The Odd Morality Tale of Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever

To say that horror was in a weird place during the first decade of the 2000s is a bit of an understatement. Slashers came back into then dropped back out of vogue, meta-horror rose to popularity, and everyone was trying their best to be edgy while failing to make good movies. It wasn’t a great time for horror, is what I’m getting at, although there are of course exceptions to that rule. Among them is Eli Roth’s debut feature Cabin Fever(2002).

As a first-time filmmaker and horror lover, Roth didn’t want to reinvent the wheel with his first movie. On the surface, Cabin Fever is about as generic as horror movies get, with a bunch of hot young 20-somethings going to party it up in a cabin in the middle of the woods, unknowing of the danger that lurks in the woods. This time, it’s a flesh-eating virus and the crazed locals that see them as outsiders. It’s the same setup a million other horror movies have, but while I wouldn’t call Cabin Fever great, it has a set of quirks that sets it apart from the rest of the pack.

Chief among those quirks is the bizarre humor. Take, for instance, the infamous “PANCAKES!” scene. It comes during the movie’s third act, and Bert (the douchebag role filled by James DeBello) is looking for help since most of the other people at the cabin are sick. The owner of a local corner store says he’ll get a doctor, and to stay where he is. Then the kid (presumably named Dennis, if the sign that says “DO NOT SIT NEXT TO DENNIS” is to be believed) does some karate. Cue music that wouldn’t sound out of place in The Return plays, and he flips and kicks then bites Bert on the hand.

A bunch of old men stand in a row, each playing various string instruments.
Because of course there’s a banjo in this movie.

The kid’s dad proceeds to shoot at Bert, saying that if his son is sick, it’s the same as murder. The thing is that Bert is the one who accidentally shot an infected backpacker earlier in the movie, then Paul (Ryder Strong) killed him with fire. It’s a pretty horrific act even though it was accidental, but this is the second time in the movie Bert is accused of murdering somebody.

The movie most certainly plays up stereotypes, with every character filling the designated slasher role, and it is loaded with violence and more than a little sex. The interesting thing, though, is that while many of the characters can be insufferable (the aforementioned Bert being a chief offender), they are consistent and at least given some form of development so you understand them. The way that the locals are portrayed is also fairly typical, but here, they kind of have a point. But like everything else in the movie, it’s taken too far.

The main group of friends is, after all, totally fine with setting fire to a man who clearly needs help. It speaks to the way they grew up that they try and cover the manslaughter up, and that their first reaction to his being sick was hostility. Bert shot at him earlier, and rather than owning up to it, he immediately pushes the sick man away. So while the depictions of the locals as dumb, hostile rednecks have been done a million times before, in this case, they’re kind of right. The core group of characters is shallow, not great people, and they aren’t totally in the wrong to be mistrusting of them.

Of course, the protagonists didn’t necessarily mean to kill him, either, but things escalated and escalated until violence ensued, and this is reflected in the way the locals take up arms during the movie’s third act. While they aren’t great people, Bert really was trying to just get help for his sick friend, and they immediately shunned him. As bizarre as this is to say about a movie where a character describes a masturbation session involving his dog, Cabin Fever is kind of a cautionary fable about letting prejudices get the better of you.

Like many zombie movies, the movie is less about the actual virus and more about how people react to it. The backpacker earlier in the movie was disfigured and gross looking for sure, but he really just wanted help and to get medical treatment. But because of the way the virus altered his physical appearance, the protagonists reacted with hostility that ultimately led to violence. Then, later on, because the townspeople have an inherent mistrust of outsiders, they immediately choose the violent option instead of helping people in need.

Three local men stand, each armed, while one, a balding man with long hair, fires a double barreled shotgun.
This movie is filled with dumb boner comedy moments, but also has something to say about how violence creates violence.

It gives the movie an almost fairy-tale feeling. Fairy tales have always been about teaching lessons to kids in ways they can understand, with wildly imaginative story elements that get their attention and the character arcs that prove a point. Cabin Fever is, in many ways, a modern-day fairy tale for grownups about not being a jackass. Everything culminates with the movie’s ending, and Paul’s infected body being dumped into the river, and poisoned water making its way out of town, implying that this is not the last of the virus the world has seen. And it’s all because the people involved couldn’t overcome their own preconceived notions of the other parties at play.

I’m not trying to prove that this movie is an incredible work of art because it definitely has its problems, with the worst being the simply unlikable cast of characters. But it uses its strange sense of humor and familiar genre trappings to spin an entertaining cautionary tale about treating your fellow humans with even an ounce of dignity. It was a promising debut from Eli Roth, and he would later go on to shape the remainder of the decade of horror with his torture porn hit Hostel (2005) and its later sequel Hostel: Part II (2007). And like Cabin Fever before, Roth used those movies as a means of paying homage to plenty of other horror movies while also placing its characters into surprisingly complex, morally grey situations. If nothing else, though, it is also fascinating to think of a time when a major studio would release a sometimes extreme body horror movie starring one of the stars of Boy Meets World made by a first time director. The early aughts were certainly a strange time.

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Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

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