The Horror

Review: Kea Wilson, 'We Eat Our Own'

'Memento Mori' by Milan Nykodym

There must be a word—it's probably German—for the sensation when you read something written in a voice so distinctive that it seeps into your brain, and you find yourself thinking in that voice after you put the book down. It is as if the prose is contagious. You read Hemingway and think in short sentences, Nabokov in tumbling long ones. When you catch the voice in Kea Wilson's We Eat Our Own it feels like catching a fever—you are disoriented, nauseated, even delirious.

We Eat Our Own is based on the real-life story of the 1980 shock film Cannibal Holocaust, a jungle-horror exploitation flick so gory and realistic that its director, Ruggero Deodato, was put on trial for murder after the movie was released. The movie was a pioneer of the cinéma vérité style later revived by the Blair Witch Project. Deodato claimed that Cannibal Holocaust was inspired by the Italian media's sensationalized, breathless coverage of terrorist attacks carried out by the Red Brigades.

Wilson turns the story of its production and the trial that followed into a Heart of Darkness-style journey into the ugliest parts of the soul. In the novel, the movie gone wrong is called Jungle Bloodbath, directed by the utterly inscrutable Ugo Velluto. Jungle Bloodbath is about a crew of journalists who set out into the Amazon rainforest to locate other missing journalists, rumored to have been devoured by a tribe of cannibals. It's not revealing too much to say that those journalists eventually partake of the atrocities they've set out to find.

The complex framing of the story—which investigates a movie about found footage of missing journalists making a movie about cannibals—gives us a way to examine how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves warp our perception of reality.

In flashbacks to the trial, our narrator is a nameless American actor who is called in at the last second to replace a leading man who has unceremoniously dropped from the production. The actor is so desperate for the role that he travels to the Colombian jungle without having seen the script.

He arrives to find the shoot collapsing. It turns out that Jungle Bloodbath has no script. It exists only in the director's mind, formed and reformed as the days go on. The movie is over-time, over-budget, and straining under Velluto's increasingly frantic demands for hyper-realistic violence. Velluto is brutal and demanding, but also distant and elusive. The actor probes him for information—how do I play this part? What do I want? What is my motivation?—but gets little in return.

Meanwhile, the Amazon seems to be actively rejecting the moviemakers: humidity rots the film in the canisters, creepy-crawlies isolate and terrify the cast, and the heat bakes the special effects team's materials. And they are not alone in the jungle. The Amazon is filled with cartel members and M-19 guerrillas whose real-life violence begins to creep onto the set, blurring the line between truth and fiction.

As we switch perspectives between the guerrillas, the cast, the crew, and the drug lords, we realize the actors aren't the only ones who fear and need some kind of director. We all long, on some level, to be told what our motivation is, to see the whole script, to know the story we are a part of. But we may not be able to handle the answer when it comes.

The actor believes that this movie will be his breakout moment, that it will make his career (if he is indeed a leading man and not a prop). The guerrillas believe that they are the catalysts of a great uprising, that the people are behind them and will soon join them in their struggle. The cast and crew believe that the natives are complicit in Velluto's film, that they know what is going on when the story takes a turn for the worse. Velluto believes he's making a movie that will revolutionize the horror genre forever.

We are all guilty of committing ourselves to narratives before we can see the whole picture. We think we know who we are and where we are going, convincing ourselves that we are basically good people who know our limits and boundaries—the things we would never do. But we are not permitted to see the end of our scripts. So we commit, and sometimes over-commit, to storylines whose endings we cannot see. We decide what must be true before we can know for sure. And sometimes, if reality does not cooperate with the stories we tell ourselves, we sacrifice reality instead of the stories.

As actors stumble into cartel strongholds and hidden guerrillas watch the filming from the trees, we are often misled about the reality of what we are seeing. Over and over, readers witness stomach-churning things, only to find out that they are theater, preparation for a stunt. This uncertainty gives us a constant feeling of unease and insecurity, punctuated by absurd moments of dark humor (the experiments of the special effects crew, as they come up with increasingly ingenious ways to fake edible corpses and limbs, are especially mesmerizing: triumphant, but disgusting).

The false alarms leave readers unprepared for the horrors that eventually come. The sensations the novel evokes are visceral. We Eat Our Own stinks, in a good way. It reeks of fear, of the prickly feeling at the back of the neck when you realize you've stepped into some dark place where society's protective net does not reach. That sound, that feeling, is the hiss of the state of nature bubbling up from underneath you, ready to swallow you like quicksand.

In real life, the director Deodato was able to prove that "missing" cast members were still alive, so he did not go to jail. In fact, the actors had signed agreements that they would "disappear" for a year after filming to generate publicity for the release. However, rumors persist to this day that some of the cast, mostly the Colombian natives, were actually killed on camera. This rumor makes the movie infamous. It requires of its audience the same ghoulish voyeurism it purports to criticize.

In Wilson's novel, we know what really happens, but not how to look away. We can only do what her characters do: Sacrifice the truth and then eat it.