11 Most Shocking Cannibal Horror Movies Ranked
Since the horror genre's very earliest days, filmmakers have delighted in shocking audiences and pushing back the boundaries of what is acceptable on-screen. A big part of why horror fans keep coming back for more is the hope that the next movie will really deliver something they've never seen before. Of course, screen taboos have shifted over the decades--what was considered shocking in the 1930s might seem laughable today, and audiences back then would have been utterly appalled by what is considered mainstream entertainment in 2018.
Cannibalism is one of the on-screen taboos that still has the power to upset viewers. We've been watching people eat other people in horror movies for decades, but there is something so primal and unpleasant about the concept, that no matter how many times you've seen it, even the strongest stomach can be turned by onscreen cannibalism if delivered effectively by a director.
The most controversial cycle of cannibal movies came from Italy during the late-'70s and early-'80s. These were exploitation movies, often set in South America, in which people from the "civilized" world were captured and eaten by the natives. This sub-genre didn't last long, but the most extreme examples remain notorious today, for both their staged violent content and the real-life animal cruelty that the filmmakers included to increase their notoriety.
Beyond those movies, cannibalism has taken on different forms in horror. Sometimes played for laughs, sometimes as an allegory, and often for old-fashioned scares. So, here's a look at some of the best, scariest, and most shocking cannibal movies ever made. As once you’ve done that, check out our guide to the best possession movies, the best exploding heads in horror, and the horror sequels that are better than the originals. Hope you're hungry...
11. Trouble Every Day (2001)
Director Claire Denis is better known for acclaimed arthouse dramas such as Beau Travail than for her work on cannibal horror movies, but in 2001, she combined both sensibilities to deliver the disturbing Trouble Every Day. It stars French icon Beatrice Dalle (Betty Blue) as a strange, cannibalistic woman who is kept locked up by her husband, and Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66) as an American man who is obsessed with her. It's slow, arty, and not a conventional horror movie by any means. But fans of strange, adventurous filmmaking will appreciate this uncompromising mix of sex and violence.
10. Cannibal Apocalypse (1980)
For many decades, the Italian film industry was known for taking its lead from Hollywood--from Star Wars to Jaws, the success of an American film could result in dozens of quickly-produced copies and rip-offs. In 1980, with the Italian cannibal cycle in full swing, director Antonio Margheriti decided to cash-in on the success of the Vietnam war classic Apocalypse Now and deliver a movie titled--what else?--Cannibal Apocalypse. In this ludicrous but hugely entertaining cult favorite, a pair of Vietnam vets return from the war infected with a cannibal virus and set about causing all sorts of man-eating mayhem on the streets of Atlanta. It has tons of gore, stars genre veteran John Saxon (A Nightmare of Elm Street, Black Christmas), and has a wildly inappropriate but totally awesome disco/funk soundtrack. What more do you need?
9. We Are What We Are (2010)
While many of the movies on the list make the cannibals a villainous threat, in Mexico's We Are What We Are they are the main characters. The film follows a family who are left with the problems of finding their next meal when the father dies, as it had been his role to provide for them. So they set about trying to kidnap people from the local town, with varying degrees of success, while the police slowly realise what is happening. It's a dark, intense film that perhaps suffers from having too few sympathetic characters, but it's strikingly directed by Jorge Michel Grau and lingers in the mind long after the end. There was a surprisingly good American remake, with the same title, in 2013, too.
8. The Green Inferno (2013)
While cannibal movies have taken many forms over the past few decades, there has been little attempt to revive the jungle-based Third World horrors of the infamous Italian cannibal films of the early '80s. However, in 2013, director Eli Roth attempted to update the sub-genre for younger audiences who probably weren't familiar with those earlier cult favourites with The Green Inferno. Like his successful Hostel movies, Roth gives his movie a political edge, in this case sending a bunch of young, naive environmental activists into the Amazon rainforest to protest about the destruction of ancient tribes by an unscrupulous logging company. Of course, they are soon captured by one of these tribes and put on the dinner menu. The Green Inferno is a bit of a tonal mess, as Roth jumps from satire to bawdy college humor to gruesome flesh-eating shocks and back again. But horror fans won't be disappointed with the gore levels, and it's good to see the jungle-based cannibal movie still has some life in it.
7. Ravenous (1999)
Ravenous is one of those bizarre genre mash-ups that shouldn't work, but somehow does. It's a darkly funny horror/western, that was beset with various production problems and was a commercial failure upon release. However, it’s a hugely entertaining movie that has gained a cult following in subsequent years, and is well worth reappraisal. Guy Pearce plays an army captain during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, who is posted to a remote snowbound military outpost and encounters a mysterious man called Colquhoun (Robert Carlyle), who tells him stories about having to eat human flesh in order to survive the winter. Things get darker and more weird from there, but while the film certainly delivers the gruesome goods, it's also beautifully directed Antonia Bird (who took over after the original director was fired during production), frequently very funny, and has an amazing score by Michael Nyman and Blur's Damon Albarn.
6. Parents (1989)
Bob Balaban is best known as an actor in such classic movies as Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Gosford Park, and most recently Isle of Dogs, but in 1989, he made his directing debut with this comedic horror oddity. It's set in the 1950s and focuses on a ten-year-old boy named Michael who is convinced that his parents are cannibals. Much of the movie's success relies the audience being unsure if mom and dad--played by Mary Beth Hurt and Randy Quaid--are really the flesh-munching monsters that Michael imagines them to be. Parents never takes itself very seriously, but great performances and a witty pastiche of '50s suburbia have helped it gain a strong cult following over the years.
5. Hannibal (2001)
Although Anthony Hopkins made a massive impact as serial killer Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter in 1991's Silence of the Lambs, we didn't really get to see him do much cannibalizing. That certainly wasn't the case for the follow-up, Ridley Scott's Hannibal. While Silence was subtle and controlled, Hannibal goes the other way. It's ludicrous, over-the-top, and wildly entertaining, and it ends with one of the maddest scenes you're likely to see in such a high-profile movie. Corrupt Department of Justice official Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) has been captured by Lecter, drugged, and has had the top of his skull removed. As he sits there, tied to a chair and unaware that his brain is exposed, Lecter proceeds to fry up part of his grey matter and feed it to him. Mmmmm.
4. The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
The Hills Have Eyes is one of those rare remakes that improves on the original. Wes Craven's 1977 original was an enjoyably grimy horror thriller, but Alexandre Aja's remake is scarier, bloodier, and way more intense. It's got an incredibly simple premise--a family's car breaks down in the New Mexico desert, and they are targeted by a group of terrifying, mountain-dwelling cannibal mutants. And they really are scary, helped by outstanding unpleasant make-up effects from vfx experts KNB. One by one, these mutants hunt, kill, and eat their unlucky victims.
3. Cannibal Ferox (1981)
Cannibal Ferox is far from the best of the Italian cannibal movies, but it might be the most shocking. While it certainly lacks any of Cannibal Holocaust's intelligence, it delivers some of the most graphic and upsetting scenes in any of the sub-genre. It’s got the same basic plot as the others (First World explorers are caught and eaten by Third World cannibals), but the level of sadism and nastiness is cranked to the max, as director Umberto Lenzi and effects whiz Gianetto de Rossi deliver some convincingly brutal scenes. The marketing claim that Cannibal Ferox was "banned in 31 countries" seems unlikely, but it does hint at what lies within. This movie is not for the faint-hearted.
2. Raw (2016)
Some of the most impressive horror movies of the past decade have originated from France, and Raw is one of them. The movie got some notoriety during festival screenings, with its gorier cannibal scenes causing fainting and walkouts. But while it certainly got some strong sequences, there's a lot more to it than just gory shocks. Directed by Julia Ducournau, it's a coming-of-age story about lifelong vegetarian named Justine who starts to experience cannibalistic urges after she starts at veterinary school. Raw has a strange, dreamlike atmosphere and a surprising amount of dark humor, plus a fantastic lead performance from Garance Marillier, who gives Justine plenty of emotional depth as she struggles to control her increasing desire to eat human meat.
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Ruggero Deodato's classic remains the Italian cannibal cycle's defining work. It's unquestionably the "best" of the sub-genre, but what makes it so successful as a piece of cinema also makes it, at times, incredibly hard to watch. It's a film of two halves--the first sees an American anthropologist head into Amazon jungle to find out what happened to a team of documentary makers who disappeared months earlier. He discovers that they were all killed out there, and the rest of the movie allows us to see the reels of film they shot there, as they manipulate, provoke, and torture the natives in order to get some sensationalist footage. Of course, it all goes very wrong for them. Cannibal Holocaust is at times, a powerful, extremely well-made comment on the role of the documentarian and the influence of the "civilized" world upon more remote people. But it's also a brutal, exploitative film in its own right. The indefensible animal violence is still in there, and there are some truly gruelling scenes as the filmmakers have the tables turned on them and become dinner for the cannibal tribes. Deodato's impressive found-footage technique was a clear influence on movies such as The Blair Witch Project, and the film still retains its power to shock and provoke almost 40 years later.