The Australian film Van Diemen's Land follows a rich and varied tradition of on-screen cannibalism.
David Hull

23 Sep 2009 - 11:44 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Cinema-goers who have received an early glimpse of Jonathan Auf Der Heide's Van Diemen's Land (pictured) have been finding themselves feeling rather queasy, with the Australian director confirming that two audience members vomited in New Zealand and several people had fainted at the point of the film's first killing scene.

Van Diemen's Land, which screened at this year's Melbourne and Sydney film festivals, depicts the cannibalism of 1822 Tasmanian penal colony escapee Alexander Pearce, an Irish convict who was hanged for murder in 1824 in Hobart, having been found with human flesh upon his person.

It's the second Australian film featuring cannibalism to hit screens in the past year, following on from Jody Dwyer's Dying Breed, in which a group of people go searching for a Tasmanian tiger but get a nasty surprise when they stumble upon the cannibalistic descendants of a certain Alexander Pearce.

Van Diemen's Land's colonial milieu has echoes of Antonia Bird's Ravenous (1999), which starred another Pearce (Guy) alongside a sinister Robert Carlyle as soldiers isolated in the US wilderness during the Mexican-American war of the mid-1800s.

Unlike that film, Van Diemen's Land is no black comedy.

Auf Der Heide recently told the AAP news agency that the strong audience reactions to his film stemmed from its authenticity, a quality he felt was crucial to contextualising Pearce's actions. “What people find so gruesome about it is that it's approached as authentically as possible. So there's no blood splatters or any of that stuff that we're used to,” Auf Der Heide said. “Stories in popular culture have made him out to be a monster, and I wanted to approach him as a regular guy who did what he had to do in order to survive.”

The degree to which eating the flesh of another human being is perceived as monstrous is of course dependent on cultural background. What's certain, though, is that even in modern Western society where the practice is taboo, cannibalism holds a certain fascination. Much like passing the scene of a car crash, perhaps for some it's a matter of 'Can't bear to look but can't bear to look away'.

The desire to witness grotesque and forbidden misuse of the human body has been played out in the safe realm of popular culture for many years; screen genres such as the zombie flick and the splatter movie, for instance, have long possessed the potential to repulse and titillate an audience. Setting aside zombie movies as a distinct genre, Van Diemen's Land contributes to a rich tradition of movies with human-on-human cannibalism as a central theme.

The most notorious set of cannibal films were made in Italy during the late 1970s and early 80s. These graphic exploitation movies – featuring titles such as Eat Them Alive!, Make Them Die Slowly! and Massacre in Dinosaur Valley – represent a sub-genre in which exotic, scantily-clad primitives tend to perform the devouring.

Cannibal Holocaust
(1985), set in the jungles of South America, proved to be very controversial. Its director Ruggero Deodato confronted the moral and legal backlash against his film by parading his actors with their limbs intact on television, and deconstructing his special effects techniques for a judge. Italian courts nevertheless banned the film because of its cruelty to animals and although Deodato had subsequent animal cruelty and obscenity charges overturned in 1984, the film remained banned in several countries, including Australia and the UK.

More recently, convicted German cannibal Armin Meiwes' failed in his attempt to block the release of US film Rohtenberg in his home country. The 2006 project was inspired by Meiwes' crime of killing and eating of a willing victim with whom he'd made contact online.

The most infamous cannibal in mainstream cinema would be Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter, creepily portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme's 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs (then again a decade later in the Ridley Scott-directed follow-up Hannibal). Despite his incarceration, psychopath Lecter messes with the head of FBI trainee agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), memorably explaining to her that, unlike most serial killers, he never retained any trophies from his victims.

In the art house arena, Peter Greenaway's wickedly humorous The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) is best remembered for the outrageous spectacle in which a vengeful wife serves up the body parts of her murdered lover in a macabre culinary platter for her husband, the patriarchal thief.

Frank Marshall's 1993 film Alive! tells the true story of the Uruguayan survivors of a 1972 plane-crash who, stranded without rescue or food supplies, resorted to consuming their dead companions. The film throws up a 'What would you do?' conundrum, honing in on the chilling realities of survival instinct and leaving no hint that cannibalism is a laughing matter. But try telling that to fans of the French film Delicatessen (1991):

or Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical (1995):

Perhaps surprisingly, there is enormous diversity in the range of cannibal films out there. While there are those that recount real cases of cannibalism (such as Albert Fish: In Sin He Found Salvation, 2007) or propose cautionary warnings (the 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green), some play it for sheer spine-tingling horror value (Doctor X (1932), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Dumplings (2003)), yet others for aesthetics (Week End (1967), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) and some purely for laughs (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman? (1971), Motel Hell (1980), Eating Raoul (1982) ).

Not that it's always easy to pigeon-hole: Ravenous, for example, strikes a blend between black comedy and horror; with Delicatessen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro constructed at once an art house classic and high farce, in their tale of a post-apocalyptic surrealist black comedy about the landlord of an apartment building who creates cannibalistic meals for his odd tenants –, and Tim Burton's 2007 of Sweeney Todd (1936) is an all-singing, all-dancing, pie-baking affair.

Cannibalism on film is a phenomenon that still has legs. Sure, some of the audience might get a bit nauseous but they'll stay glued to screen and be mighty relieved they can stand up and walk out of the theatre at the end.