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Eli Roth
Photograph: Jaclyn RivasEli Roth

Interview: Eli Roth on his new film 'The Green Inferno'

Written by
Madeline Wolfson

Eli Roth is intense. He’s passionate, he’s opinionated and, in case you didn’t know, he makes gory-ass horror films. Known best to non-horror fans for his role as “The Bear Jew” in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Roth has hacked out his place in cinema with his violent, gruesome horror films, often labeled as "gornography," (and not exactly in an approving way). If you’ve survived a viewing of Hostel or Cabin Fever, you’re likely already part of his fear-seeking, bloodthirsty fan base.

It may come as no shock that the person who wrote and directed scenes in which a man has holes drilled into his legs would have a, let’s say, more peculiar idea of justice and exude a wicked sense of joy in talking about cannibals devouring activists. It may be no less surprising that, in person, he rarely breaks from his intense stare (and have you seen the way he eats a pomegranate?).

We sat down this week to talk with Roth more about his movies and ideas, and, talk he did. His incredible intensity and almost childlike excitement can’t help but get you pumped. No matter what he’s saying, you’ll be almost sold on the twisted sense of justice in his films—hell, he was almost able to convince us that cannibalism is cultural and humanitarians deserve to get eaten. Almost.

Yes, that’s right. In his new horror flick The Green Inferno, a group of ill-informed activists on a mission to save the rainforest faces a gruesome twist of fate when their plane crashes deep in the jungle and the very tribe they hoped to save has saved room for them as well. The film was shot mostly in the Peruvian jungle, where Roth proudly took his team, without any pretense of total safety or comfort.

“I told my actors in LA, ‘You have to be okay with a diarrhea attack in the jungle,” he said. “There are no trailers, no bathrooms, there's nothing in the jungle. We’re all gonna get yellow fever shots, and we're going to take malaria pills and we're going to get de-parasited.” The cast and crew were troopers for sure—and it shows in the film (those bug bites aren’t fake).

Inspired by Italian exploitation horror filmmakers of the '70s like Sergio Martino (The Mountain of the Cannibal God), Roth wanted to do something dangerous and have the “kind of adventure where you take a camera and a machete and trek into the jungle and come out with a movie.”

Like Ruggero Deodato, who directed Cannibal Holocaust (from which The Green Inferno takes its name), Roth went deep into the jungle to find his set and even some of his actors. Before shooting, his Peruvian producer said the first step was actually getting the village to know what a movie was, since many had never left the forest. He brought them a generator, TV and DVD player, and Roth soon got the happy news that they’d loved the film and had voted to allow his shoot. “Oh, great,” he said. “What did you show them? The Wizard of Oz? Star Wars?

Nope. His producer had shown them Cannibal Holocaust, (one of the most notoriously violent movies ever made, by the way). Roth worried, but his producer shrugged. “Don’t worry, they think it’s a comedy. They think it’s hilarious!”

Roth displays an unusual sense of joy in recounting the story, which makes sense. He’s the kind of guy who looks at the world and sees social media activists as false and indulgent and cannibalism as culturally complex. He uses horror as a way to address the taboo. “Cannibalism has very complex roots. It's not about savage behavior, but there are very brutal punishments for invaders. It’s a complex society. There’s no way for these Americans to communicate that they’re trying to help them. It's the message of, 'Don’t go messing in things you don’t know anything about.’”

The Green InfernoCourtesy of Blumhouse Productions

Films like Hostel and The Green Inferno are frequently criticized for their graphic content, but the fact is, Roth has a devout fan base that seeks out the gore. According to Roth, the draw to both make and watch these films is less twisted than you may think. He says it’s not about a perverse or erotic experience, but rather it’s a release of a different kind of tension. There are many psychological theories on what draws one person to horror and gore while completely repulsing another. To Roth, it centers on everyday existential fears—the fears we suppress to look strong or just get up in the morning. To illustrate the point, he says his films are particularly popular with those in the Armed Forces.

“I hear from soldiers all the time, that on military bases my movies are huge. Over there where people’s faces are being shot off and they’re trying to defuse bombs,” he said. “They just shut it down because you’re a soldier and you're not allowed to be afraid, but then for 90 minutes you can be afraid and it doesn't make you a coward.”  

What began Roth's fascination with the horror genre wasn’t a particular horror film or director; he didn’t torture animals on the playground. His love of fear-inducing cinema actually began as a love of Grimm's fairy tales and the books of Roald Dahl he read as a child, the kind where kids get baked alive or stuck in tubes. “Fairy tales really help children deal with inexplicable fears about life...there’s no explanation for tragedy. There’s no justice.  There are all of these horrible things like war and what people do with religious ideology, and fairy tales are the way kids deal with the world," he said. "Horror films help adults in the same way.”

You can catch The Green Inferno when it comes to theaters on Sept 25 

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