vice versa. I do, however, contend that both types, despite a few respective gems–J’IRAI COMME UN CHEVAL FOU and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST in the former category and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the original DAWN OF THE DEAD in the latter–are for the most part equally overwrought, exploitive and unreal. In this respect, at least, cinematic zombies and cannibals, despite their considerable differences, are definitely two sides of the same coin.